By Nicole Trifone
When James Ingram accepted the role of the Rev. Gowan Pamphlet in 1998, he was handed a two-paragraph biography. The narrative has since become so in-depth and nuanced that interpreting Pamphlet has become a two-man job.
Ingram quickly discovered the brief description fell far short of conveying not only Pamphlet’s life story but how his work as a preacher — the first known ordained black Baptist preacher in America — reverberates to this day. In the 20 years he has portrayed Pamphlet, Ingram has worked with historians to uncover past research and pursue new leads to build a narrative that intertwines Pamphlet’s story with the fight for religious freedom and against the institution of slavery.
“Gowan’s story is a lesson on this country’s religious history,” said Ingram, an ordained Baptist minister himself. “Understanding religious history provides the context for how the Founding Fathers felt about liberty, freedom and equality.”
Now a two-person approach to the portrayal allows audiences to see Pamphlet at different stages of his life.
Joseph Feaster first stepped on stage last spring. As young Gowan, Feaster’s portrayal focuses on Pamphlet’s life as a young determined man defying the limitations of his enslaved status by answering a call to preach the Baptist faith despite the danger of leading an illegal gathering of enslaved people and dissenting from the Church of England.
Ingram continues his role as the Rev. Pamphlet with a focus on the minister’s life as the older, confident free man who used the gift of hindsight to gain perspective on his life, his faith and his hope for America’s future. Pamphlet was about 43 when he received his freedom in 1793, just as he finalized his congregation’s admittance into Virginia’s Dover Baptist Association — the first black church to be admitted.
“I attended two different seminaries, one in Richmond, [Virginia],” Ingram said. “I belonged to the same Baptist Association nearly 200 years after he did. I had never heard of this man Gowan Pamphlet. He was not mentioned among Baptist icons. How is that possible? His story had been forgotten.”
Over the years, researchers have discovered an abundance of information on Pamphlet, including his medical records, his manumission papers and tax records that show he owned property.
His birth date remains unknown, but historians believe he was born around 1750. Pamphlet, who likely chose his own last name, first makes an appearance in the written record in 1779 when the Virginia Gazette reported that he was accused of stealing a horse, a hanging offense. It is unclear how the matter was resolved, though it would not have been out of character for Jane Vobe, the proprietor of the King’s Arms Tavern and Pamphlet’s owner, to have advocated for a wrongfully accused enslaved person.
For years the man who granted Pamphlet’s manumission, David Miller, remained a mystery until Ingram cross-checked an account record that showed Miller paying a debt for Vobe with a note that referred to her as Miller’s mother.
The first record of Pamphlet’s ministry came in a universal register of Baptist churches compiled by early historian John Asplund. It listed Pamphlet as the preacher of a “negro church” in York and James City as early as 1781 with a congregation of about 200 people. First led by a black man named Moses, the congregation began in secret and met in a brush arbor on Green Spring Plantation as early as 1776.
After suffering several lashings, Moses left and Pamphlet took over the ministry. By the time the Dover Baptist Association admitted the church in 1793, the congregation had swelled to more than 500 members.
In his freedom, Gowan continued to preach, bought 14 acres of land in James City County and owned a horse. Records indicate he never married or had children. He died in 1809.
Linda Rowe, a retired Foundation historian of religion and slavery who helped with much of the research, credits Ingram for building the robust portrayal guests see today in Historic Area programs that feature Ingram or Feaster.
“When James came on board, he began doing his own research, giving a lot of context to a preacher of Gowan’s stature and his ability to negotiate the system even after he was free,” Rowe said. “He took on this persona and made him an authentic representation of this man’s courage and perseverance and ingenuity. James brought that to life.”
Though he may not receive recognition far and wide, Pamphlet has a firm place in history as a significant figure in the growth of the Baptist faith among black Americans. He was a black preacher of a black Baptist church during the denomination’s initial rise among black Americans. Today, more black Christians identify as Baptist than any other denomination.
As early as the 1720s, black Christians flocked to many of the dissenting denominations, such as Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist. The Church of England, the state-sanctioned religion, advocated a hierarchical approach to Christianity. In the pews sat the divide: gentry up front, the middling in the middle, and poor whites and free blacks in the back.
The First Great Awakening, which swept the Colonies from about the 1730s to the 1750s, spread the idea that all people were equal in the eyes of God. That approach is what allowed Pamphlet, an enslaved black man, to attend the same Baptist association meetings as Robert Carter III, the richest man in Virginia. It is also what led many of the dissenting denominations to denounce the institution of slavery.
“The very idea of freedom and equality comes from the Bible,” said Feaster, who is currently pursuing his master of divinity degree as well as serving as a chaplain candidate in the U.S. Navy and working full time as one of Colonial Williamsburg’s newest Nation Builders. “The Revolutionary War was about what is moral, what is right for all society,” he said. “These morals, these rights, are given by God.”
Feaster realized the full weight of this role as early as his audition in 2017. He had prepared a monologue and answers to questions he might receive as Pamphlet. Then Ingram asked a theological question: How do you see the concept of being enslaved while also being a Christian?
“I knew we would talk about slavery and I knew we would talk about religious freedom, but I did not realize just how theological it would get,” Feaster said.
Using his upbringing as the son of a preacher, his religious studies degree from Gettysburg College and the little training he had thus far received in seminary school, he launched into a sermon about the Book of Philemon. In that story, Paul wrote a letter to Philemon telling him that his slave Onesimus had run away and had become a Christian and Philemon must not receive him as a slave but as a brother in Christ.
Unbeknownst to Feaster, Ingram had written “Philemon” in his notes as the answer he expected from any candidate who stood a chance of nabbing the role.
“He gave a sermonette and that sealed the deal,” Ingram said. “I see a lot of me in Joe. I knew I’d have to be tough on whoever became young Gowan, but I knew in that moment Joe could handle it. He has surpassed all expectations. He’s hungry for more knowledge and he’s eager to share that knowledge.”
The addition of young Gowan Pamphlet to Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program is generously supported by Shirley and Craig Stambaugh. The Rev. Gowan Pamphlet is supported by Ferguson Enterprises.
James Ingram (left) and Joseph Feaster portray two different phases of the Rev. Gowan Pamphlet’s life. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
The stories of the Rev. Pamphlet — in youth and later life — are told in the Historic Area through programs such as Visit a Nation Builder and Walk Through History with a Nation Builder.
For a full schedule, visit colonialwilliamsburg.com. Guests can track them both on their smartphones by downloading the Colonial Williamsburg Explorer app.
In 2019, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is celebrating 40 years of interpreting the stories and experiences of African Americans who lived in 18th-century Williamsburg.
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