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 rarely record discipline of slaveowners for mistreating slaves.
(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.)