An invaluable asset to a busy tavern owner in Colonial Williamsburg (CW), Gowan Pamphlet, an enslaved person, led a secret life as a Southern Baptist minister determined to serve his fellow “negro” residents. He did so at his own risk.
Since the only allowable religion was the Church of England, any other religious observances were forbidden. Or scoffed at.
Pamphlet’s Black parishioners were particularly susceptible to harassment and hurt. White powers-to-be feared the possibility that Blacks would run away and seek their freedom. And many did, resentful of their second status and degrading treatment.
Pamphlet, who traced his last name to Thomas Paine’s treatise on independence for the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain, “Common Sense,” was a messenger of God and a hidden voice for freedom. He lived a double life as a trusted enslaved employee and courageous religious leader.
He was relentless in spreading the Gospel despite perilous obstacles.
Though his name would never attain the status of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—nation-builders who confidently strode the byways of Williamsburg—the charismatic preacher provided an outlet for oppressed Blacks. He did so while working full-time in Mrs. Jane Vobe’s King’s Arm’s Tavern, listening to, and learning from conversations that included merchants, lawyers, public figures, philosophers and academic persons from the College of William and Mary.
The popular tavern was Pamphlet’s classroom.
He was brave, righteous and sharp-witted. “Negroes” had limited freedom to worship, thanks to Pamphlet.
To loyal readers, it may be obvious that I recently have returned from an annual respite in Colonial Williamsburg, tasting the fruits of history so eloquently and intelligently presented by the nation’s premier history museum. Once focused almost entirely on the White founders, CW now offers an unvarnished view of the enslaved experience.
Performances by actors who also are historians are precious and painful. Amid the quest for democracy and freedom, intolerance and slavery hovered closely to the surface of Williamsburg society. Servants faced daily oppression and mistreatment.
Freed from slavery in 1793 at age 43, Preacher Pamphlet formally established a Black Baptist Church as part of the Dover Baptist Association. It had five hundred members. He no longer had to conduct services, weddings and funerals in secret for fear of being bodily punished. His status as an enslaved person had ended, thanks to Mrs. Vobe’s son.
For more than an hour, standing alone on a stage, the exuberant Pamphlet (James Ingram) told one fascinating story after another, interspersed frequently with exhortations of “Amen.” He entranced the audience.
At one point, the charismatic preacher led the audience in singing a Black gospel song. I happily joined in joyful clapping.
During an earlier visit, my wife and I witnessed a wedding ceremony conducted by Pamphlet for a young Black couple prepared to run away. They faced the prospect of a brief marriage. In essence, they were stealing themselves away from their slave-holding owners.
This scene was simultaneously celebratory and sad.
Colonial Williamsburg fulfills our need for mental and emotional refreshment. Our founding as a group of 13 vibrant colonies trying to escape the yoke of British rule combined dissent by determined White men and equally resolute enslaved and free Blacks.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.