"Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."--ISAIAH lx. 1.
WE now bring the history of the church to the beginning of the year A.D. 1796. Under the protecting care of Jehovah, led by his grace, they find themselves upon ground purchased by themselves, and within walls erected by their industry and love of Jesus, as will hereafter be shown; yet their liberty to worship permanently and peaceably was uncertain. The mayor and aldermen of the corporation having been petitioned, and their permission, after waiting for a long while, having at last been declined, an appeal was made to the commander of the county militia, and, thanks to several sympathizing white friends, they procured the following permission:
"PERMISSION FOR ANDREW & HIS SOCIETY
PREACH ON SUNDAYS.
"SAVANNAH 19th March 1790
"In as much as I deem it inconsistent with the Spirit and principles of the Christian Religion that any Set of People under the Sun Should be debarred exercising that Religion in the way they best understand it, and in the manner best fitted to their Capacities and Situations, when Conducted with that Decorum and decency which becometh good Christians; And it appearing that a Great Number of the Most respectable Citizens in Savannah have Signed a recommendation in favor of the bearer Andrew and his Society that they should be permitted to assemble and preach in the Meeting house built by them for that purpose at Yamacraw, so that their Meetings were Confined to Sunday between Sun Rise and Sun Set; And as the Corporation have heretofore declined Acting on a Petition preferred to them for their Sanction, and it resting more particularly with the officers of the Militia.--I do hereby give unto the Said Andrew as Pastor, and to his Elders and Society, my full approbation to meet and perform Divine Worship, in the Meeting-house at Yamacraw, on the Sabbath day, between Sun Rise and Sun Set, so long as they Conduct themselves with due decency and order; and that the persons attending thereon have a pass from their masters or Mistresses for that purpose; And I do Recommend to the officers Commanding Companies in the first Battalion, to give their Sanction for the above purpose, and that they will Cause an inspection as often, and at Such times, as they may Deem Necessary, in order that no abuse of this indulgence may take place.
"D. B. MITCHELL, Major.
1st Battalion C R--
JAMES BOX YOUNG
I wish the prayer of the petition to be granted, the meeting to be on Sundays only in the day time.--
THOS. M. WOODBRIDGE.
No objection to the within petition provided they meet on Sundays only, and that at twelve o'clock and by no means at night.--
If a proper white Clergyman was appointed to instruct the Negroes in religion I see no impropriety in their attending him on Sundays only with tickets from their masters.
JOHN P. WARD.
I wish the prayer of the petition to be granted, as every Man ought to enjoy his own religion.--
I agree & approve of the within Petition provided the Hours of Worship are after Sun Rise in the Morning & ending before Sun Set on Sundays only.--
I Signe the above petition finding that my Negros that atend publicly worshap ar to be Trusted.--
DANL. JOHN GREEN.
Liberty of Conscience, & a Right to serve God according to its dictates are Natural priviledges, and none ought to be prevented from enjoying them.--
Thos. F. WILLIAMS.
JOHN Y. NOLL.
Let them meet to pray when they please.
DR. MOSES VALLOTT.
JNO. H. ROBERTS.
I wish the prayer of the above petition may be granted.
JOS. CLAY, jur.
JAS. JOHNSTON, Senr.
I wish the purport of this Petr granted--for Sundays only and that in the day time.--
JUSTUS H. SCHEUBER.
JOHN G. WILLIAMSON.
CHARLES HARRIS (for the age of Reason).
I wish the prayer of the above petition to be granted, as I think all men have a right to worship God in theire owne way, Especially as no possible danger Can arise to the Community from theire meeting in the day time.--
I have no objection provided their Meeting be in the day time & on Sundays only.--
JAMES B. YOUNG agreeing with MR. GLEN.
I agree with the above.--M. BRISKELL.
I recommend that Stated hour should be fixed for their meeting, on Sundays only, and that a Bell may be procured to call them together.--
Thomas H. McCaule wishes as many of the rights of man as possible restored to the blacks, To worship God according to conscience is certainly one of those rights.
Men ought not to be prevented from worshipping that God, who gave them existence--therefore I hope this their prayer may be heard.--
I approve of this petition, provided they meet in the day and on Sundays only at stated hours.--
JOHN Y. WHITE wishes prosperity to the same.
