The Black Church and the Flowers Family (Part One)

This three part series will explore the Flowers’ religion and church affiliation beginning with Rachel’s maternal grandfather, Reverend Joseph J. “J.J.” Sawyer of North Carolina.


If you are new to my blog, I encourage you to use this family tree as a helpful guide. It is too huge to recreate digitally, but I will try again in the near future.

Background/Researcher’s Musing

Before migrating to a farm outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Flowers resided in Jacksonville, Florida. Harry, the children’s father, was born a few miles south in Putnam County, Florida. His second wife, the children’s mother, was born in North Carolina. She moved to Florida as a child with her three siblings, father, and mother, the Reverend Joseph J. and Susan Sawyer. My mother happens to be a minister, as well as my grandfather, the late Dr. Rufus Graham, my Nana, and my great-grandmother. Research becomes twice as thrilling when you are able to connect small similarities within your own family’s history. I have always been curious as to what led the Sawyers to travel even further South from North Carolina as oppose to remaining in the state or even moving to the North. This week’s research provided much insight to this southern migration for the answer may reside within Reverend Sawyer’s deep commitment to the African Methodist Episcopalian Church and the church’s growth in Florida.

Quite often when I am having a research block and cannot find any new information, I simply type a family’s member name into Google to see what results are listed. Last week, I decided to explore the religious roots of the family beginning with Rachel’s grandfather who I recalled was a minister. Under this Google search I discovered scholars Larry E. Rivers and Canter Brown’s book Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord: The Beginnings of the AME Church in Florida, 1865-1895 which referenced Sawyer’s name multiple times and included an image, an important picture that I longed to find for many years. So, without further ado, let us beginning with the family’s connection to the AME Church of Florida.


Rev. Joseph J. Sawyer

Image Source

Now I cannot make any assumptions without concrete evidence. I cannot confirm that the Sawyers were enslaved or free. The family’s move could have moved prior to the Civil War; however, given Nancy’s and her sibling’s births in North Carolina, it was a move that took place after 1879. Despite this evidence backed by the 1885 Florida Census, the book quoted has Sawyer in Florida by 1875. Now this creates a great conflict in my research for I have always assumed that the Sawyers were North Carolinians, but this may no longer be the case. This is something to explore in the future.

…the AME Church had proved itself the single most effective organizational force for Florida’s black residents. Having brought comfort and inspiration to thousands of its members, the church also had demonstrated its capability to rock Florida’s political balance of power.

Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord: The History of African American Religions by Larry E. Rivers and Canter Brown, Jr. (p 3)

When the African Methodist Episcopal Church commenced its mission to Florida in 1865, black Methodists already had worshiped in the state for almost a half century. During that time Methodism had reached out first to slaves and free blacks. Then its policies and the actions of many of its ministers turned the church in a far different direction. Desire began to grow in the hearts and minds of black Methodists for racially separate forums for worship and fellowship. As this process evolved, African Americans stamped Methodism in the South and in Florida with their special influences and traditions, some of which derived directly from African roots. Thus, when African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ministers eventually set out to win Florida for their church, they discovered the seeds of a church waiting to be nurtured.

Ibid, 11

In 1845, the year of Florida’s admission to the Union, the state boasted a population of 66,500. Of that number, 47 percent (roughly 31,000) were black. At the same time, the Methodist conference contained 6,874 souls, of whom 2,653 (39 percent) were black. Fifteen years later, as the nation teetered on the brink of civil war, 61,745 slaves and 932 free blacks made up about 45 percent of the state’s total of 140, 424. The 1860 membership numbers or black Methodists were 8,110, which equated 42 percent of all Florida Methodists.


During the Civil War, blacks began to turn away from the church they were always skeptical of—the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1862, nearly 1,000 withdrew from this church. At the conclusion of the Civil War, half of the churches black members have left. A great amount of black churches rose during and after the war. Founders of these churches included Reverend Henry Call and Reverend Jacob Livingston, leaders of the state’s AME churches. In Sawyer’s view, Livingston was “energetic, self-sacrificing, and strongly attached to the Church.” Livingston was the presiding elder of the AME Marianna District until 1877. Sawyer commented greatly on those who helped establish and lead the Church, yet Sawyer also established a name for himself. He would be known for his efforts to preserve the AME Church’s early history and his responsibility over the church’s Live Oak District of Florida, particularly the Monticello Station. As an elected elder, clerk, and tax assessor in the East Florida Conference and the state’s black community, he pushed for the establishment of a conference high school to provide greater educational opportunities within the AME church. Unfortunately his efforts were ignored, dismissed, and even voted against in the 1876 and 1878 East Florida Conference, yet Sawyer pressed on. In 1880, as the conference’s secretary, Sawyer sought to express the importance of an education institution. The writers note that the results of the conference remain unknown, but they do recognize a shift that occurs within the church’s administration. As the presiding elder position transitioned into the hands of Bishop Alexander W. Wayman, an advocate of education, Sawyer’s Palatka high school was endorsed in 1881, yet another barrier stood in Sawyer’s way—a lack of funds.

We must show our anxiety and ardor for education in the South by action, especially by paying what we have promised. We cannot afford to see this grand effort go to naught.

An Appeal, H.F. Chisolm, Christian Recorder

Four years later, the Florida Normal and Divinity High School was established and built in Jacksonville, Florida. This is the same city where Harry and Nancy raised their children. This could potentially be the city where they met.

The Flowers connection to the AME Church will extend beyond Florida as Harry and his children migrate from Jacksonville to a farm outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Here, the family finds a church home at Wesley AME Church, a pillar within the city’s black community.

Until the next post,


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