James Angier Parmalee 1819-1954
Asahel, Charles, Hezekiah, Joel, John, John

Hugh C. Humphreys featured Dominie West -- foreground, right of center -- in his National Abolition Hall of Fame painting
"Come Join the Abolitionists," which depicts an imagined abolitionist meeting in Peterboro, N.Y., circa 1850.

Adventist Review Online
, June 19, 2020

Born a Slave, Died a Free Man
John W. West ministered primarily to white congregants central New York, including the Parmalee family

By Kevin M. Burton

Peterboro, N.Y. -- Seventh-day Adventism was racially integrated throughout the first decades of its existence, a fact underlined by the recent discovery of a second African American minister who served the growing movement in the 1850s and '60s. John W. West was born into slavery in Baltimore, Md., on Dec. 25, 1816, sold into the Deep South and lived in New Orleans for several years. Early in life he developed kyphosis, a condition usually caused by degenerative disc disease, or osteoporosis, and for much of his life he was known as "a little hunchback slave."

He converted to Christianity at age 23, in September 1840, and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. According to West, a few weeks after his conversion he "felt it duty to go and call sinners to repentance, and to tell what the Lord had done for [him]." His class meeting soon recommended that he be a class leader, which granted him membership in the Quarterly Conference, and his class leaders’ meeting later advocated that he be granted a license to exhort. "This was granted me," West explained, “and I increased in faith, and God carried on His work in adding souls to His people." As the slave mission continued to grow and West increased in his ministry, his presiding elder granted him a preaching license in 1851, authorizing him to preach regularly in New Orleans.

About 1853, West attained his freedom and lived the rest of his life in Smithfield/Peterboro. The details of his liberation are unknown, but in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald he related that "God, through His divine providence, had brought [him] out of the great southern Sodom ... and landed [him] safe on free soil in the state of New York." In the early 20th century, longtime Peterboro resident John N. Woodbury stated that abolitionist and philanthropist Gerrit Smith, who "spent tens of thousands of dollars purchasing the liberty of slaves," brought West to Peterboro. However, West possibly escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad, which Smith was heavily involved in. Or West may have escaped from New Orleans; author and statesman Horace Greeley, who knew West personally, and stated that he was "once a preacher among his enslaved brethren until he became a fugitive."

Smith regularly entertained Millerites and Adventists on his estate, but West remained the closest to him. West had not been a Millerite, but within less than a year of his liberation he joined the Sabbatarian Adventist movement. In November and December 1853, Samuel W. Rhodes and George W. Holt itinerated through Madison County, N.Y., and were in Peterboro on several occasions, and it was probably through their efforts that West converted.

West soon joined the ministerial ranks of the Sabbatarian Adventists, but because of his disability, he never itinerated, as Adventist ministers typically did. Rather, Smith allowed Sabbatarian Adventists to regularly meet in the Free Church that he had built in Peterboro. In November 1854, West explained, "I rejoice through the help and providence of God that a way has been made by which we can have a Seventh-day Sabbath meeting in Peterboro. The arrangement has been made to meet in the Free Church in the afternoon of the day at 1 o’clock, every Sabbath."

West ministered primarily to white congregants in Peterboro, including the Parmalee and Hostler families. James Parmalee was particularly close to West, and the two formed a close friendship. The two men were about the same age, and when Parmalee died unexpectedly on Nov. 15, 1854, West eulogized him in the Review, at left, stating: "Our dear Bro. Parmalee, who was with us at our first meeting, and with whom we have convened so often on the Sabbath, now sleeps in Jesus." After exhorting his readers to "live the life of the righteous," as Parmalee had done, he expressed his longing to "keep God’s Sabbath [with his friends] in the New Earth."

The Hostlers also deeply respected West. Because of his disability, West remained poor, and he received the Review through the kind donations of fellow Adventists. Aware of his condition, James White called on Adventists to support West directly, and Benjamin Hostler was among those who did so; it was Hostler who paid for West’s Review subscription during the last years of his life.

Though not a Seventh-day Adventist, Gerrit Smith regularly listened to West preach and found him to be a powerful orator with a melodious voice. Smith regularly invited him to "lead in singing at the [non-Adventist] class meetings at the Free Church." So deep was Smith’s respect for West’s ministry that he referred to West as "the Dominie," Latin for "the minister." This epithet endured, and his contemporaries respectfully addressed him as "Dominie West."

Horace Greeley referred to West in the New York Tribune as Smith’s protégé and stated that those who had "been guests of Gerrit Smith [would] remember [him]." This statement reveals much about West’s life in Peterboro. Smith provided him with a home and business on his large estate. In his small store, West sold groceries, Smith’s abolitionist publications and other paraphernalia; worked as a cobbler; and mended textiles. West regularly conversed with Smith’s visitors, which included such reformers as Greeley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In 2011, artist Hugh C. Humphreys featured Dominie West in his National Abolition Hall of Fame painting "Come Join the Abolitionists, " at top, which depicts an imagined abolitionist meeting in Peterboro circa 1850. Humphreys describes his painting as an imaginary day that begins and ends with West, who is prominently featured in the foreground, right of center. West is clothed in ministerial garb, and Humphreys imagines him shouting to the people, "Come join the abolitionists." Viewers are then drawn to listen to Douglass, Smith, Brown and others who denounce the evils of slavery and racism. Humphrey’s imaginary day ends with West preaching from Psalm 121, reminding his audience that "God protects this holy place, this Peterboro" because its people do not tolerate racism. In this way, West, through Humphreys, reminds the painting’s contemporary viewers of the ongoing need to fight for justice.

On Christmas morning 1868, his 52nd birthday, West died of unknown causes in his store. Greeley wrote his obituary for the New-York Tribune, and because many prominent Americans knew and respected West, it was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, from Massachusetts to California. Smith arranged for the burial in Peterboro Cemetery and marked his grave with a large marble tombstone, at right. Near the bottom of the stone, Smith inscribed: "Deformed in body, but beautiful in spirit."

Photo Nos. 10-0516b, 10-0516c

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