The present Law of the State forbids a public assemblage of Negroes--therefore, the privileges claimed by the petrs. ought to be referred to the Legislature--I agree in this--that there ought not to be any hindrance to a free tolerance of public worship to my people--
I agree to the above mode.--
P. V. MOREL.
With this permit pastor and people felt more secure, and their meetings were more free and frequent. How much lighter must have been the hearts of his brethren, as the old servant of the Lord, their tried pastor and counsellor, from his pulpit offered thanks to God on that Sunday morning in March, 1796, for his mercies in procuring for them this immunity from their enemies, and, holding up the document before them, bade them walk the more humbly, and serve the more faithfully, that they might hold fast that which they had and not again lose it.
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what progress the church at this time made in numbers, from the report made to the Georgia Association, in 1790, of three hundred and eighty-one members; but there is no doubt that, so far as circumstances permitted, the gain of the church spiritually was equal to the blessings she had temporally. God had given them all they possessed, and their pastor, though purchasing through his white friends and in his individual name, yet knew it all was the gift of God to his believing, trusting people, and on the 3d day of July, 1797, "conveyed in trust, for the use and better security, to the members of his church, to Messrs. Thomas Polhill, William Matthews, David Fox, and Josiah Fox, one equal moiety being the half of all that lot of land (most part of said lot) . . . known as No. 7, in the village of St. Gall, fronting on Bryan or Odingsell Street." So states the deed in part, which will be found in full hereafter. The consideration named was the same as that originally paid for the land, thirty pounds sterling; the terms of the trust being perpetual, the survivors having power to fill vacancies whenever they should occur. It will be noticed that the first named in the trust, Major Polhill and wife, were converted by the preaching of Mr. Bryan in his yard at Newington, in Effingham County, eighteen miles above Savannah, in 1789, and were both baptized by Rev. Alexander Scott, of Black Swamp, South Carolina, who, by his zeal for the cause, was instrumental in the constitution of the Newington Church, in 1798; being the oldest white Baptist church in the lower part of Georgia. Thus God blessed his seed of grace sown in the hearts of these humble slaves even to whites, wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud but giveth grace to the humble.
The close of the century found this church doing a good work for the Lord, and is also memorable in the loss to her of the first and ever-faithful deacon, Sampson Bryan, own brother to the pastor, and one among the first fruits of his ministry who became a deacon upon the constitution of the church, suffered severely like his brother in their great trials, passed with him as through fire, and came out but more purified and strong, never faltering or failing in any duty to his master, Jesus. He lived and rejoiced to see the old ship of Zion riding prosperously upon the sea of time, having safely weathered many gales; and then, on the 23d of January, 1799, his Lord called him home, to enter into that rest that remaineth to the people of God; and though his death to him was no doubt great gain, the loss to the church and to their pastor, his elder brother, can hardly be told in words. He was buried in the colored persons' cemetery of the city, his grave vaulted over with bricks, and a large marble stone laid upon it with this inscription, which remains to this day: "Here lies the body of Sampson Bryan, who departed this life January 23d, 1799, aged 53 years. He was the first deacon of the First Colored Baptist Church in this city, and served faithfully in that office until his death."
The feeble but earnest struggle of the Newington interest was all the Baptist strength east of Burke County, in this State; when, in 1799, Rev. Henry Holcombe was invited to Savannah by the pewholders of the congregation worshipping on Franklin Square, consisting of Presbyterians and a very few Baptists, who had built the house of worship, yet were not sufficiently strong to constitute a church; and so were jointly worshipping together, when Dr. Holcombe accepted the call to supply them.
His relation to and influence upon this church, as also of the Baptist interest of the whole State, warrants us in giving him more than a passing notice in this history. "Rev. Henry Holcombe, D.D., was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, September 22, 1762. While he was yet a child his father moved to South Carolina, where (to use his own words) at eleven years of age he completed all the education he ever received from a living preceptor."1 As a young man he served in the Revolutionary war as a captain of cavalry. He was converted to Christ while so serving, and joined the Presbyterian Church at the age of twenty-two. He immediately began to preach the gospel, and, it is said, his first sermon was preached in the saddle, at the head of his command, on the 11th of September, 1785. Not long after he became convinced that the Baptist principles of religion were right, and he rode twenty miles on horseback to be baptized by immersion. He was soon ordained, and became a distinguished preacher, meeting with extraordinary success in his work. Among his converts were his wife and an only brother of hers, and their mother; also his own father, Grimes Holcombe, was converted from Pedobaptist views. All these he had the pleasure of baptizing.
