committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

CHAPTER IV.

        We have but little of the history of this church, after the events of the last chapter, except so far as, like the two other churches wholly of colored membership, holding their positions in the Savannah Association, and their routine of Sunday worship three times a day,--that is, early morning prayer-meeting at sunrise, preaching at ten o'clock in the forenoon, and at three o'clock in the afternoon. Very seldom were night services held, unless some of the white ministers preached to them. Even then such meetings had to be early and of short duration, for by rule the drum of the city's patrol guard must beat at eight o'clock in winter and at nine in summer, and the said drum commenced half an hour earlier and beat at intervals of about ten minutes, the last roll ceasing at the striking of the hour. By this time every slave or person of color must be in-doors, and if found out fifteen minutes after drum-beat they were taken to the guard-house, and there kept confined until the owner or employer was notified the next morning to call and release their servant, at a cost of one dollar for keeping him in custody, and if not willing to pay the fee, the servant was whipped and let out. There were exceptions to this law in cases where the servant presented to said guard a written permit from his owner, employer, or (if a free person) his guardian, to pass him until ten o'clock P.M. Some owners allowed their servants to hire their time, paying the wages earned to them each week or month, and extended the terms of these passes accordingly; that is, when the servant came and paid up the sum required he was given a new ticket, as the common expression was; but it was actually granting certain limited liberty, based on good behavior as a slave.

        But to return to the general permission of church service, they were from sunrise to sunset, for, be it remembered, the statute laws of the State and ordinances of the city forbade the slaves to assemble together for any purpose (except funerals) to the number of seven without the presence of a white person, under penalty of fine or whipping with stripes, yet under these regulations the church could find pleasure and comfort. The larger number felt, and so expressed themselves as often as they met, that though in this world they had but little to hope for, they still possessed within righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. It was indeed a joy every three months to come to the table of their Lord and commemorate his dying love for them, his risen power to redeem and save them. So the even tenor of their permitted custom went on. The white ministers of Savannah, and the Carolina churches associated with them, were often and earnestly counselling to devise means for establishing educational facilities for their race and missionary work for the denomination, and constantly had the prayers of our colored churches for their success, notwithstanding being well aware that they could not share in its benefits, neither themselves nor their posterity, and much was being done in that direction. None were more zealous and self-sacrificing in that work than their friend and brother, Rev. Dr. Holcombe, who often advised with and counselled his colored brethren in their special work. The number of churches composed of mixed membership and congregations with white pastors increased within their bounds, until, in the year 1810, the number of them uniting with the Association was seven in addition to the number organized at first;1 conspicuous among this latter number was the Sunbury Church, constituted by Rev. Charles O. Screnen, of Liberty County, who associated in 1805, and in whose constituency the colored members were largely in the majority, all of whom had become converted by his preaching and were baptized by him. Dr. Henry Holcombe states in this year, 1810 (without giving particular names), "That the colored Baptists in and near Savannah numbered 1500, and at their quarterly communions, when they received new members, their numbers were augmented by 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, and in one instance 64, at a time; and it is but fair to presume, from connecting events, that the largest addition was made to this First Church."

        Their pastor, Rev. Andrew Bryan, having become feeble from age and with long and industrious service, often had to be assisted in his ministrations by the younger preachers. Evans Grate, who had been dismissed, and became one of the deacons of the Second Church at its organization, proved to be a man after the requirements of the apostles for this office, and seems to have partaken much of the spirit of his first pastor. Andrew Cox Marshall, the son of Rev. Bryan's sister, had, some years before this time, been converted and joined the Second Church, and was baptized by Rev. Henry Cunningham. He was well advanced in years, of much worldly experience, of fine intellect, and a little learned in letters; and, like the Apostle Paul of old, he straightway after his conversion commenced to preach the gospel, so that Brethren Evans Grate and Andrew C. Marshall were duly licensed by their church to preach; but the latter was called soon after ordination as assistant to his aged and enfeebled but venerated uncle, of whom Dr. Holcombe, in writing of his friend, about the beginning of the century, said: "Andrew Bryan not only honorably obtained liberty but a handsome estate. His fleecy and well-set locks have been bleached by eighty winters; and dressed like a bishop of London, he rides, moderately corpulent, in his chair, and, with manly features of a jetty hue, fills any person to whom he gracefully bows with pleasure and veneration, by displaying in smiles even rows of natural teeth white as ivory, and a pair of fine black eyes sparkling with intelligence, benevolence, and joy. In giving daily thanks to God for his mercies my aged friend seldom forgets to mention the favorable change that has of late years appeared through the lower parts of Georgia as well as South Carolina in the treatment of servants." We cannot doubt that this high encomium is just and true; that this pen-picture of him is faithfully drawn by one who knew him well and whose high character precludes the thought of flattery.

