The dramatic story of black Baptists in America needs to be told afresh in order for our generation and its posterity to understand and appreciate the vitality of such a tradition. Each one of us is born within a certain tradition, which stamps its peculiar seal on our basic drives to participate in the creative moments of our life. Our black Baptist story is a rich deposit of such tradition.
Strangely enough, the story of black Baptists in America has not been told from the standpoint of its tremendous spiritual momentum through the ages of American history. Of inestimable importance is the fact that black Baptists were distinctive and eminent in the development of American Christianity. This book will attempt to document objectively our tradition as a unique trend within that experience. I shall attempt more than an apology of black Baptists, exalting the denomination and praising its leaders; rather, my purpose is to tell the black Baptist story as a part of, though unique, the general history of American Christianity, noting social, economic, and political influences on the development of the tradition.
In chapter 1, I have attempted to relate the creative forces in historic black Baptist religion. It is evident that black Baptists share in the great spiritual heritage of the ages. However, they did not simply absorb the spiritual heritage. On the contrary, a creative momentum was developed to adjust that heritage to the unique psychological, sociological, and political needs of black Americans. Black Baptists appropriated from European and white American Baptist tradition many of the great doctrines of the black Baptist church and its organizational policy.
Chapter 2 deals with the exodus of black Baptists from white churches. The discrepancy between the ideal and actual of white Baptist tradition and practices led several black Baptists to follow the example of Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal Church to withdraw from white churches and establish independent churches. Curiously enough, these churches evolved from plantation missions. This was particularly evident in the rural South. But, alas, out of these plantation missions grew independent churches which subsequently sought to establish cooperative relationships.
Furthermore, chapter 3 deals with the actual development of cooperative relationships among black Baptists particularly in the area of Christian missions. The antebellum period (roughly 1815-1860) was a time of intense missionary activity. We may note in passing that white Baptists sent missionaries to the American West and to foreign lands. By the 1840s, whites had even created what historians call a "Benevolent Empire" of missionary organizations. It is not surprising then that this missionary momentum should take hold in black Baptist churches. Against this background, a detailed account of the missionary enterprise of black Baptists is related to the evolution of associations and conventions.
Against the background of cooperative relationships, chapter 4 focuses on the role of black Baptists in Christian and secular education. Soon after the end of the Civil War, black Baptist leaders progressively experienced and reflected the genial rays of that light which came from Christian and secular education. To be sure, these liberated men and women were anxious to avail themselves to high ideas and ideals of Western civilization. This motivated them to enter journalism in greater numbers and to establish institutions of education with a distinctive philosophy for the education of black Americans.
Chapter 5 surveys the sociopolitical vitality of black Baptist tradition. Contrary to the supposition of some, black Baptists very early inherited, though unintentionally on the part of whites, a tradition of freedom in the development of American democracy. Out of this heritage, they readily developed a social and political momentum in their theology unparalleled in white American Christianity up until the time of Walter Rauschenbusch, the prophet of social Christianity. To discern the moral springs of social and political action in black Baptist churches, one must seek to understand the mystery of how black slave preachers were able to utilize simple biblical stories and Negro spirituals for the progressive liberation of an enslaved and oppressed people. Fundamental to the contemporary civil rights movement was the evolution of black social Christianity from slave preachers to those liberated black preachers of versatile genius and illustrious character—some acclaimed, others unhearalded—who saw clearly the meaning of Jesus in man's social and political life.
Finally, chapter 6 analyzes critically new trends in black Baptist life against the background of the tremendous changes in the religious, social, and political life of America. Special attention is given to the causative factors precipitating the new trends. Black Baptists are challenged to work out a new theology of participation in the evolution of a new ethos in the general southern life and the broader American experience. In the meantime, black theology must reflect the new ethos and provide the frame of reference for black Baptists to affirm new liberties in the American experience. Such theology must be seen, however, as a transitional theology. By transitional black theology is meant the process of doing theology that will allow black and whites Americans opportunities to cross the bridge between racism and an authentic anthropology based on Christian principles. The moral implications of such theology must be worked out in connection with the Moral Majority movement in America. To be sure, black Baptists are challenged to apply the faith experiences of their churches to the moral and spiritual life of the nation.
