committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

CHAPTER VI.

THE BEGINNING OF NEGRO BAPTIST HISTORY, GENERAL CONDITIONS UNDER SLAVERY.

 

Interesting and strange appears the record of the rise and progress of Negro Baptists in America. Interesting, because it is a record of the struggles of a people who had their rise amidst fiery trials and afflictions as slaves, and strange because they have made their progress as a separate part of the general Baptist family, and yet believe and practice all that it believes and practices. The American Negroes, with their emotional and religious natures, were brought to these shores as slaves early in the life of the American colonies, from the jungle and devil-bush of Africa. With these characteristics inborn it is easy for us to understand how they soon sought to get a hold of the ideas of their white masters' religion. Highly curious and imitative it is but natural that they were attracted to its ceremonies and worship, and that, in time, the white man's God and theology should become theirs. While we are greatly tempted to do so, we cannot take the space in this brief history to recount their religious experiences through that dark period of American slavery. It is simply our purpose to tell in this connection of the beginning and progress of Negro Baptists in this country.

The origin of "before day Prayer-meetings"
As a general thing Negro slaves were not permitted to have their own churches, pastors, or preachers. It was the common practice throughout the slave territory to permit them to attend preaching services in the white churches at the time designated under conditions prescribed by their masters. But this custom only whetted the appetites of these simple-minded, religious folk and they consequently stole off to the woods, canebrakes and remote cabins to have preaching and prayer-meetings of their own; and many are the stories they tell of being apprehended by their masters and overseers, and of being unmercifully flogged. From Thompson's "History of Negro Baptists of Mississippi," we quote the following: "The early sunrise prayer-meeting" was one in which they spent their happiest moments, no white person being present to molest or to make them afraid. It is a queer coincidence that gave rise to these "prayer-meetings" so prevalent even in these times, but few know their origin. The patrols would be on duty all night to see that no Negroes walked or assembled themselves together without written consent from their masters. Early in the mornings the patrols would retire from duty and sleep during the day. On Sunday mornings the colored people would gather at the church and other places of worship and have these early prayer-meetings in their own way while their mistresses and masters and the ever-dreaded patrols were asleep.

That these precautions were fully warranted may be seen from the following extract of the "Revised Code of 1857, (Miss.) page 247, article 51" cited by the same author: "Meetings or assemblies of slaves, or free Negroes, or mulattoes mixing or associating with such slaves, above the number of five, including such free Negroes and mulattoes at any place of public resort, at any meeting-house or houses in the night, or at any school for the purpose of teaching them reading or writing, either in the daytime or at night, under whatever pretext, shall be deemed an unlawful assembly. And any justice of the peace of the county, or mayor or chief magistrate of any incorporated town, whenever such assemblage shall be held either from his own knowledge or on the information of others, may issue his warrant, etc.; ......and all slaves offending herein shall be tried in the manner hereinafter provided for the trial of slaves, and on conviction, shall be punished, not more than 39 lashes on the bare back." It is but fair to state that this article did not prevent masters or employers from giving slaves permission to gather for religious worship, provided a "regular ordained minister (white) or at least two discreet and respectable white persons, appointed for that purpose by some regular church or religious society," attended. Another article provided that, "Free Negroes or mulattoes for exercising the functions of a minister of the gospel, on conviction, may be punished by any number of lashes, not exceeding 39, on the bare back, and shall pay the cost."

Churches of mixed membership a fact
With these facts before us it would seem difficult for one to believe that there were churches in Mississippi at the very time these laws and conditions prevailed with white and black members. But such was a fact, for we are told by those who know the facts that in 1846 the church at Natchez had 442 members, 380 of whom were colored, and in 1845, the church at Columbus had 399 members, about four-fifths of whom were colored. Of course, as we are told, these colored members had no voice in church affairs, except to vote on the reception and disciplining of colored members.

Thus it was that in many sections of the South there was a class of Christians in the white Baptist churches that insisted that the blacks, though slaves they were, should hear the gospel preached somehow, and be converted, baptized and given membership. In other sections it was a custom to hold special revivals for the slaves.

Separate churches an exception
But there were districts in some of the Slaves States where the conditions described did not obtain, but where the colored slaves were given more favorable reins. An instant is given in Floyd's "Life of Chas. T. Walker" as follows: "Richmond County, one of the largest 'Black Belt' counties of Georgia, which had then, and which has to this day, a larger black than white population, was in no respect different in its slave customs and regulations from other slave communities, excepting possibly, the religious privileges enjoyed by the slaves. They had their own churches and enjoyed for the most part the ministrations of colored preachers, such as they were. They had their own houses of worship, their own church officials, and held regular and stated religious meetings. This was true in only a very limited number of places in the South during the slave period."

Writing recently on this phase of our subject Rev. Dr. R. H. Boyd said, "They (the slaves) accepted this condition more than 100 years ago and as opportunities have presented themselves they have continued to cultivate this fellowship and union (among themselves), being isolated from their brethren. Negro Baptists, wherever they were allowed, formed churches of their own. However they were landmark, Simon-pure, regular Baptists."

Great and gifted characters and the impressions they made
At first the separate Negro churches were under white ministers but gradually as certain men among these members developed lives of great piety, and manifested the gift of exhorting and preaching they were allowed to hold meetings, to preach and finally to pastor. A striking example of this kind is found in Whitted's History of Negro Baptists in North Carolina." It is as follows: "There were but few Negro Baptist preachers before the war. The first we have any knowledge of was 'Uncle Harry Cowan,' as he was known at that time. He was the servant of Thos. L. Cowan. His master being present at a funeral was so struck with his gift to preach God's word that he granted him 'privilege papers' to preach anywhere on his four plantations. His papers were fixed up by a lawyer and read thus: 'This is to certify that whosoever is interested about my man Harry he has the privilege to preach, and may also baptize anyone who makes a profession of faith.' His success was so wonderful and so much of the confidence of his master was imposed in him his privileges were soon extended, and he was not only allowed to preach on his master's 'plantation,' but wherever he was promised 'protection.'......During the struggle in arms between the North and South he was the body-servant of Gen. Joseph Johnston, and preached every night during the struggle except the night when Gen. Stonewall Jackson fell in battle." Thus it was that God started a race of ignorant, cruelly-oppressed slaves toward a higher Christian civilization.

Negro Baptist history fragmentary and why?
That this history of the beginning of Negro Baptists is but fragmentary is due to the conditions described in the foregoing. First, the fact that generally gatherings among them for religious purposes were "unlawful," made it highly essential that everything should be done in secret and that no records be kept. Secondly, where meetings were allowed as a rule, they were under the direction of the whites, and then no records would appear, except when they marked some remarkable incident or character. Thirdly, in the limited number of districts, where Negro churches with Negro pastors were allowed, except in the rarest cases, there was no one prepared to make the records; hence, a history of these churches is almost always tradition.

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved