"And the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?
"And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
"And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.
"And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more."--ACTS viii. 36-39.
IT is truly said by Dr. Benedict that a mysterious Providence has permitted a large portion of the sons of Africa to be transported from their native country to America, and here to have been reduced to a state of absolute and (so far as human intent could control) perpetual slavery; but He who can bring good out of evil has overruled this calamity for their spiritual advantage.
In the good providence of God a colored man named George Liele,1 born in Virginia about the year 1750, removed to Georgia with his master, Mr. Henry Sharpe, some time before the Revolutionary war. They settled in Burke County, and his owner being a Baptist and deacon of a church of which Rev. Matthew Moore was pastor, Brother George became converted under his preaching about 1774, and was brought to rejoice in the Lord Jesus through faith; and not long after was baptized by Mr. Moore and received into his church. Soon discovering that he was endowed with ministerial gifts, the church approbated the exercising of them, and he began to preach upon the neighboring plantations along the Savannah River with much success, and sometimes he preached in the evenings of Lord's Day to the church (white) to which be belonged. For about three years he occasionally came down the river as far as Brampton, a plantation belonging to Jonathan Bryan, Esq., and preached to his slaves; he, being a liberal master, encouraged these visits. He frequently extended these visits to the city of Savannah, and preached at Yamacraw, in the western suburbs.
What converts he made, if any, during this time we have no information of, but his master and brother in Christ thought so well of him that he gave him his freedom. The war coming on of course stopped his preaching, and he remained in the family until the death of Mr. Sharpe, who was killed in the war. Brother George then went free, though some of the heirs, not being satisfied, threw him into prison; but on showing his free papers he was released. Colonel Kirkland, of the British army, who befriended him in this trouble, then advised him to leave the country with him when they evacuated; and, being an indentured servant to him for money which he owed, he departed the country for the island of Jamaica, in the West Indies, some time in July, 1783.
The vessel in which Brother George embarked for Kingston, on that island, was detained at the mouth of the Savannah River, near Tybee Island, for some weeks, the wind and weather not permitting her to sail. While detained there he came up to the city, by the providence of God, and baptized Andrew Bryan and his wife Hannah, Kate Hogg, and Hagar Simpson,--all colored persons and slaves,--thus closing his labors in this part of the Lord's vineyard. He soon after left, and was seen no more in those parts.
About nine months after his baptism Brother Andrew Bryan began to exhort his brethren, friends, and a few white persons who would assemble to hear him. Previous to his public exhortations, prayer meetings were held on the master's plantation at Brampton, three miles west of the city; and under the influence of these meetings the man's faith grew and prepared the minister. The power and spirit of these exhortations were of such a character that his master and some few others saw it was a matter to be encouraged, as the seeming influence upon the servants for good was apparent. Therefore Mr. Edward Davis permitted him and his hearers to erect a rough wooden building on his land in Yamacraw, and for about three years they enjoyed the inestimable blessing of worshipping God freely,--the one single liberty for his good then allowed to a negro.
We must now go back and review the earlier religious condition of this part of the State briefly. The Wesleys had come and preached, under the auspices of the Episcopalian Church of England, in 1735, and after they returned to England Mr. George Whitefield came to Savannah, arriving on the 7th of May, 1738. He preached but four months, then returned to England to solicit aid in establishing an Orphan House, which, on his return, he commenced to erect on the 25th of March, 1740, calling the same Bethesda ("house of mercy"). There had also been some attempts to found a Lutheran church--and some missionary work had been done between Savannah and Ebenezer,2 in Effingham County, on the Savannah River--by Rev. John Martin Bolzius and Rev. Israel Christian Gronau as early as 1775. The Enhaw Baptist Church existed over in Beaufort district, South Carolina, some thirty miles off, but seemingly there was but little influence felt from that source. In the year 1757 one of Mr. Whitefield's assistants at the Orphan House, named Nicholas Bedgegood, embraced the faith of the Baptists, and was baptized by a Mr. Oliver Hart, of Charleston, soon after; and in 1763, six years later, he in turn baptized Mr. Benjamin Stirk and wife, Thomas Dixon, and one Dupree,--all white persons. These, with a few other Baptists (emigrants from the old country, no doubt), had the Lord's Supper administered to them at the Orphan House, nine miles south of the city, by Mr. Bedgegood; but this little society, it seems, soon scattered and no permanent organization of the Baptists came of them, much to the relief of Mr. Whitefield, it is said, who was much opposed to this Baptist interest growing up in the midst of his work.
