Trinity Church and Slavery during the Colonial Period

Trinity Church was founded in 1698 as a mission of the Church of England. Early parishioners included slave owners and traffickers, such as George Gibbs II, who is interred in the Trinity Church graveyard.

Cuffe Gibbs, the slave of George Gibbs II, is buried in God’s Little Acre on Farewell Street in Newport. His brother, the enslaved artisan, Pompe Stevens, carved the original ‘Soul Effigy’ angel image, placed at this site location, for the gravestone of his deceased brother Cuffe, in 1768. It was the first signed African American decorative artwork to be made in North America.

Joseph Morey purchased the farm in 1702. His 1716 will and inventory on file in the Jamestown Town Hall documented four enslaved people: a “Negro man,” a “Negro boy,” a “Negro woman,” and an “Indian girl.” Morey’s inventory listed these people and their appraisals along with his sundries, furniture, and livestock. The unnamed “Negro man” was valued at £46 while the other three enslaved people were all appraised at £40. The following year, Mary Morey, Joseph’s widow, bequeathed four unnamed enslaved people referred to as “two Negro men” and “a Negro woman and her child” to their daughter Mary Morey Coggeshall. The subsequent generations of this family to own the farm would continue their dependence upon enslaved people despite their membership in the Society of Friends.

What We Know and Don’t Know About Trinity Church and Slavery in Newport, Rhode Island During the Colonial Period

Trinity Church acknowledges that its early members had roles relating to slavery in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, relatively little is documented exists about it, and we are continuously learning about this aspect of our history.

The earliest documentation is from 1727. The rector, the Rev’d James Honyman, was deeply concerned about education in the parish and church attendance. In a letter to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in London, he wrote that some “fifty to seventy Indians and Negro slaves” attended public worship on Sundays, of whom Honyman had baptized about thirteen. “When I have occasion,” he wrote, “I instruct and teach them with patience and press upon their masters, both in public and in private, for their instruction.” There is a long, oral, tradition that the baptized slaves and Native Americans who attended services sat in the narrow pew along the back of the church’s north gallery. We have not found documented proof; however, this was a consistent practice in colonial missions of the Church of England.

During the two-and-a-half-year period between 1729 and 1731, the famous Anglo-Irish clergyman and philosopher Dean George Berkeley was affiliated clergy at Trinity, eventually acquiring his 96-acre Whitehall estate in present-day Middletown while planning to build a college. To assist him with his farm work, he purchased three slaves, named Philip, Anthony, and Agnes Berkeley, whom he baptized at Trinity on 11 June 1731. Berkeley followed Honyman’s example in baptizing slaves but raised the issue to a philosophical debate in a sermon delivered from Trinity’s pulpit in October of 1729, arguing that a person owned as property had an independent soul and deserved the opportunity for baptism. Unfortunately that sermon likewise affirmed that baptism did not merit manumission from slavery. This supported the position of the Yorke-Talbot Opinion, issued earlier in January of 1729. That opinion essentially affirmed that baptism did not free slaves and became foundational British jurisprudence on the matter.

After Honyman’s death, the SPG, the Church of England’s entity responsible for mission parishes in the colonial empire, eventually appointed the Rev’d Thomas Pollen as rector in 1754. This was two years after slavery had been formally abolished in the colony of Rhode Island. During the first years of Pollen’s ministry in Newport, he was discouraged by his lack of success in baptizing African Americans. In 1755, the Associates of Dr. Bray, a missionary society in London devoted to ministering to racial minorities, enquired about Pollen’s progress in this area. He reported that most of the “Indians” were members of some local church, but the African-Americans remained largely unbaptized. When Pollen asked the black members of his congregation why slave owners would not allow their slaves to be baptized, “they said they could not tell unless the Masters thought their servant would by baptism come too near themselves.”

In 1760, the Associates of Dr. Bray elected Dr. Benjamin Franklin as their President. At the time, Franklin was serving as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly in London. Earlier, he had served on the Associates’ board of directors and had played a key role in establishing a school for blacks in Philadelphia. As President of the Associates, Franklin wrote to the Rev’d Pollen proposing that Trinity develop its school for slave children in addition to its already existing school for the poor children of the parish. On receiving the letter, Pollen called a vestry meeting to consider Franklin’s suggestion. The vestry agreed so long as the slave children must belong to parishioners and that half would be boys and half would be girls. In addition, the vestry decided that the school’s mistress must be a member of the parish and would receive a stipend of £20 per year. Each slave master who had slave children in the school was required to supply wood to keep the school warm in the winter.

