PRESTON, RICHARD, Baptist minister and abolitionist; b. 1791 or 1792 in Virginia; m. 16 Aug. 1828 Mary —,widow of “Cockney Bill” Maulibock; d. 16 July 1861.
The African Chapel in Halifax was filled to overflowing and its corridors formed packed spillways to the streets beyond. Hand in hand the mourners rocked and swayed together to the sounds of an old refrain. “The bishop is gone,” said a forlorn voice. “He’s crossed the flood to glory; protect him, Jesus!” said another. “A prince . . . a great man . . . has fallen in Israel,” bellowed the Reverend Benson Smithers, stepping back as the choir renewed its refrain. He choked the words, “The founder of our churches, Father Richard Preston, is dead.”
From a merchantman in Halifax harbour some 45 years earlier, young Richard had stolen his first glimpses of Halifax. A six foot one inch mulatto about 25 years old, Richard had been a slave in Virginia before purchasing his manumission. To Haligonians the literate former slave of manly bearing, who was a gifted orator with a disarming sense of humour, must have been an enigma. He had made his way north to Nova Scotia in search of his mother, one of about 2,000 refugee blacks who had left the United States during the War of 1812. Finding his mother must have seemed a hopeless quest to him; yet he persevered in faith, and, after many efforts, as he prepared to cease his search, he found her in the township of Preston. The rejoicing was longlasting and he remained with her there until her death. Finding his mother and having a home gave Richard a sense of greater purpose. He adopted the surname Preston, so as to celebrate the happiness and security which freedom had bestowed upon him. In Virginia he had been preacher to his people on the plantations and now, settled in Nova Scotia, he was to be an apprentice to John Burton*, a former Methodist missionary who at that time headed the Baptists in Halifax.
Since Burton’s black worshippers were unwelcome in the other established churches, and since a black leader could not gain white approval, Burton’s leadership of the black congregation was initially secure. In 1821 he was instrumental in having Preston act as the first black delegate to the Nova Scotia Baptist Association, and two years later he successfully moved that Preston be formally licensed to preach. However, as Burton’s focus remained on the Baptist hierarchy, Preston had begun to realize the political potential of his black constituency, and the two men gradually embarked upon a collision course. By 1824 Preston was appealing to the bonding sentiments that were the cement of slave society in an attempt to coalesce the black congregations around his leadership. From rural area to rural area the news of Preston spread, followed by his authoritarian presence and his exhortations. Gradually, he strengthened his grip. He knew and understood the blacks’ past, and his vision of their collective future was more to their liking. Put to this test, Burton lost his hold in the rural areas more and more. In the city, the upheaval in St Paul’s Church (Anglican) in 1824–25 would mark the diminution of Burton’s influence over his urban black congregation. When Bishop John Inglis* appointed the erudite Robert Willis* to the rectorship of St Paul’s instead of the popular John Thomas Twining, numerous dissenters, including Edmund Albern Crawley*, James William Johnston*, and James Walton Nutting*, left Bishop Inglis and descended upon Burton. Shortly thereafter, one of the leaders of the dissenters arose in Burton’s meeting-house to declare his group’s desire to be rid of the congregation’s blacks. Despite Burton’s disavowal of any intention of turning the blacks out, some black leaders began to make plans to secure their right of worship and, as Burton fell from acceptance, Preston’s popularity grew.
If Preston was to preside at baptisms, marriages, and funerals, he would have to be ordained and he would need a chapel. Prince William Sport and John Hamilton, deacons of the congregation, collected money to send him to England to be ordained and to raise funds for the purchase of land and the erection of a chapel. Preston, carrying papers identifying him as a candidate for the Baptist ministry of a small church in Halifax, landed at Liverpool on 15 Feb. 1831.
At that time the battle for abolition was at its height in Britain and the abolitionists were making gains. In the midst of the eloquent arguments of such men as William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton, Richard nurtured his own oratorical skills. He also found assistance and encouragement for his cause. A committee of the West London Baptist Association made churches and congregations available to him and Preston gave a good account of himself. There are records of some of his lectures on slavery and the sermons he preached. On 28 June 1832 the Novascotian, reprinting an account from the Brighton Herald of a sermon in London, noted that “the Chapel was crowded to excess. . . . His manner of delivery is exceedingly pleasing, and in his dissertations he evinces much clearness and perspecuity.” Preston had been ordained by the ministers of the association in May and that summer he returned to Nova Scotia with a little more than £600. Never forgetting the generosity of the British, he was also wiser in church polity, and the issue of emancipation burned stronger in his heart than ever before.
The official founding date of the African Chapel on Cornwallis Street was 14 April 1832, when Preston was in England. Construction began shortly after his return and by the spring of 1833 it was almost built. The congregation, however, required some additional financial assistance to complete the remaining work. On 6 April Preston presented a petition to the House of Assembly, which approved a grant of £25. The recommendation, however, was refused by the Council. Nevertheless, the chapel was completed, to the delight of the entire black community of Halifax.