We note these efforts and their failure right here, as by them we may see God's sovereign will in giving the negro preference, and shall by and by revert to them again.
These humble slave worshippers statedly met at their meeting-house, as it was called; and the good seed sown by the good Lord, through the instrumentality of Brother George Liele, began to spring up and bear fruit. Mr. Bryan, like "Andrew who first findeth his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus," was instrumental in converting his brother, Sampson Bryan, about the beginning of his ministry, and they, being visited by an aged minister named Thomas Burton, soon after Sampson and seventeen others of Mr. Bryan's converts were baptized, upon a credible profession of their faith in Christ. This number, however, is not an indication of the extent of his success, for many who may have been converted could not receive this ordinance, being so bound by the power of slavery that they required the consent of their masters in writing to enable them to obey God and satisfy this earnest religious desire of the soul. This small beginning seemed to have commenced in the year 1785, about the time that a religious revival was going on higher up in the State, and about the time the first association was organized; and the little nucleus for the church had to learn to labor in patience and to wait. Their progress was slow; there could be no regularity in their meetings; they had to bide their time and opportunity to serve the Lord. Here was the period when the system ever since known as the Society on each plantation was inaugurated,--that is, one brother was appointed as a watchman to open and lead the prayer-meeting at such place as the few believers and seekers after Jesus came together. Sometimes it was in the watchman's house, and often had to be in the swamp, when prohibition was made by the owner or overseer of the plantation; for be it remembered that the majority of those preached to by Mr. Bryan were from and of the rice and indigo plantations along the Savannah River; and only when tickets of permission were given to them to visit the city could they attend these preachings. On these occasions might be seen numbers of cypress log dugouts, called by the Indian name canoe, paddling down and up the river on the Sabbath mornings and evenings. Those of the city and suburban farms had, of course, better opportunities of attending oftener; yet all were under the necessity of procuring passes from their owners or employers, the river and roads being patrolled by the county militia-men, and a severe castigation would be the penalty if found without such pass. Thus the progress of religion may only seem slow when, in 1788, about three years after the visit of Rev. Thomas Burton, they were again visited by Rev. Abraham Marshall, of Kioke, accompanied by a young preacher of color, named Jesse Golphin. Mr. Marshall baptized forty-five more of the congregation in one day, and on the 20th of January, 1788, organized them into a church, and ordained Mr. Bryan to the ministry as their pastor, with full authority to preach the gospel and administer the ordinances of Christ.
Thus was the church struggling in embryo for about five years, and, being now fully and "fitly framed together for an habitation of God through the spirit,"3 their faith was now to be put to a severe test; that "the trial of your faith, being more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ."4 Joyous in this only privilege allowed, with much pride they gathered on the Lord's Day in their rough house of worship, in the suburbs of the city, singing the songs of Zion, making melody in their hearts. There had ever been opposition to any other religious worship save the Episcopal and Lutheran, the only existing churches founded with the colony, and the Presbyterians, planted by the Rev. George Whitefield, all Pedobaptists, so that as this Church grew and began to flourish, oft appearing at the Savannah River administering the ordinance of baptism, they met with various annoyances at first, which was patiently borne almost in silence; but the opposition grew stronger and their trials greater. Frequent, then, became the whipping of individual members by the patrol on the plea of not having proper tickets-of-leave, which finally culminated in the arrest and punishment of a large part of the members, all of whom were severely whipped; but Rev. Andrew Bryan, their pastor, and his brother, Sampson Bryan, one of the first deacons, were inhumanly cut, and their backs were so lacerated that their blood ran down to the earth, as they, with uplifted hands, cried unto the Lord; and this first negro Baptist pastor, while under this torture, declared to his persecutors "that he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ."
