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Preaching and “spit-boxes:” what worship was like in Baptist churches of antebellum Mississippi

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

    What was it like to worship in a Mississippi Baptist church in the years before the Civil War? A survey of church minutes from various churches around Mississippi tell the story. Sunday services were commonly referred to as “divine worship,” “divine service,” or simply “preaching.” Many Mississippi Baptist churches in this time only had a “preaching” service once a month, as their pastor often had to preach at other churches on the other Sundays during the month, and sometimes they had to adjust their schedule to that of the pastor and his other churches. For instance, in 1855, after calling a new pastor, Hephzibah Church in Clarke County voted to move their monthly worship was “from the second to the fourth Sabbath.” Likewise, in 1853, after Bethesda Church in Hinds County called a new pastor, they changed their monthly meeting for the first Sunday to the third Sunday, and “we grant him the privilege to preach for us one Sabbath each month.”1

   Baptism was generally done in a natural body of water near the church building. For example, Hopewell Church in Lafayette County recorded in their minutes in July 1857, that after their business conference, they “adjourned and repared [sic] to the water to attend to the Ordinance of Baptism and Sister Sarah Couch was Baptized.” Bethesda Church in Hinds County constructed an outdoor baptismal pool at a natural spring not far from their meeting house, and built a “dressing house at the pool” that was 10 by 12 feet. A member also furnished a “suit of clothes” to wear for baptisms.  Not only was baptism only for believers by immersion, but the Landmark movement influenced Baptists to reject “alien immersion” by non-Baptists. In 1853, “Phebe, a servant of Francis Martin” wanted to join Bethesda Church in Hinds County. Phebe had been immersed as a believer by a Methodist minister. The examining committee was “satisfied with her Christian walk” and recommended that her “former baptism” be accepted, but the church rejected the recommendation at their Saturday business meeting. The next day, after the Sunday preaching service, Phebe was accepted as a candidate for baptism and the congregation “repaired to the water and Phebe was baptized.”2

    The Lord’s Supper was usually distributed by deacons. Clear Creek Church in Adams County served the Lord’s Supper every three months. Sarepta Church in Franklin County also observed communion about once every three months except when something unusual caused a postponement. They used real wine during that time. Bethesda Church in Hinds County recorded expenditure of $2.00 for a gallon of wine in 1851. They also considered it a duty for every member to partake of the Lord’s Supper “when not providentially hindered.” Besides the Lord’s Supper, foot washing was also commonly practiced. Sarepta Church’s minutes in August 1846 referred to “the duty of foot-washing” to be observed the next month in worship. Although foot washing was called a “duty,” only baptism and communion were referred to as “ordinances.” 3

   Music was important in Mississippi Baptist church life. The very first entry in the minutes of Sarepta Church in 1810 said they “opened by singing and prayer.” The Pearl River Association mentions closing their meeting “united in singing a hymn.”  Hephzibah Church ordered a “dozen hymn books (Dossey’s Choice) for the use of the church and congregation to be paid for by voluntary contributions.” The hymnal they referred to as “Dossey’s Choice” was The Choice: in two parts, compiled by William Dossey, and published in 1833 by Charles De Silver & Sons in Philadelphia. It was called The Choice: in two parts, because it offered a choice of two types of songs. Part One contained traditional hymns, such as “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and Part Two contained songs based on the Psalms of the Bible, set to rhyme, such as one based on Psalm 46 which began, “God is our refuge in distress, a present help when dangers press…”   Bethesda Church voted to get a new hymnal, and ordered 24 hymnals called “Psalmody,” but also “earnestly recommended that the present practice of lining the hymns be continued.”  This likely means they ordered The Baptist Psalmody: A Selection of Hymns for the Worship of God. This was a 794-page hymnal published in 1850 by the Southern Baptist Publication Society, edited by Southern Baptist leader Basil Manly. The practice of “lining the hymn” meant that a song leader chanted or sang a line of the song a capella, and then the congregation repeated the line, and this continued through the song, line by line.4

   Mississippi Baptists were a praying people. Church minutes frequently made mention of prayer meetings and times of fasting and prayer. Ebenezer Church in Amite County met on a Monday in 1846 to “fast and pray to the Lord that he would send more faithful Laborers into his Harvest, and Call their Pastor.” In 1847, Ebenezer Church met on a Friday “to fast and pray for the peace and prosperity of the churches.” Throughout the 1840s, it was the practice of Hephzibah Church in Clarke County to meet for an hour of prayer before having their Sunday worship service.5

