committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

CHAPTER II.

 

        "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

        "But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

        "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; the leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper."--PSALM i. 1-3.

        THE Master, in his first sermon preached, logically put down the basis of judging the true disciples. He says, "Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. . . . Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them;"1 and we find the Church from this period going forth sowing gospel seed and bearing precious fruit. The years 1795-1796 were years of great activity among the Baptists in the upper parts of the State; and while the noble pioneers of the cause, Abraham Marshall, the Mercers, Walkers, and others, were carrying the blood-stained banner of the cross along the mountain country, Andrew Bryan was demonstrating an eternal truth that our "God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him," and that to the negro race it is given to carry and spread the gospel along the seaboard. Many were being added to this church, some of them being young colored men of intelligence and brightness, partaking much of the spirit of wisdom and understanding that characterized the Master whom they served; and their minds becoming illumined by their faith in Jesus, quickened by his Holy Spirit, their help to their pastor and usefulness in the church became apparent, and they became a power for good in this land, working helpfully and harmoniously for the peace and prosperity of the State and the glory of the kingdom of Christ.

        The few white Baptists in this and adjoining counties, seeing, no doubt, the efforts for Christ's cause made by these humble slaves,--the self-sacrifice, fortitude, and perseverance exhibited by them, while they, with superior conditions and advantages of life, had attempted the constitution of a Baptist interest earlier in the history of the State and failed,--now became inspired to make another attempt. By the preaching of Mr. Andrew Bryan, in 1789, the highly-gifted son of an Episcopal minister, Thomas Polhill, and his wife, became awakened, and were finally converted and baptized in Effingham County, the Lutheran stronghold.  Mr. Polhill, with some others, made the effort and succeeded so far as to procure a lot and erect partly a building on Franklin Square; but failing to secure enough members to organize a church, and their building but half completed, they for the time being again abandoned the constituting, and rented their building to the Presbyterians, who had just lost theirs by fire, and thus became worshippers with them. But this branch of God's right-hand planting was steadily evangelizing among the colored people, native born, in the city, the surrounding plantations, and among the Africans then being imported in numbers from their country to our shores and sold for plantation purpose, --very many of whom were early taught to know the true God and embrace his son Jesus Christ, and so lost their pall of deep sorrow in being torn ruthlessly away from home, kindred, and kind, into a seemingly inextricable bondage, mental and moral; but now, with this new light of the gospel in their benighted souls, being born again of God after passing through generations of idolatry and ignorance, have become free indeed by the truth preached to them by those of kindred blood and race, though of a different tongue. Yet the Spirit helped their understanding to the exercise of a living faith, such as fear and the suspicion of treachery would prevent their receiving from the most learned and loving white person in America.

        Many of these native Africans became eminent Christians according to their sphere of life, and several served in positions in the church as deacons and upon the plantations as householders (as some of the leaders of the branch society were called); and in nearly every instance their moral and religious character was equal to the best among their brethren of American birth. And this feature, we doubt not, early suggested the idea to our white brethren of designating a church composed wholly of colored persons as an African Church.

        It will be remembered that this church became a member of the old Georgia Association in 1790, and so continued as the only strictly negro church in that body until 1794, when the meeting was held at "Powell Creek Meeting-house," near Powelton, when, in response to letters from several churches requesting a division, "it was agreed that all the churches in the lower part of our union who see fit to form another meeting of this nature have our consent; and that one be called the Upper District Georgia Baptist Association and the other the Lower District Georgia Baptist Association. The first meeting of the Lower District Association to be on Saturday before the fourth Lord's Day in September, at Buckhead Davis Meeting-house, the brethren John Thomas, Jephtha Wining, and Silas Mercer to attend as messengers. The meeting of the Upper District Association to be at Kiokee New Meeting-house, on Saturday before the third Lord's Day in October, which Association is to hold the present Constitution and records." Rev. Silas Mercer was appointed to preach the Association sermon when they met in 1795, and the Saturday before the fifth Sabbath in September was set apart as a day of fasting and prayer. We copy this almost verbatim as recorded in the Georgia Baptist history, to show the careful manner in which our elder brethren in a division formed new interests for the Master, so as not to break the union of the churches or associations. It is further said that "twenty-two churches were withdrawn at this time, among which was the colored church at Savannah, which then contained three hundred and eighty-one members, their pastor being Andrew Bryan."2 

        The new interest organized in 1785 departed from the advice of the parent body so far as adopting a title, which was called Hephzibah. It does not appear that this church was represented in the lower or new body, and we may account for this in the fact that her sister churches (white) over in South Carolina failed also to attend, and likely they were all considering the propriety of organizing a like association for themselves nearer home,--for we well remember that the white brethren of our city were then erecting a building and endeavoring to constitute another Baptist church in Savannah; but, as we have said, failed in the undertaking then, but did at a later day succeed in doing so.

