committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

 

CHAPTER VI.

        THE church was represented by Rev. Evans Grate and Adam Sheftall in 1822, but the membership was not given; and in 1823 by Adam Sheftall and Jack Simpson, with a membership of eighteen hundred and eighty-eight. It was at this meeting of the Association that the designation of African Churches was given to these two bodies with exclusively colored pastors and membership. It seems that there were some additions of churches organized by white ministers with a mixed membership, as, for instance, the White Bluff and Abercorn, organized by Rev. James Sweat and Rev. Henry Cook. But this title or designation was not given to either, though their membership was largely of colored persons, with very few whites. But upon the minutes these two Savannah churches were ever after styled the First African and the Second African, and although the Ogeechee Church, as first organized, was exclusively colored in membership and its pastor, it was now represented in the Association by white brethren and served by white missionaries. This was, no doubt, for prudential reasons, as it was against the policy of the State Legislature for large bodies of slaves to assemble unless presided over by some white person as their religious teacher. In 1824 the First African was represented by A. Sheftall and A. Johnson, the membership being 1912; and in 1825, for the first time, Rev. Andrew Marshall appeared, representing the church in the Association, with Deacons A. Sheftall, A. Johnson, and J. Simpson as colleagues, with a membership of 1886, showing a decrease of 26; but in 1826 there were the same representatives, Marshall, Sheftall, Johnson, and Simpson, with a membership of 2141, showing a gain of 255 for this year. It was in this year, also, that the first Sabbath-school for colored children was instituted in this city and at this church. Messrs. George W. Coe, John Lewis, James Barr, and others, teachers of the Independent Presbyterian Sabbath-school, under the superintendence of Mr. Lowel Mason, established a branch here for colored children. Mr. Coe was the superintendent of this branch until his death, when he was succeeded by Mr. William Bee. At first the school was conducted under the class system, but afterwards the superintendent conducted all the exercises, and gave the instruction from the desk. The average attendance of the school was about two hundred. Mr. Coe's plan was to make the scholars bring to the school certificates of good behavior from their owners during the week, and during the exercises he made all who had certificates of good behavior stand up and show themselves to the school; afterwards he gave them tickets with a Scripture text; then he made all those who were reported bad at home stand up and show themselves to the school, to receive, probably, a public reprimand. This mission school in the church continued successfully down to December 27, 1835, since which time it has been kept up by the church.1  In 1827, Marshall, Johnson, and Simpson were the representatives; membership, 2275; gain, 134. In 1828 the delegation was A. Marshall, Joseph Clay, and ---- Ross; membership, 2311, a gain of 36; and in 1829, with the same delegation, Marshall, Clay, and Ross; membership, 2357, a gain of 46. The colored delegates were increased in the Association this year by the addition of Rev. Evans Grate, representing the White Bluff, and Rev. B. Renier, the Abercorn, with Rev. Mr. Cunningham, Deacons Anderson and Devoux, of the Second African, making a respectable number of our race holding up the banner of the cross among the more favored white brethren, representing a colored constituency at this meeting of 4264 members, which in detail was: First African, 2357; Second African, 1040; Ogeechee, 300; White Bluff, 407; Abercorn, 160. In 1830 the delegation of this church was Marshall, Clay, and Simpson; membership, 2418, a gain of 61 for the year; and in 1831, Marshall, Johnson, Simpson, and S. Whitfield (a grandson of Father Andrew Bryan); the membership this year, 2795, a gain of 377. It will be seen that the church had experienced a great revival this year, and had the largest increase of any previous year; and there seems to have been an increase in all the colored churches of the city and county this year from their report by the Association; but the great ingathering took place in this church. Yet this outpouring of the Spirit and increase was followed by the severest trial but one in her whole history.

        Dr. Alexander Campbell (then called the great new-light preacher) visited Savannah, and was permitted by the pastor, Rev. A. Marshall, to preach in the church his new doctrine. The orthodox Baptists of the city and vicinity, with the leading officers of this church and a large part of the members, disapproved of the pastor's course, and became highly displeased with him. The pastor also, in some remarks from his pulpit, seemed to give the impression that he was favorably inclined towards Dr. Campbell's doctrine. The effect was terrible. Disputes arose in the church to such an extent that even in the meetings for public worship, as well as in those for business, the disorder was so great that the city officers were called in to disperse them, and some of the most turbulent were caught and severely whipped on one Sunday evening by the city marshal. The church became hopelessly divided, the subject becoming the town's topic, and this glorious heritage of Christ, the hope and light of the negro race in our city and all the neighboring plantations, became a reproach.

