THE WORK OF THE AMERICAN BAPTIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY AMONG THE COLORED PEOPLE
BY S. N. VASS, D. D., SUPERINTENDENT FOR COLORED WORK.
The first service rendered by the American Baptist Publication Society to the Negro people was when the race was still in slavery and unable to help itself. It is a fact that needs no long argument to prove that the Southern white people were, in thousands of cases, very kind and considerate of their slaves, and taught our people their first lessons in Christianity, in many instances gathering them into Sunday-schools, and encouraging them to connect themselves with churches. The result was that at emancipation there were hundreds of churches among the colored people, while still others worshipped with the white people. The Baptist Publication Society was an important factor among the white Baptists in those early days, for it must be remembered that the Society was organized on Southern soil, and Southern Baptists had no other publishing house for years but the Society. It is safe to say that the Society with its tracts and broadening literature, must have contributed very largely to the triumph of spirit over flesh in the master, thus leading him to treat his slaves with kindness, and finally to teach them to know Jesus. In those days noble Southern white people by the hundreds had such interest in their former slaves as to labor to their utmost to save them.
When the race was in slavery the Society was not the strong organization that it is today, but it made the largest use of its limited resources. As soon as the slaves were liberated their condition was so deplorable as to secure for them the sympathies of the Northern people, and the officers of the Society began to see as never before the service God would have them render. At that time Dr. Benjamin Griffith was the General Secretary, and a more sincere and helpful friend the colored people never had. He saw the colored race as the most needful and at the same time the most promising mission field in America. His convictions were so strong that he succeeded in interesting others, using his personal friendships and family relations to make friends for the race and thus secure means to carry out his program of help. The Crozers and Bucknells came to his assistance and by their princely donations, and by the gifts of many others, the Society was for the first time placed upon a permanent and safe basis for the great work it has accomplished since that time. It is exceedingly probable that the Society would never have been the power it is today, unless God had moved upon the hearts of Dr. Griffith and a few others in the North to build up great resources and strength in order that the Society might render the necessary help to the Colored people, and also the white people in the impoverished Southland. Strictly speaking, the great work of the Society began after the slaves were set free. Thus the immense resources of the Society tell the story of the great interest of the Society in the freedmen, and of the great work undertaken in their behalf.
If success ever crowned the efforts of any agency at work among the Colored people it crowned those of the Baptist Publication Society. As to how helpful it has proven to the race, and just the part it has taken in bringing about the unprecedented progress of the race, the persons most competent to bear witness are the leaders of the Negro race.
In bearing the greetings of the Negro Baptists to the American Baptist Publication Society in its annual session at Dayton, O., 1906, Dr. E. W. D. Isaac, one of the most distinguished and experienced leaders of the Negro race made use of these words: "It is difficult to find a Negro Baptist preacher who has not been helped in some way by this Society, and who does not stand ready and willing to acknowledge the good it has done to him." It is a strong statement, but wholly endorsed by all Negro Baptist preachers North and South. If this is so, it tells a great tale in a few words, for the Negro preachers have ever been the leaders among the people, and to help them was the surest and best way to help the people. Since Dr. Griffith made the start of helping Negro preachers with gifts of books suitable to prepare them to discharge their duties more faithfully and intelligently, more than a half million dollars have been expended in gifts to the poor, especially the poor preachers of the Negro race, for this work started with our freedom. Over ten thousand preachers have been thus helped with libraries worth $20 each upon an average. These books went into the hands of men in charge of churches and who had great influence over the people. They shaped their preaching, and helped the people to better living in their homes.
It is a notorious fact that but few of the preachers forty years ago had any training in school to speak of, and thousands owe nearly all their stock of knowledge to the work of the Society.
The Sunday-school missionary work of the Society started in 1867, and since that time nearly fifteen thousand schools have been organized, and these were largely among the Colored people. The result is that the Negro race is better provided with Sunday-schools than any race in America. This fact shows how thoroughly and wisely the Society did its work. This work of organizing fell into the hands of able Negro leaders appointed by the Society to prosecute it, and they succeeded most handsomely in their work. They succeeded the more because of the thirst of the Negro race for light and knowledge, and the Sunday-school offered them the best chance to learn. As a general thing these schools did the work of the day school. Thousands learned how to read and write in them, and many of these men became preachers and are among the leaders of the people. The Sunday-schools have contributed largely toward the general intelligence of the race, and the Society took care of this work almost alone for years and years, and is even now supporting it and rendering invaluable aid in this direction.
The work of the Society has been among the people, the masses and the leaders. It has gone to the people, and has not waited for the people to come to the Society, nor even to the church and Sunday-school. It has gone into their homes and around the fireside, and by its excellent publications, and by its colporteurs and through its missionaries, it has instructed and inspired the people.
The Publication Society has taken an important part in the organization of nearly all kinds of Negro Baptist bodies. It started with Sunday-schools. These afterwards grew into Baptist churches. These churches banded themselves together into associations, later on into State Conventions, and finally into National Conventions. The very first State Convention was organized through the efforts of the Sunday-school missionary of the Society in North Carolina, whose name was Rev. Edward Eagles. The State Convention in South Carolina was planned and organized by Dr. E. M. Brawley who was the Society's missionary at the time. Even in cases where the actual missionaries of the Society did not organize the convention, they either took important part, or others were inspired through their efforts to do so.
