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Home » Channeling the Rev. Peter Williams
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Channeling the Rev. Peter Williams

Published in the issue.


Script for a Short Performance

The Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., 1786-1840, Rector of St. Philip’s Church, Manhattan

Camera opens on PETER WILLIAMS sitting in a chair, a cross (ideally) behind him on the otherwise bare wall.

Facing camera:

Time. They say time heals all wounds.

Of course, they also say that what does not kill you makes you stronger. I am not so sure.

And I say this from the perspective of one who has been dead a very long time.

Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Reverend Peter Williams, late rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church located these days in Harlem.  When I served there — that was from 1826 until my death in 1840 — St. Philip’s was in the Five Points District — near Columbus Park and Chinatown today.

You may have met me a couple of years ago in a play called “A New York Lamentation,” which was about slavery in our state. Oh, I still lament the racial inequality brought on by the sin of slavery. Time has not healed that.


I know you lament it still. But you have something else to lament these days as well. A pandemic.

I understand. Believe me, I understand.  You see, I lived through two horrific pandemics myself, back in the days of slavery. These are grievous burdens to bear, worthy of lamentation.

I only hope, with my brief visit, to bring you encouragement, perspective, and fortitude.

My first word of encouragement is, this will pass. All epidemics do. Most people will survive, though it will not always feel like it. And, if my experience counts for anything, you will see the best and the worst in people.

Let me just tell you how it was in my day.

Back when I was a child, the Yellow Fever epidemic hit. That was 1795 when it got to New York. It had ravaged Philadelphia before, so we knew what was coming. New York set up a health commission to keep Philadelphians out of the city. It did little good. Disease is no respecter of borders or blockades.

And sure enough, the fever hit us hard like it hit them. By the end of the first year, 2,086 New Yorkers had died.

But you would never know it by the leadership. Not, at first. They refused to admit that anything was wrong. It would be bad for business, you know. So first, they said there was no Yellow Fever in New York. Then they said there were only a few cases. Then, when the number grew, they said the change of season would make it stop. Eventually, when they realized only certain districts were particularly hard hit, they claimed it was due to the immoral character of the sufferers or their weak constitutions.

Can you guess which districts were hardest hit?

New York in those days may not have been huge, but it had already separated the rich from the poor. The poor lived by the docks in squalid conditions. In 1795, slavery was still very much alive in New York, with 42% of NYC families owning other people. But it was the free blacks, and those who had escaped slavery and run away to New York, who were hit hardest because they were forced to live in what you would call today the slums.

When people started dying in earnest in August, rich folks fled the city.

Many of the wealthy city dwellers owned estates up and down the Hudson, so they sent their families north to the country.

One young doctor at Bellevue, Elihu Smith, estimated that 12 – 15,000 people fled the city. He wrote to a friend, “Wherever you go, the Fever is the invariable & unceasing topic of conversation…. People collect in groups to talk it over, and to frighten each other into fever, or flight.”

Now, I will be fair. Some white folks, including Dr. Smith, stayed behind to help. Some of them, including Dr. Smith, died in the course of their duties, and let me tell you, Yellow Fever was not a death you would wish on anyone.

It took nine years for that epidemic to end. Maybe that’s because every time it eased up, business leaders pushed to re-open trade—and the fever stormed back to life. When it finally did pass, New York’s leaders let the Board of Health fall into disuse. They went along as if nothing had happened.

Oh, some things changed. Legal slavery ended in New York. Sure, people still escaped slavery in the south and made their way north where they could blend in. But it was the Irish immigrants who came in their thousands, fleeing the tyranny of the English. The population grew from 60,000 in 1795 to nearly 250,000 in 1832.

Anyway, in 1832, cholera was devastating Europe, so New York’s leaders ordered that no European ships be allowed to dock in New York. They were looking the wrong direction and missed all the ships coming down the Hudson from Canada, a country where Europeans had already brought the disease. So, cholera came from above, infecting towns all along the way till it reached Manhattan.

Now, remember all those immigrants? Remember all the newly freed slaves from New York? Remember all those people who escaped slavery? They were all living crammed together in the poorest districts of the City—mostly the Five Points District where my church, St. Philip’s served. Five Points had been built over a large filled-in pond. The land stank and kept sinking, which caused houses to sag. So, the wealthy abandoned it and filled it with the poor and undesirable.

Five Points was crowded, filthy, so naturally it became the epicenter of the epidemic. Rich folks just knew it was because we who lived there led such immoral and intemperate lifestyles. One of our civic leaders, John Pintard, wrote that the disease, “is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute and filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations… Those sickened must be cured or die off and being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.”

And it just confirmed for them that we black folks were… how’d they put it? “…foreordained to suffer due to their social and genetic inferiority.” They said, “the Negro’s innate character invited cholera. He was, with few exceptions, filthy and careless in his personal habits, lazy, and ignorant by temperament. A natural fatalist, moreover, he took no steps to protect himself from disease and shared, to an exaggerated extent, the distaste of the poor for hospitals and the medical profession.”

Funny thing is, back during that 1795 pandemic the only people they could find to be nurses were the black folk. In Philadelphia, the mayor himself had asked Rev. Absalom Jones to recruit gravediggers and nurses—for white patients, of course—because no white person would take on the task. Philadelphia’s elites later criticized the nurses and gravediggers for having the temerity to ask payment for their services.

In like manner, during the Cholera pandemic of 1832, it was we, the poor, the churches and the doctors who cared for the sick. Catholic nuns tended the Irish immigrants. Our church fed the hungry who had lost everything in the calamity.

Some of the richer Protestant churches thought the matter too distasteful and fled upstate.

Another similarity between 1795 and 1832 was that the state tried to play down the disease. They didn’t want to scare away business. They said it wasn’t as bad as fearmongers claimed. But you can hide the truth for only so long. Finally, they declared an emergency and set up field hospitals.

Can you guess what happened next? That’s right. Businesses pushed to open back up as soon as possible—with predictable results. More death, more pain, and mostly among the poor.

But did the epidemic change things? The city saw the importance of having a clean water source and began work on the Croton reservoir. That was something. They started cleaning streets, too. Otherwise?

Not much changed for us, the poor and the black. Just two years after the pandemic, 300 white rioters stormed St. Philip’s, smashed the stained-glass windows, hacked the pews to pieces and toppled the altar—all because of my work to abolish slavery.

Just as in 1795, the poorest of the poor were blamed for the epidemic, forced to work the most dangerous jobs during the epidemic, and then belittled afterward.

So, Sisters and Brothers, I understand your plight. As far as I can tell, people are acting in your time of distress about the same way they acted in mine. Deny there’s a problem, blame the weak, push to re-open too soon, repeat.

Depressing, isn’t it?

So, what good news have I to share? Well, as I said, you will get through this. And good people will help even at personal sacrifice. May we all make our goal to be and support those people.

But you must be steadfast. Once this passes, the principalities and powers of the world will remain. The Good Lord needs you to care for yourselves so you can continue bringing the Good News of Christ’s justice, equity, and peace.

Take heart, my beloved, but do so with open eyes. And know that as the Lord watches over you, so will I. Good night.