At least 147 African Americans are buried in the small Peterboro Cemetery in rural Madison County, New York. Among them is John West, whose headstone was toppled by a falling tree during a storm in August 2023.
Born into slavery in Maryland on Christmas Day 1816, West was taken to Louisiana where he was kept enslaved by Elias Cresswell of New Orleans. After famous abolitionist and reformer Gerrit Smith helped arrange for the emancipation of West and 51 others in 1852, he settled in Peterboro.
Despite being perennially poor John West was widely known by the honorific “dominie” (pastor, or preacher).
After his conversion to Christianity in 1840, John West had become an exhorter among southern Methodists from whom he received a license to preach in Louisiana. Like other early American denominations, Methodists were divided over slavery.
Shortly after settling in Peterboro, John West joined the fledgling Sabbatarian (Adventist) movement, which held that the seventh day of the week (Saturday) as the sabbath, according to the Old Testament, and believed in the imminent return of Christ. (One of the movement’s principle leaders had been William Miller of Washington County, NY).
White Methodist authorities excommunicated West after he left the South, but when Gerrit Smith and other abolitionists left Peterboro’s Presbyterian Church to establish the Free Church of Peterboro, West used their church building as a place of worship for his small congregation of Adventists. He also sometimes led the singing when Smith’s Free Church members worshiped there.
Kevin M. Burton, Director of the Center of Adventist Research at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, believes that West was the second African American recognized by the predominately white Seventh-day Adventist Church as an ordained preacher.
The denomination’s press published several items by and about West during his lifetime. Burton, a recognized expert on the life of John West, has traveled with several busloads of Seventh-day Adventists to Peterboro in honor of the Dominie.
In a letter written in 1854 to “Bro. White” (James S. White, the husband of Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church), West wrote:
“Dear Brethren and Sisters, who hold to the principles of the Advent faith, I am with you in seeking for the whole truth of God, and looking for the hope of the soon coming of Christ.”
Hanging at the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum in Peterboro is an imaginative painting by Hugh C. Humphreys depicting a gathering of people on the village green. Done in acrylic on gessoboard, the painting is 40 x 80 inches in size. It depicts notable historical figures such as Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Harriet Tubman.
In front of the entire assembly is the stooped over figure of John West. While alive, West was sometimes referred to by the depreciative “little hunchback slave” – he suffered from a curvature of the spine.
Humphreys’ depiction of West has the Dominie urging all those present to “come join the abolitionists.” West’s physical limitations kept him from becoming a traveling preacher so his was a local ministry.
According to Kevin Burton, West primarily ministered to white congregants, sometimes including Gerrit Smith, who had an interest in Adventism and acknowledged West’s homiletical gifts. In addition to preaching at the Free Church, he conducted funeral services for other African Americans buried in Peterboro Cemetery.
In a seldom-matched symmetry, John West died on Christmas Day, the day of his birth, in 1868 at the age of 72.
In his diary for that day, Gerrit Smith wrote “At about half past 11 this a.m. I sat in [the] shop of my neighbor, John West (usually called Domine [sic] West), conversing with him about his health, etc. About an hour after, I heard that he was dead. He was a precious Christian. For most of his life he was a slave. He came to live in Peterboro Aug. 1, 1852. He was one of 52 slaves whom I was instrumental in getting out of bondage in New Orleans.”
The next day, Smith attended the funeral of the man whom he referred to as “the dear Domine” at the Free Church. He later donated a marker for West’s grave in the Peterboro Cemetery – the headstone which the tree damaged in August.
On it, the following words are inscribed:
Born a slave, Dec. 25, 1816
Died a freeman, Dec. 25, 1868
Deformed in body, but beautiful in spirit
Illustrations, from above: Hugh C. Humphreys’ painting “Come Join The Abolitionists” (National Abolition Hall of Fame); Gerrit Smith, ca. 1850s (Peterboro Area Historical Museum); detail showing John West as depicted in Humphreys’ “Come Join The Abolitionists” (National Abolition hall of Fame); and the gravestone of John West in Peterboro Cemetery before it was toppled by a falling tree in August 2023 (Peterboro Area Historical Museum).