African American Leaders: Benjamin Johnson Anderson | Presbyterian Historical Society

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African American Leaders: Benjamin Johnson Anderson

February 21, 2024
First Negro Smith College chaplain, 1964 [islandora:350264].

Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.

Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.


Benjamin Johnson Anderson was born on December 17, 1918, in Birmingham, Alabama to Benjamin Johnson Anderson, Sr., and Gertrude Eleanor Fischer.  Benjamin learned early in his youth that a career in ministry was possible by watching his grandfather serve as pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church, one of the largest African American congregations in the South.

After high school, Benjamin attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating in 1939. During his time as an undergrad, Benjamin flourished as a student and embraced his call to be a leader. He served as president of his senior class, was a member of student council, and was the recipient of the Anna Courtney Archer prize for being the “Ideal Moorehouse Man.” After Morehouse, he enrolled at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, graduating in 1942, and Boston University, graduating in 1943. That same year, Benjamin was ordained by the Presbytery of Boston. He remained in the city for his first posting to Gloucester Presbyterian Church, where under his brief leadership the congregation increased in both membership and giving.

On August 3, 1945, Benjamin married Louise Gaillard, a Spelman College graduate. The two were a match in their ambitions. Louise had also served as class president and was an active member of the YWCA and the NAACP.  Louise, a faithful Presbyterian, had been interested in serving missions abroad since childhood--and in 1946, her aspirations finally came true. A year after they were wed, the Andersons were appointed as missionaries to China by the Board of Foreign Missions. Louise gave birth to the first of their two daughters while stationed overseas.

However, their time in China was short-lived, as Benjamin answered a call to serve back home only two years later. He was installed as pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1948, where he led the charge to racially integrate his congregation and was appointed president of Princeton’s Pastor Association.

The Rev. and Mrs. B. J. Anderson receive their commissions as missionaries to China from Dr. Peter K. Emmons, Vice President of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. [RG 360, Series III]

In 1963, Benjamin was chairman of the Standing Committee of National Missions of the 175th General Assembly. The following year, while serving as their moderator, the Presbytery of New Brunswick unanimously nominated him as candidate for moderator of the 176th General Assembly–a title that was given to Edler Hawkins in a historic win as the first African American to hold the position.
Outside of the church, Benjamin poured his heart into the community of Princeton. Passionate about equal housing opportunity, he spearheaded efforts to build Princeton’s first integrated housing project. He served as director of Princeton Housing Associates and chairman of the executive committee of Modern Community Developers, Inc., a company which built open-occupancy housing. A supporter of the labor movement, Benjamin assisted Princetonian restaurant and hotel workers in their fight to unionize.

After nearly two decades of service at Witherspoon, Benjamin made history as the first African American chaplain at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He held this position from 1964 through 1967 before moving to Philadelphia to serve as the Executive Director at the West Philadelphia Interchurch Community Ministry. In 1969, Benjamin resumed his place behind the pulpit, accepting a call at Richardson Memorial Church in Philadelphia and serving as president of the local chapter of Black Presbyterians United. He became moderator of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1972. While in this role, he was selected as a candidate for Moderator of the UPCUSA 185th General Assembly during a race against four others including Eugene Carson Blake and Clinton Marsh, who eventually secured the title for himself.

In 1978, Benjamin transferred to Belle-Terrace Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, a predominantly Black congregation, where he took up the duty of Stated Supply. Because of his influence in this role, the congregation’s membership increased and they began to meet their financial obligations to creditors and the Georgia Presbytery. A year later, Belle-Terrace happily installed him as pastor.  Benjamin’s time at Belle-Terrace helped to revolutionize the church: They were able to triple their annual budget, complete expensive renovations including paving the parking lot and installing new carpets, and pay off their debt on the land.

After a career that spanned over 40 years, serving at all levels of the church, both at home and abroad, Rev. Benjamin Johnson Anderson retired from ministry in 1985.


Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about Benjamin Johnson Anderson.

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