        Rev. A. Marshall withdrew from the building with one portion of the church, the other remaining, under the leadership of Deacon Adam Johnson, the most able and influential of the deacons. The great power of his preaching and the general popularity of Mr. Marshall drew a large majority of the members after him, and for a long time the disputes waged between the majority and the minority parties without their seeming to know what was the issue. It was principally the Marshall and Johnson parties, the latter accusing the pastor of preaching false doctrine, and of being the common talk among the people as well as the respective members. The church was not represented in the Association, and did not make any report for the year 1832; but that body, being in session at Walthourville, Liberty County, considered the state of the church and appointed a committee of investigation, who made report on the 10th of November, 1832, as follows:2 

 

        "The committee to whom was referred the consideration of the difficulty existing in the First African Church, Savannah, make their report.

        "Your committee, after a serious consideration of the painful and difficult task assigned them, would present to your body the following resolutions, as the result of their consideration:

        "Resolved, That we approve highly of the recommendation of the council of ministers that was called, viz., That A. Marshall be silenced; and we concur in the opinion that he be silenced indefinitely.

        "Resolved, That the First African Church, as a member of this Association, on account of its corrupt state, be considered as dissolved; and that measures be adopted to constitute a new church as a branch of the white Baptist church.

        "Resolved, That we advise our colored brethren in the country, now members of the African churches in Savannah, to take letters of dismission, and either unite themselves with neighboring churches of our faith and order or be constituted into separate churches.

        "The committee recommend the public expression of this body, extending their entire approbation of the Christian deportment of the Second African Church.

        "Resolved, That a copy of the above resolution be transmitted to the mayor of the city of Savannah.

 

"Signed,
"SAMUEL S. LAW,
"Moderator.

 

"OLIVER STEVENS,
"Clerk.

 

"A true extract from the minutes of the Sunbury Association, convened at Walthourville, Georgia, November 9, 10, and 11, 1832.

"LEWIS C. TEBEAU,
"Clerk of Sunbury Association."

 

        This may seem a very summary proceeding to some Baptists, considering that an Association has no ecclesiastical powers over Baptist churches; but it will appear less strange when we remember that under the then existing laws of the State of Georgia our white brethren were held somewhat responsible for our good conduct, and that they came and sat in the conferences or any other meetings when they thought it necessary, and the courts of jurisdiction would not give our colored ministers a license to preach or officiate in the ordinances of the Church unless they were endorsed by two or more white Baptist ministers. Thus virtually all the colored churches were wards. It is also true that most generally these actions were done kindly and with a desire on the part of some white brethren only to guard us for good under the circumstances; yet, too, there were at times some severe exceptions.

        The church property being under a perpetual trusteeship, the Association no doubt then looked to the continuation of an orthodox colored church upon this spot, in its recommendation to reorganize the same as a branch of the white Baptist church, and that it would be in harmony with the trust and yet be controlled under some white minister appointed by them, and in interviews with the deacons such action was proposed. Yet there is no evidence that the resolution ever was effectual in the way contemplated by that body.

        While the church last reported two thousand seven hundred and ninety-five members, not more than about two-fifths were residents of the city, the other three-fifths being scattered upon the plantations along the Savannah River, and had no voice in the disciplinary part of the church; therefore not more than about eleven hundred were engaged in this dispute or division, and a majority of this number took sides according to their preference for the leading parties in the dispute and not upon any merits of the questions at issue. There was a very distinct and grave question involved, and that question was, Did Mr. Marshall say from his pulpit that he favored the peculiar doctrines of reform preached by Mr. Campbell to his people? Deacons Adam Johnson, Jack Simpson, and a large body of the members, and some of the whites visiting on the occasion, held that he did, judging from the associational report; and we learn that a council had been called which decided that such was the fact, and resolved that Mr. Marshall be not allowed to preach, as they considered his views of Baptist doctrine as erroneous as Mr. Campbell's.  However, while this adjudication was taking place, whether legal or not, the parties to the issue were not idle. The minority, under Mr. Johnson's leadership, continued to meet in the old church building, and held such services as were permitted by the city authorities. The white Baptist church had this year (1832) completed and moved into their new brick church edifice on Chippewa Square, and their wooden building on Franklin Square, in which they had worshipped since 1800, was vacant. Mr. Marshall, through the intercession of some very influential white friends, purchased this building from the white church, which was much more commodious than the old house built by Rev. A. Bryan. This bold effort on his part gave him a great advantage over his opponents, and drew the people to him in means and numbers; and they met with him and prayed, if they could do nothing else; but he was careful to keep within the bounds of the law by having some friendly white person always present on the occasion of his meetings.