He was pastor of the Euhaw Baptist Church of South Carolina, though he resided at Beaufort, when in 1799 he was invited to Savannah; and we repeat, truly his coming into the State rendered great service to the Baptist cause in general and this church and Savannah in particular; and from the time he became acquainted with Rev. Mr. Bryan, and the history of his church and people, ever manifested the deepest interest in their welfare, both moral and religious, as will be seen in history, and as long as he remained in the State, and even after removing to Philadelphia, where he went in 1811.2
So much success attended his ministry that in 1800 it was judged proper to organize a Baptist church of his white brethren in Savannah. The constituent members were twelve,--three males and nine females. Dr. Holcombe soon after was called as the pastor, and served as such eleven years. There is no doubt but that this First Colored Church was remarkably successful in its humble sphere, and some of its past history coming to the doctor's notice, in his late field of service just across the boundary in Carolina, had made an impression, and he was not long in seeing in it a means of spreading the Baptist influence in this section of the State.
The constitution of this Savannah church gave three to the eastern part of the State: the First Colored, organized January 20, 1788; the Newington, 1793; the Savannah, 1800. They met in convention at Savannah in 1802, and organized the Savannah River Association. Who the officers were we have no knowledge, as the file of minutes has been lost, it appears; but this we are certain of, that the churches were enrolled according to the date of constitution, and the First Colored Church stood at the head of the roll;3 its membership was reported at 850, and to strengthen the body it was resolved that two more colored churches be constituted out of the membership of the First, and that two more colored ministers be ordained as their pastors. While we may see clearly the wisdom and zeal of our fathers to enlarge and strengthen our Baptist field, no doubt suggested by the acute mind of Dr. Holcombe, it does also appear that the character and standing of the pioneer in this section, Rev. Bryan, stood out strongly insisting that in justice, as well as the eternal fitness of the purpose, he should have some ministering colleagues of his own race, and that the claims and fitness of some of the young men whom he had led to Christ by his preaching should be considered; and it appears that the old pastor also held that his church should be consulted in the premises and give her consent; and he carried his point. Subsequent events proved that this was the will of God to perpetuate colored churches.
Among the male members of this church showing gifts were Henry Cunningham, Henry Francis, and Evans Grate, deacons; but of the three, Cunningham's gifts and circumstances seemed to favor him above his fellows. Yet it appears that the minds of both church and pastor were different, for soon after the adjournment of the Association the church called a council and ordained Brother Henry Francis, May 23, 1802. Rev. Jesse Peters, of Augusta, preached from Mark xv. 16; prayer by Rev. A. Bryan; charge by Dr. Holcombe. This seemed, of course, to give him preferment over his other brethren for the new churches under contemplation; and as to Brother Cunningham he must have so felt it, for he requested his letter,--which, being granted, he put in the Savannah Baptist Church (white) and was received into fellowship as a member,--as did also several others who followed him, among whom, as has been named to us, were Brother Thomas Anderson and Sisters Betsey Cunningham, Silvia Whitfield, Silvia Monax, Charlotte Walls, Leah Simpson, Susan Jackson; Brethren Scipio Gordon and Richard Houston,--all of when afterwards became active organizers of the Second Church.4 This seemed to have been the first serious misunderstanding among themselves as a church, and requests for letters became so numerous that the old pastor refused to grant any more, and threatened to expel them for insubordination; yet all who were dismissed, residing in the city, joined Dr. Holcombe's church and augmented his small body considerably. This showed also conclusively that it was the early intention of our white brethren to encourage and foster a mixed membership of white and colored, which in after years, as will be seen, completely checked the constitution of churches wholly of the negro race, and the ordination of negro preachers.
It may be here remarked that the members who took letters and became members among the whites were mostly of the house-servants in the city, whose condition and circumstances were highly favorable at that day. Many of this class in after years, like their pastors, purchased their freedom, having, in some instances, previously been permitted to hire their time and work in various occupations for wages. Their surplus over the amount charged by their owners was often larger than what they paid. Such persons would very naturally have, as members of the church, some independence of feeling and judgment, innate in a Baptist mind from the very nature of their faith and its teachings. Thus feeling ran high and much excitement was felt, if but little could be expressed, in making this division of the parent body and selecting the brethren who were to take the leading part in these new interests. However, it seems that Dr. Holcombe threw his influence in favor of Brother Henry Cunningham; and when, on December 26, 1802, the first of the two new churches was organized, Mr. Cunningham was called to the pastorate, though Mr. Francis had been already first ordained with that view.