Following the Bibliography is a section entitled Historical Documents. The interviews in this section will help readers understand some of the significant elements in the religious and sociopolitical framework in which A History of Black Baptists developed. To be sure, we have moved beyond the settings described in these documents; however, we must not forget from whence we have come.
Many of the possessions which we regard as most significant to our experiences come to us as a part of an accumulated inheritance from the past. All Christians share in the great spiritual heritage of the ages. This is especially true of black Baptists in America. We are a people with deep streams of early historic tradition, like a mighty river draining many hills and valleys, containing muddy trends as well as clear waters. Our task is therefore twofold: to promote the flow of the stream and to enhance the purity of waters.
Our black Baptist heritage will be more meaningful for us if we try to explore the riches of our spiritual inheritance from its European background, American slavery, and the great body of white American Baptist history. We must acknowledge our indebtedness to Baptists of European and early American history. Many of our doctrines, church organizations, and polity were borrowed from Baptists of all ages.
At one time, our images of the black religious experience before the Civil War were dominated by special tendencies of the institutions of slavery and the plantation. Currently, we have begun to realize that black Baptists, both slave and free, had a variety of experiences and that they managed, even under the harshest of conditions, to construct a vital cultural, religious, and institutional life. Again, this development has to be traced to the accumulated inheritance of Baptist tradition.
There has been considerable controversy over the origin of Baptists. Church historians of the nineteenth century and some thinkers of the twentieth century have held the theory that the Baptist's origin evolved from the remotest ages of antiquity. Such historians as Mosheim and Milner of the nineteenth century attempted to show that the sentiments of the Baptists were held by the primitive church, and not departed from until the year 253 when Cyprian, an African bishop, decided, "That those whose weak state did not permit them to be washed in water, were yet sufficiently baptized by being sprinkled."
So viewed, church history would tend to suggest that, in every age since Christian origins, there have existed communities of Christians among whom were held most, and by some all, of the peculiar doctrines of the Baptists of today. Such were the Piedmontese, Waldenses, and the disciples of Gundulphus. Each of these "radical" groups shared tendencies of doctrines later identified as Baptist.
Specifically, the Baptists of Holland, France, Switzerland, and England were mainly descendants of the Waldenses. Some historians have held that the Waldenses go back to primitive Christianity. By 1120, their basic doctrines were well developed. The Waldenses maintained: "We acknowledge no sacrament as of divine appointment, but Baptism and the Lord's Supper. We consider these as visible emblems of invisible blessings."
With reference to the primitive antecedents of Baptist polity, the conservative historian Mosheim claimed: "The churches in those early times were entirely independent, none of them subject to any foreign jurisdiction; but each one governed by its own rulers and laws." Hence, the independent congregational polity of Baptist churches has been traced by such historians to some of the practices of the early church movement.
Black church historians, Miles Mark Fisher and E. M. Brawley, have more or less sided with early conservative historians relative to Baptist beginnings. Brawley wrote an article entitled "Contending for the Faith" which evidenced tendencies of support to the theory of Baptist origin in primitive Christianity. Brawley remarked: "'Contend for the Faith' has been the inspiring battle-cry of Baptists all along the centuries, and with it they have conquered. It should be ours no less; for Christianity is powerless unless aggressive"
Clearly, an apologetic motif underlies the interpretation of Baptist historical tradition on the part of these conservative historians. They tend to believe that Baptist tradition must maintain a certain vitality through linkage with primitive Christianity. They have also been very critical of historians who have a different viewpoint, suggesting that the latter fail to distinguish between the concept of the beginnings of Baptists and the crystallizing of what became the beginnings of the modern Baptist movement about 1643.
