The First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia had its beginning in the year 1809.
According to the official history of The First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia, by Charles H. Brooks, written in 1922, “during the closing years of the eighteenth century, a few colored people who had come to Philadelphia from the eastern shore of Virginia to escape the cruel treatment of slave masters, were admitted to the First Baptist Church (white). There were no colored Baptist churches in Pennsylvania at that time, and only a very small number of colored people of the Baptist faith.”
St. Thomas Episcopal Church and Bethel A.M.E. Church were organized during these years (end of the century) and it is said that the establishment of these churches was the outgrowth of humiliating treatment toward the colored members of the white churches. But it is beyond controversy that the relations between the white and colored members of the First Baptist Church were of the most cordial and Christian Character.” As the colored members grew in number, they decided to have a church of their own. Thus, on May 13, 1809, thirteen persons who had enjoyed membership in the First Baptist Church were all dismissed by letter (on their own request) for the purpose of forming the “First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia. The Church was organized on June 19, 1809. Then, as now, women were in the majority, for of these thirteen signers requesting dismiss from First Baptist, nine were female.
The first pastor was Reverend Henry Cunningham, who served from 1809 to 1813. The church rented a lot and built their first church, 26 feet wide by 37 feet long, which was located on 10th Street above Vine Street.
The second pastor was Reverend John King, a white minister from Virginia, licensed and ordained by the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Under his leadership from 1813 to 1832, the church moved from 10th Street to what was known as De Friese’s Court (11th Street near Vine in 1813). In 1825 the congregation moved to Havilland Place 8th Street below Vine Street and built a new church. There is some confusion in our history as Charles Brooks stated that the church continued to struggle without a pastor and the membership decreased until 1832 when Reverend James Burrows appeared on the scene.
James Burrows was born a slave and lived in Northampton County, VA. One of our most interesting historical facts is now revealed. He felt that he had been called to preach. His master refused to allow him the privilege. James Burrows then persuaded this master to permit him to come to Philadelphia to earn money to purchase his freedom. His master consented to this only after Samuel Bivins and his cousin, John Bivins, who were freeman, placed themselves in bondage as security for the return of James Burrows. After working a year and saving the necessary amount to purchase his freedom, the money was sent. His friends released, and they returned to Philadelphia to assist in the work of the church. Reverend Burrows had quite a successful pastorate which was organized in 1841 and the church was removed from Havilland Place to Pearl Street near 11th Street. The fourth Pastor, Reverend Richard Vaughn, served from 1846 until 1857. Membership decreased.
Reverend James Underdew served from 1859 until 1863, when he resigned the pastorate and enlisted in the army as a chaplain.
On August 1, 1864 the Reverend Theodore D. Miller was called to fill the pulpit. Under his leadership the congregation grew from 240 persons to over 12,000 members. The church recognized the need for larger quarters and in 1867, a new church was built at 10th and Cherry Streets. This building was entirely paid for during his administration. Reverend Miller died February 27, 1897. He had served the church for 32 and half years.
Six months after the death of Dr. Theodore Miller, the church called Dr. William A. Creditt, who had an illustrious pastorate. He cleared all debts and burned the mortgage on the building at 10th and Cherry Streets. Through his guidance the church bought its first parsonage in 1899, and installed the pastor and his family therein. Because of the God-given gifts of this great preacher, the congregation outgrew the building where they had worshipped for nearly 40 years. After much thought and debate, land was purchased, a new edifice was planned and erected on the southwest corner of 16th and Christian Streets in 1906 at an approximate cost of $100,000.00. Dr. Creditt resigned the pastorate on September 19, 1915 and died in Philadelphia June 10, 1921. He had served 28 years.
Dr. Williams A. Harrod was called to succeed Dr. Creditt in February 1916. He was the 8th pastor and served 31 years. Under his office, Dr. Harrod originated our present “Auto Day” (so the sick and shut-in could be brought to church in automobiles to worship). Many young men were called to the ministry and were ordained by this congregation. As a memorial to him, our building, which housed offices, was named for him. Dr. Harrod was called to eternal rest in 1947.
Reverend D. Manning Jackson served a brief period from 1949 to September 26, 1950.
Dr. Charles Sumner Lee, the 10th pastor, was called to fill the pulpit in April 1951. He was a son of the church and many accomplishments were realized under his leadership. In the early years of his pastorship, the congregation grew from approximately 1000 to over 17,000. The Sunday School tripled in membership, many clubs and organizations were established. There was renewed spiritual interest and therefore many things accomplished, such as physical renovations, replacements and installations. After a very brief illness, Reverend Lee died on February 23, 1974. He had served faithfully for almost 23 years.
Reverend William O. Jackson, who served as associate pastor during Dr. Lee’s illness in 1968, continued to serve in this capacity when Dr. Lee recovered. When Dr. Lee died in 1974, Reverend Jackson was elected interim pastor and served until his resignation in November 1976.
Reverend Randall McCaskill was installed as the 11th pastor and served from June 13, 1976 until 1979.
Reverend Elvis L. Turner, Sr. was installed as the 12th pastor on September 26, 1981, and served until June 2000.
On June 17th 2001 the church voted to call Rev. Terrence D. Griffith, a former senator of the Grenada parliament to serve as its 13th pastor. Rev. Griffith assumed the pastorate on July 1st and was installed on October 14th 2001.