Blog Archives

How 19th century Mississippi Baptists viewed slavery

Article copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board

    White Mississippi Baptists received African slaves into their churches as fellow members, and worshiped with them, but how did they view the “peculiar institution” of slavery itself? The “African Baptist Church” was a church made up of slaves that met on Bayou Pierre, a river near Port Gibson, beginning in the 1810s. The congregation was a member of the Mississippi Baptist Association. In 1814, the Mississippi Baptist Association received the letter from the African Church, stating “their case and the many difficulties they labor under.” The Association instructed the church “to use their utmost diligence in obeying their masters, and that prior to their assembling together for worship, they be careful to obtain a written permission from their masters or overseers.” The Association also expressed its “anxious wish” that “the ministering brethren” of the Association would serve them and preach to them. In 1815, Carter Tarrant, an anti-slavery Baptist preacher from Kentucky, and member of the anti-slavery organization, Friends of Humanity, was a guest preacher at the Mississippi Baptist Association. In 1806, Tarrant had published a sermon against slavery, insisting it was the essence of hypocrisy to sign the Bill of Rights and consign blacks to bondage. The words of his sermon at the Mississippi Association are not recorded.

   In 1819, a committee of David Cooper, James A. Ranaldson and William Snodgrass composed the circular letter from the Mississippi Baptist Association to all the churches, on the subject of “Duty of Masters and Servants.” It began by stating approval of social rank in society: “In the order of Divine Providence… God has given to some the pre-eminence over others.” It cited examples of masters and servants in scripture as evidence of this. Then they offered advice to masters. Quoting Colossians 4:1 and Leviticus 25:43, they told masters to “be just in your treatment,” and warned masters against expecting labor from slave that they were unable to do, because it “would be cruel and unjust.” They also told slaveowners that they were obligated to show kindness and compassion. Third, they said it was the “duty” of masters not only to care for the physical bodies of slaves, “but more especially that of their souls.” The letter then turned its attention to servants, noting “as many of them are members of our churches” (it is notable that the letter did not refer to many slaveowners as being members). Addressing slaves as “brethren,” the letter acknowledged that being enslaved was “dark, mysterious and unpleasant,” yet claimed the institution had been “founded in wisdom and goodness.” The letter took the statement about Christ’s atonement in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and implied that it referred to their purchase as slaves: “Remember you are not your own; you have been bought with a price, and your master is entitled to your best services… You must obey your earthly master with fear and trembling, whether they are perverse and wicked, or pious and gentle.” The letter quoted numerous scriptures instructing slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-7, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Peter 2:18 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2), while omitting passages against slavery, such as Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Philemon 1:15-16 and 1 Timothy 1:10. This circular letter was typical of how most white Southerners viewed slavery in the antebellum period. White Baptists in Mississippi and across the Deep South spoke publicly against abusive treatment of slaves, but in actual practice, they did not intervene to prevent it. While Baptist church minutes frequently recorded discipline of members for drinking, gambling, and other moral failures, they do not record discipline of slaveowners for mistreating slaves. This was partially because Baptists lacked influence over slaveowners, since few of them owned slaves, but it was also because they were unwilling to speak so boldly against the power and wealth of the white aristocrats who controlled the politics of the state.

(Sources: T.M. Bond, A Republication of the Minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association (New Orleans: Hinton & Co., 1849), 42, 48, 72-74; Aaron Menikoff, Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860 (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 93-94; Carter Tarrant, The Substance of a Discourse Delivered in the Town of Versailles (Lexington, KY: D. Bradford, 1806), 25-27. There were a few examples of Baptists in the South who opposed slavery, such as John Leland who led Virginia Baptists to speak publicly against slavery in the 1790s, and David Barrow in Kentucky, who wrote a pamphlet against slavery in 1808 . Carter Tarrant, who preached at the Mississippi Baptist Association in 1815, joined David Barrow in the anti-slavery organization, Friends of Humanity.)

The first African-American Baptists in Mississippi

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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

From the start, many of the Baptists of Mississippi were African-American. Only a few of the white Baptists owned slaves, but slaves who belonged to non-Baptist slaveowners were welcomed to worship as fellow members alongside whites in Baptist churches. From 1806 to 1813, Ebenezer Baptist in Amite County listed four “Africans” who joined, out of about 50 members. For instance, on December 8, 1815, the minutes of Ebenezer read, “Received by experience an African Ben belonging to Samuel Harrell.” (Samuel Harrell does not appear in the list of church members.)  In 1821, Salem Baptist on Cole’s Creek had 28 white members, listed by full name, and 32 “black” members, listed by first name only, under the names of their owners. None of the slaveowners were members of the Salem church. The common practice was for slaveowners to give a written pass for slaves to attend worship. For example, the minutes at Salem on May 3, 1816 read, “Captain Doherty’s Phil came forward with his master’s written permission to join the church by experience.” (Doherty was not a member of the church.) Although slaves were bought and sold and transported from state to state, Baptist churches still received them by letter from their former churches. In November 1816, the minutes of Sarepta Church in Franklin County read, “Bob & Ferrby servants of Walter Sellers presented letters from Cape Fear Church in N. Carolina & was received.” Slave members were disciplined, as well, as Sarepta minutes of December 1822 read, “Bro. Prather’s Rose (a servant) excluded by taking that which was not her own.” From this wording, it is likely that Walter Sellers was a slaveowner but not a Baptist, whereas “Bro. Prather” likely was a member of the Sarepta church, who had a slave named Rose.

