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Biography of William Levington

Only a Marylander by adoption, the name of William Levington is entitled to appear side by side with the most distinguished names of men of African descent born on the soil of Maryland. Born in New York during the year 1793, as a young man we find him in the city of Philadelphia, in connection with St. Thomas' Church, that city, which was established the very year Mr. Levington was born. He was ordained to the ministry of the Episcopal Church, in St. Thomas' Church, in the month of March, 1824, by Bishop White, who, in the same church about 30 years before, had ordained Absalom Jones, the founder of that Church, and the very first colored man, in this country, admitted to the ministry of the Episcopal Church. It is most pleasing, when we remember the social condition of the people of color, of those very early days, to note the enthusiasm, boldness, and courage, of a young colored man, only thirty years of age, of free ancestry, indicated in his settled determination to turn his face towards the Southland and proceed to the very house of bondage, and, in the midst of the slave pen and the auction block, under the protection of Almighty God, endeavor to plant a Negro Church, of the Episcopal faith, and raise over its edifice the sign of the conquering Cross. Thus did William Levington. Almost immediately after holy hands had been laid upon his head, he left Philadelphia and came to the city of Baltimore. He looked the field over. He returned to Philadelphia, and after a short stay, again returned to Baltimore, and on the 22nd day of June of that same year, in an "upper room" on the corner of Park and Marion streets, secured for that purpose, initiated the present St. James First African Protestant Episcopal Church. In that same place was also begun by Mr. Levington a day school for the benefit of free African Children.

He labored incessantly in building up his school, the congregation, and also in procuring a permanent home for the work. A lot was secured on the corner of Saratoga and North streets, and on the 10th of October, 1826, the cornerstone of St. James First African Church was duly laid. On the 31st of the following March the little band yielded up their upper room and took possession of their new church, which was on that day consecrated to the services of Almighty God, by Bishop Kemp, of Maryland. It was a day of peculiar significance to the descendants of the African race for all times to come, for it was the first occasion, anywhere in the South, where a local branch of any of the existing white churches, had been initiated among the people of the African race, with all the powers of self-government, as well as with an educated pastor of the same race as the congregation. And, then, too, a day school for free African children was attached to the church. That such a venture had the full approbation of the white Episcopal Church, in the diocese of Maryland, is attested by the fact, that at that very first service of opening, were gathered together, in the chancel, and participated in the services the Bishop, and the rectors of the two white parishes in the city of Baltimore, St. Paul and St. Peter's Churches. Bishop Kemp, in making the entry of that service said:

"On the 31st of the same month 1 consecrated to the service of Almighty God, a very neat church in the city of Baltimore, for the use of the people of color under the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Levington. Morning Prayer was read by the Rev. Dr. Wyatt, and the sermon preached by the Rev. Mr. Henshaw. The congregation was large and devout, the responses were well made, and the chanting and singing quite delightful.'

The Church was duly incorporated in 1820, under the laws of the State of Maryland. In all of the present author's research and investigation he has not yet come across any older incorporated body of people of African descent than the corporation of St. James First African Church, in the State of Maryland. In 1825, Mr. Levington was advanced to the Priesthood, in Philadelphia, by the same Bishop White who had ordained him a deacon. The Bishopric of Maryland being vacant, through the death of Bishop Kemp, the Maryland authorities requested the Pennsylvania ecclesiastical head to act. Bishop White makes the following entry with respect to the ordination:

'On the 23rd of March (1828) in the African Church of St. Thomas, in this city, at the desire of the Standing Committee of the diocese of Maryland, I ordained to the holy office of Priest William Levington, a colored man, settled in the city of Baltimore.''

The work of the Rev. Mr. Levington was a very arduous and exacting one, under abnormal and unusual difficulties. It was in the midst of a population, half free, and half slave. His was a work of bringing both together in the worship of the common God and Father of all. He was forced to make several trips north to secure the means for the liquidation of the debt incurred in the erection of the church. The late Mrs. Wayman, wife of the late African Methodist Bishop Wayman, frequently talked with the author with respect to the days she spent as a pupil in the school taught by Mr. Levington. Bishop Coppin, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, himself a native of Maryland, also, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, Philadelphia, yields high praise to Mr. Levington, for it was Mr. Levington who instructed the Bishop's mother, and it was from his own mother, in good old Maryland, that Levi J. Coppin got his first intellectual start.

From the last report of Mr. Levington, to the Episcopal diocesan convention, the following is taken:

''The Rector of St. James First African Protestant Episcopal Church, in the city of Baltimore, reports that the church was happily reared at the expense of $2,300. The rector has visited the Northern and Eastern States the third time, and solicited aid for the church, to exonerate her of debt; and his last visit was made during the past summer, and on his return January, 1834, he paid six hundred and ten dollars of the debt, and also got the church insured until January 1, 1841. The debt now against the church is $673.37. The rector would say, that although the Constitution of the Church gives to those of his brethren, who are in bondage, the right of membership in the Church, much dissatisfaction has prevailed among some of his free brethren; yet, with the blessing of the great Head of the Church, it has been happily and finally settled. He thanks God that he has long since seen that a Gospel Christian bondsman will be a righteous servant, and for this, and other reasons, he does not forget to instruct them in the exercises of the sanctuary; for he remembers them that are in bonds, as bound with them." This faithful pioneer missionary, two years later, in May, 1836, fell on sleep, being only in his 43rd year. Although comparatively young when he entered upon eternal rest, he had succeeded in doing a great work which should have a telling effect during all the years to follow. Like his Master, he had nowhere to lay his head. He gave himself, and all that came to him. When he died, he had not sufficient of this world's goods to defray his funeral expenses. His dear friend, the Rev. Dr. Henshaw, rector of St. Peter's Church (afterwards. Bishop of Rhode Island) not only officiated at his funeral, but sustained the cost of burial.

And, yet, from that one life, good permanent results are not wanting. Through his influence William Douglass entered the Church, and its ministry. And from the church which he planted, ordained within its walls, went forth Eli Worthington Stokes who established St. Luke's Church, New Haven, Conn., freed the Church in Providence of debt, by a pilgrimage to England, where he was helped by the two Archbishops, and other dignitaries of that Church, and, returning to America, went forth to Africa as a missionary, where he labored and died. From the same source, issued Harrison H. Webb, an educator, and successor to the founder. With forty members of the church planted by Levington the present St. Mary's congregation, of this city, was begun. Former communicants of the same old historic church, who entered the ministry, have established Episcopal Churches in Chicago, St. Louis, Atlantic City, Florida, and elsewhere. Such are some of the results of the life of a young free Negro, who, in entering the Priesthood of the Church, offered up that life as a willing sacrifice, for God and his brethren sake, on soil which hitherto had not been trodden by any Priestly man, of African descent. And that, too, in close proximity to the slave pen and auction block.

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

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

 

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