Posted by Bob Rogers
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
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.
Dr. Rogers is currently revising and updating A History of Mississippi Baptists.