Marriage, Reconstruction style

quaker benches in old meeting house

A remarkable event occurred in the tiny village of Lincoln, Virginia on September 3, 1866:

19th century virginia african american preacher
Freedmen’s Bureau records Alexandria, Virginia Superintendent letters received, Courtesy Smithsonian African American Museum of History & Culture

Alexandria, Va Sept. 3rd 1866

To Col. S. P. Lee

Esteemed Col:

I have the honor to report that during the month of August I employed myself in preaching to colored people in different localities on the subject of marriage and also talking on the subject in families. The last “Lord’s day” in Aug – Aug 26 – I preached to a large congregation 9 miles from Leesburgh Loudon [Loudoun] Co at “Goose Creek” (Post off – Lincoln )

The white people who attended were “Friends.” Samuel M. Janney – a distinguished and learned preacher among the Friends assisted me in giving 25 certificates. I enjoyed the hospitality of himself and family. Yours – JR Johnson

Preacher JR Johnson wrote this 1866 letter to Colonel Samuel Perry Lee, Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau for northern Virginia, headquartered in Alexandria.

Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent Alexandria, Virginia
Col. Samuel Perry Lee, Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau 1866 – 1869, in the Alexandria, Virginia office. Courtesy MOLLUS Medical and Surgical History of the War

Vol. 13, Issue 4 of the Fairfax County Historical Society “The Fair Facs Gazette” Fall 2016 has information on Colonel S. P. Lee, Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau covering several northern Virginia counties, including Loudoun:

“Samuel P. Lee Jan 1866- April 1869 Superintendent:

Samuel Perry Lee, (1833-1890) b. Hallowell, Kennebec Co., Maine, June 11, 1833,; enlisted. July 31, 1861 as 1st Lt., Co. E, 3rd Maine Infantry; promoted. Capt., Co. E, Sept. 1, 1862; promoted. Major Nov., 14, 1862; A.D.C. Gen. Birney and Gen. Sickles; wounded. (Thigh) Battle of Fredericksburg, December 1862; wounded. right arm (amputated) Battle of Gettysburg, July 1863; Veteran’s Reserve Corps November 1863 to 1864, Wash., DC; appointed. Commander Johnson’s Island POW Camp, Sandusky, Lake Erie, OH, July 1865 to Dec. 1865; on duty with Freemen’s Bureau Dec. 1865 to April 1869; apptd. Capt. 45th U.S. Inf., July 1866; (Bvt. Lt. Col., Mar. 1867 for “distinguished gallantry at Fredericksburg”); d. Oct. 20, 1890; bur. Arl. Natl. Cem., Arl., VA.

The early push of the Freedmen’s Bureau to see that former enslaved men and women who considered themselves married or who wanted to be legally married, or were the parents of children, would now legally be allowed and encouraged to marry. That policy was outlined in many Freedmen Bureau memos, and JR Johnson was proudly contacting Col. Samuel Perry Lee to tell him how many marriage “certificates” had recently been filled out after his sermon in Lincoln.

From the Smithsonian African American Museum of History & Culture website we learn:

The Freedmen Bureau’s field office in the District of Columbia made a special effort to assist freed men and women in legalizing marriages that they had entered into during their enslavement. Continuing a practice that had been started by Northern missionaries and Army clergy, Rev. John Kimball, who served as the superintendent of marriages for the District of Columbia, advised freedmen of the act of Congress of July 25, 1866 (14 Stat. 236), relating to slave marriages. The act stipulated that all persons who recognized each other as man and wife prior to the act were now legally married.

Superintendent Kimball and his assistants issued marriage licenses and certificates and forwarded them along with marriage reports to the Office of the Commissioner. During the year, Kimball issued more than 1,000 marriage certificates. Nearly half of the couples who received certificates had lived in slavery without any form of marriage ceremony. Kimball also registered couples and forwarded ministers’ reports of marriages that were retained by the Assistant Commissioner. In addition to the reports received from Kimball, the Assistant Commissioner also received reports from other officers regarding laws relating to marriage in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. A March 22, 1867, act of the Maryland General Assembly validated freedmen marriages in Maryland. In Virginia, two February 27, 1866, acts of the Virginia General Assembly made provisions for issuing marriage licenses and the registration and legalization of marriage relations entered into by former slave couples.


JR Johnson, who preached in Lincoln and formalized the 25 marriages, giving out certificates, was a member of the American Missionary Association. Johnson had been active for years both prior to the Civil War and during Reconstruction. An academic paper, “nothin’ but ‘ligion: The American Missionary Association’s Activities in the Nation’s Capital, 1852-1875” was written in 2014 by Herbert H. Toler, Jr. for his doctoral requirements at Columbia University. Toler mentions JR Johnson, a native New Yorker, as being a board member at the Missionary Association. Herbert Toler’s paper can be read online.

So, where did Brother JR Johnson preach? Most likely at the Goose Creek Meetinghouse, which was the most accessible building large enough to accomodate such a crowd: 25 couples, plus possibly their families and guests, as well as white “Friends” including Samuel M. Janney.

quaker benches in old meeting house
19th century interior of Goose Creek Meetinghouse, Lincoln, Virginia

The September 3rd, 1866 religious consumation of marriages is an example of three cultural groups coming together: former enslaved couples, Goose Creek Meeting Quakers, and a Northern missionary society. It was a time of great hope and promise for the healing nation.

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