Almost immediately after the vestry took these steps, a parish in Kingston, Jamaica, called Pollen to be its new rector. His successor, the Rev’d Marmaduke Browne, soon revived the project to teach enslaved children. In November 1762, Browne followed Pollen’s original suggestion and appointed Mrs. Mary Brett, the widow of the physician Dr. John Brett, as mistress of the school. Browne regularly visited the school and supplemented Mrs. Brett’s instruction with his own. When the children reached proficiency, Browne made a point of having them show their knowledge publicly at church so “that the unreasonable prejudice which too much influence numbers against the instruction of Negroes, may by their good behavior in time be brought to abate.” Between 8 -13 July 1763, Benjamin Franklin was in Newport to visit his relatives. He visited Trinity Church and called on the Rev’d Browne to discuss the parish’s progress with the school for slave children during this period. At the same time, he visited the school located in the Peter Bours House at 47 Division Street and the Trinity School House at 25 School Street. Mrs. Brett’s school continued. There was a dip in attendance in 1772, when the schoolmistress became ill, but the enrollment recovered. By 1774, she had thirty-eight slave children attending, “as many as one person could reasonably instruct in a classroom.”

In the mid-18th century, the American colonies benefited from a rapid rise in immigration from Britain. Newport rose from 6,753 people in 1755 to 9,209 in 1774. In 1755, they were 1,234 African Americans in Newport or 18.27 percent of the people.

For the brief period from 1760 to the Revolution, Anglicans made up the third-largest denomination in Newport. While the other denominations had multiple churches, Trinity was the only Anglican church at the time and thus had the largest single congregation of any faith in town. Of the 772 families in Newport in 1770, 169 were Anglicans. Trinity’s parishioners kept pace with the town’s growth in population over the decade, reaching 200 of Newport’s 980 families in 1770 and retaining its ranking as the third-largest denomination.

At the same time, Trinity’s parishioners held a disproportionate percentage of the town’s wealth, with 27 of the top 50 taxpayers as members of the parish and having larger-sized households, on average, than other denominations. Anglicans made up nearly half the merchants and half the mariners in Newport. Among these were documented slave traders, such as the Malbone and Gibbs Families. The Gibbs family connection is an important tie to the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion project. The gravestone of Gibbs’ slave, Cuffe Gibbs, carved by his enslaved brother Pompe Stevens, is the inspiration for the medallion project. George Gibbs’ “Negro Cuff” was bequeathed to his son George in his will dated 25 July 1755 and proved 1 September 1755. “Cuff” was also named in the estate inventory dated 1 September 1755 in the Newport Town Council records. George Gibbs, Sr. married Ruth Hart at Trinity on 19 October 1733. His son George, who inherited Cuffe, is buried in the churchyard. The fact you may visit both the interment of a known enslaved person at God’s Little Acre and his known slaveholder at Trinity is of historical importance. Together, they serve both as a marker of slavery’s ubiquity in the colonies as well as to provide documentation that a skilled community of persons of color has been an important part of Newport’s history and economy from its earliest days.

By 1760, growth in Newport’s population put pressure on Trinity Church to accommodate the increasing number of Anglicans. By the mid 1760s, there were no more pews available for purchase. In the forty years since its original construction, the location of Spring Street had settled in its current position, somewhat further to the east, leaving a 26-to-30-foot gap between the original lot line and the street. In 1762, the vestry acquired this strip of land and enlarged the church toward what is now Spring Street.

The new addition was 26 feet in length, increasing the size of the church building by one-third and adding thirty-six new pews. The new construction cost of £600 was an expense borne entirely by those merchants who wanted to purchase the new pews. A number of those merchants were documented slave owners or involved in the slave trade. It is assumed that enslaved craftsmen were among those who worked on the various stages of construction. However, as with the construction of the original church in 1700, the present building in 1724-26, the addition in 1762, and the later reconstruction of the tower and steeple in 1768, no records have yet been found to identify the names and status of the laborers involved.


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Soul Effigy

The headstone Pompe carved the original soul effigy into.

Jamestown Townhall. Courtesy of Google 2024 ©

Trinity Church in Newport.

Dean George Berkeley

A portrait of a young Ben Franklin

The location of the Peter Bours House at 47 Division Street.

A 1777 map of Newport.

The Medallion Placing Ceremony at Trinity Church in Newport