6: John Saunders and Pulpit Rock – Farm Neck, Oak Bluffs
It is perhaps not coincidental that the story of the African-American people of Martha’s Vineyard has two common themes: spirituality and maritime expertise. Water had a sacred significance in many West African religions and reverence for its power must have survived the horrors of the Middle Passage. Religion has played a powerful role in the African-American community of Martha’s Vineyard. On this island, there were several black churches. African-Americans were closely involved with the development of both the Methodist and Baptist faith on Martha’s Vineyard. A famous woman of color, Nancy Michael, was believed to be a ‘professor of religion’ in 19th century Edgartown.
The connection between spirituality and the maritime world of New England is illustrated by the story of John Saunders, who is believed to have brought Methodism to Martha’s Vineyard in 1787. According to a deposition taken from John Saunders’ granddaughter, Mrs. Priscilla Freeman, Mr. Saunders “a pure African” and his wife Priscilla who was “half white”, left Virginia where they were enslaved. Both were “zealous Christians.” They apparently escaped and sailed with Captain T. Luce, ‘afterwards called the blind man’, and the Captain ‘buried them with corn.’ They arrived safely at Holmes Hole (now known as Vineyard Haven) where they held several meetings and were provided with a home by Colonel Davis.
A child was born to them named John Saunders and was referred to as ‘the celebrated singer and dancer.’ In 1793, John Saunders indentured one of his sons to Meleatiah Pease of Edgartown for a period of twenty years. While living in Holmes Hole, Priscilla died and John Saunders moved to Chappaquiddick Island, an island just off Edgartown, to preach the word of God. In the words of his granddaughter he “preached with zeal and became acquainted with Jane Dimon and married with her, which exasperated the Indians there on account of his African descent.” Intermarriage between African-Americans and Native Americans was not unusual, so this statement about the Reverend Saunders’ ethnic origin is surprising. Mr. Saunders was apparently murdered on Chappaquiddick, and religion is given as the reason. It seems likely that the Reverend Saunders’ zealous preaching of Methodism was unwelcome to the Native American community of Chappaquiddick. Mr. Jeremiah Pease is quoted as saying that the Reverend Saunders was “a martyr.” (Deposition from Mrs. Priscilla Freeman displayed at the Vineyard Museum).
It seems that John Saunders also preached to the community of people of color in the Farm Neck area of Oak Bluffs. “John being an exhorter [having it is understood held that position among his fellow slaves] preached occasionally to the people of color at Farm Neck.” (Banks, 45) There is a large rock at the end of Pulpit Rock Way from which it is believed Saunders, and others, exhorted and preached the word of the Lord. In the nearby Farm Neck cemetery, there is another rock said to have been used for the same purpose.