The brothers, Andrew and Sampson, with their backs bleeding, accused of evil designs against the whites or of plotting insurrection, as charged by their accusers, were with some fifty others locked up in prison and their meeting-house taken away from them. This was about the year 1789 or 1790. Mr. Jonathan Bryan, the master of Andrew and Sampson, interceded for these persecuted Christians, fully believing that they were martyrs to prejudice and wickedness.
They were examined by the Justices of the Inferior Court of Chatham County,--Henry Osbourne, James Habersham, and David Montague,--who found them innocent and released them. It is but just to say that many of the owners of these humble Christian slaves were indignant at the barbarous manner their servants were treated, and so freely expressed themselves; and Mr. Jonathan Bryan allowed them to resume their worship upon his plantation, and gave them the use of his barn. Yet even here, upon private property, they were followed and watched during their nightly prayer-meetings, when they did not see these eaves-droppers, and though protected and defended by several generous whites, who felt that they were earnest in their purpose of the worship of God, their enemies, nevertheless, kept up a continuous system of espionage around the church or barn, until at a time when one of their number was eavesdropping at Rev. Mr. Bryan's private house, he heard this pious servant of God praying earnestly for the very men who had so mercilessly whipped him.5 Struck with surprise, conviction, and fear, no doubt through the spirit of God, he reported the same, which enlisted great sympathy about the county, and thereafter permission was granted them by the Chief-Justice, Henry Osbourne, to continue their worship any time between sunrise and sunset.
They held meetings at Brampton about two years, and in this interval of peace and quietude they made some influential white friends. Aid in money by his people and friends, to rebuild, was given Mr. Bryan, and he succeeded in purchasing the lot upon which the church now stands, and in the latter part of 1794 began the erection of a church building. Meetings were being held also occasionally in the city suburbs; however, this year, in a temporary shelter, built upon a lot given for the purpose to Mr. Bryan by Thomas Gibbons, Esq. This lot is situated on what is now known as Mill Street, running to Indian Street Lane.6
"ABSTRACT SHOWING, SO FAR AS THE SAME APPEARS OF RECORD, THE INTEREST OF ANDREW BRYAN IN LOT NO. 12, NORTH OGLETHORPE WARD.
"This lot was conveyed in 1789 by Jacob C. Waldhauer to Thomas Gibbons, and by Thomas Gibbons, on June 1st 1790 to 'Free Andrew.'--H 168, 170.
"On May 30, 1816, Andrew Marshall receipted to James Morrison, for the use of Delia, a free person of Color, for $210, being the purchase money of One-fourth of this lot, and agreed to make titles on his return from the North. Whether or Not he ever made titles does not appear from the records.--GG 93.
"On Oct 5th 1812 Fanny Bryan conveyed to Richard Richardson, guardian of Andrew Marshall, One-fourth of lot No 12 Originally purchased by Andrew Bryan from Thomas Gibbons, and by Andrew Bryan conveyed to Fanny Bryan,--so recited in this deed; but the conveyance from Andrew Bryan to Fanny Bryan is not recorded.--LL 19."
While greatly troubled with these persecutions and removals, they seemed to have some anxiety of mind in another direction. Here they were alone, no association with other religious bodies; enemies questioning the validity of their organization as a church, as well as the ordination of the pastor; some weak members of the body feeling, if we are truly a church of Christ, why all these troubles? There was but one Baptist association then existing in Georgia. Rev. Abraham Marshall, who organized them and ordained their pastor, was a member of that body. The Georgia Association was organized in 1784. Its operations were in the upper part of the State, not easy of communication. It met at Brier Creek, in Burke County, about ninety miles from their church, in May, 1790, and a letter was sent from the church asking their opinion as to the validity of the constitution of their church and the ordination of their minister, Rev. Andrew Bryan, which had been effected two years before by Rev. Abraham Marshall alone. To which they gave answer, that as it was an extraordinary case they gave their sanction.
Providentially, Mr. Marshall himself was moderator of this association at this particular session, and explained the embarrassment under which he labored. He said, "There I was alone, and no other minister within call. I felt it might appear an assumption of episcopal power; yet all things were ripe, and the interesting body of converts was suffering for want of organization and an administrator. The thing wanted doing, and I did it." And all has worked well. From that time until 1795 the church was a member of the Georgia Association, and was only dismissed, with twenty-three other churches, to form a new interest. At this meeting her membership, as reported, was three hundred and eighty-one, notwithstanding they were passing through fiery trials at this period.
