Peter Williams Sexton of John Street Church

NYH149377 Credit: Peter Williams, c.1810 (oil on canvas) by American School (19th century) © Collection of the New-York Historical Society, USA/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: American / out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: The Bridgeman Art Library works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.

Peter Williams Sexton of John Street Church was of African heritage. He was born in the year 1749 in New York City, named after his parents, George, and Diana Williams. The Williams couple were brought to America directly from Africa. As slaves, George and Diana were members of New York’s John Street Church. Peter was born into slavery on Beekman Street.

His place of birth was humble, as humble as the birth of the Savior. Peter was born in the building where the master’s cow was kept. Speaking of his birthplace, Peter would often comment with an embracing smile that he was “born in as humble a place as my true master, Jesus of Nazareth.” Peter was one of seven sisters and two brothers. He would become the only Methodist among them.

Peter Williams Philip Embury and Captain Thomas Webb

Peter William’s Christian conversion occurred as a young man around 20 years of age. This due largely to the efforts of Philip Embury and Captain Thomas Webb. Peter would often comment of their loving encouragement as they ministered to the infant flock in New York which gathered at the long and narrow room of the sail-rigging loft, The Rigging Loft, as it was warmly referred to.  For the rest of his life, Peter would often comment with much admiration of the tireless and genuine work of “The Carpenter and the Soldier.” When Peter spoke of great preachers, it was these two, Embury and Webb, who were always listed as first according to Peter. A large compliment when you consider that Peter personally sat under the ministering efforts of American Methodism’s greats such as Francis Asbury, Joseph Pilmoor, Richard Boardman, Robert Williams, and George Shadford.

Trained as a Tobacconist, Peter eventually became a free citizen and self-employed. He was a popular businessman, known for his honesty and kind nature. Despite the fact that Peter could never read or write his extensive business on Liberty Street allowed him to greatly prosper. Eventually he purchased a house and a store and considerable other properties. His wife, Molly was the one who handled the written details of his accounts for purchasing of tobacco and sales to customers.

Peter Williams during American Revolutionary War

Before his manumission, Peter’s connection with John Street Church in New York City was more than just a church member. For many years he was the Sexton and Undertaker of the vibrant church of this burgeoning city.  The church Sexton was the person who looks after the church and churchyard. In 1778 at the age of 29, Peter’s name first appears on the “old Book” as Sexton of John Street Church. This was a difficult time for the church in New York. This is during the American Revolutionary War. Looked down upon as being a “British Church” on account of its connection with John Wesley the founder of Methodism in England. The members of John Street Church were not taken as serious backers of the revolution by many of the New York colonists who strived for freedom from Mother England. Despite this opposition, the members continued to gather.

Peter drew his salary from the collections made at the Class and Band meetings- the small gatherings utilized by John Wesley’s preachers to disciple and grow the faith of its members. Other than a short period during the war where Peter was absent for a time in New Brunswick (Jersey), he appears on the books as the sexton once again. This short period was in October of 1780 when he and his wife, Molly visited her former family, a family she once was a slave for. He would remain in the “Old Book” till 1795.

Peter Williams and His Wife Molly

For seven years, Peter and his wife, Molly, resided in the Church’s Parsonage. It was here that several anecdotes of the jovial Peter would result. When a number of the circuit-riding preachers were in the city, Peter would invite many of them to dine or take tea in his humble dwelling. It was reported that Molly’s cooking, especially the confectionery deserts would rival the best of cooks. At these gatherings, the couple’s good humor and loving hospitality would overflow into gratitude to God for such tender treatment of their tired guests.

Undoubtedly, the Methodist circuit-riding preachers loved Peter and Peter loved his church. On one occasion with his house full of circuit-riders, feasting at dinner, Francis Asbury as one of these hungry and dusty travelers, Peter pointed to his happy guests, counting out loud. He counted to eleven and then made a long pause on the one remaining minister. After the pause, and after every eye viewing this odd event, Peter exclaimed, “eleven and you…” then another pause. The preacher who Peter paused over and singled out had recently departed the Methodist church circuits, unhappy with Francis Asbury’s leadership. The singled-out preacher responded to Peter’s obvious implication, “A Judas I suppose you would say.” Peter replied, “I did not say it. But you had better return to your mother, the Methodist Episcopal Church.” No one responded, clearly understanding the deep love Peter had for this rich community of preachers and believers.

