Virginia Changemakers
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Gowan Pamphlet (Circa 1750 - 1807 or 1808)

Pamphlet_representative image_LC.TIF




Baptist Leader


Gowan Pamphlet (ca. 1750-1807 or 1808) was born enslaved. While the details of his personal life are unknown, when he began preaching in the 1770s he was the property of a Williamsburg tavern keeper. At that time Pamphlet probably led a congregation of free and enslaved African Americans meeting in secret on the outskirts of the city. While he evidently avoided the more violent abuses sometimes meted out to black preachers then, Pamphlet was not immune to discrimination. Prejudice may have fueled accusations that he stole a horse in 1779 and that he participated in a slave revolt plot in 1793. Early in his career, the leading association of Baptist congregations in Virginia banned all preachers of color. Pamphlet ignored the decree.

Pamphlet moved with his owner nearer to Richmond, the new capital, in 1786, but in a few years returned to Williamsburg with a new owner. In 1793 Pamphlet was freed. His deed of manumission was the first document to record his surname, and he probably choose the name Pamphlet at that time. That same year Pamphlet's Williamsburg congregation was received into the Dover Baptist Association, giving them a full endorsement as an active church. By 1805, Pamphlet owned land in Williamsburg and several acres outside the city. He continued to minister to his congregation, which at times numbered approximately 500 members, until his death.

2010 African American Trailblazers honoree, Library of Virginia.

File Citation(s)

Representative Image Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Collection, Library of Congress. Detail from Broadside, "American Sketches: A Negro Congregation at Washington" (1876).