Some practices that were commonly accepted then would be considered unusual today. For example, it was normal for Baptists to chew tobacco while sitting in worship. In fact, in 1850, Bethesda Church in Hinds County voted to put 71 “spit-boxes” (spittoons) in their meeting house, at a cost of 3 cents each.6

SOURCES:

1 Minutes, Hephzibah Baptist Church, Clarke County, Mississippi, January 27, 1855, June 27, 1857; Minutes, Bethesda Baptist Church, Hinds County, Mississippi, October 1846, December 1852, January 1, 1853.

2 Minutes, Hopewell Baptist Church, Lafayette County, Mississippi, July 1857; Minutes, Bethesda Baptist Church, Hinds County, Mississippi, October 1851, April 1853, December 1854.

3 Minutes, Clear Creek Baptist Church, Adams County, Mississippi April 10, 1847, July 26, 1847; Minutes, Sarepta Baptist Church, Franklin County, Mississippi August 1846, June 1847, September 1847, December 1847; Minutes, Bethesda Baptist Church, Hinds County, Mississippi, December 1851; September 15, 1860. Grape juice that did not ferment was not invented until 1869.

4 Minutes, Sarepta Bptist Church, Franklin County, Mississippi, October 1, 1810; Minutes, Pearl River Baptist Association, 1860, 9; Minutes, Hephzibah Baptist Church, Clarke County, Mississippi, August 28, 1851; “The Choice: In Two Parts,” accessed on the Internet on 25 April 2022 at http://hymnary.org/hymnal/C2P41833?page=6; Minutes, Bethesda Church, Hinds County, June 15, 1855; The Baptist Psalmody: A Selection of Hymns for the Worship of God, review on Goodreads, accessed 8 May 2022 on the Internet at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50587023-the-baptist-psalmody.

5 Minutes, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Amite County, Mississippi, November 14, 1846, October 16, 1847; Minutes, Hephzibah Baptist Church, Clarke County, Mississippi, June 1847.

6 Minutes, Bethesda Baptist Church, Hinds County, Mississippi, August 1850.

How Mississippi Baptists nearly split over Landmarkism in 1860

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

 

William Carey Crane was one of the most influential leaders of Landmarkism in Mississippi.

    The influence of Landmarkism, particularly in north Mississippi, nearly led to a split in the Mississippi Baptist Convention in 1860. J.R. Graves was the leader of the Landmark movement, which taught that Baptists were the only true churches, and the only true baptism was baptism done in a Baptist church. Graves’s newspaper, The Tennessee Baptist, enjoyed a wide circulation in northern Mississippi, and siphoned off potential subscribers to The Mississippi Baptist, which had failed in 1849 but restarted by the State Convention in 1857. J. T. Freeman, editor of The Mississippi Baptist, spoke out against the efforts of William Carey Crane in north Mississippi. William Carey Crane of Hernando had established Semple-Broadus College at Center Hill, De Soto County, which he hoped would rival Mississippi College, the school in Clinton newly affiliated with Baptists. Crane had an opportunity to be president of Mississippi College in 1850 when it was taken over by the State Convention, but he had not taken the position. Crane was in “close allegiance” with J. R. Graves. This was apparent as early as 1855, when Crane was president of the State Convention, and the circular letter from the Convention promoted Landmark views. The circular said, “Baptist churches are the only Gospel churches in Christendom.” This circular repeated the Landmark version of Baptist history, claiming the first Baptist church was organized in the upper room in Jerusalem. Ironically, despite these views, Crane preached at the Methodist church in Lexington, when churches of other denominations provided use of their buildings for Baptist preachers during the 1857 Mississippi Baptist State Convention. Crane went so far as to organize a rival State Convention at Oxford in November 1859, called the General Association of Baptists in North Mississippi. Instead of representation based on financial contributions, it based representation on the local church, an approach favored by Landmark Baptists. Delegates were chosen from member churches and associations based on one delegate for every one hundred members.1