The organization of state Sunday-school conventions and county and district Sunday-school bodies as a general things represents the direct work of the Society. In North Carolina, Dr. A. Shepard, the Society's missionary effected the organization. In Virginia, Dr. Walter H. Brooks took the lead in doing the same work while in the service of the Society. In Georgia, Dr. W. J. White at one time, and Dr. E. K. Love at another looked after church and Sunday-school work. In Alabama, Dr. C. O. Boothe, later Dr. R. T. Pollard and others; in Texas Dr. E. W. D. Isaac and others; in Louisiana by Dr. W. H. Brooks and Dr. S. T. Clanton; in Kentucky Wm. H. Steward. We might go on and name some of the most distinguished men in the race that were in the service of the Society, men of ability, who gave a good account of themselves, the Society being the power behind them. Finally when the National Convention was organized the representative of the Society, Dr. E. M. Brawley, rendered great help to Dr. Simmons in organizing the body and this was later on rewarded by his election as the second president of the body.
The Baptist Publication Society has all the time believed in organizing the Negro Baptists for work. It realized that eventually they would have to take care of their own mission and educational work, and it has tried to help the race to help itself, not help the race to work apart from the Society but in cooperation with it, as long as possible. To show how wise it was in this plan, one single preacher in North Carolina is said to have been so inspired by the organization of the state work that in his life time he is credited with having organized some three hundred or more churches and Sunday-schools. Much of this indirect work was done by the Society, perhaps the largest part of its service after all was the inspiring others to take up the work.
After these bodies had been organized, they very naturally drifted into educational rather than Sunday-school missionary organizations, by reason of the fact that the public schools of the South did not meet the educational needs of the race. But though Negro Baptists ought by now to be able to take over their own Sunday-school missionary work and bear all the expenses of the same, there is hardly a convention in the country that is fully meeting this need, and if these conventions were the only dependence for carrying forward aggressive Sunday-school mission work, the cause would greatly suffer. The fact is that nearly every convention is engaged in raising money to establish and support some institution of learning, these conventions are doing great good in this way, but are not doing as much as they ought to do for Sunday-school work. The Publication Society had noted this condition, and realizing the need of both Sunday-school and regular school work, it is helping in both as best it can, by providing missionaries to do the Sunday-school work while the conventions devote their money to school work. Thus the Society deserves much credit for the educational work that has sprung up among us in almost every county in the South. These schools may not do much but they are a hopeful sign. The Society still works through the Sunday-school as the hope of the race. It is in fact a great university with millions of Negro children as scholars in every part of the country. It sees such great possibilities yet for the race that it is still working to organize every inch of territory. Fifty-two Sundays in the year represent fifty-two days in school, the best school on earth. The average school for Negroes is not as long as this, and after all it is a question as to whether the Society is not doing more to educate the masses of the Negro children than the public schools. Certainly it is doing far more to teach right ideas of character and life.
When the work first started among the colored people, reliance had to be placed upon preachers chiefly to reach the people, and the children had to be taught in the Sunday-school. Now the general intelligence of the race has increased to such an extent that there are thousands who are greatly influenced by literature, good or bad, and the grown people of today also supply many such readers. The older people are passing away. A new generation is upon the stage, and the Sunday-school offers a means of reaching this "New Negro" even better than the pulpit.
It has come to pass therefore that in addition to its colporteur, tract and publishing work, the Society is especially addressing itself to save the young Negro, and is using the Sunday-school, the Sunday-School and Bible institute and Correspondence Training School to help to that end. It employs a superintendent of field work among the colored people, who, in cooperation with the Sunday-school missionaries of the Society in the different States, and also in cooperation with workers from other bodies in all the states, is devoting his entire time to improving the condition of the schools already established, inspiring the teachers and workers and all other Christians who attend Bible institutes held in every part of the country to study the Bible more thoroughly. The method employed is to gather the people into institutes to hear normal lectures on the Bible which, while given in the simplest possible way, illustrate and enforce at the same time methods of study and teaching, and also impart a knowledge of the Bible. This is a kind of work that the Negro people are not able to carry on for themselves, and the Society is rendering an invaluable aid to the race by supporting these workers on the field.
Dr. A. J. Rowland is the General Secretary of the Society, and the Missionary and Bible Secretary is Dr. Robert G. Seymour. Both of these men have a noble record of interest and helpfulness to the Negro race, Dr. Seymour being perhaps the first Northern man to begin a school for Negroes in Louisiana after Emancipation. Dr. Rowland has manifested the keenest interest in all that concerned the race, and is such a sincere friend of the race that he takes the risk of being misunderstood by the few, knowing that time will bring them around to his way of thinking. He has ever stood for self-help on the part of the race, but he believes this can be wisely done without pursuing a course that would alienate the friends of the race either in the North or the South.
Space will not allow a full account of the work of this great society for the Negro race, but everything possible has been done, and much has been possible. It is almost, if not quiet true, that the Society has done a better work for the Negro people than for the white people. If it could only have impressed itself and its work upon the white races in this country as it has upon the Colored people, the outlook would be a thousand times better today. But what does this fact mean to us? It means that we should ever love and support this great institution, and teach our children to love and help it help others, for perhaps there is not another body in the world that has done as much to help the whole race rise to our present position of progress and hope.
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