In making the division it seems that as one of the churches was to be located in the city, it was planted at its east end, in the midst of the residences of some of the wealthiest white citizens. Most of the members composing this church were those residing in the city,--intelligent domestic servants and some mechanics,--who were ever under the eye of their owners, which gave them great protection and peaceable worship; and so that church became the pride of the young colored people of Savannah. The other church was planted on the Ogeechee for the accommodation of the slaves upon the plantations along that river, some fourteen miles south of the city. To the Second Colored Church in the city were given about 200, and to the Ogeechee 250 members from this parent church, all regularly dismissed from her, and Rev. Henry Francis was given the pastorate. So there were now five Baptist churches in the Association, as follows: First Colored, Savannah, Rev. Andrew Bryan, membership 400; Newington, Effingham County, Rev. John Goldwire, 16; Savannah Baptist Church, Rev. Henry Holcombe, 67; Second Colored Church, Savannah, Rev. Henry Cunningham, 200; and Ogeechee Baptist Church, Rev. Henry Francis, 250 members. So they were reported at their associational meeting in 1803. Two other churches above Savannah, in Georgia, united with them that year also,--namely, Black Creek Baptist Church, Rev. J. Peacock, pastor; and Lot's Creek Baptist Church, Rev. Henry Cook, pastor, 45 members.
To show the comparative growth of this First Church, we give them as reported again in January, 1804, in their order: First Colored, membership 476; Newington, 23; Savannah Baptist, 77; Second Colored, 230; Ogeechee, 276; Black Creek, 96; Lot's Creek, 59. Such were the blessings of God showered upon the denomination this year that the Association adjourned to meet again in November, when five other churches from across the river in South Carolina joined them. This church reported at that meeting having baptized 107; membership, 544; lost by death, 33, 21 of whom perished in a storm that winter. The other two churches she organized were also blessed with increase. The Second Colored had baptized that year 29, and the Ogeechee, 47. These figures will simply show that in the zeal inspired by this union of churches and ministers of Christ our Lord seemed to show his purpose to keep this old mother-church of the seaboard of Georgia in the van of the army of Christian progress,--even at this early day's dawn of hope for the race in America.
The thoughts of the elder members, at least, must have at this period run high with expectation of what God would do for them, seeing what he had done, as their minds went back to the days of BUNCOMBE HILL (as the place of their first worship was called) and BRAMPTON'S BARN, the scene of their struggles with faith in those times of persecutions and trials. But now they have a comparatively comfortable house of worship, and an out-house for rest and refreshment; both small and extremely plain, but upon ground of their own, though held in trust by friends more favored in life. Their aged shepherd is also sheltered in his own cottage near the house of God and the gathering-place of the sheep of his fold.
'Tis Christmas of the year of our Lord 1802, a season when all have liberty to visit the city from the plantations. Their leading brethren in the city, their watchmen from the plantation societies, are all together upon this to them holy ground. The fold has been divided in the interest of the cause of Christ. Their old shepherd seems in the zenith of ministerial glory. The noble among the whites respect and show honor to him. Few--very few, 'tis true--call him brother, as they agreed to address each other in associational meetings. All is aglow with peace and joy, and amid all this--wonderful change from their past dark day of trial--the two churches were organized, two new ministers set apart to the work of the Lord, new deacons and watchmen created, brethren in humble stations promoted. "Truly the Lord reigns, let all the earth rejoice." What a transition! "According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, what hath God wrought?" It may truly be said that in the dark days this church has seen and passed through since this period, the brightness of the hope wrought in the souls of these people in the closing days of 1802 and the opening of 1803 may have been dimmed, but has never died out to the present day.
1 "Georgia Baptists, Historical and Biographical," by J. H. Campbell.
2 Benedict's "History of the Baptists," vol. ii. p. 186.
3 Benedict's "History of the Baptists," vol. ii. p. 186.
4 "Reminiscences," by Samuel Cope, a young member at this period.
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved