News from the First Church Archive
By Judith Gray
Periodically the First Church office is contacted by someone seeking information from the church’s archive. One of the most interesting – and informative – inquiries came this year from Peter Porsche, a Ph.D. student in the History Department at Texas Christian University. His research focuses on Reconstruction and the relationship between religion and race during the latter half of the nineteenth century. “I believe the story from First Congregational is one that sheds light on black activism in the post-war years, the importance of Oberlin to that movement and the advocacy by Rev. Boynton of an early ‘separate but equal’ doctrine almost 30 years before Plessy v. Ferguson would make segregation the official policy of the nation.”
Peter stated “I got interested in First Congregational while reading about Oliver Otis Howard and his connection to the church, especially his efforts to see African Americans welcomed into membership over the objections of Rev. Charles Boynton. I’m trying to understand and flesh out a bit more about that story and the resulting church split and congressional investigation into Howard.” His initial sources were Oliver Otis Howard’s mention of First Church in his autobiography and a chapter from John Carpenter’s biography of Howard entitled The Sword and the Olive Branch which briefly notes the dispute and resulting church split. He was then able to find and purchase a copy of the Centennial History online, now supplemented by relevant sections from the church’s 50th anniversary booklet.
One task was helping track down the full names of three African Americans (2 men and 1 woman) who applied for membership in First Church in 1867. The church minutes from the November meeting that year report the discussion concerning “two colored persons recently examined on their own request, for admission to this church and found by the proper examining board duly qualified and worthy to be recommended for admission.” The church’s board then passed the following: “Resolved: That in order to settle an apparent misunderstanding in regard to the attitude of this Church relative to the admission of colored members, we hereby declare that the doors of the Church are open to all true believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we welcome such without distinction of race or color.” Copies of the resolution were directed to be sent to “our colored brothers,” O.S.B. Wall and John H. Cook. (There is no reference in the minutes to a woman, however, and her name remains unknown.) Both men were eventually added to the rolls in 1869.
Peter has been able to find additional information about the two men: “What I have begun uncovering is that these two gentlemen: O.S.B. Wall and John H. Cook, are no ordinary African Americans. They both hail from Oberlin in Ohio. Cook attended the staunchly abolitionist and Congregationalist-founded school as did Wall’s relatives. Both men worked to advance the rights of African Americans and both men were employed by Howard at the [Freedmen’s] Bureau’s Washington headquarters. Howard kept up a decades’ long correspondence with both men (most of which I am still working through now). At the moment, I don’t have any clear-cut findings, but I am tracing the connection between Oberlin, black activism post-Civil War, and individuals like Howard, Wall, and Cook who appear to be working together to integrate First Congregational and make it an example throughout the land that black and white are equal before God.
“What makes First Congregational particularly interesting is that newspapers across the country are following the dispute. As the name implies, it is the only Congregational Church in D.C. and since it had received funding from perhaps the most famous preacher of the era: Lyman Beecher as well as countless other Congregational Churches from across the country, letters were pouring in saying that it would be a disgrace for the church to deny these men membership when the Congregational Church had fought against abolition for years to only now turn around and deny these men membership. The hypocrisy of Rev. Boynton’s position would bring shame to the [entire] movement it was feared.”
And, in response to my comments about Howard’s subsequent career with Native Americans and especially his relentless pursuit of Chief Joseph and the peaceful Nez Perce people, Peter was able to send a recent article in the Journal of Military History of the West (vol. 47, 2018) by Dr. Scott Stabler, a friend of his who teaches at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Stabler’s article, “Two Paths to Peace: Oliver Otis Howard, Negotiator to Cochise and Joseph,” illuminates the very different approach Howard was able to employ with the Apache leader, resulting in mutual respect and a workable solution. A copy of the article is now in Howard’s biographical file in the church archive.