The rise of the scientific approach to the interpretation of biblical and other historical data ushered in a new era in church history. Much debate emerged over the nature and methodology of interpretation utilized by historians through the ages. Questions of accuracy and reliability of a wide variety of literature were raised by the more critical historians. Hence, this approach swept the air fresh in hermeneutics, apologetics, and the general interpretation of history. Out of this movement emerged a new school of church historians.
These historians began the tendency to identify Baptists as latecomers along with other early Protestants of the seventeenth century. Robert G. Torbert remarked: "The rootage of Baptists lies in the sect-type of Christianity as over against the church-type with its sacerdotal ministry and institutionalism." The Anabaptists, a sectarian expression of Christianity, paralleled the Protestant Reformation. This movement emphasized believers baptism and the autonomy of each local congregation. So strong was the fervor of their beliefs that they rebaptized former members of the established churches.
Clearly then, in my judgment, Baptist origin must be traced from the evolution of sectarian expressions of Christianity as expressed in the Protestant Reformation. Specifically, the Anabaptist movement was the antecedent movement of the Baptists. The emergence of the Anabaptist movement went severely against the grain of religious, social, and political opinion in Europe. In England, it posed a tremendous threat to the Church of England; and, in continental Europe, the Anabaptist movement was bitterly resisted by the established religious tradition and political authorities. Indeed, all of Europe was to be plunged into tremendous battles over the significance of Anabaptist opinion. The whole way of life of the Europeans was challenged by this new radical movement. The result was a severe era of persecution. Many Christians of Anabaptist persuasion were forced to leave Europe in search of a more congenial climate for their movement.
When we recollect that most of the early emigrants to New England came from their fatherland in search of "freedom to Worship God," we are not surprised to hear Cotton Mather saying, "Many of the first settlers in Massachusetts were Baptists, and as holy and watchful and fruitful and heavenly a people as perhaps any in the world." Specifically, Baptists of America trace their primary roots to the work of Roger Williams, the first who pleaded for liberty of conscience in America and who became the pioneer of religious liberty for the New World. The rise of Baptists in America has a strong claim to the status of indigenous denomination.
The tremendous influence of Roger Williams in the birth of Baptists in America is a matter of great significance to the subsequent development of the sociopolitical thought among black Baptists. Governor Hopkins once remarked: "Roger Williams justly claims the honor of having been the first legislator in the world, in its latter ages, that fully and effectively provided for and established a full, free and absolute liberty of conscience." Having been a Puritan minister, Roger Williams was driven from England by those persecutions of opinion which, like the confusion of languages at Babel, drove men asunder and peopled the earth. When he arrived in Massachusetts, Williams proclaimed that the only business of the human legislator is with the actions of man as they affect his fellowman; but, as for the thoughts of his mind and the acts or omissions of his life as in respect to religious worship, the only lawgiver is God; and the only human tribunal is a man's own conscience.
Roger Williams's sociopolitical concepts of church and state relationships led to tremendous encounters with the principle leaders of the Massachusetts colony. He was exiled by the court because of opposition to church membership right of suffrage, all laws compelling attendance at church, and all taxed for the support of worship.
While exiled from Massachusetts colony, Roger Williams was able to lead a movement for the founding of Rhode Island colony. He obtained a charter from the king and stood in the high estimation of the civilized world. He ruled the colony on basic biblical principles. These principles of Williams were soon adopted by Ezekiel Holliman who applied them particularly to church life. In 1639, Ezekiel Holliman baptized Roger Williams, the first American to be baptized by immersion on a profession of faith, who then administered the same rite to Holliman and ten others.
At this time, Roger Williams became officially identified with the Baptist denomination. (He did not maintain this relationship and later became a Seeker.) The little group of newly baptized believers styled themselves Baptists and organized the first Baptist church on the continent of North America.
Subsequently, emigrants from England who were Baptists planted themselves in New England, Virginia, and in most of the principle towns of the colonies. Therefore, a number of Baptist churches were founded in the seventeenth century. The first Baptist church in New York was founded in 1762; but from 1669, Baptist worship and an irregular church arrangement had been maintained in that city. The revolutionary war led to an accelerated expansion of Baptist churches through the travels of many faithful soldiers.
