Pamphlet’s birthdate, place of birth, and parentage are not known, but because slave status in colonial Virginia was determined by the condition of the mother, it is likely that Pamphlet’s mother was also enslaved. The earliest documented reference to Pamphlet is in a sensational notice in the July 3, 1779, edition of the Clarkson and Davis Virginia Gazette. In it, one John Conrad Gunther, a tailor in Yorktown, accuses Pamphlet, “a Negro fellow … belonging to Mrs. Vobe of Williamsburg,” of stealing his horse—a hanging offense. Gunther’s advertisement ran only once, which likely means that he recovered the horse quickly. Whatever defused the explosive situation for Pamphlet in 1779, he continued as before as an enslaved man in the household of Jane Vobe, owner of the popular King’s Arms Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street.
Vobe’s establishment catered to Virginia’s gentry class (her clientele included William Byrd III, George Mason, General Thomas Nelson Jr., Sir Peyton Skipwith, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and George Washington), and she trained her staff, enslaved and free, to provide the services that genteel diners and travelers expected. She also probably permitted, or even encouraged, some or all of her slaves to attend Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. Registers for Bruton Parish show that she had at least four of her slaves baptized in the 1760s. Vobe also enrolled two enslaved children in the Bray school, where enslaved and free black children learned to read and spell using the Bible, primers based on the Church of England catechism, and religious tracts as texts.
Regardless of whether Pamphlet had consistent exposure to worship according to the Church of England, he and many enslaved and free Virginians responded to the message of revivalist groups that had come to the area in the 1760s and 1770s as part of the Great Awakening. Itinerant preachers spread the message that before God, people of high station and low were equally in need of repentance and spiritual renewal. Slaves in the Williamsburg area gathered first around Pamphlet’s immediate predecessor and possible mentor, an elusive figure known only as Moses. According to Robert Semple, a nineteenth-century Baptist historian who was Pamphlet’s contemporary, Moses “was often taken up and whipped for holding meetings.” Sometime later, Semple wrote, Pamphlet “became popular among the blacks and began to baptize as well as to preach.”
Preacher to the Black Community
Oral tradition suggests that Pamphlet, like Moses, carried on his early ministry out of sight of slave owners and patrollers. Tradition in the black Baptist community in Williamsburg locates the earliest meetings of slaves as five or six miles southwest of Williamsburg in the Green Spring area of James City County, north of Jamestown Island. Though the written record does not document this tradition outright, Green Spring plantation is a plausible location for slaves to have assembled secretly with Moses and possibly Pamphlet. More than 4,000 acres of fields and woodland fanned out from the mansion house, providing ample cover for William Lee’s slaves to meet in safety with slaves and free blacks from the surrounding area.
At some point the congregation’s meeting place changed from Green Spring to a wooded area known as Raccoon Chase, south of Jamestown Road, on the outskirts of Williamsburg. Raccoon Chase was no more than two miles from the King’s Arms Tavern. In order to lead the loosely knit congregation effectively, Pamphlet would have had to negotiate his free time around his duties at Vobe’s tavern. Virginia slaves traditionally had time to themselves on Sundays, holidays, and in the evenings, but, as the hostelries and restaurants of the eighteenth century, taverns did not follow a traditional schedule. Vobe likely permitted her slaves to have free time, possibly on a rotating basis. The fact that the congregation continued to develop with Pamphlet as its leader suggests that Vobe allowed it, but how much she knew about his activities is unknown.
Under Pamphlet’s guidance, the secret, informal, nondenominational gatherings evolved into a more organized body that clearly identified as Baptist. Pamphlet was almost certainly literate; his work at the King’s Arms would have afforded him regular exposure to newspapers, almanacs, and broadsides, as well as all manner of notices posted in the tavern. In addition, the Bibles and Books of Common Prayer presented to the children Vobe enrolled in the Bray School probably circulated among her enslaved workers. The likelihood that Pamphlet could read the Bible, so central to Baptist worship, may have enhanced his pastoral air and authority.
