Edmund Kelly

Reverend Edmund Kelly was an active preacher and education advocate for Black communities. He traveled to Philadelphia from New Bedford, MA, to attend the 1855 National Colored Convention. While at the convention, he proposed a resolution to one of the issues being debated. However, his resolution was not adopted.

     Rev. Kelly lived at 335 Middle Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts, with his wife Paralee and their four children: Dolly Ophelia, Robert Edmund, William Dempsey, and Alfred.1Their family wasn't always living together though, since both Edmund and Paralee were born into slavery and belonged to different households.

     Edmund was born June 10, 1817 in Columbia, Tennessee. His first owner was a widow named Ann White who transferred ownership to her daughter Nancy White. When Kelly was still a child, his mother was torn from the family. His father was not able to purchase his wife and children’s freedom, which left Kelly and his sister to fend for themselves. At age 14, a primary schoolmaster hired Kelly as an errand boy.2 Kelly took advantage of this position by persuading the students to teach him secretly. He hid his books from his mistress and read at night.  

     As a young man, he converted joined the Baptist missionary church in 1838 and was later baptized on May 14th.3 The next year he married Paralee Walker. The family of James Walker (also in Columbia, Tennessee) owned her. As the Kellys' children were born, they also became the Walker family’s property. Edmund's owner, Nancy White, acquired a pass for Edmund that gave him a license to preach anywhere in the country to avoid being sold when her estate became insolvent in 1846.

     Edmund Kelly had been preaching for the Concord Baptist Association since he was ordained October 1, 1843. The Association even tried to purchase him for the Association, but Kelly refused because he wanted to be free, not just be transferred to another owner. The pass that Nancy White gave Kelly the freedom to move about the country, live wherever he wanted and not be sold off. When he received the pass, he went to New York for a few months then to Boston where he studied English and theology. In September 1848, Kelly was invited to preach at the Second Baptist Church of New Bedford, Massachusetts, for a month. After a month of preaching, he became their pastor. While there, he had hoped that the money the church initially raised to buy his freedom would be used to buy his wife and children’s freedom. Unfortunately, in 1848, the Association told him that the money couldn’t be used to buy his family but would instead be used for a “beneficiary of this Association at Union University.”4

     Afterwards, Kelly spent the next three years raising money to buy his family’s freedom himself. After working out a deal with his family’s owner, he was reunited with them in New Bedford on May 30th 1851.5Kelly continued to preach in multiple churches and remained a Baptist his entire life. He lived in New Bedford well past the 1855 National Colored Convention as suggested by an advertisement he put in the New York Age paper looking for volunteers to help him on a tour of churches in 1890.6

     Rev. Edmund Kelly did receive some additional education through the churches he preached for, but he didn’t receive any formal education. Although he belonged to the Concord Baptist Association, he did not discriminate against other Christian faiths. Rev. Edmund Kelly was known to be a devoted Christian and father throughout his community. He wrote a book about his life, telling his story up until he reunited with his family. The book was composed of letters between him and various people who helped him buy his family’s freedom. He also wrote a letter to Congress in 1865 stating the injustice of not granting African Americans full citizenship and suffrage. (To read the letter, click on the first news clipping above). While Kelly never obtained a formal education, he made sure his children would. Among his children are “Professor J. H. Kelly of Columbia and W. D. Kelly, who was a member of the fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment.”Edmund Kelly died on October 4, 1894. Today the Myrtle Baptist Church in West Newton, Massachusetts, remembers him as an extraordinary pastor despite only preaching there for two years. 


Patrick O'Connor, English 110, Spring 2013, Taught by Professor James Casey, University of Delaware

Revised and Edited by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware


[1] [4] [5] Kelley, Reverend Edmond, A Family Redeemed from Bondage; Being Rev. Edmond Kelley, His Wife, and Four Children. New Bedford: Published by Author, Corner of Cedar and Middle Streets, 1851. Documenting the South 2004, Academic Affairs Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 12 March 2013  http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/kelley/kelley.html

[2] [3] [7] William J. Simmons and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. (Cleveland: Geo M. Rewell, 1887), 291-296. https://books.google.com/books?id=2QUJ419VR4AC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

[6] New York Age [New York] 20 Sept. 1890: 3+. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. 



For the Christian Recorder. To the Honorable Senate and House

"For the Christian Recorder. To the Honorable Senate ad House." The Christian Recorder, 9 December 1865.  From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.

The Christian Recorder publishes Kelly's letter to the Senate and House of Representatives. Kelly strongly argues for voting rights and invokes the Bible and the Constitution to point out the federal government's hypocrisy. He asserts that the same principles and documents that are supposed to guarantee rights to every man are instead used against African Americans. 



"Selections.THE TRACT SOCIETY.LETTER FROM HON. WILLIAM JAY.NEW." National Anti-Slavery Standard, 12 May 1853.  From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.

This article recounts Kelly's addresss at the Mechanics' Institute in Dublin, Ireland. Kelly spoke about his life in bondage, pointing out that Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrayal of cruel slaveholders are accurate. Ignorance, to Kelly, is a tool that slaveholders used to keep the enslaved in a degraded state. However, Kelly believed that abolition was at hand and slaves were become more and more sensible of their state and the possibility of freedom. Rev. Richard Allen was also present at the meeting and gave a heartfelt address. 



"Selections.THE TRACT SOCIETY.LETTER FROM HON. WILLIAM JAY.NEW." National Anti-Slavery Standard, 12 May 1853.  From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.


"For the Christian Recorder. To the Honorable Senate and House." The Christian Recorder, 9 December 1865. From Accessible Archives © 2016 Accessible Archives Inc.