committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs











We come now to tell of the first Negro Baptist churches, and of those who laid the foundations. For the third reason given in closing the preceding chapter, we do not find it possible to write as fully as we desire on this chapter. We are indebted to Dr. W. Bishop Johnson, of Washington, D. C., for authentic information. The following is quoted from "The story of Negro Baptists" written by him for the "National Baptist Union" of January 30, 1909.

Pioneer organizations still thriving
"The earliest church organization among them (colored Baptists) was the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Ga., instituted January 20, 1788, at Brampton's barn, three miles west of Savannah, by Abraham Marshall (white) and Jesse Peter (colored). Its first pastor was George Lisle, who was liberated by Mr. Henry Sharp, of Burke County, Ga., and afterwards became pastor at Kingston, Jamaica. The first fruit of this beginning was Andrew and Hannah, Bryan and Hagar. The four constituted the nucleus of colored Baptists in America. The First African Church multiplied until 1802, when on the 26th of December the Second Baptist Church (colored) was organized with two hundred members and January 2, 1803, another church was organized called the Ogeechee Colored Baptist Church, with 250 members. These organizations are still in existence with large and progressive memberships. In 1805 the Joy Baptist Church, Boston, Mass., was constituted; in 1808, the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York City, and in 1809, the First African Baptist Church, of Philadelphia, was organized, making the first churches in the North. The Nineteenth Street Baptist Church organized in 1839, was the first colored Baptist church in the District of Columbia, and it has a large, influential and progressive membership at this time.

A slave preacher of heroic mold
The First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Penn., was organized in June, 1809, with fifteen members. These being set apart as an independent church by the Old First Baptist Church (white). In an account of its recent centennial anniversary we find the following information: "During these one hundred years she (the First African Church) has had but seven pastors, all of whom have been men of exceptional ability. The first of these was Rev. Cunningham of Eastern Shore, Va., who, though a slave, pastored a band of faithful worshippers. His members asked his master to allow him to go North and raise money to purchase his freedom. This was refused unless he could furnish security. He was unable to do this, but two of his members, who were free-born, bound themselves into servitude in his stead that their pastor might come to the North and raise the necessary money.

"After Rev. Cunningham had succeeded in raising the money he so informed his bondsmen, and expressed his willingness to return; but they said, 'No! send us the money and we will satisfy the bond.' The money was sent, the bond satisfied, and the two bondsmen, with their families together with the family of Rev. Cunningham, left Eastern Shore and joined their pastor in Philadelphia. These three families formed the nucleus of the First African Baptist Church."

In Mississippi, the history of the first organizations is indeed singular. According to Thompson's History, the Rose Hill Baptist Church, Natchez, Miss., is a direct outgrowth from a church of a mixed membership, a majority of the members of which were colored. So numerous became the Negro portion of the congregation that they outnumbered the white membership, according to reliable information. It was necessary, therefore, to give them a more commodious house of worship and place of meeting. A Mr. Helms then gave to them a lot for a church site and they proceeded with the assistance of Mr. Helms and other sympathetic whites to build a church building which, out of their feeling of appreciation, they named Mt. Helm Baptist Church. Rev. Marion Dunbar was the pioneer pastor.

The first Negro Baptist Church in Tennessee was the Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, organized at Columbia, Tenn., Oct. 20, 1843. Seven members were in the organization, among whom were Rev. Richard R. Sanderson, who died recently at the age of 83 years, and Brother Dyer Johnson, the father of Prof. John Johnson, A. M., President of Roger Williams University, Nashville. Rev. Edmund Kelly was the pastor of this pioneer institution, which is to-day a progressive church with property valued at $15,000 and a membership of almost 200. Ten years later, 1853, Spruce Street Baptist Church of Nashville, was organized with Rev. Nelson G. Merry as pastor. Under the guiding hand of Rev. Merry it had a splendid rise and its members speak to-day with pride of its early history. This church has now a membership of 965, and property valued at $60,000.
Crude churches and rapid growth.

