The first black church in Bucks County formed in Attleborough (now Langhorne) in 1809, calling themselves the Society of Colored Methodists. In 1816 they were one of the five independent churches that joined to form the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church under Bishop Richard Allen in Philadelphia. From Langhorne they spread to New Hope, which had an AME congregation by 1818, including some residents of Buckingham. There was a separate AME congregation worshipping on Buckingham Mountain by 1822, when 15 congregants are listed in AME Church records. The first church, a log structure, was built in 1835 on land donated by Daniel Yeomans. The Yeomans were one of the first free black families in Buckingham. Daniel’s father Thomas, who was born in Africa, is one of only 62 black heads of household who appear on the 1790 US Census in Bucks County. Both father and son served as preachers at Mount Gilead, and Daniel remained a preacher into his 80s.
At first the black population remained small in Buckingham, but when refugees on the Underground Railroad began flowing into the township in the 1830s, the black community rapidly expanded, jumping from 77 to 162 between 1830 and 1840. Refugees flocked to Buckingham from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and the Carolinas, and many of these refugees lived on Buckingham Mountain, where they were protected by the remote location, the large black community, and sympathetic Quaker neighbors. Many fugitives found work on local farms. In 1852, the congregation replaced the log chapel with the current stone structure, which utilized the original stone foundation.
One of the most famous refugees in the Mount Gilead community was Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones, a famously massive man who stood at 6’10”. Jones escaped from Maryland with his brother Levi, and found work on various farms in Buckingham and Solebury, living in the area for a number of years until 1844, when his former master hired four slave catchers and set out with them to hunt him down. One of the local white residents sold Ben out, and they came upon him chopping firewood near Forest Grove. He tried desperately to fight them off, injuring some of the kidnappers so badly that they died of their wounds. Eventually they were able to subdue him and took him back to Maryland, but he was so badly injured that he had lost most of his value as a slave.
The capture of Big Ben became a major rallying point for local abolitionists, and shortly after his capture, the Bucks County Anti-Slavery Society held a meeting in the woods where he was caught. He was a beloved local figure, and the local residents got together and raised the money necessary to purchase him back. He returned to Buckingham but suffered from an infection he acquired as a result of the battle and moved to the almshouse. He married a woman there, and they moved back to Buckingham for a number of years before finally returning to the almshouse, where they both died.
In the 1900s, the church fell into poor repair. Bill Hopkins, a descendent of early members of Mount Gilead, took charge of the church with his wife Mildred, and they took care of the building and graveyard for many years. Mildred (née Wood) grew up on the farm previously owned by Mahlon Gibbs.
(Noor Dean Takiedine, a student at Bucks County Community College, submitted this paper on the Underground Railroad for a history class at the college. Page 3 contains a section on Mt. Gilead.)