        In this division the strongest portion of the male members sided with the minority, and so did all of the ordained deacons,--namely, Johnson Sheftall, Simpson Wall, and Ross; and among the males of note, William Campbell, Isaac Beard, Jack Cohen, Sampson Whitfield, Joseph Clay, Josiah Lloyd, Benjamin Verderee, Adam Anderson, William Monger, and others; and with Mr. Marshall, acting deacons Benjamin King, Patrick Williams, with Brethren Jack Burke, Emanuel Wand, Robert McNish, Bing Frazer, James Mills, Lenan Brown, and others. Of course, with few exceptions, the wives and children went with their husbands and fathers; but the generality of the females, who have ever been in the majority, went with Rev. Mr. Marshall. On both sides the feeling ran very high, and much of crimination and recrimination existed for some time before it subsided. Several of the male members vacillated from one side to the other, as circumstances seemed to favor, and a few who could even left the country and went to Liberia, Africa; others took letters and joined the Second African Church, not desiring to have any part in the dispute. Such was the status of both sides at the beginning of the year 1833.

        It will be borne in mind that in 1832 the church was not represented in the Sunbury Association, though it had been a member from the organization of that body and at the time the resolutions relative to the church and pastor were adopted; but at the session of 1833 she sent as delegates to represent her Rev. Thomas Anderson, who had been called as the pastor this year, with Deacons A. Johnson and J. Simpson. The membership, as then reported, was 398; of course, this representation could be but circumstantial, for in 1831 her membership was 2795. Where had they gone? was certainly a question; and to account for them we must consider the fact that but about two-fifths of the church's membership resided in the city,--which would be in round numbers about 700,--a majority of whom, as has been said, followed Rev. Mr. Marshall; and if the number here reported by the church (398) is near correct, the other 702 were with him, and there must have been about 1700 baptized members of the church upon the plantations who were now "scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd."3

        When we consider the persecutions of the church in its earliest days, the history of which has come down to the members of this period from their parents,--some of those who had suffered with Mr. Bryan being yet alive,--it is easy to see that these people, unable to understand the true merits of the questions that distracted and separated the church, should believe that Mr. Marshall was being persecuted, like his uncle had been, simply for the cause of Christ, and in order to prevent him from enlightening them as poor, persecuted slaves. We do not wonder, then, that the majority were with him, right or wrong, in this difficulty: their condition and circumstances would justify them in this belief.

        On the other hand, was their pastor wrong? Did he desire to do wrong, or lead them the wrong way, in his preaching to them? He told them plainly of Jesus and his love; of his dying for their sins upon the cross; of his rising from the dead for their justification, if their faith believed this; and of his ascension to glory, where he went to prepare them a home; their mansion in heaven was sure if they lived a life of faith and practised good works. They could fully understand him in this, and it sufficed a large majority of them, the greater portion of whom he had baptized into the faith of the Church. Yet there was a thinking, discriminating number of members in the church even then who were able to judge of sound doctrine, and whether or not their minister was "holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers," and they strongly differed with Mr. Marshall, though a minority; and it was this body of the church's members who sent Rev. Thomas Anderson, A. Johnson, and Jack Simpson to represent them in the fifteenth session of the Sunbury Baptist Association. They were so received and enrolled as the Third African Church, according to the manner of the white brethren, entitling those churches wholly composed of colored officers and members.

        A question that arises just here is, Why did the Association not receive these delegates as the representatives of the First African Church, and so enroll them as formerly? The proposition here propounded is certainly necessary of solution to maintain the original status of the church, we think; and does the fact that the Association changed the number or title of recognition of the church at this time alter its original identity? In logic, opposition in propositions implies a disagreement in respect of quality, and it does appear to be a matter that the Association should have considered and decided upon as an advisory body under the Baptist polity; but it seems that they did not, although the white brethren of Savannah held several meetings with the leaders of the division. Such brethren as Rev. H. O. Wyer, Deacons Holmes Tupper, Abram Harmon, W. W. Wash, H. H. Furman, and others, men eminent for their piety and sound judgment and orthodoxy in the Baptist faith, counselled with and examined into the unhappy difficulty; and it was certainly their advice and direction that brought on the settlement in the form we have it upon their associational records, which we now quote:4

        (Par. 25.) "Application was made by the Third African Church to become a member of this Association. Granted by a unanimous vote.

        (Par. 26.) "Resolved, That this Association approves of the conduct of S. Whitfield, J. Clay, and others, who separated from the First African Church, and recommends them to full fellowship with all the churches.

        (Par. 27.) "Resolved, That this Association expresses its disapprobation of the conduct of such member or members as attempted to invalidate one or more of its resolutions.

        (Par. 28.) "Resolved, That it be considered respectful and safe for any church, differing as to the expediency or propriety of any resolutions of this Association, that they submit their views at the next annual meeting, and defer until such time operations on the subject.

        (Par. 29.) "Resolved, That this Association, having undoubted testimony of Andrew Marshall holding the sentiments avowed by Alexander Campbell, now declares him and all his followers to have thrown themselves out of the fellowship of the churches of this Association, and it recommends all of its faith and order to separate from them, according to the advice of the Savannah Baptist Church."

        It must also be borne in mind that at the previous session, when fellowship with the First African Church was declared dissolved by the Association, and they expressed by resolution their entire approbation of the Christian deportment of the Second African Church, they yet by another resolution recommended to that church the expediency of their connecting themselves as a branch of the white Baptist church in Savannah, and that we adopt measures to constitute all the African churches branches of white Baptist churches. A foot-note says a committee was appointed to transmit this resolution to the State Legislature and Mayor of Savannah, with explanatory remarks.

        In the session of 1834 the only allusion made to this difficulty is a paragraph of the digest of letters, saying, "The Third African Church seems engaged in its duties with diligence and Christian zeal;" but at the next session, 1835, we find on page 1, paragraph 16: "Application was made by the First African Church in Savannah for membership; but difficulties beyond the control of the Association being presented, with the consent of the representatives of said church, a committee was appointed, consisting of J. S. Law, A. Harmon, D. Harmon, T. Mel, W. W. Wash, and H. Furman, who should request the assistance of Rev. C. B. Jones, and who should act for the Association in the adjustment of the difficulties;" and at the session of 1835, on page 9, we find only a synopsis of the report of the committee, as follows: "The committee appointed by the preceding Association to settle differences existing between the African churches in Savannah, report the following as the conditions upon which an amicable adjustment might be effected: That the First African Church act aside from her pastor, thereby dissolving her illegal and disorderly connection with him; that she renounce the unscriptural doctrines taught by Andrew Marshall; that she satisfy the Second African Church in relation to her excommunicated members; that she return to the Association in the faith and order of the churches which compose that body."

        In the minutes of 1836 (page 4, par. 12) we find, "The committee appointed at the last session of this Association for the adjustment of the difficulties in the First African Church in Savannah, being called upon, presented their report, which, being read, was accepted." Also (par. 13), "A committee from the First African Church presented a letter addressed to the Association by one of its trustees, and also a petition for restoration to the fellowship of this body, which, after being examined by a committee, were returned with a recommendation that they should be read." (Par. 14.) "The letter and petition being read, on motion, a committee, consisting of Brethren J. S. Law, J. McDonald, and A. Harmon, was appointed, to report upon the petition."

        (Page 5, par. 20.) "The committee appointed to examine the letter from the First African Church thus reports: that they truly admire the spirit in which the petition of that church to your body was dictated, and would affectionately advise them to accede to the terms of reconciliation stated in the report of your late committee, as the only terms upon which reconciliation can be made in the present state of things. We would also recommend that the clerk furnish the delegates of said church with a copy of this report."

        At the session of 1837 (page 6, par. 13), "A letter was presented from the First African Church, requesting to be readmitted a member, stating that the difficulties heretofore existing were removed." The proceedings of the committee of the Savannah church (white), together with its report to the church, as follows, were read: "Your committee, after a laborious service, are now able to report that they have reason to believe the long-existing difficulties between the several African churches are brought to a close; each has expressed itself satisfied, and all has been done by the First African Church in accordance with the resolutions and recommendations of the Association; and Andrew Marshall, having made full renunciation of holding the peculiar sentiments of Alexander Campbell, with which he has been charged, there seems to be no difficulty in his holding full fellowship in the church to which he belongs. It was then resolved that the First African Church be readmitted a member of this body." Thus we have here all the public correspondence and actions of the Association relating to the difficulty, fully, as they appear in its minutes, and must leave for another chapter its analysis.

 

Footnotes:
1 We are indebted to Mr. John Stoddard, of the Independent Presbyterian Church, for the copy of these records from the files of the church in this city.
2 Extract from the minutes of Sunbury Association, 1832, p. 6, paragraphs 24-27, kindly furnished by Rev. Lewis C. Tebeau, now secretary New Sunbury Association.
3 Matthew ix. 36.
4 Minutes of the Sunbury Association, 1833, p. 6, paragraphs 25-29.

 
 
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