   The Landmark controversy dominated the 1860 meeting of the Mississippi Baptist Convention in Natchez. Resolutions on the subject were introduced, and recognizing deep feelings on the subject, it was referred to the Committee on Resolutions, chaired by Isham Harrison, Jr. The committee reported a revised resolution to the Convention, which was approved. The resolution began to stating agreement with Landmarkers that a church is a congregation of immersed believers and autonomous in governing itself. However, it stated, “the issue presented and known as ‘An Old-Landmark Reset’ is not a just or sufficient cause of denominational or personal contentions… but is one of those questions about which differences of opinion and practice ought to have the broadest Christian toleration.” Having said that, the State Convention clearly came down on the side of those opposed to Landmarkism, by defending the use of mission boards and agencies: “Resolved, That the Baptist denomination of this State are emphatically a missionary people; and… we are not prepared to abandon those organizations which the wisdom of the experience of the denomination have adopted for that purpose, but will, as heretofore, heartily co-operate with them…” The resolution also affirmed the publication and use of Baptist “Sabbath School Literature,” which some Landmarkers attacked since it came from a board rather than a local church. Concerned “that these controversies, if they have not already, will… degenerate into a personal character mainly” they asked the State Convention President to appoint a committee of ten men as “to offer their mediation” and seek to reconcile the parties involved.2    

The Mediation Committee named by the Mississippi Baptist Convention included people on both sides of the controversy, including J. T. Freeman of Jackson, editor of The Mississippi Baptist, and Moses Granberry of Grenada, who was treasurer of the north Mississippi splinter group. This “Peace Committee” met with resistance, as they gave a report at the 1861 State Convention, but “after remarks from a number of brethren, the Convention refused to adopt the report.” Nevertheless, Mississippi Baptists were able to avoid a split over Landmarkism, as Crane, it’s most influential leader, moved to Texas, and the outbreak of the Civil War turned their attention to more urgent issues of survival. However, the influence of Landmark ideas would continue to linger in Mississippi.3

SOURCES:

1 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1846, 16; 1855, 37; 1857, 8-10; Jesse L. Boyd, A Popular History of the Baptists in Mississippi (Jackson: The Baptist Press, 1930), 108-109.

2 Ibid, 1860, 17-19.

3 Ibid, 1860, 1861, 8; Boyd, 108.

The Mississippi Baptist revival during the War of 1812

Photo by Michael Morse on Pexels.com

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

   On December 16, 1811, the New Madrid earthquake, with its epicenter in New Madrid in southeast Missouri Territory, was felt over a million square miles, including Natchez, where clocks stopped, houses were damaged, and the river rose and fell rapidly. A New Orleans writer said, “the shake which the Natchezians have felt may be a mysterious visitation from the Author of all nature, on them for their sins.” It would seem that many people were truly shaken to their core, not only by the earthquake, but also the War of 1812. The United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812. In Mississippi the focus of the conflict was on the Indian tribes, especially the Creeks, who were supported by the British. In 1813, the Creeks attacked Fort Mims, north of Mobile, and massacred at least 250 people. The Creeks were eventually crushed by an army under General Andrew Jackson, but these dramatic events shook the souls of Mississippians. The annual Circular Letter of the Mississippi Baptist Association of October 1813, was on the subject of “The War.” It was a circular letter received from Ocmulgee Association in Georgia, republished with edits made by Mississippi pastors Ezra Courtney and Moses Hadley, because of “the distressed situation of our territory, and the nation in general.” It warned readers that perhaps “Divine Providence” had allowed Europe to “invade our rights” because of “our ingratitude, our avarice, and abuse of the rich blessings we have enjoyed.” It declared the war to be “a war of just and necessary defence [sic]; justifiable on every sound political and moral principle.” It called for unity to defend “the rich inheritance of freedom we possess,” and stressed how American liberty was unlike that of France, which had fallen into ungodly apostasy and lost its freedoms. “If history ever proved any one truth clearly, it is this: that no nation, without public and private virtue, ever retained its freedom long.” The message was clear: their freedoms were in danger, and if they wanted to keep their freedoms, Mississippians needed a fervent devotion to both God and country. It is not known how many people in the town of Natchez were shaken from their sins, but we do know that the territory experienced a religious revival. In 1813, 246 people were baptized into membership in the churches of the Mississippi Baptist Association, far more than any year in the decade before or after, and the total membership nearly doubled that year, from 494 to 914!