   During the antebellum era until the end of slavery, most African-Americans worshiped with whites. However, there were a few Baptist churches that were exclusively for blacks. One such church was in the Mississippi Association. Called the “African Church,” it first appeared in the minutes of the association as a member church in 1813. It met at a sawmill belonging to Josiah Flowers, pastor of Bayou Pierre Church. In 1814, the African Church sent a letter to the association, and in 1815 the association called on the various white pastors to take turns preaching to the African Church, which was then using the meeting house of Bayou Pierre church. Every year from 1816-1819, the African Church sent two messengers to the associational meeting, by the names of Levi Thompson, Hezekiah Harmon (messenger twice), E. Flower (messenger three times), William Cox, S. Goodwin, J. Flower and W. Breazeale. They never appeared in the associational minutes in any leadership position, but they did attend as duly registered representatives of the African Church, and they were given a seat alongside their white brothers in Christ. There were other African churches, as well. In 1818, members of Bogue Chitto Church granted “the Request of the Black Brethren to be constituted into a church.” In 1822, members of Zion Hill Church in Mississippi Association considered licensing Smart, a slave, to “exercise his gift” to preach, but delayed their decision “in consequences of an Act passed in the legislature.”

   The situation had suddenly changed. Fearing a slave insurrection, the new state of Mississippi’s legislature enacted a law prohibiting slaves or even free people of color from assembling except under certain restricted conditions. This brought the Mississippi Baptist Association into conflict with the state legislature. When the law was applied to the African church, it forced them to discontinue meeting for a time. The association took up the cause of the African church and appointed a committee to prepare a memorial to be “laid before the next legislature of this State, praying the repeal of such parts of a state law thereof, as deprives the African churches, under the patronage of this association, of their religious privileges and that Elder S. Marsh wait on the legislature with said memorial.” The legislature did not agree with the association, and the African stopped meeting for a time, although the members were still welcome in the other churches led by whites.   

In 1824, the state legislature heeded the complaints of the churches, and revised the code to permit slaves to preach to other slaves, as long as the service was overseen by a white minister or attended by at least two white people appointed by the white church. Thanks to this revision in the law, African churches could meet again, and in 1826, Zion Hill Church allowed Smart to preach. The African Church at Bayou Pierre joined the new Union Association after 1820, meeting as a separate congregation from Bayou Pierre church. In 1828, the African Church reported 75 members (its sponsor church at Bayou Pierre had 48 members). The African Church was tied with Clear Creek Church in Adams County for the largest church in the association.

The first Baptist churches of Mississippi

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

   During the two decades prior to the Second Great Awakening that began about 1800, there had only been one Baptist congregation in the Natchez District, Salem Baptist on Cole’s Creek in Jefferson County, which met informally in the 1780s, then organized in 1791 under the leadership of Richard Curtis, Jr. But the triple blessings of religious liberty, population growth and spiritual renewal certainly aided in the formation of five new churches from 1798 to 1806. The second Mississippi Baptist church was on Bayou Pierre, which was the river near the town of Port Gibson in Claiborne County. This location was the same river where Richard Curtis, Jr. and his friends had first hid from Spanish arrest in 1795. How appropriate that in the same year of his return, 1798, Curtis, along with William Thompson, John Stampley, Benjamin Curtis, Jacob Stampley, Joseph Perkins and William Thomas assisted in the constitution of the new church on Bayou Pierre. It is interesting to note that most of the members of this committee were among the arrivals in the 1780s. The Bayou Pierre church was organized in the home of Thomas Hubbards. It is unclear whether Richard Curtis left Salem to pastor Bayou Pierre, or whether he preached at both churches.

In 1800, two more churches were organized: the third Baptist church was New Hope on Second Creek in Adams County just south of Natchez, and the fourth was Bethel on Bayou Sara, four miles southwest of the town of Woodville in Wilkinson County. The fifth was New Providence in Amite County in 1805, and the sixth was Ebenezer in Amite County, near the Louisiana line, started by Richard Curtis in 1806. Curtis was likely involved in starting many, if not all of these new churches, for the records show that after Curtis started Ebenezer in May 1806, he then turned over the pastorate of Ebenezer to a South Carolina friend, Ezra Courtney, in November 1808, and Curtis became pastor of New Hope until the year of his death in 1811. Ebenezer Baptist in Amite County is the only one of these churches that continues to exist to this day, making it the oldest continually meeting Baptist church in Mississippi.