        It is greatly to be regretted that the illiterate condition of this bulwark of grace was such that we can find no records or date of its work from 1795 to 1799; but it is a well-established fact that the church kept on the even tenor of her way; and it is worthy of remark that while our more favored white Baptist brethren affiliated under certain circumstances with Pedobaptists, yet this humble fold of Christ (though surrounded by Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and despite an earnest effort by Bishop Asbury to establish Methodism about this period) stood firm as the rock upon which she was planted. Orthodox in the Baptist faith, Jesus himself opened a door to the New Testament dispensation of grace in baptism by immersion, and which must ever remain the door to communion. Her pastor standing firm in this position, immovably preaching this doctrine; not that they or he was learned in the doctrines, but by a spiritual intuition that this was the way the apostles went, and on Sundays of their quarterly meetings (using the then common phrase) they might be seen in solemn procession, the whole church marching as if actually going to a burial of the dead; their sweet, plaintive voices heard as they went to the river at the foot of what is now known as Farm Street, singing the great commission given by their loving Lord, as paraphrased by Dr. Watts, and lined by one of the brethren or the pastor:

                         "Go preach my gospel, saith the Lord;
                         Bid the whole earth my grace receive:
                         He shall be saved that trusts my word,
                         And he condemned who'll not believe."

And while this honored servant of God fervently appealed to the throne of grace for blessings upon this land and country, the prosperity of the city, and the upbuilding of the kingdom of grace here, and that the candidates for immersion may receive the kingdom of glory by and by, the solemnity and impressiveness of the scene were at times awful and inspiring. In these earlier days of our fathers' worship at the water-side, it was a custom to sing some of the songs of Zion while the ordinance was being administered; and, oh! it was soul-cheering, indeed, to hear them break out in joyous acclamation, as the first subject was immersed and rose up from under the water,--

                         "I am bound for the promised land,
                         I am bound for the promised land;
                         Oh, who will come and go with me?
                         I am bound for the promised land."

This was sung as a chorus to subject or sentence from the Bible, and kindred to the occasion, paraphrased by some one of the brethren, many of whom had wonderful, though crude, poetical gifts, remarkable in their conception and application. Numerous were those spiritualizing songs; but this is sufficient as an example of the times, though very many of the hymns from the then popular edition of "Watts and Rippons" were used in regular church services, recited from the book by their pastor or some of the members blessed with the ability to read. Two lines of a stanza were given out between the period of singing; and such was their religious love, memory, and zeal that it was common in the prayer-meetings of the plantation societies to hear these hymns repeated and sung with considerable exactness, though ignorant of letters, even by some of Africo-American tongue; and while it is also true that the attempt, in some instances, would seem to excite ridicule, yet it was very comforting to kindred souls. The same may be said of the sacred Scriptures, many passages of which were read from memory, and by some whole chapters were accurately retained and intelligently commented upon; in broken language, perhaps, but to a great degree sound in doctrine and logic. While the church was in the fullest sense evangelical in faith and missionary in spirit, its strict principle on the communion question was ever conspicuous,--none were invited, or, if known, permitted to come to the communion-table who were not baptized by immersion, coming through the door Christ Jesus, as he laid out the way of faith in Jordan.

        Another evidence of the orthodox principle in the church was the marital relations of its members. Mr. Bryan required candidates for baptism to give the fullest proof of their being already married according to the tenets of the Bible; or, had they simply lived together loosely as the slave-custom too commonly permitted, to come before him and have this solemn service administered; and all members of the church intending to enter into conjugal relations were strictly required to report the same to their leader, if on the plantations, and to the deacons, if in the city, to be reported to the pastor, who read out the banns in public church service, that these relations, so far as in the church were possible, should be kept inviolate, as Christ has taught they should be. The State recognized no such lawful relations among the slaves or persons of color, and constantly was the church perplexed by the cruel separation of men and wives, members of the mystical body of Christ being sold away from each other, in some instances, with no apparent hope of ever meeting again on earth; and which naturally entailed upon the man or woman, as the case might be, remaining with the church, the necessity of contracting new relations of the kind; but even in such cases the church required sufficient time to elapse, that they might be satisfied there was no hope of return, before marrying again; thus guarding with all the power delegated to the church the sacred commands of Jesus, and throwing the onus wholly upon those who dispensed God's laws so unrighteously against a people purchased to himself with the precious blood of his only and well-beloved Son. Of course, many conflicting circumstances arose that baffled their reason to remedy. However, the church yet stood acquitted of what it was not in her power to cure, and could but in patience submit to and endure. Thus are noted these practices, which are the more remarkable among a people having nothing but the Bible as their guide, which but few of them were able to read, and that very imperfectly; yet by using the means of grace given them, and with the Holy Spirit's unction upon them, inspiring a desire to do simply the will of God, proved themselves equal to the interpretation of the Scriptures aright, and acting according to the mind of the spirit, and in faith and practice orthodox Baptists.

 

Footnotes:
1 Matthew vii. 17-20.
2 On page 34, "History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia," there is a misnomer. It was Andrew Bryan and not Marshall, as Andrew Marshall was not then a member of the church.--[ED.]

 
 
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