Answering three questions I’m often asked about the man I interpret
I portray Gowan Pamphlet, the first known ordained black Baptist preacher in America, along with James Ingram. As Nation Builders, we research the real historic figures we portray and learn everything about them we can. I’ve been interpreting this influential man for about two years now and there are a few questions I always get. Allow me to share my answers …
1) Did Gowan know how to read and write?
Absolutely! There are two important reasons why we know Gowan had a literate education. First of all, he grew up as an enslaved man in the tavern. His owner, Jane Vobe, taught her enslaved personnel reading and writing due to the practically of having them work in a tavern which required reading, writing, and learning instructions. One of Gowan’s jobs was as Vobe’s accountant; thereby he even had an education in mathematics.
As an aside, being in a tavern, Gowan would have had access to read newspapers, pamphlets, and other reading material left in the tavern as was often done. The second reason we know Gowan was able to read and write is because he was an ordained preacher. In order to be ordained, one had to have a working knowledge of Bible, comprehension of doctrinal statements, and a systematic theology in which to preach. Not only was Gowan versed in these to preach, but also was recognized as such when he and his congregation was accepted into the Dover Baptist Association in 1793.
2) Did Gowan preach in secret?
Given that Gowan was America’s first ordained African-American preacher and he had a substantially large congregation, it would have been relatively known where he preached. He and his congregation would worship in the brush arbors of Green Spring Plantation, which is only about five miles from Williamsburg. Because it was outside the city, Gowan had to have permission from his owner to go. Not only that, but those enslaved who wish to attend Gowan’s preaching had to get permission from their owners as well. Green Spring Plantation was owned by the famous Lee family of Virginia, and many other preachers would happen upon their 4000 acre plantation to hold services. Gowan was in good company!
3) Did Gowan get his freedom?
Although enslaved all of his life, Gowan would get his freedom in 1793. After being accepted into the Dover Baptist Association that year, the son of his owner set him free. Gowan would continue to preach, go on to ordain other African-American preachers, and dies in 1809 with fourteen acres of land and two horses.
I hope I can answer more of your questions when we reopen. For now, for more background on Gowan Pamphlet, read his Nation Builder biography here and enjoy the at-home resources we’re sharing online.