Blog Archives

FBC Columbus, MS: One of the finest antebellum Baptist church buildings in the South

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

Columbus, Mississippi had one of the finest antebellum Baptist church buildings in the South.

First Baptist Church, Columbus, MIssissippi, in Lowndes County, built a magnificent brick house of worship before the Civil War. Construction began in 1838 and was completed in 1840. The building was demolished about 1905 for a new sanctuary, so descriptions are based upon existing photographs. Richard J. Cawthon, author of Lost Churches of Mississippi, says “it must have been the most elegant house of worship in Mississippi and one of the largest and finest Baptist meeting houses in the South.” The annual meeting of the Mississippi Baptist Convention was held in this building on November 10-13, 1853, and the Southern Baptist Convention was scheduled to meet in this building in 1863, but the meeting was cancelled due to the Civil War. It was located at the northeast corner of Seventh Street North (originally Caledonia Street) and First Avenue North (originally Military Street).  Facing westward, it was a rectangular temple-form building, had a tetrastyle portico with four fluted columns in front. Above the triangular arch near the front, was an eye-catching, unusual steeple that appeared to copy the five-tier octagonal spire that Sir Christopher Wren placed on St. Bride’s Church in London in the late seventeenth century. The steeple had a square base, which ascended with five tiers of eight-sided drums, each tier proportionately smaller as it rose higher. The windows indicated that it had a split-level interior with stairs to an elevated auditorium and stairs down to another level below, perhaps for classrooms. Its similarity to the Lyceum at the University of Mississippi, designed by architect William Nichols, indicate that the Columbus Church could have also been designed by Nichols, who was also the designer of the Old State Capitol in Jackson.

SOURCES:

Richard J. Cawthon, Lost Churches of Mississippi (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 41-46; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1853 Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1861, 13.

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

How Baptists acquired Mississippi College

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

    Mississippi College had been founded at Clinton in 1826 as Hampstead Academy, by a group of local citizens interested in education for their children. Thirty students enrolled for the first time in 1827. Its founders were influential people; they included H. G. Runnels, who was to become governor of the State. In 1827 the legislature changed its name to Mississippi Academy, and then in 1830 the name was changed to Mississippi College, with the authority to grant “such degrees in the arts, sciences and languages, as are usually conferred in the most respectable colleges in the United States.”1

    Mississippi College was divided into a female and male department, each with its own faculty. The female department prospered better than the male department, and in 1831, the college became the first coeducational institution in America to grant degrees to women: Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall. The curriculum for women in 1837 included Latin, Greek, French, music and fine art. Supporters of Mississippi College hoped it would be adopted by the legislature as the State University, especially since the legislature allowed it to be financed by public land monies. However, in 1840 the legislature established the University of Mississippi, and began to select a location (eventually choosing Oxford), which ruled out a possibility of Mississippi College becoming the state’s university. At this point, the trustees looked for a religious denomination to sponsor the school. They offered the college to the Methodists, who accepted but then quickly rescinded their decision in 1841, since they had created their own school, Centenary College, not far away in Brandon Springs. The trustees then turned to the Presbyterians, who accepted, and in 1842 the Clinton Presbytery of the Mississippi Synod assumed control of the college. The Presbyterians operated the institution from 1842 to 1850 with considerable success. However, the Presbyterian denomination was suffering theological and political schisms between “Old” and “New” schools, dividing between North and South, much as Baptists had divided. These struggles, along with competition for funds from with another Presbyterian school, Oakland College, forced the trustees to offer Mississippi College to the State in 1848 a “normal” college to educate teachers. The legislature refused, so in 1850 the Clinton Presbytery severed ties to the college, and the trustees surrendered the school to the citizens of Clinton.2