Despite the misguided opinion that the John Street Church members supported the British in the American Revolutionary War, there were several occasions where the wicked British soldiers would harass the New York City Methodist congregation. These almost brutal acts occurring during hours of worship and during the Bible-teaching Class and Band meetings. The soldiers would often crowd the doors as the members were exiting John Street Church. There, several mischiefs would occur, one being the secretly cutting of ladies’ dresses. At another time during a love feast in the evening, while the congregation was inside the church building, the soldiers were outside digging a deep hole in front of the steps to the church’s entry. Upon exiting the service in the dark of night, the members of John Street suffered falling and tumbling into the unexpected pit. Several piled on top of each other until the group was able to stop moving forward. According to Peter, “the mischievous soldiers dug a far worse pit for themselves, for when their officers were informed of their conduct the perpetrators were severely punished; so they dug no more pits for the Methodists to fall into.”

On another occasion, a British soldier dressed up as a devil with cloven feet and a long forked tail. He proceeded into a Christmas Eve service accompanied by several British Soldiers in full uniform. As he made his way to the front to enter the altar a gentleman from the congregation struck the costumed soldier in the face. Immediately his satanic mask fell to the floor. To everyone’s surprise, the individual was a British Colonel. He was immediately seized by the congregation, the other soldiers departed the building and the guilty colonel was held hostage as the army’s commanding officer was summoned by one of the Methodist members. More than likely this was Peter Williams. As the people waited with guilty party in hand, the soldiers outside commenced to attack the doors and windows of John Street Church. Eventually they were stopped by an Army officer who put an end to the disgraceful outing.  The prisoner was subsequently delivered into his custody.

Peter Williams Manumission

Peter’s manumission is an interesting subject. His master was a loyalist. Upon the defeat of the British Army in the year 1783, his master and family left for England. At this point, wanting to avoid having Peter sold to strangers, the trustees of the John Street Church convinced Peter’s master to sell Peter to John Street Church. Their efforts were successful and Peter was sold to the John Street Church society. From the church funds, Peter was paid for. In reality, Peter was a free man. But to Peter, he would not receive his freedom without paying for it first. The “Old Book” records several annual payments made by Peter to John Street Church for the reimbursement of his manumission expense. Taken by surprise by this unique and loving effort in the summer of the year, 1783, Peter’s first payment was his personal watch. From that point forward, Peter made regular payments in money. By November of 1785, Peter Williams Sexton of John Street Church had fully reimbursed the New York church.

There is an interesting thought as to how and why this purchase occurred. Undoubtedly, it had been expressed by the trustees that they loved Peter and feared he would be sold by his master who was departing the country. Or worse yet, Peter would be forced to go to England. Several records indicate this. What is interesting is that we don’t know if the trustees first suggested this transaction or if Peter himself suggested it to the trustees. One peculiar fact is that before the church records show the payment by the church to Peter’s master, an odd journal entry records the receiving of Peter’s watch. All that is recorded is the following: “1783, May 27. Credit a watch received from Sexton… L5 (pounds) 0 0. Five pounds zero cents,” this transaction just two weeks before the church’s distribution to Peter’s master.

History points out that Peter was eventually reunited with his watch. His adopted daughter in subsequent years records that he had it while she lived with her parents, Peter and Molly. Peter eventually wills the watch to his daughter upon his death bed. According to his daughter, “Father thought all the world of his watch.”

Another interesting fact connected with Peter’s manumission is that the wording of the payment of L40 (pounds) for Peter to his master was worded specifically as a “debt to the society…” not to the trustees who put up the money. It is as if it was clearly known that if Peter was unable to pay off the debt, the trustees would have stepped forward to pay the society.

One final piece of trivia regarding Peter Williams Sexton of John Street Church. It has been documented by many historians that seldom is there a picture of the old church, without beholding a man of dark skin standing in the entry doorway. The common response is that this man was Peter Williams, the old Sexton.