        The assistance Mr. Bryan now had from his nephew, Andrew, much relieved his arduous labors of the Sabbath in preaching and administering the ordinances. On those occasions the old bishop (as he was sometimes called) might be seen at the river seated in his chair (so the two-wheeled carriage drawn by a horse and in which he now almost constantly rode was called). As the candidates were immersed by his assistant and rose again from their watery grave, his silver hair, smiling face, and hearty amen spread a halo around the scene. Himself gave them the charge relative to their future conduct in life; extending the hand of fellowship and welcome to the table of our Lord after baptism, in the presence of the ready-prepared communion-table, the members in their seats and the newly-born and baptized all standing. At such times the scene was solemn and impressive in the extreme, as the aged man's words dropped upon the ear and entered the heart and mind, subduing the will. He was ever a strict disciplinarian. He watched for his people's souls, and, as far as he could, tried to ameliorate their condition, and this was a duty that he was not relieved from so long as he lived and was able to go upon his pastoral visits. These pastoral visits were twofold,--to the sick or those in distress of any kind, or to those unusually absent from the appointed Sabbath services,--and equally as often was he sent for by the mistress to correct an offending maid or by a master for a servant. Such, in the latter days of his ministry, was the respect for him that the best citizens found that his Christian discipline and fatherly advice had such effect upon their servants that the being threatened with a debarring of their Christian privileges insured their faithfulness to the household duties better than the old harsher means. Thus, between the visits to the parlor of the mistress and the humbler quarters of the servants, the minister of God had peculiar duties to perform, and it had to he done with great prudence to be beneficial to all. Yet the system proved good in many ways when properly executed, and even after Mr. Bryan's day the same continued with beneficial effect to many households; and, though this may appear an anomaly, it has saved many a member of the church from being sold away, from a whipping, or other severe punishment, and many wives and husbands from being separated by being sold from each other. These incidents are not reverted to with any vindictive purpose whatever, but simply that it may appear how fully the religion of our Lord Jesus, administered by his called and chosen servants, meets the requirements of every clime, caste, condition, or circumstance, be it ever so intricate or difficult. Faith, hope, and charity overcome for all.

        How like the sunshine driving away the clouds must it have appeared on so many of these occasions, to see his smiling, cheerful face come into the yard, bowing, with his hat in his hand, going up to hear the complaints against any of his members, and gracefully retiring, get in his chair and ride away after sometimes an hour's visit, and none, perhaps, but himself knowing what he had said,--part to mistress, part to maid,--suited to the case in question; but generally leaving reconciliation, peace, and confidence in the rectitude of his actions. To estimate the consequences of these visits would take an infinite mind and almost eternity to reveal, when we consider what may have been or was prevented from being done, and thus changing evil consequences for good.

        It is remarkable that both Grate and Marshall, who assisted Mr. Bryan in his later days, were members not of his church but of the Second, and there is no record that either of them ever changed their membership to this church; though Mr. Grate had once been a member and dismissed upon the organization of the Second Colored Church. Mr. Marshall never was a member of this old church. As the old shepherd drew near to the close of his earthly labors, like Moses of old, he seemed to be desirous of leaving the flock over which the Lord had made him the overseer in the keeping of one chosen of God, as in the case of Moses and Joshua, and seemed to have fixed his mind upon Mr. Marshall; doubtless, not because he was his nephew, but that he saw the promise of that ability which developed so fully in after years; and he frequently so expressed it to his church that he believed it was the will of God, and it certainly was his desire. As will be seen, the wish bore great weight after his demise. 

        Mr. Bryan's decline was gradual. Gently the hand of his God led him down through the valley of the shadow of death, and from his ninetieth year he was constantly looking for and speaking of his departure, which came not until he was, as he supposed, ninety-six. Yet he had made all the preparation a man of his years and circumstances could, and when the time came it found him ready, willing, and waiting.

 

                         "Tranquil, amid alarms,
                         It found him on the field;
                         A veteran slumbering on his arms,
                         beneath his red-cross shield.

                         "The pains of death are past;
                         Labor and sorrow cease,
                         And life's long warfare closed at last,
                         His soul is found in peace."