     Clinton was not able to manage the college by itself. Although Hinds County in 1850 was a prosperous, growing county, with a population of over 25,000, and a railroad line had been completed from Vicksburg, through Clinton to Jackson, Clinton itself was still only a village of a few hundred people. The citizens of Clinton could not support the college by themselves, and the enrollment of the school was not yet large enough to support the college on its own. Even the faculty selected for the 1850-51 session, which included a Baptist as president, William Carey Crane, were unable or unwilling to accept the responsibility. At this point, a Methodist pastor suggested giving Mississippi College to the Baptists, and a wealthy Baptist leader seized on the opportunity. Rev. Thomas Ford, minister of the Methodist Church in Clinton, suggested that the Mississippi Baptist Convention sponsor the college. Benjamin Whitfield, a wealthy planter and pastor in Hinds County, and one of the founders of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, was elected a trustee of the college on August 12. If the transfer was to be made to the Baptists, quick action was needed, because there was a rival proposal for the Baptists “of building up a college at Raymond,” which was going to be presented to the State Convention in November. A committee that included Whitfield negotiated the deal on November 1, and when the Mississippi Baptist Convention met in Jackson on November 7, the committee recommended that the project at Raymond be rejected as “impracticable, because of the expense it would involve the Convention.” Then the committee said, “The Trustees of the ‘Mississippi College,’ located at Clinton, Hinds county, offer control of the College, unincumbered by a cent of debt…  The property is understood to be worth eleven thousand dollars. It is recommended, that the tender be at once accepted.” The resolution passed, and the dream of Mississippi Baptists for a college of their own was realized.3

SOURCES:

1 Board of Trustees of Mississippi College, Minute Book I, 3, 5, 7. Also see Isaac Caldwell to John A. Quitman, April 11, 1828, in Jesse L. Boyd, Good Reasons for a History of Mississippi College, 6-7. These materials are in the archives, Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission, Leland Speed Library, Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi.

2 Aubrey Keith Lucas, “Education in Mississippi from Statehood to the Civil War,” in A History of Mississippi, vol. 1, Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed. (Hattiesburg: University and College Press of Mississippi, 1973), 360-361; “Mississippi College Timeline,” accessed on the Internet 30 April 2022 at http://www.mc.edu/about/history/timeline; W. H. Weathersby, “A History of Mississippi College,” Publications of Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series, V, 184-219. Also see Minute Book I, 51, 56.

3 U.S. Census, “Population of the United States in 1850: Mississippi,” accessed on the Internet 30 April 2022 at https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1850/1850a/1850a-34.pdf. The population of Clinton is not even listed in 1850. In 1860, Clinton is listed as having 289 citizens.  U.S. Census, “Population of the United States in 1860: Mississippi,” accessed on the Internet 30 April 2022 at https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1860/population/1860a-22.pdf; Board of Trustees of Mississippi College, Minute Book I, 88-90; Clinton News, Dec. 1967; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1850, 27.

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

How one man started the Mississippi Baptist Convention

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

Mississippi Baptists organized a state convention in 1824 that failed. Internal discord and dissension from the anti-missions movement and teachings of Alexander Campbell resulted in the dissolution of this convention in 1829. As the Primitive Baptists and Disciples of Christ separated themselves from Mississippi Baptist churches, the mission-minded Baptists who remained were ready to try the experiment again. All they needed was a leader to galvanize them to action.

Ashley Vaughn, the man with the vision

  The leader who inspired Mississippi Baptists to action was Ashley Vaughn. This dedicated Baptist minister was born sometime in the early 1800s and came to Mississippi in 1833 “compelled by ill health and on the advice of physicians,” after a two-year pastorate in New York. He became pastor of Clear Creek Baptist Church in Washington, near Natchez, on December 12, 1834. He presented letters for membership for himself and his wife from the Particular Baptist Church of Gibbonville and West Troy, New York.1