According to John Asplund, who kept an annual register of Baptist churches in America, Pamphlet’s congregation was “constituted” in 1781 and had 200 members. About 1783, a regional Baptist umbrella organization called the General Association learned of Pamphlet’s work, found that it was Baptist, and stepped in to muzzle the popular preacher. The organization had no legal authority over Pamphlet, but, according to Semple, the group “advised that no person of color should be allowed to preach, on the pain of excommunication.” Thereafter, Pamphlet led a “kind of church of some who had been baptized.” During this time, he does not appear to have run afoul of civil authority, as Moses had.
Pamphlet would have had the opportunity to escape slavery in July 1781, when British general Cornwallis and his army departed Williamsburg after a ten-day occupation. But he stayed with his congregation until 1785, when a dwindling residential population and fewer visitors in the former capital prompted Vobe to move her tavern operation and her workers, including Pamphlet, to Chesterfield County, across the river from the new state capital, Richmond. Vobe died late in 1786, and ownership of Pamphlet evidently passed to David Miller, Vobe’s son and the executor of her estate. The two returned to Williamsburg in 1791. There, Pamphlet resumed his activities on behalf of the black Baptist congregation, which by that time numbered around 500. At this time, Semple maintains, Pamphlet applied for membership in the Dover Baptist Association, a regional organization run by whites and descended from the very group that earlier had tried to silence him.
To secure membership, Pamphlet—still a slave and probably with a pass from Miller in his pocket—traveled north across the York River to Mathews County and attended the annual meeting of the Dover Baptist Association in October 1791. (Dover Association minutes for 1791 do not mention that Pamphlet and another member of the congregation presented themselves in person to the gathering in Mathews County to make application for membership, as Semple claimed.) His congregation was then subject to a customary inspection period that would end before the association’s next meeting in October 1793. Near the end of this two-year inspection period, events near Williamsburg threatened to bring down the law on Pamphlet. In August 1793, William Nelson Jr. claimed that “the black preacher Gawin” had inadvertently dropped a letter in the street in Yorktown on his way to Norfolk. The contents of the letter persuaded Nelson that Pamphlet was a messenger in a network of armed slaves that stretched from Richmond to Charleston, South Carolina. Pamphlet laid low for several weeks, and the trouble somehow blew over.
In September 1793, within a month of the talk of conspiracy, Miller drew up a deed to “manumit emancipate and set free a Negro man named and called Gowin Pamphet.” In October, Pamphlet and another church member attended the annual meeting of the Dover Association in Middlesex County. Meeting minutes for October 14, 1793, record that the “Baptist church of black people at Williamsburg; agreeably to their request, was received into this Association, as they could not have done better in their circumstances than they have. We therefore recommend that some of the neighbouring ministers be advised to visit and assist them in setting in order what shall appear to be wanting.” On December 16, 1793, York County court officials ordered Miller’s deed of manumission copied into the public record.
Miller’s deed, written in September, marked the earliest known use of Gowan Pamphlet’s full name. Pamphlet’s full name also appears in the Dover Baptist Association minutes for the October 1793 meeting. Pamphlet very likely chose the surname himself. In 1810, Semple spoke of “Gowan, who called himself Gowan Pamphlet,” and no other persons with the surname Pamphlet have so far come to light in local records.
Williamsburg land tax records for 1805 show that Pamphlet possessed a quarter of a Williamsburg city lot (an eighth of an acre), possibly the site of a carriage house on Nassau Street given to the church by a local businessman, Jesse Coles (Sr. or Jr.). By 1805, Pamphlet also owned fourteen acres in James City County, just two miles west of downtown Williamsburg. James City County personal property tax lists show that he was taxed for one free adult male (himself) and a horse. He was at the height of his influence: his church had emerged from the shadows and grown from 200 members in 1781 to 500 in 1793. In 1805, Judge James Semple of Williamsburg reported with unease that “On Sundays & Holidays the number of Free negroes & Mulattoes as well as slaves that is seen in the City is truly astonishing.” Among them were likely members of Pamphlet’s Baptist congregation.
Gowan Pamphlet’s last appearances in the historical record are in 1807, when he attended a Dover Association meeting and paid personal property taxes in James City County. His estate, overseen by executor Benjamin White, a free black shoemaker, continued to pay taxes on the fourteen acres in James City County until 1835. From under Pamphlet’s wing emerged a new generation of pastors. Free blacks Israel Camp (sometimes Kemp), Benjamin White Jr., John Dipper, and John Alvis led Pamphlet’s congregation after his death.