Thomas Paul, Extraordinary Leader Among Baptists

Thomas Paul, Extraordinary Leader Among Baptists

Born and reared in the north as a free black during the Revolutionary War in America, Thomas Paul heard the cry for freedom. He became one of the most ardent supporters of “soul-liberty” that America has ever known. While all but forgotten today, the legacy of this pastor, church planter, abolitionist, and missionary, still echoes, both from pulpits and in the hearts of freedom-advocates across the world.
Thomas Paul was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in September of 1773, the first of six brothers. When he was sixteen, he was born again, and surrendered to God’s call to the gospel ministry. He was educated at the Free Will Baptist church in Hollis and, because of his remarkable God-given mind and skills, he was ordained in Nottingham West, New Hampshire on 1 May 1805. That year he married Catherine Waterhouse and over time they had three children: Ann Catherine, Susan, and Thomas, Jr. Reverend Thomas and Catherine moved to Boston in 1805.
By the beginning of the 19th century, black Baptists were numerous, but there were few black churches, and most of those were located in the South. At the time, black and white Baptists worshiped together, even though in most churches, black Baptists worshipped from the galleries or a special section of the sanctuary. By the close of the Civil War, it is estimated that there were 400,000 black Baptists in America.

When Thomas and Catherine arrived in Boston, many African American laypersons from the First and Second Baptist churches were wanting to start a church for black Baptists. Reverend Thomas Paul began the African Baptist Church in Boston on 8 August 1805 with twenty-four members: nine men, and fifteen women. With $7,150 raised in funds for the new church, they built a sanctuary at 46 Joy Street on Beacon Hill (also known as the Joy Street Baptist Church, or Belknap Baptist Church), which was completed in December of 1806. Reverend Paul served as its pastor for almost twenty years.

His preaching was fervent and attractive, with more than 1,000 persons attending Sunday services. He became famous, yet his heart remained humble. In his day, he was known far and wide as “not an ordinary man.” His sermons were vigorous, his imagination was vivid, and his elocution was graceful. He tied biblical teachings to social justice and the quest for African American equal acceptance in society. He was particularly noted for the slow and graceful way he placed candidates under the baptismal waters and raised them up again. Spectators said they felt they had indeed seen “a burial with Christ in baptism.”

Meanwhile, several members of New York City’s Gold Street Baptist Church (later First Baptist Church) implored Reverend Paul to come help them to form a new church, much like he had done in Boston. Several free Ethiopian seamen had visited the church only to find that they were segregated because of the color of their skin. They protested, and many other black members of First Baptist Church joined them. Thomas Paul came to guide their church plant, and in 1809, this new congregation purchased a vacant church building and, with four men, twelve women, and three converts, established the “Abyssinian Baptist Church,” named after the historic name of Ethiopia.

Reverend Paul was not finished in ministry, however. In 1823, at fifty years old, he applied to the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society to serve as a missionary to Haiti, where he gave himself to the work on the island. The Reverend Thomas Paul died on 13 April 1831. All who knew him recognized that he had been called and blessed by God’s good hand.
The Rest of the Story...
In 1831, the same year as Reverend Paul’s death, and six months after William Lloyd Garrison established The Liberator anti-slavery newspaper, Garrison used the African Meeting House to organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In 1833, Maria Stewart addressed a public audience of men and women from the pulpit of this church. In 1860, Frederick Douglass used the church to deliver an anti-slavery speech. The sanctuary in Boston still stands and is now a National Historic Landmark, called the African Meeting House.

On the first Sunday of January of 1915, the Morningstar Baptist and Calvary Baptist churches merged with St. Paul’s Baptist Church, the name African Baptist had later assumed, becoming the Peoples Baptist Church of Boston. This historic church still ministers to its community today.
In April of 2021, in New York City, the Abyssinian Baptist Church is now a Baptist mega-church located in a beautiful Gothic Revival building (built 1922-23) on West 138th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. Designated as a New York City Landmark, this historic church has had a series of famous pastors, including Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. It had another famous church member as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the prominent German theologian arrived in New York in 1930 to do post-graduate work at Union Theological Seminary. A fellow student and friend, Frank Fisher, invited Bonhoeffer to go with him to his church, Abyssinian Baptist, where Dietrich then began to teach Sunday School. While there, he became sensitive to social injustices experienced by minorities, and also to the failure of churches to bring about integration. It was here that Bonhoeffer began to see things "from below," as he said, from the perspective of those who suffer oppression.

Later, when Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, he credited this church with reorienting his life. He became outspoken in his opposition to the Nazi regime, especially to its persecution of the Jews. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was killed for these views on 9 April 1945. It was Reverend Thomas Paul, however, a hundred and forty years before, the strong, but gentle abolitionist, who heard cries for freedom and made a way for all persons both to hear the Gospel and live it.

-Karen O’Dell Bullock
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