The church was now encamped at Brampton's barn, with some degree of peaceful worship. Their late suffering from persecution having become known in the city and county, their patience, fortitude, and faith fully tried, elicited some sympathy from the better-thinking white citizens. Yet their Christian life was so beset with fears of other persecutions that it was finally resolved to appeal to the authorities.
An extensive petition was drawn up for them by an able and influential lawyer, Lachlan McIntosh, Esq. Mr. Bryan took this document and commenced a pilgrimage to the leading men of the city and county, asking their endorsement, which is here copied verbatim from the original, now in our possession.
"TO THE HONBLE THE MAYOR AND ALDERMEN OF
THE CITY OF SAVANNAH.
"The petition of sundry of the citizens humbly sheweth--
"That the Negroes and Slaves, by the assistance of many of the Friends of Religion in Savannah, in different parts of the State, and from in the state of So Carolina, at some expence & trouble, have erected a meeting House, and have been regularly supplied with a Pastor, extreamly well adapted to their capacities and situations, and who is better qualified to instruct them in the duties of thier states then any other person would be, though of greater Abilities--
"The influence of vital religion on the human Heart, in every rank and situation of life, and invariable tendency, in proportion to its operation, is to subdue the turbulent passions--promote a spirit of meekness & moderation--A contentment with the lot and situation--A resignation to the will of Providence, as ordering & directing all the events of this life by unerring wisdom and for the most possitive good of the creature--
"That ever since the society has been established it has been a standing rule to admit none who have not only the Approbation but the recommendation of thier Masters for thier good morals & faithfull behaviour--as individuals and a Society, they have been eminent for thier orderly conduct at the place of thier meeting--for thier meek and inoffensive carriage towards the Citizens--for thier submission & obedient behaviour to thier Masters and Mistresses. From the strict discipline that is kept up, if we may judge from the past, there is the most rational grounds for insuring the same peaceable & quiet behaviour in future--
"Your Petitioners, from personal knowledge, are fully satisfied that there are many instances in the City and Neighborhood of Savannah of bad and evil disposed Negroes & Slaves, who have been detected in thier villainies, and it seemed out of the power of the several punishment to deter them from a repetition of thier crimes; but since thier becoming members of Andrew's Society, and thier attendance on his preaching have been entirely reclaimed; they have given the highest proofs of the happy tendency of religion in the humblest situation, on the smallest capacities, and of some desperately wicked, and notorious for almost every vice, becoming the most valuable & trusty slaves thier Masters have in their possession--
"From the irreproachable character thier Pastor has long maintained together with his Deacons & Elders, they have deservedly great influence over this society. Thier being under the inspection of one of the most numerous Denominations in America. The evidence they have long given in thier daily walk and conversation in thier lives and characters, of the purity & the excellency of the Doctrines they possess. The desire they have to assemble is to get good, to become better slaves & better Christians--It would seem that a society from such motives, and regulated by such principals, could never interrupt the peace of the City--If your Petitioners might be permitted to express thier own thoughts, from these facts, in opposition to the suspicions which some people may seem to harbor--that if this society should be permitted to Assemble themselves for the purpose of Religious worship, they will pervert the privilege for base ends--for disorder & Confusion--and to give unnecessary alarms to the Citizens, are altogether groundless. Besides if there should be any disorder brooding from this quarter, thier Pastors, Deacons, and leading members would be the first to receive and the best to depend upon, for every information--So that from motives of policy it would be the highest wisdom, to attach rather than alienate the interest of the leading members, & they would be found to be usefull & valuable instruments in the hands of the Honble Council, in cases of real emergency--It has been hinted by some of the friends, in favour of the prohibition, that the Doors of the different Churches in the City should be opened to them--This would be impracticable for it is known that when they are assembled in large numbers, from constitutional peculiarities, they are extreamly disagreeable to every audience. There seems therefore no other alternative, but, either, to permit them to assemble at thier own house, and in thier own way, or entirely deprive them the privilege of attending public worship. This we presume the Honorable Council would not do. Your petitioners therefore humbly pray that a society of Christians, that have walked hitherto with so much order and decorum, who have been so eminently exemplary by thier inoffensive lives & Conversations, and have given such ample testimony of thier purity, & the influence of the doctrines they profess may no longer be deprived of the privilege of worshiping the God of thier existence, according to the dictates of their consciences and in thier own way. And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray &c &c--
As before said, Thomas Gibbons conveyed to Andrew Bryan, or, as stated in the deed, Free Andrew, Lot No. 12, North Oglethorpe Ward, bounded now by Mill Street on the south and Indian Street Lane on the north, and about midway between Ann and Farm Streets. The titles bear date June 1, 1790 and 1791. Mr. Bryan and his people erected another rough wooden building upon this lot in the city, where the church worshipped the next year at special times. Those members upon the plantations along the Savannah River still meeting for communion at Brampton every three months.
