William & Mary Quarterly
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Transcription Digital Projects
“Justise Must Take Plase”: Three African Americans Speak of Religion in Eighteenth-Century New England.
By Erik K. Seeman.
- Canterbury, Connecticut, Deeds, vol. 9, 1773-1778, Land Records, reel 147.
These first documents relate to Greenwich and his wife Peg. The one that follows is the couple's freedom papers. This was the most dramatic and emotional find in my research for this project. Until I discovered this document, I did not know if Greenwich and Peg ever gained their freedom, despite Greenwich's eloquent plea in 1754. After many hours of fruitless searching, I chanced upon this document and cheered aloud that liberty was finally theirs.
- Canterbury, Connecticut, Deeds, vol. 9, 1773-1778, Land
Records, reel 147.
The next document helps contextualize the previous one. Another Canterbury slaveowner wished to free his slave Javan in 1781 but could not do so unilaterally. He needed to have the town's selectmen attest to the slave's good character.
- Records of the Congregational Church in Canterbury, Connecticut, 1711-1844
(Hartford, Conn., 1932).
Following are the records of the church to which Greenwich and his owner belonged. I have chosen excerpts that illuminate the role of Greenwich and other African Americans in the church.
- Ellen D. Larned, History of Windham County, Connecticut, 2 vols. (Worcester, Mass., 1874).
Finally, this advertisement from the Connecticut Gazette in 1774 serves as a reminder that some slaves in Canterbury took the issue of liberty into their own hands.
- Loose sheet of temporary records, 1746, box 1, folder 3, John Cleaveland Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
The remainder of the documents deal with free and enslaved African Americans in Essex County, Massachusetts, home to Flora and Phillis. The records of John Cleaveland's New Light congregation in the Chebacco Parish of Ipswich reveal the sense of urgency that accompanied the founding of the church: some items are recorded on rogue scraps of paper. The following excerpts demonstrate that blacks made up a significant portion of the church's early members.
- Isaac Watts, Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children,
12th ed. (Philadelphia, 1750).
As Phillis was undergoing her period of soul distress leading to her conversion, she gained comfort from Isaac Watts's "Cradle Hymn." Watts was beloved throughout the Anglo-American Protestant world for his tuneful hymns with uplifting messages. Though the title of this collection indicates that Watts intended these verses for children, they were also popular among adults.
- Will of Francis Choate of Ipswich, Dec. 22, 1777, Essex County Probate Records, vol. 352, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
Next is an excerpt from Francis Choate's 1777 will, which freed three slaves: Ned, Cesar, and Titus. At that time, Cesar was Phillis's first husband; the two were married in 1765. Titus was Flora's only husband; they married in 1767. This document again reveals the conditional nature of the freedom many African Americans received upon manumission.
- Thomas Franklin Waters, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
2 vols. (Ipswich, Mass., 1917).
In this published excerpt from the will of Deacon Matthew Whipple of Ipswich, Plato Whipple gained his freedom. Plato Whipple became Phillis's second husband in 1785. Of the wills offering freedom, this was the most generous in its provisions and the least restrictive in the liberty it granted.
- Will of Colonel John Choate of Ipswich, Nov. 16, 1765, Essex County Probate Records, vol. 343, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
The following source, which does not directly involve Flora or Phillis, helps put the previous two wills in perspective. John Choate conditionally granted his slaves freedom when he died.
- Conversion Narratives from the Seacoast Revival, box 1, folder 1b, “Testimonials,” John Cleaveland Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Finally, these next five documents are all conversion narratives from the Seacoast Revival of 1763–1764 in Ipswich. They help place Phillis's narrative in the context of New England evangelical religion. The first two narratives were offered by women who, like Phillis, were a bit older than most converts in the revival. Unlike those in their late teens and early twenties who formed the large majority of those inspired by the Seacoast Revival, Mary Rust, Mary Story, and Phillis all had been attracted to the Great Awakening in the early 1740s; all had subsequently seen their piety wane. Narratives three through five are from converts who quoted some of the same biblical passages that moved Phillis. Susanna Low, Rachel Low, and —— Haskell (a man about thirty-one years old by internal evidence) all refered to Matt. 11:28, in which Jesus says: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (King James Version). Like Phillis (and Flora before her), Susanna Low invoked Isa. 55:1: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” More generally, these five narratives are similar in structure and cadence to Phillis's narrative, no doubt partly because Reverend John Cleaveland transcribed all of the documents.
- Box 1, folder 1b, John Cleaveland Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Following are the documents that were included in “‘Justise Must Take Plase.’”