One great paradox of American religious history is the accommodation to slavery on the part of Baptists. The paradox stands out with brilliance when we remember the great humanitarian concerns of Roger Williams and other early Baptist leaders. How could a group so exposed to persecution in Europe support the oppression of black men and women from Africa? How could a people who supported the freedom of conscience issues fail to recognize the evils of an institution styled to enslave both body and conscience of a people? These are some of the agitating questions of consideration in Baptist history.
Initially, white Baptist involvement in the evangelization of slaves was minimal. There were scattered instances of black Baptists holding membership in white churches. As early as 1772, Robert Steven and eighteen other black Baptists held membership in the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island. By 1772, the First Baptist Church of Boston was receiving black Baptists in its membership. However, the southward advance of Baptists encountered attitudes which discouraged work among slaves. Here, as in other parts of the Baptist advance into new regions, the question of slavery began to trouble Baptist churches. In 1798, the Mill's Creek Church sent to the Kentucky Baptist Association the query: "Has a black slave a right to a seat in the Association?" The prompt answer sent back was, "Yes, provided he be sent as a messenger from a church."The decision of the Kentucky Baptist Association was not readily received by several local churches. In 1795, the Lick Creek Church split over the slavery question. Similarly, "A disaffection existing in the Rolling Fork Church, on the account of slavery, the whole church except three withdrew from the association."
The initial decades following the American Revolution was a time of spiritual stresses and unremitting social tensions relative to the slavery question. In many cases, those black Baptists who had been admitted to the membership of white churches were limited in their privileges and responsibilities. An obvious allusion to this tendency was reflected in an 1802 report of the Dover Baptist Association in Virginia. Here it was said that some churches admitted to their church meetings all male members whether slave or free. Nevertheless, the report reflected a movement against this tendency.
By experience this plan was found vastly inconvenient. The degraded state of the minds of the slaves, rendered them totally incompetent to the task of judging correctly respecting the business of the church, and in many churches there were a majority of slaves; in consequence of which great confusion often arose. The circular letter argued and advised, that although all members were entitled to the privilege, yet that none but free male members should exercise any authority in the Church. The Association after some debate, sanctioned the plan by a large majority.
This action made unmistakenly clear that the slavery question was sufficient to cause many white Baptists in America to set aside basic principles of the denomination to accommodate slavery.
With a poignant sense of the extremity of their circumstance, some whites turned to violence as a means of restricting the freedom of black Baptists. In 1809, a Baptist church in Williamsburg, Virginia, principally composed, if not altogether of blacks, experienced some violence within its membership. Reverend Moses, a black preacher, was often whipped for holding meetings in connection with the church's ministry. One historian pointed out that "the Association had advised that no person of color should be allowed to preach, on the pain of excommunication; against this regulation many of the blacks were rebellious and continued to hold meetings." Similar considerations give full warrant to the conclusion that slavery subjected white Baptists to great emotional stress especially in the South relative to the treatment of black Baptists. By the nineteenth century, white Baptists found themselves increasingly on the defensive, increasingly compelled to improvise, as the code by which their fathers had justified the holding of slaves became less and less intelligible. Accordingly, this sense of frustration was reflected in the treatment of whites toward Baptist slaves.
Strangely enough, the westward expansion of Baptists seems to reflect a diminishing emotional stress over the slavery issue. Active work for the black population was under way in Saint Louis, Missouri, as early as 1818; and in 1822 a separate church was organized for black Baptists, but still under the supervision of white Baptist leaders. Rev. J. M. Peck, an early Baptist missionary and pioneer, was for several years the white representative who regularly visited and gave guidance to this church. The same church was instrumental in helping several slaves to obtain their freedom. Rev. John Berry Meacham, "a free man of color" who had attained his freedom by industry, was their pastor. Meacham's father, a Baptist preacher and slave in Virginia, was purchased by the church. Hence, the westward expansion was motivated by a missionary spirit manifesting itself in caring for "the regions beyond."