These periodic meetings continued during the years 1791 and 1792, their petition being in the hands of the city authorities; the then place of meeting being within the extended limits of the city, and near the suburban village of "St. Gall," though at that time it was called in the woods, so thickly was it surrounded with shrubbery. About this time, through the kind feelings of the owner of Mr. Bryan, he had obtained his freedom for a nominal consideration, and commanding his own time, he of course devoted it exclusively to the work of his ministry. In moving around in the community he always appeared decently clothed, grave, but very polite, especially to the whites; and thus by his general deportment gathered toward him many influential friends; and, therefore, through Messrs. William Bryan and James Whitfield, as trustees, he purchased for thirty pounds sterling, equal to about one hundred and fifty dollars, Lot No. 7, Middle Oglethorpe Ward, ninety-five feet front and one hundred and thirty-two and a half feet deep, upon which this church now stands. The deeds are dated September 4, 1793, and conveyed by Matthew Mott and Catharine, his wife.
"ABSTRACT RELATING TO NO. 7 MIDDLE OGLETHORPE WARD, ON SOUTH SIDE OF BRYAN ST., WHEREON THE CHURCH STANDS.
"This lot appears for the first time in the records of deeds of this County, on Sept 4, 1793, when Matthew Mott and Catharine his wife convey it, for the price of thirty pounds, equal to $150, to Wm Bryan and James Whitfield, 'in trust for a free black man called and known by the name of Andrew Bryan, a preacher of the Gospel by lawful authority ordained' The description given of the lot is in these words 'All that lot of land known as No. 7 in the Village of St Gall, fronting Bryan or Odingsell Street, 95 feet front 132 1/2 feet deep, and bounded West and South by land of the late Dr. Zubly, deceased, East on a lot of Richard Williams, deceased, North on the Main Street leading from Yamacraw to the brick Meeting house.--N. 117.'
"No further mention is made of this lot until 1840, When Edward Coppee, who appears to be the Surviving Trustee, appoints Wm W Wash, Richard D. Arnold and Abram Harrison as Co-trustees to hold the property with him. The facts are briefly described in the deed as follows: 'On July 3, 1797, Andrew Bryan, a free black man and preacher of the gospel by lawful authority ordained conveyed to Thos. Polhill, Wm Matthews, David Fox and Josiah Fox, in trust for the use of the Baptist Church of Blacks, of which Said Andrew Bryan was pastor, one equal moiety being the half of the lot (described in this abstract). Thomas Polhill and David and Josiah Fox died, and Wm Matthews, the Survivor, by Virtue of the power and authority contained in the original deed of trust from Andrew Bryan, on Dec 6, 1824 appointed Moses Cleland, Josiah Penfield, and Edward Coppee as Trustees in the place of the three deceased. Edward Coppee is now the Sole Survivor of the four last named Trustees, and appoints the three persons mentioned in this deed,--W. W. Wash, R. D. Arnold & Abram Harrison in the place of the three deceased ones.--3 L 279.'
"In 1867 R D Arnold, Farley R. Sweat, and Lewis C. Tebean, Trustees, transferred the property to Alex Harris & others, Trustees, and here the history ends, in records of deeds &c, except as to Mortgages given upon the property, which are all marked concelled.--3 Z 26.
