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STEPHEN WILLIAMS    


Slavery

 Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery.  In 1641, the Massachusetts General Court passed the “Body of Liberties” Act, which afforded slavery “the sanctity of law.”

During his tenure as pastor of Longmeadow, Stephen Williams owned at least nine slaves.  We know the names of some of them:  Nicholas; Phillis; Scipio; Stanford; Tobiah; Tom; Cato; Joseph; and Peter.   Although he benefitted by owning these slaves, they often proved to be a burden to him and he often worried about them in his diary entries.  Cato, a slave he bought in 1758, developed a taste for his master’s hard cider.  On one occasion, the man ran naked through the town and attacked a white woman on the common near the meeting-house.  Cato was “whipped very Severely” for this “most Audacious” act, and 2 days later he drowned himself in a neighbor’s well.

Eighteenth-century New Englanders believed that slavery was part of God’s plan for evangelization of Africans.  Many would have agreed that “it is no evil thing to bring them out of their own heathenish country [to] where they may have the knowledge of the True God, be converted and eternally saved.” 

The immorality of slavery was not recognized by most New England clergy and many of them kept slaves.  In addition to Rev. Williams, the following pastors in the Connecticut River valley owned slaves:  Rev. Jonathan Edwards (Northampton); Rev. John Williams (Deerfield); Rev. Robert Breck and Rev. Daniel Brewer (Springfield); Rev. James Bridgham (Brimfield); Rev. Nehemiah Bull and Rev. Edward Taylor (Westfield); Rev. Jedidiah Smith (Granville); Rev. Samuel Hopkins (West Springfield); Rev. Noah Merrick (Wilbraham); and Rev. Ebenezer Devotion and Rev. Ebenezer Gay (Suffield).  Other prominent families in the area also owned slaves, including Marchant Samuel Colton of Longmeadow and John Pynchon of Springfield. 

Most of New England’s clergy worked conscientiously to bring their black charges into the Christian flock. Cotton Mather noted in his “The Negro Christianized” that Christians made better servants, since blacks who knew God would also know their proper place.  He encouraged masters to teach their slaves to read the Bible.

In A Good Master Well Served, Cotton Mather further instructed Puritan masters on how to treat their slaves.  A master, in providing these to his slaves, would be protected in his right of authority over them.

  • Do not deny your servant work

  • Provide them with food and the necessities of life

  • Provide them with discipline, including both punishment and praise

  • Care for the souls of the servants, teaching them the essential truths of the Christian faith, calling them to repentance, and pointing them to Christ.

While African slavery in New England differed from slavery in other English colonies, New England slavery was no less degrading or dehumanizing for those who were trapped within the system.  Most households in New England that included slaves had only one or two slaves, so slavery had a familial nature because slaves shared houses with their owners.

In 1780, Massachusetts passed the Declaration of Rights.  Article 1 stated that

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” 

Several freedom suits followed quickly after passage of Article 1 and the courts established that enslaved persons are entitled to these liberties.  Slavery was effectively abolished in Massachusetts in the 1780’s.

Sources

  • The Journals of the Rev. Stephen Williams by Andrew Medlicott

  • Stephen Williams Diary

  • Black Yankees:  The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England by William D. Piersen

  • Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts 1650–1865 by Joseph Carvalho III

  • Race and Redemption in Puritan New England by Richard A. Bailey

  • William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, 9 vols. (New York, 1859)

by Elizabeth Hoff


Longmeadow Historical Society

697 Longmeadow Street
Longmeadow, MA 01106
(413) 567-3600
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