Local News

New historic marker honors first African-American clergyman

By Julia Purdy

WEST RUTLAND—Lemuel Haynes was the first ordained African-American minister in America, and he preached for 30 years in Rutland’s West Parish, now incorporated as West Rutland. On Sept. 8, the 247th state historic marker was dedicated at the tiny Protestant cemetery on Pleasant Street in West Rutland.

Although Rev. Haynes’ life and work are known to scholars, he has been “the best-kept secret in Rutland,” said Mary Retczek, vice president of the West Rutland Historical Society, who moderated the ceremonies.

Pleasant Street was marked off to only one lane as cars lined the street and some 50 observers gathered at the edge of the cemetery lawn.

A color guard from American Legion Post #87 and Boy Scout Troop 116 added a tone of formality to the proceedings, with the West Rutland School Band playing the national anthem and military marches of the past.

The invocation and benediction were delivered by Rev. Bill Whiteman of the West Rutland Congregational Church, who urged Americans to follow in the footsteps of Lemuel Haynes’ congregation and open their hearts as the congregation did, to people who are different from themselves.

Other speakers included Rev. John Weatherhogg of Grace Congregational Church UCC, Elizabeth Peebles of the state Division for Historic Preservation, and an emissary from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Research on Lemuel Haynes began several years ago, said historical society trustee Michelle Jagodzinsky. “Because of the project we were able to discover and appreciate the personality of Lemuel Haynes as an individual,” she told the Mountain Times.

A rare and invaluable resource was a detailed memoir published by a contemporary, Rev. Timothy Mather Cooley, of Granville, Massachusetts, in 1836, three years after Haynes’ death. Mary Retczek had stumbled upon the book while cleaning out an estate.

Rev. Haynes had an impact on southern Vermont in the post-Revolutionary period. His temperament and wisdom were such that he could often defuse tense situations, Jagodzinsky said. He was a very popular speaker: people came “from far and wide” – often on foot – to hear his sermons.

Cooley’s account describes Lemuel Haynes as a truly remarkable individual.

Born in 1753 in West Hartford, Connecticut, of a white mother “of respectable ancestry” and a native African father, as an infant Lemuel was rejected by his mother, not even naming him, and he was indentured at 5 months of age to the family of Deacon Rose in Massachusetts, where he was given a name and raised with affection, even as a “servant.” He worked hard on the family farm and developed an unshakeable faith in deliverance, helped along by the incidents and accidents of growing up on a farm.

He also had a thirst for learning and pored over any written material he could find, particularly the Bible. He was sent to the district school but became largely self-educated.

While he had an offer from Dartmouth, he “shrunk at the thought” and chose to study Latin, Greek and Scripture privately. He also became well-read in the works of theologians and thinkers of the day and left a library of several hundred books.

In 1804 Middlebury College awarded him an honorary master’s degree, making him the first African-American in America to hold one.

In spite of the fiery, evangelical style of the time, which frightened people with dire warnings of damnation for those not reborn in Christ, Haynes seems to have won over hearts and arguments with his brilliant mind and down-to-earth speech, coupled with humility, in conversation and also in his sermons. A man of the people, he was welcomed in all levels of society and in demand by other parishes.

Cooley comments that Haynes’ humble beginnings served him well, since as a person of color he would not have been able to fulfill his life work among the elite white society of the time.

Lemuel Haynes was so persuasive, in fact, that one of his (white) parishioners, Elizabeth Babbit, was inspired to propose marriage to him, on her own initiative. After prayer and consultation, he accepted and they were married in Connecticut in 1783 and raised nine children to adulthood.

Emerging from the Revolution, Vermont was “in a state of nature … a great moral desert,” his biographer writes. Cooley mentions that Ethan Allen’s “Reason: The Only Oracle of Man” was viewed as heretical and dangerous. Congregational ministers were urgently needed to shore up struggling small meetings.

Haynes preached from place to place, including Bellows Falls, Middlebury, towns throughout Addison County, and Bennington. In 1788 he was called to minister to the West Parish in Rutland, “a pleasant and fertile town,” and immediately won over his parishioners, who received him fondly. Posts in Manchester and Granville, New York, followed.

Cooley tells of Haynes’ involvement with a notorious criminal case. While in Manchester, a pair of brothers were convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of their brother-in-law, the “mentally deranged” Russell Colvin. Colvin tended to wander and one day he disappeared for several years.

While the brothers awaited the day of execution, Lemuel Haynes waited and prayed with them, and became convinced of their innocence. Then Colvin reappeared in town, hale and healthy. In a published sermon, Haynes chastised the townspeople for spreading rumors about murder, fabulating “dreams” of seeing Colvin’s ghost, and other “seeds of delusion” planted in impressionable minds. The murder of Colvin that never happened, and the wrongful conviction of the Boorns, is still the topic of legal commentary today.

One theme that Haynes took from Scripture was the “selling of Jesus” by those who sought to gain by it, not excluding contemporary preachers.

Haynes was also a patriot. At 21, he left the Rose home and enlisted as a Minuteman. In 1776 he joined Arnold’s expedition to capture Fort Ticonderoga.

That year, he wrote a bold response to the Declaration of Independence, which had been read to the troops in the field. He titled it “Liberty Further Extended; or, Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping.” Calling personal liberty a natural right bestowed by Heaven that cannot be taken away by man, he found it ironic that “Englishmen” would strenuously object to have their own liberty taken away while keeping slaves, themselves. Further, it is tyranny to deny the God-given right of freedom, he wrote. “Shall a man’s color be the decisive criterion whereby to judge of his natural right?” he asked.

Biographer Cooley ranked Haynes with Hannibal and St. Augustine, both Roman citizens and men of color. Cooley wrote that the example of Lemuel Haynes should help to “mitigate the unreasonable prejudices against the Africans in our land” as well as furnish a model for overcoming personal adversity.

Lemuel Haynes and his wife are buried in Granville, New York. His books are also available online as e-books.

Mountain Times Newsletter

Sign up below to receive the weekly newsletter, which also includes top trending stories and what all the locals are talking about!