   Although Vaughn did not come to the Natchez District as an officially appointed missionary, he did take on the role of a missionary. He visited the Baptist churches in the area and reported in a letter to the American Baptist that the churches were barren. He blamed this condition on the migration of settlers to the land recently vacated by the Indians in North Mississippi, as well as the inroads made by the Disciples of Christ, followers of Alexander Campbell. Vaughn immediately set about correcting this destitute situation. In addition to preaching at Clear Creek Church in Washington, in January 1836 he also began preaching at the site of the Old Salem Baptist Church, which had dissolved. In March 1836, Clear Creek Church purchased a parsonage for $1500. At the 1836 Union Association meeting, only Clear Creek Church was not complaining of a low state. With 115 members, Clear Creek was the only Baptist church in the state of Mississippi that reported more than 100 members in 1836. In September Vaughn began publishing the Southwestern Religious Luminary at Natchez, the first Baptist newspaper in Mississippi. The first issue of the paper called for the organization of a state convention to “combine the counsels, concentrate the energies, and unite the efforts of the denomination.” Vaughn traveled four to five hundred miles on horseback that autumn to associational meetings to get support for a state convention, and he was so successful that the Mississippi Baptist Association suggested a gathering at Vaughn’s church in December 1836 so that “the Baptists of this State should meet in convention by delegation, to take into consideration the adoption of some systematic plan, by which the efforts of our denomination may be united….”2 

Organization of the Mississippi Baptist Convention

Vaughn’s tireless dedication paid off. A small but influential group of ten delegates met at Clear Creek Church two days before Christmas, December 23-24, 1836, and organized “The Convention of the Baptist Denomination of the State of Mississippi.” The delegates got to work immediately, unanimously approving a constitution, electing officers, electing a delegate to the Triennial Convention (the national organization of Baptists at the time), passing resolutions, and taking up an offering of “near two hundred dollars.” They correctly assumed the support of many others not in attendance. This can be inferred by the fact that these ten men elected 40 men to positions of office and a board of directors! These officers included one man who was not in attendance, Benjamin Whitfield, who would later serve as convention president. They directed Ashley Vaughn to publish 700 copies of their proceedings, indicating the size of the audience they expected. While 700 copies may have seemed like a lot in 1836, the Mississippi Baptist Convention has since grown to a over 700,000 members in 2,100 churches today.3

Above: Meeting house of Clear Creek Baptist Church, Washington, Adams County. Built in 1828. Here the Mississippi Baptist Convention was organized in 1836. The congregation dissolved in the 1880s and the building was later demolished. – Richard J. Cawthon, Lost Churches of Mississippi (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010), 149.

SOURCES:

1 Minutes, Clear Creek Baptist Church, Adams County, Mississippi, December 12, 1835; Southwestern Religious Luminary, December 1837; C.B. Hamlett, III, “Ashley Vaughn,” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, II, 1442. Hamlett incorrectly states that Vaughn “served as a missionary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.” However, the society did not record an appointment of Vaughn nor correspond with Vaughn and did not begin work in Mississippi until after his arrival. Vaughn himself criticized the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1837 for having only one missionary in Mississippi under appointment, saying, “nor do we know indeed that he has accepted of the appointment.”

2 John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists of Mississippi, (Unpublished manuscript, 1924), 124; Minutes, Clear Creek Baptist Church, January 9, 1836, March 12, 1836, July 10, 1836; Frances Allen Cabaniss and James Allen Cabaniss, “Religion in Ante-Bellum Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History 6 (October 1944): 205; Southwestern Religious Luminary, September 1836, November 1836; T. M. Bond, A Republication of the Minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association (New Orleans: Hinton & Co., 1849), 172; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1837, 25-28.

3 Proceedings of a Meeting to Consider the Propriety of Forming a Baptist State Convention, held in the Baptist Meeting House at Washington, Mississippi, 23rd and 24th December 1836 (Natchez: Stanton & Besancon, 1837), 3-8; “Southern Baptist Statistical Data by State,” accessed on the Internet 3 May 2022 at http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/baptist/sbcstatedata.html.

