Established in 1890, St. Philip Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baltimore is North America’s oldest African American Lutheran congregation.

This fact is noted in ELCA documents, newspaper articles and The Lutheran Church and the Negro in America by Ervin E. Krebs (Board of American Missions, American Lutheran Church, 1950). These sources mention staff, membership totals and other information from 1889 onward.

Minutes from meetings attended by Lutheran pastors of European descent show they regularly discussed the need to devote resources to St. Philip. However, there are no official church records surviving from the congregation’s early years.

Often labeled the “Negro mission” in those years, the church seemed to be intentionally kept outside the ELCA’s predecessor bodies, said Louis R. Tillman IV, pastor of St. Philip.

“I firmly want this congregation to have its history authentically recorded, valued and respected by the ELCA as a whole,” he said. “We would like to tell our rich and beautiful history and unique place within the church, the city of Baltimore and the denomination.”

Often labeled the “Negro mission,” the church seemed to be intentionally kept outside the ELCA’s predecessor bodies.

Current members hope to find documents that will confirm details of St. Philip’s past, said Lynette Todd, a member since 1975. They also hope to get the church designated a landmark by the Maryland Historical Trust, though, as Todd explained, “It’s an uphill battle.”

The task requires records. If such documents exist, they weren’t transferred to synod archives or ELCA Archives over the years, she added.

ELCA records mention church participation by people of African descent dating to the 1600s. Evangelism efforts focusing on such communities began in the late 1880s.

An 1892 record of the 31st Biennial Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod notes, “Nothing whatever was done by our synod for these neglected people.” A Lutheran of African descent was regarded as a wonder in Baltimore.

The documents add that in 1889, Mortiz Heuer, a German-descent Lutheran, bought a decommissioned grist mill on Ivy Lane in Baltimore and started Our Savior’s Mission for African-descent families. By January 1890, it was dedicated as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Savior, later to be identified as the Negro Mission of St. Philip.

The birthplace of the African-descent Lutheran church

The congregation established itself as a hub for domestic mission efforts among African-descent communities. The Ivy Lane ministry offered a school and an orphanage.

Lutheran pastors of European descent retained administrative control of the mission. They called an African-descent pastor and schoolmaster, Taylor Johnson (a recently freed slave) and Nathaniel Carter respectively. Johnson later purchased the grist mill from Heuer, making it a Black-owned property.

Pastors wouldn’t vote on Johnson’s synod membership application.

“We would not, so far as his character and orthodoxy are concerned, hesitate to recomment [sic] his reception, but the circumstances are such that, in our judgement, it would be best to postpone definite action in this regard,” note the 1890 convention minutes.

They tabled action in 1890 and 1891. Johnson departed the congregation before the 1892 convention.

The congregation established itself as a hub for domestic mission efforts among African-descent communities.

Meanwhile, Carter prepared for ordination and became pastor. Documents from 1894 show that “Rev. Nathaniel Carter, colored” was accepted for synod membership and added to the clergy roster.

The congregation was said to grow and thrive during Carter’s tenure. In 1897 he moved the church to Eden Street, where it remained until 1958.

Now located on North Caroline Street, St. Philip engages in ministries that are still rooted in faith formation, service and education, said lifelong member Earl Todd.

“For a long time, if you were Black and Lutheran in Baltimore, people assumed you went to St. Philip’s,” he explained. The community knows St. Philip as the birthplace of the African-descent Lutheran church. “Our church provided many activities over the years, and it helped start several African American congregations. St. Philip’s was known for that.”

St. Philip by the numbers

  • 1890: Congregation is founded.
  • 1892: Congregation lists 20 members, 50 Sunday school participants, 40 school students, 11 orphanage residents.
  • $25: First pastor’s monthly salary.
  • 1958: Member Jean Hunt becomes the first person of African descent featured on cover of a Lutheran publication (Lutheran Standard, Vol. CXVI — No. 17, April 26).
  • 2021: Church is designated the oldest African American-founded ELCA congregation in North America and the second oldest African-descent ELCA congregation (after Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands).
  • 16: Number of pastors who have served St. Philip since 1890.
  • 29: Age of the current pastor, Louis Tillman IV (the youngest African American male pastor in the ELCA).
  • 1: Number of liturgical U.S. Armed Forces chaplains of color, age 40 or younger (Tillman).
  • 2019: Tillman and Torrey O. Johnson are recognized as the only board-certified chaplains (BCC) of color in the ELCA.
  • 2020: Congregation member Clair Minson becomes the first woman of African descent from the Delaware-Maryland Synod to be awarded an ELCA Fund for Leaders scholarship for rostered ministry.
Karris Golden
Karris Golden is a professional writer-editor and a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She lives in rural northeast Iowa with her daughter, Zoey Golden Neessen.

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