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Biography of William Douglass

William Douglass was born in Baltimore September 6, 1805, on Montgomery Street near Leadenhall Street. In the olden days, the father of Mr. Douglass was a well-known blacksmith who conducted business on Light Street. Of the very early life of the Rev. Mr. Douglass we know little. However, he attended '''Daniel Coker's School," and was one of the boys who achieved marked distinction. Mr. Douglass was well instructed in the higher branches, and the languages, by Daniel Coker. Mr. Douglass married a Miss Elizabeth Grice, daughter of the celebrated colored abolitionist Hezekiah Grice. It was while as an itinerant minister among the Methodists, in Cecil County, that he found his way into the Protestant Episcopal Church, and was the first colored man ever ordained to the ministry of the Episcopal Church, not only in the State of Maryland, but in the entire South. This ordination took place on the Eastern Shore, in the State of Maryland. It occurred on Sunday, June 22nd, 1834. The entry, with respect to the ordination, in Bishop Stone's journal, reads as follows:

''On Sunday 22, I preached in St. Stephens parish, Cecil County (Sassafras Neck), and admitted to the order of Deacons William Douglass (a colored man), and in the afternoon of the same day I confirmed three persons. Many persons who were present never before witnessed an ordination, and I am sure that the impression made upon their minds was favorable to the Church and her institutions. In the afternoon, by previous arrangement, the Church was given up to the Colored People, and the Rev. Mr. Douglass preached to them an interesting sermon."

It appears that the year before, 1833, Mr. Douglass visited Philadelphia, attending the Anti-Slavery Convention, and possibly the occasion of this visit is responsible for his introduction to the people of St. Thomas Church.

Very soon after Mr. Douglass' ordination, he accepted a call to St. Thomas African Church, Philadelphia, which was established in 1793, and which is said to be the oldest regularly incorporated colored congregation of any denomination in the United States. This parish, St. Thomas, eventuated from the old "Free African Society" established in 1787. The occasion of the formation of the "Free African Society," was the ejectment of the band of colored Methodists from St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, where they were wont to worship. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were the two leaders in this Society. First, the society determined to build an "African Church." Later, they held a meeting to determine with which of the white religious bodies their church should be connected. Although most of the members, up to this time, were Methodists, they decided, almost unanimously, that the church and congregation should be connected with the Protestant Episcopal Church, of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Only two members seemed to have voted against this proposal and they the two leaders, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Notwithstanding, the society requested Richard Allen that he would be their "minister," to be recommended to Bishop White, of the Episcopal Church, for a regular license. Allen maintained that he was a Methodist and could not be anything else save a Methodist; he, therefore, declined. Absalom Jones was then asked to accept the same position, and, after due deliberation, he accepted. He was licensed as a Lay Reader by Bishop White, and, in 1795, he was ordained a deacon. Later, he was advanced to the Priesthood. Jones departed this life in 1818. From that time to the coming of the Rev. Mr. Douglass, in 1831, the church had a supply of various white ministers; but Mr. Douglass was the immediate successor of Absalom Jones as rector of the Church.

The 14th day of February, 1836, was a great day for the Rev. Mr. Douglass; for on that particular day, in St. Thomas Church, he was raised to the holy order of Priesthood, in the Church of God. Bishop H. U. Onderdonk, who was assistant to Bishop White, officiated upon that occasion, and the following entry from his journal will show his impression of this black man, and his fitness for such an exalted position. Bishop Onderdonk says:

"On Sunday, February 14th, in St. Thomas (African) Church, Philadelphia, I admitted the Rev. William Douglass, deacon, to the holy order of Priests. Mr. Douglass is a man of Colour; and I take the opportunity of recording my very favorable estimate of his highly respectable intellect, and most amiable qualities, which entirely relieved my mind, in his case, from the anxieties I had long felt in reference to this department of Episcopal duty. He ministers to a congregation at unity in itself, much attached to him, and improving, under his pastoral care, in the principles and duties of our common Christianity.''

Mr. Douglass was a power in Philadelphia among the race in his day. In addition to his parochial, and other duties, he became an author, even in that early day. In 1853, he issued a volume of sermons, a book of about 250 pages, containing twelve sermons. Later, he published a second volume, being the "Annals of St. Thomas Church," of which he was rector. A copy of both volumes the present author possesses. In 1862, at the Diocesan Convention, Bishop Alonzo Potter, in reporting the death of Mr. Doug-lass, said:

"It hath pleased the Lord to call away from the Church Militant the Rev. William Douglass, rector of St. Thomas African Church, in this city, where he has ministered for the last twenty-seven years, a man of great modesty, of ripe scholarship, and of much more than ordinary talents and prudence. He is as far as I am informed, the only clergyman of unmixed African descent, who, in this country, has published works of considerable magnitude. In two volumes, one of sermons, and one a history of St. Thomas' Church, has vindicated his right to appear among our respected divines. As a reader of the Liturgy he was unsurpassed." His death occurred in Philadelphia on May 22, 1862.