"It appears from the foregoing that Andrew Bryan conveyed only one half of the lot, in trust for church purposes. The other half appears for the first time in a deed made in 1884 by the Extrs of Edwin T. Winkler, who was one of the heirs of Shadrach Winkler, to Chas H. Ehlers. How Shadrach Winkler became the owner, I cannot discover--No deed conveying it to him appears of record.--5 M 1 Z 1.
Manager Abst of Title Office"June 21st 18877"
Upon the east end of this lot Mr. Bryan erected a small wooden building for his residence, and removed into it with his family in 1794, and soon after commenced the erection of a church edifice, forty-two by forty-nine feet. About the same time the rough building worshipped in was rolled over to this Lot No. 7, and placed at the southern portion of the ground, near the centre of the east and west line. Those positions are defined thus strictly, as they will show the care of the old leader to have his meetings as little conspicuous as possible. The whole lot was enclosed by a high board fence, and the residence and meeting-houses were all inside the enclosure, the entrance being from the northwest end by a gate.
It will be borne in mind that Mr. Bryan held meetings under the permission of Chief-Justice Osbourne, while at Brampton, from which the church had now removed to the city. Their meetings here were held merely by sufferance of the patrol officers of the county, under individual certificates from the owners of the persons who attended worship, and the then known favorable opinion held by the community of the spirit and purpose of these meetings and their pastor's popularity; but with all this, they met under great fear and trembling. And so there gathered on the Lord's Day a few who lived in the city, and about four times a year the members from the country, when baptism and communion were administered, until 1795, and the big meeting-house, as it was then called by the people in just pride at the peace and privilege they enjoyed, was completed.
It was slow in building, as facilities for getting materials were difficult; but the framing timber was good and solid, hewed out in the forest by its members, and the weather-boarding was all neatly planed smooth. The building was very plain, without any attempt at architectural beauty, almost square and box-like, high pitched roof, with small windows; one wide door in the west centre of the building, and two smaller doors near each end on the south side, leading into the open space of the lot between the praise-house, as the smaller building was then called, and the pulpit in the east centre, built very plain, shaped like an acorn, with a raise from the floor of about three feet, plain board front, a neat cushioned pad for the Bible, and board seat which would accommodate three. No part of the building inside was ceiled, rafters and studs in their rough state, straight-back pews without doors; and the only pretension to neatness was in the smoothing of the backs and seats and rounding and beading the edges and tops. No part of the building was painted or whitewashed, but plain and pure as from the carpenter's hands.
Who can estimate the anxious cares, the simple but fervent prayers, connected with the labor of erecting this building? The men at work were greatly encouraged by the sisters, who would at times even assist in the work, holding up the ends of the boards while the workmen scribed, cut, and nailed, as some of those old Christian sisters, in after years, describing these times, have told us. But, oh, joy to the heart! praise to the Lord! the building is finished, and the church has rest from persecution or molestation in their Sabbath-day worship. And so, without any other formal ceremony, save an earnest dedicatory prayer of thanks-giving by their administrator and pastor, the males clad in their best garments, the elder females with snow-white aprons and neck and head handkerchiefs, standing in grave and silent awe while the throne of grace was being addressed, they entered and possessed the first sanctuary dedicated to Christ Jesus by the Hamite race in Georgia.
In this chapter we have seen the incipient planting of this the first negro Baptist church in this State (and it may be in the United States), its early growth, and the attempts made to uproot it; its transplanting at Brampton, and again temporarily on Mill Street; the storms of sorrow through which it passed, the fiery furnace in which it was tried and purified, then weighed in the balance, but not found wanting, and we may now proceed to examine its growth.
1 Benedict's History, 1813, vol. ii. pp. 194, 195.
2 The Saulbergers and their Descendants," by Rev. P. A. Strobel, p. 94.
3 Eph. ii. 21, 22.
4 1 Peter i. 7.
5 I have heard this circumstance related often by Rev. A. Marshall, in his reference to the past in his sermons--[ED.]
6 Abstract of Title recorded in the Supreme Court of Chatham County, Book H, folio 168-170, GG 93, LL 19. By I. Beckett.
7 Records of the Superior Court of Chatham County, Book N, 117.
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