The city’s black citizens registered pride in this event for it was cogent evidence that former slaves could establish their own institutions in Nova Scotia, impediments imposed by the white population notwithstanding. As well as fulfilling its official functions, the chapel housed a school and served as a meeting-place. This humble little chapel was itself a symbol of freedom to its worshippers; yet freedom was denied American slaves. Hence, while acting as a prime mover in the expansion of his own congregation and assisting in the establishment of other black Baptist churches, Preston also turned his attention to the task of emancipation. To involve black Nova Scotians in pressuring for the release of American blacks from slavery, to inform all Nova Scotians of slavery’s cruelties, and to campaign for the total abolition of slavery, Preston formed the African Abolition Society.
The earliest record of Preston’s activities involving the abolition society comes from the year 1846. The Novascotian reported a meeting in August to decide upon a constitution and a further meeting in November during which Preston’s views caused a disruption between blacks and whites present. None could refute the clarity of his argument, grounded as it was in the Christian doctrine that slavery was against the laws of God. It was through these meetings, and his able opposition to slavery in the United States, that Preston won support from the black and white citizens of Halifax and beyond. Such men as Charles Roan of Dartmouth, William Barrett of Halifax, and Septimus D. Clarke of Preston were counted among the executive members of the African Abolition Society. Nevertheless, although Preston’s goals were genuine and his intentions were sincere, the society’s success was limited. Although it managed to identify those who were sympathetic to the blacks’ cause and to improve racial relations, it had little if any effect upon the actual emancipation of American blacks.
On 1 Sept. 1854 at Granville Mountain, Preston launched his major contribution to Nova Scotian life, the African Baptist Association. This union of 12 Baptist churches, although a religious organization, was also formed to realize the socio-economic goals of its members and to safeguard their existing rights while working to establish further rights. However, the continuing spread of the Baptist faith and the creation of additional black churches were the main goals. The Halifax chapel was designated as the “Mother Church,” and Preston was called its “Bishop.” In fact, Preston was the association.
The success of Preston’s ministry is beyond question. When he began the African Chapel in 1832 there were 29 baptized members. By the time the association was organized, its 12 churches contained 308 baptized members. In 1861, the year of Preston’s death, there were 15 churches and 503 baptized members. One of the main reasons for this success was the combination of Preston’s sharpness of mind and his delicate sense of humour. During one of his more successful “reformations” in the 1840s, he drew a large congregation within the Dartmouth Lake Church: without, however, a yet larger mob was determined to disperse the congregation and put the run to Preston. Said Father Preston: “We’ll go outside, as the Grace of God gives me sufficient power over men and devils, I fear neither.” The unruly mob thought they had succeeded in breaking up the meeting, but when Preston went to work praying for their souls “both saints and sinners were rejoicing. All was perfect peace.” While exhorting in First Preston Church, Preston fell into prayer and, with the whole congregation quiet and absolutely still, the door of the church blew in. The giddy ones began to move around. Without changing the tone of his voice from that of prayer, Preston said: “Are you looking for Satan? Never mind looking for him, I’ll tell you when he’s coming in.”
Richard Preston was one of those men whose great accomplishments were accompanied by obvious shortcomings. Through his efforts the African Chapel was established, the first meetings of the African Abolition Society were organized, and the African Baptist Association was born. Of these three major accomplishments, the first and the last have endured. But Preston had a major shortcoming in his failure to establish suitable democratic procedures for choosing his successor. On his death, the association went through a decade of succession struggles which nearly destroyed it. James Thomas, a white Welshman married to a black woman, succeeded Preston at the African Chapel and in the association. Almost immediately there was a movement to impeach Thomas and eventually a short-lived rival association was formed by several of the churches. Preston could have prevented these struggles, but, having failed to do so, he left the institution in jeopardy. A second shortcoming was his apparent inability to link his organization’s political potential with the need for improvement in his congregation’s economic, political, and social standing within the province.
“Yes! . . . He was a great leader,” said the Reverend Benson Smithers, “now it is time to bury him.” “His ideals and thoughts will survive him,” said the feeble Reverend Henry Jackson. “Can you remember him saying: ‘Listen! Listen! At present we are a poor people. We have been so recently snatched from the cruel grasp of slavery and its concomitant degradations that . . . we have so little about which to be proud, compared to others to which my memories extend. Our change of life,’ he would say, ‘of soil – of climate – the substitution of a moral life for heretofore mere physical responsibilities, was so sudden and complete that it will take many years for us to readjust. But . . . readjust we must. The time will come when slavery will be just one of our many travails. Our children and their children’s children will mature to become indifferent toward climate and indifferent toward race. Then we will desire . . . Nay!, we will demand and we will be able to obtain our fair share of wealth, status and prestige, including political power. Our time will have come, and we will be ready . . . we must be.’”
On 19 July 1861, at about 11 o’clock, a funeral procession passed through Halifax to the South Ferry, and then through Dartmouth on to Crane’s Hill, where Richard Preston was brought to rest.
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