An Extract from a Sermon by the Rev. Mr. Douglass

(The extract here given, is from a sermon of the Rev. William Douglass, preached in St. Thomas Church, Philadelphia, November 15, 1840, in memory of the Rev. Peter Williams, late founder and rector of St. Philip's Church, New York. His text was: "For David after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep" Acts xiii. 36.)

"Such was the character and end of our late friend and brother, the Rev. Peter Williams; called away suddenly to us, but not to him, from the field of toil and labor, to rest in Abraham's bosom. Our departed friend was brought under the influence of saving grace in the most favorable season of life. , He gave heed to the admonition: Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them. Blessed as he had been with the advantage of pious parents, he very probably traced his early religious impressions to their Godly admonitions and counsels. The time however came that must come to all, when the sacred tie that bound the hearts of parents and child together, had to be severed by death. He was left behind to mourn the loss of them for a while; but with what raptures must they have hailed each other as they met again on the borders of the heavenly world, to part no more forever.

''At the age of seventeen or eighteen years, he became a communicant member of the Episcopal Church, of which Dr. Lisle was pastor. Soon after, he assisted an aged gentleman, whose name was Thomas McKoon, in giving catechetical instruction to the children assembled in a private room rented for that purpose. In the same place a number of adults regularly met on Sunday evenings for religious purposes. The exercises were generally conducted by Mr. McKoon. After the death of this gentleman, Mr. Williams was regularly appointed lay-reader. He acted in that capacity until the year 1820, at which time he was ordained deacon by Bishop Hobart, in the church in which he dispensed the word of life to the close of his earthly pilgrimage. He was ordained priest by the same Bishop in the year 18.26. He manifested a deep concern for the improvement not only of the people of his charge, but for his brethren generally. Hence, he was found contributing his influence and pecuniary means towards supporting the various organized instrumentalities that had a tendency to elevate and improve the condition and character of his oppressed people. I doubt very much whether there exists in the city of New York one single society having an immediate bearing on the general interests of our people, but what met with his countenance and support. He was not conspicuous in these matters. For no man, perhaps, was less given to display or aimed less at popular applause than he. If he could hide himself from personal gaze, he seemed y to be best pleased. His whole deportment seemed to say:

'Let me be little and unknown, Loved and prized by God alone.' "A retiring modesty and unaffected diffidence formed a very prominent feature in his character. His hopes for an improvement in the character of our people were in the young and rising generation, in whom he manifested a lively interest. Did he see a promising youth, who lacked nothing but the necessary advantages to enable him to reflect credit on himself and people, in a moral and intellectual point of view; he was the man who would spare no pains to get such a one in a situation favorable to the development of his powers. He took delight in seeking out such cases. There is now a high school in the city of New York that owes its establishment chiefly to his untiring efforts.

"He was a universal friend. His countenance, which was expressive of kind and benevolent feelings, added to that ease and gentleness which were ever seen in his manners, told everyone that approached him that he was in the presence of a friend. He loved every one, hence he was I universally beloved in return. To use the language of one with whom he had long been most intimate: "He was a friend to everybody, he was always in trouble about other people's troubles. He was a kind of depository for everyone to lodge his cares and anxieties. People of different denominations, whenever they got into difficulty, would in-variably go to him; and he, in the kindness of his heart, would as often use his endeavors to have their affairs satisfactorily settled.

"As regards his fidelity and zeal in the discharge of his ministerial duties, I need only quote the words of his Diocesan, delivered on the day of his interment:

It was my privilege,' says the venerable Prelate, to be often the depository of the cares and anxieties, the longing desires and earnest endeavors, the watchful solicitudes, the cheering hopes, the affectionate fears, and practical dependence upon God's grace, with which he gave himself, instant in season and out of season to his pastoral charge. I have often said, and would now say, in conscious sincerity and integrity of heart, that in all the wide range of my observation, I never knew a pastor whose whole soul seemed more engaged in the great work to which he had been set apart. I have seen this in the happy results of his ministry, and felt it in the many occasions on which he has taken counsel with me in matters pertaining to his high and holy trust.'

"During the last two or three years of our departed friend's life, it was evident to his friends that his health was declining. I have been informed that a little while previous to his death, he had one or two attacks of apoplexy; and that he was impressed with the idea that he would be called away in one of these attacks. The solemn messenger it is true, did not come in this form, but his purpose was executed with less dispatch. He was aroused from his bed at the hour of 11 o'clock Saturday night, 17th ult., by an alarm of fire. He looked out at his window, and immediately complained of a difficulty in breathing: and at 3 o'clock Sunday morning, he leaned his head on his Savior's bosom, and breathed his life out sweetly there. Peace to his mortal remains, until reanimated by the voice of the Archangel and the trump of God."

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.


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