While we know that any statistics relative to the Negro Baptists at the close of the war are necessarily inaccurate, we have been informed that there were at that time 400,000 Negroes of that faith in the United States. Whatever the number, tradition and history tell us that as soon as the Emancipation Proclamation became effective these zealous Baptists soon formed themselves into crude churches. But what they had assimilated of doctrine and polity when with and under the ministration of the whites before the war, and the assistance they received from sympathetic whites then made rapid progress possible. Relieved of the restrictions which had been thrown around them, they gave God the glory and made the churches their rallying places, and poured out their souls in praise and thanksgiving. Hence, the early churches grew mightily in numbers and power, and no sacrifice was too great for them to make to build houses of worship, which they joyously called "Our own vine and fig-tree."

General organizations demanded
Like their white brethren these conscientious and loyal Negro Baptists found it necessary that their churches should affiliate and co-operate for the edification of all and for the spread of the gospel throughout the land. Consequently general organizations were soon organized. On this point we quote the following from an article by Dr. R. H. Boyd on "What are the Negro Baptists?" "When the Civil War gave the Negroes their liberty there was a spirit among a few eastern Baptists to allow them full privileges in missionary and educational organizations, but eventually these too, like their Southern brethren, felt that the Negro by environment, opportunity, association and affiliation was inferior and hence should take a secondary or inferior place. The leading Negro Baptists, imbued with the spirit of freedom and religious liberty, and accepting the situation thrust upon them, began to form district associations, state organizations, and finally felt the need of national organized movements for the purpose of forming acquaintances, better understanding church polity, gathering statistics, doing missionary, educational and publication work."

The first state bodies
We give here a few brief facts concerning the first associations and state conventions in several states to give some idea of the rapid development of the denomination. Dr. W. Bishop Johnson in the article before referred to gives the following information in this connection: "Perhaps the oldest organization among colored Baptists is the Wood River, of Illinois, organized in 1838. The first association in Louisiana was organized in 1865. The first state convention was organized in North Carolina in 1866; the second, in Alabama, and the third in Virginia in 1867; the fourth, in Arkansas in 1868; the fifth in Kentucky in 1869; the sixth was organized in Mississippi in 1869. The Missionary Baptist Convention, of Georgia, was organized May 13, 1870, at Central Baptist Church, Augusta, Ga. Eighty-six delegates were present and Rev. Frank Quarles, of Atlanta, was elected president.
The first association held in Mississippi was, according to Thompson's History, the Jackson Baptist Association, which was organized in the Mt. Helm Baptist Church, Jackson, Miss., about July 1868. Rev. Marion Dunbar was Moderator and Henry Mason, Clerk. From the authority just given we have the following statistics of this association: "In 1868 this body was organized with 400 members. During the seventies it had a representation of 125 churches, with a total membership of 8,576. During the eighties it had 101 churches, with a total membership of 6,435. During the nineties it had 71 churches, with a membership of 5,000. Money raised for all purposes since its organization, $6,180."

The Pioneers appreciate the needs
Other associations followed closely upon the Jackson meeting, and it is interesting to note how quickly these pioneer Negro Baptists grasped the situation and needs. In the proceedings of the First Baptist Antioch Association which met in December, 1868, we find the appointment of a Missionary Board, which was empowered to appoint missionaries and fix their salaries. Thus showing that they realized their responsibility in helping to carry out the great commission. The following resolution also appears in the record, showing that they were fully alive to the importance of the development of the young men, who aspired to preach the gospel: "Resolved, That we recommend to the pastors and elders of this association to pay more attention to their young preachers, by way of encouraging and instructing them in the teaching of divinity, and assisting them to understand both the literal and spiritual meaning of the Holy Scriptures."

On July 12, 1869, one year after the organization of the first associational gathering "The Baptist Missionary Convention," now known as "The General Baptist Missionary Convention of Mississippi," held its first session at Port Gibson. Revs. R. Pollard and H. P. Jacobs were elected temporary and permanent presidents, respectively. An account of this gathering appears in Thompson's History and shows prominent Baptist preachers from Missouri and Louisiana were visitors. The amount of money collected at the meetings was $308.64.

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved