committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

A HISTORY
OF THE
Negro Baptists of North Carolina

 

CHAPTER I.
THE NEGRO BAPTISTS OF NORTH CAROLINA BEFORE THE WAR.

        Since communication among the Negroes before the war was altogether verbal, confined to narrow limitations, and since no record was kept of his doings as a churchman, it is impossible to get anything like an accurate statement of his history previous to the emancipation. Since we know that there were in this country at the close of the war four hundred thousand Negro Baptists, and since the Negro Baptists of North Carolina formed a part of that number we know they had an existence of some kind. Considering conditions as they were at that time, and taking the statements as we gather them here and there, it is safe to say throughout the entire South they existed only in connection with the white churches. In the history of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, by Rev. Livingston Johnson, we get the following in 1837: "The committee on religious instruction of slaves urged that places be provided for them in the houses of worship, and that their religious instruction receive special attention."

        Relating to another statement in the Convention of 1850 is the following: "The churches of the State are urged to establish schools for the oral instruction of the colored people." In some instances the colored people were allowed to hold services conducted by some member of their own race in some sections and at specified times, but such meetings were usually held under the supervision of a white man, and at his discretion these meetings were brought to a close. In very many instances such meetings were even conducted by a member of the white race. In matters of discipline, especially if a white member was involved, the colored people had no voice whatever. In matters affecting their own number often some colored brother in whom the church had confidence would make reports and recommendations. In compliance with the resolution of 1837, which we have already mentioned, in some instances provision was made in the erection of the church edifice by petition, and in the galleries for the accommodation of the colored brethren. In the communion services, after the bread and wine had been passed to the white brethren, it was passed in turn to the colored brethren. This was regarded by them as a God-sent privilege and a blessing, for which their "Amens" were often loud and lasting.

        In that early day even among the white members it was not an unusual thing for a white brother or sister to give vent to their feelings in a hallelujah, and to them it did not seem strange to see tears of joy and thanksgiving flowing down the cheeks of the colored

brother. In the appointment of missionaries among the white brethren they were instructed to devote a portion of their time to the religious uplift and instruction of the colored brother, and this they often did very much to their satisfaction. The extent of the work of the missionary and the relations of the races as master and slave, was the question which brought about the separation of the Northern and Southern Baptists in 1845. Among the Southern missionaries and ministers in North Carolina as elsewhere throughout the South there were many zealous Christians, who devoted much of their time to the condition of the colored people so much affected and improved during the days of slavery. It is hard for the biased mind and the prejudiced Negro to see God in conditions such as surrounded the race before the war religiously or otherwise, and yet we verily believe God was in it, and much of the discipline and training which he received in that early day was greatly helpful in the changes which came to him in the days of his freedom and the entire responsibility of work and of worship. It was certainly no disadvantage for one emerged from heathenism to be brought in touch with intelligence in church worship. It took Israel to suffer many cruelties to be brought right close to God, and even then, despite God's wonderful and miraculous deliverance, His people were often found going in the wrong direction.

        In many localities of North Carolina special revival services were held for the colored people; often great

numbers professed faith in Christ. The Pleasant Plains Church, of Hertford County, and many others had their beginning as a result of such meetings. In the instance of the church just mentioned it was agreed between a white Baptist and Methodist minister that they would unite and carry on a revival meeting. Large numbers professed faith in Christ, and then arose the question to which church they would unite. It was finally agreed that the Methodist should stand on the one side and the Baptist minister should stand on the other, and leave it to the option of the candidate on which side he should pass. As might have been expected at that day almost every one passed over on the side of the Baptist preacher, and the Pleasant Plains Church was immediately set apart. The same minister served them several years. It was not until Rev. C. S. Brown took charge of the school at Winton a colored man was called to serve this church. While the law expressly forbade the use of a book for the colored man, many kind and Christian masters and mistresses would gather the colored people on Sunday afternoons and teach them the word of God. In this way a great number were brought to a saving knowledge of the Christ and followed Him, not only in conversion and regeneration, but in baptism as well. There were but few Baptist preachers before the war. The first we have any knowledge of was "Uncle Harry Cowan," as he was known at that time. He was the servant of Thomas L. Cowan. His master being present at a funeral was so struck with his gift to preach God's word granted him "privilege papers" to preach anywhere on his four plantations. His papers were fixed up by a lawyer and read thus: "This is to certify that whosover is interested about my man Harry he has the privilege to preach and marry also; to baptize any one who makes a profession of faith." His success was so wonderful and so much of the confidence of his master was imposed in him his privileges were soon extended, and he was not only allowed to preach on his master's "plantations" but wherever he was promised "protection." God greatly strengthened his ministry and thousands of his own race and many of the white race heard this man of God in his simplicity proclaim the glad tidings of salvation as contained in the word of God. He preached the gospel not only until peace was declared, but was a leader among the pioneers for many years after the great Civil War. During the struggle in arms between the North and the South he was the body-servant of Gen. Joseph Johnston. He preached every night during the struggle except the night when General Stonewall Jackson fell in battle. Men like "Uncle Harry" were quite rare before the war, and even since few have proven such powers for the salvation of fallen humanity. Seventy years of his life were given to the gospel ministry. During that time he baptized eight thousand persons. There were others as preachers and deacons, men of decided ability and firm character. Though possessed of rare gifts few were granted the privileges granted to "Uncle Harry." With such men it is not surprising that North Carolina even before the war was so strongly Baptist. In Raleigh we find such men as "Uncle Harry," but they were only laymen. Among these we find Todd Palmer, Sandy Pinkin, Henry Jett, Richard Shepard and Jim Adkins. In many other sections of the State such men existed full of faith, of kindness and exhortation. The life and deeds, the midnight prayers of such men, did more to bring the freedom which afterward followed than all other means combined.

        We have already said that questions of discipline were almost exclusively left to the white people, but in some instances fairness was shown to the colored brother, and his side received the proper consideration. We record a single instance of this kind. A conflict ensued between a white brother and a colored sister. When the white brother was heard a motion at once was made to exclude the colored sister without hearing her side, but others insisted and it afterward prevailed to hear her side; and when they had heard her side she was justified and allowed to retain her membership.

        Notwithstanding there were many obstacles which stood in the way of the religious growth and development of the colored people before the war, there were many devoted Christians among them.

        At Louisburg there was a splendid illustration of this fact, together with many others which might be named. Lewis Perry, who was known in that day by white and black as "Dr. Lewis Perry," was the body servant of Dr. Wilie Perry. He was granted papers to hold prayer meetings in Louisburg. He was further granted papers to exhort. His white friends said by all means he should have been granted "a horse and saddle and bridle." His name will always live in and about Louisburg, for his services were not only greatly helpful to his colored brethren but many white people heard him gladly, and were greatly benefited by his spiritual earnestness and instruction. In connection with the white church in which he held membership he was called upon almost invariably at the concluding of the sermon to lead in prayer, and as often as he did the entire congregation felt greatly lifted up through his prayers.

        Whenever any colored person applied to this church for membership they had first to secure the permission of "Dr. Perry."

        Many revivals were held in the basements of the Methodist and Baptist churches of Louisburg by "Dr. Perry," and many souls professed faith in Christ through these revival efforts, and were added to the church.

        An opportunity to worship God was hailed with extreme delight, as was manifest in the sacrifices which they were often called upon to make for the worship of God. Some would give liberal contributions out of their meagre earnings in support of the gospel, and while many since the war would not make the sacrifice to walk a few hundred yards to hear the gospel, there are very many instances in which the antebellum Christians were known to walk fifteen and twenty miles to attend a midnight prayer meeting, and rejoiced for the privilege as a special benediction from above. In many instances these prayer meetings were clandestine and many, after taking such long walks, were hunted down and chased away as disturbers of the peace.

        Strange to say, while the Negroes were allowed to dance all night long and were not disturbed, as soon as they began the worship of God often it was claimed they were disturbers.

        While much of the religion of former years was sentimental much was sincere and practical. Even in that day of darkness such men and women impressed themselves not only upon members of their own race, but upon those who had the rule over them. Often these old antebellum Christians exerted such an influence when prayer was necessary they were called upon to lead in prayer. Instances can be recalled of some who were called to the bedside of their dying masters to offer the last sad rites. Some of the preachers who came in contact with such devoted men and women became devoted to them, and despite the changes which followed the war this devotion lasted through life. We have already mentioned the strength and devotion of some of the Raleigh members. Such a Christian spirit grew up between them and their white brethren when the time came for a separation they refused to go out from their white brethren, and remained with them for several years afterward. The property now owned by the colored First Baptist Church was offered to them soon after the war, but they refused to leave their white brethren and it fell into the hands of the Roman Catholics. In the special Providence of God after many years of worship near the Seaboard workshops, the Roman Catholics sold out to the colored Baptists and they at much sacrifice erected the beautiful church on the corner of the street southeast of the Capitol Square. The instance mentioned of the affection between the colored and white brethren growing out of these church affliliations is but one of many. So strong was the relation in the case of individuals that many retained their membership among their white brethren until their death.

        The dawn of freedom brought many changes in the church relations as well as otherwise. The prayer which these fathers prayed was "Grant the day Lord when we may worship God under our own vine and fig tree," and this prayer meant to them a separation from the white churches. Rude houses of worship were erected in every section, and where they were unable to erect houses brush arbors were thrown together, and in many instances they were content to worship under the trees. This new privilege was hailed with extreme delight everywhere, and in North Carolina as elsewhere. The fervor and devotion of the old slave father was unabating, and for years afterward it looked as if the promise of undying service would find in them a fulfillment. Licenses and ordinations became general, and soon there were many although unlettered who went forth in their rude way telling the joyful tidings of salvation. One of the saddest changes in the history of the denomination was to see with the growth of education and other improvements new demands for a more intelligent ministry, and to see these old landmarks falling out one by one, and men of better training taking their places. Only a few of these old ministers survived in the midst of these changes. Most of them outlived their generation. In nearly every instance when these changes became necessary the old leader would yield with extreme reluctance. It should be said that no men in any age have done more for their opportunity than these old ministers coming to the church emerging from slavery.

        Some of them lived to see the brush arbor removed, and the log church erected instead, and even the log churches taken away and frame and brick churches erected. The history of Rev. G. W. Holland, of Winston-Salem, gives an instance of this kind. Not only did he remove from the brush arbor to the frame church, but from the frame church to the beautiful brick building in Winston, a monument to his energy and faithfulness. He lived not only in the memory of the old people like himself, but retained up until his death a place of highest esteem among the young people of his church and community.

        Having set apart twenty-eight Baptist churches, and having erected the beautiful structure mentioned, full of honors and noble deeds he passed with the fathers to his home of peaceful rest.

        Rev. Thomas Parker was another example. Possibly in his day he baptized four thousand persons. Passing through every kind of trial and distress, he lived in spite of opposition and changes of every kind. At the time of his death he was the pastor of four of the largest churches of the Kenansville Association. For thirty years he was the Moderator of this Association.

        It is easy to appreciate improved conditions when they are in evidence, but the world soon forgets those who have labored to lay a foundation. Taking everything into consideration the early fathers of the churches coming out of the little work done before the war, and taking into consideration the ante-bellum Negro Baptists, the churches for the generations to come owe them a debt of deepest gratitude.

 
 
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