        He fell asleep in Jesus October 6, AD 1812.

        To comprehend the death of this man of God properly, and its effect and feeling upon a people whom he led in religious principles, is to consider the parallel in the history of Moses and the Israelites; and it is perhaps the first time in the history of the State that one of this despised race commanded the respect of a community and an acknowledgment that in the negro character, even under the conditions of slavery, there is true manhood and virtue developed by Christianity.  The city and neighboring plantations turned out to honor this noble man, whose life was spent inculcating charity in the servant class, to the extent that the men with no other education save imitating their masters and the maids their mistresses produced a class and society in the community that was remarkably interesting, to say the least. As servants, their integrity was a security to the master in his goods, and their warm and affectionate character infusing itself in the white children whom they nursed, produced a type of manhood and womanhood in both races that is not seen in this day. Truly, in planting this church, the seed of grace sown in this man's heart (Mr. Bryan's) was good, and the tree and the fruit good. "The tree is known by its fruit."

        In the plain, humble house of worship which he built for God, his body lay encased in a neat but plain black coffin constructed by the hands of his own race and members of his church, and like his Master, Jesus, "he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth."2

        Rev. Henry Kollock, D.D., pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church, and Rev. Mr. Johnson, of the Savannah Baptist Church, condescended to enter his pulpit, and bore testimony to his worth, and made suitable addresses to his people. He was followed to his grave by over five thousand persons; and at that spot, in the common cemetery for colored persons (located then where now stands a principal part of the city, and notably St. Joseph's Hospital), other addresses were delivered by Thomas Williams, Esq., a distinguished white citizen, and Rev. Henry Cunningham, who committed the sacred remains to their last resting-place, reciting the beautiful and impressive funeral service of the Episcopal Church, his weeping members and friends singing one of the songs of Zion appropriate to the occasion. And so ended the glorious life, death, and burial of Rev. Andrew Bryan, one who had "fought a good fight, finished his course, kept the faith, and received a crown of righteousness."

        His demise being reported to the Association that year, "I find in their minutes," says Dr. Benedict, "the following article:

        "'This Association is sensibly affected by the death of the Rev. Andrew Bryan, a man of color, and pastor of the First Colored Church in Savannah. This son of Africa, after suffering inexpressible persecutions in the cause of his divine Master, was at length permitted to discharge the duties of the ministry among his colored friends in peace and quiet; hundreds of whom through his instrumentality were brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus. He closed his extensive, useful, and amazingly luminous course in the lovely exercise of faith and in the joyful hope of a happy immortality.'"3

        In after years his grave was neatly bricked over, and a large tabulated marble stone was laid thereon, with this inscription, no doubt composed by his nephew, Andrew C. Marshall.

        "Sacred to the memory of Andrew Bryan, pastor of the First Colored Baptist Church in Savannah. God was pleased to lay his honor near his heart, and so impressed the worth and weight of souls upon his mind, that he was constrained to preach the gospel to a dying world, particularly to the sable sons of Africa. Though he labored under many disadvantages, yet, taught in the school of Christ, he was able to bring new and old out of the treasury, and he has done more good among the poor slaves than all the learned doctors in America. He was imprisoned for the gospel and without ceremony was severely whipped, but while under the lash he told his persecutors, he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but he was willing to suffer death for the cause of Christ. He continued to preach the gospel until Oct. 6th, 1812. He was supposed to be ninety-six years of age. His remains were interred with peculiar respect. An address was delivered by Revs. Mr. Johnson, Dr. Kollock, Thomas Williams, and Henry Cunningham. He was an honor to human nature, an ornament to religion, and a friend to mankind. His memory is still precious in the mind of the living.

                         "Afflicted long he bore the rod,
                         With calm submission to his maker, God.
                         His mind was tranquil and serene,
                         No terror in his looks was seen.
                         Saviour's smile dispelled the gloom
                         And soothed his passage to the tomb.

        "I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, from henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: even so saith the spirit, for they rest from their labors.

        "This stone is erected by the First colored Church as a token of love for their most faithful pastor, A. D. 1821."

        Born a slave near Goose Creek, sixteen miles from Charleston, South Carolina, Mr. Bryan had purchased his own freedom,--for how much we do not know,--also that of his wife and an only daughter; besides, the estate which he left was valued at about three thousand dollars.

 

Footnotes:
1
The name of the Association was now changed to the Savannah River.
2 Isaiah, liii. 9.
3 "General History of the Baptist Denomination in America," etc., 1855, p. 739.

 
 
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