How Mississippi Baptists came to oppose alcohol in the early 1800s

Photo by Roberto Vivancos on Pexels.com

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

Baptists have not always been as adamantly opposed to alcohol as they are today; rather, their view developed over several decades in the early 1800s. This can be illustrated in the story of how Mississippi Baptists gradually took a stronger stand against liquor during the decades from the 1820s through the 1850s. In 1820, Providence Baptist Church in what is now Forrest County discussed the question, “Is it lawful, according to scripture, for a member of a church to retail spiritous liquors?” The church could not agree on a position in regard to the matter. This attitude would begin to change in the 1820s, however. In 1826, the influential Congregationalist pastor Lyman Beecher began a series of sermons against the dangers of drunkenness and urged the necessity of abstinence from the alcohol. He called on Christians to sign pledges to abstain from alcohol, igniting the temperance movement in America. The question came before the Mississippi Baptist Association in 1827, and it was stated that it “considers drunkenness one of the most injurious and worst vices in the community.” In 1830, the Pearl River Baptist Association admonished any churches hosting their meetings, “provide no ardent spirits for the association when she may hereafter meet, as we do not want it.” In 1831, Pearl River Association thanked the host church for obeying their request, and in 1832, the association humbly prayed “the public, that they will not come up to our Association with their beer, Cider, Cakes, and Mellons, as they greatly disturb the congregation.” Likewise in 1832, Mississippi Association resolved, “That this Association do discountenance all traffic in spirituous liquors, beer, cider, or bread, within such a distance of our meetings as in any wise disturb our peace and worship; and we do, therefore, earnestly request all persons to refrain from the same.”1

It had always been common for Baptists to discipline members for drunkenness, but as the temperance movement grew in America, Mississippi Baptists moved gradually from a policy of tolerating mild use of alcohol, toward a policy of complete abstinence from alcohol. A Committee on Temperance made an enthusiastic report in 1838 of “the steady progress of the Temperance Reformation in different parts of Mississippi and Louisiana; prejudices and opposition are fasting melting away.” In 1839, D. B. Crawford gave a report to the Mississippi Baptist Convention on temperance which stated, “That notwithstanding, a few years since, the greater portion of our beloved and fast growing state, was under the influence of the habitual use of that liquid fire, which in its nature is so well calculated to ruin the fortunes, the lives and the souls of men, and spread devastation and ruin over the whole of our land; yet we rejoice to learn, that the cause of temperance is steadily advancing in the different parts of our State… We do therefore most earnestly and affectionately recommend to the members of our churches… to carry on and advance the great cause of temperance: 1. By abstaining entirely from the habitual use of all intoxicating liquors. 2. By using all the influence they may have, to unite others in this good work of advancing the noble enterprise contemplated by the friends of temperance.” Local churches consistently disciplined members for drunkenness, but they were slower to oppose the sale or use of alcohol. For example, in May 1844, “a query was proposed” at Providence Baptist Church in Forrest County on the issue of distributing alcohol. After discussion, the church took a vote on its opposition to “members of this church retailing or trafficking in Spirituous Liquors.” It is significant that in the handwritten church minutes, the clerk wrote that the motion “unanimously carried in opposition,” but then crossed out the word “unanimously.” In January 1845, Providence Church voted that “the voice of the church be taken to reconsider” the matter of liquor. The motion passed, but then tabled the issue, and did not come back up. In March of that year, a member acknowledged his “excessive use of arden[t] spirits” and his acknowledgement was accepted, and he was “exonerated.”2

. In 1846, the Mississippi Baptist Association’s leadership was opposed to alcohol, but was still attempting to prohibit the use of alcohol at its own meetings. The Association passed a resolution saying, “We respectfully request the brethren and friends who may entertain this body at its future meetings, to refrain from presenting ardent spirits in their accommodations.” By the 1850s, the State Convention was calling not only for abstinence, but for legal action, as well. In 1853, the Convention adopted the report of the “Temperance” Committee that said, “The time has arrived when the only true policy for the advocates of Temperance to pursue, is… to secure the enactment by the Legislature of a law, utterly prohibiting the sale of ardent spirits in any quantities whatsoever.” They endorsed the enactment of the “The Maine Liquor Law” in Mississippi. Two years before, in 1851, Maine had become the first State to pass a prohibition of alcohol. Thus during the antebellum period Mississippi Baptists gradually came to favor abstinence and prohibition of alcohol.3 

SOURCES:

1 Aaron Menikoff, Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 162-163; T.C. Schilling, Abstract History of the Mississippi Baptist Association for One Hundred Years From its Preliminary Organization in 1806 to the Centennial Session in 1906 (New Orleans, 1908), 50; Minutes, Pearl River Baptist Association, 1830, 1831, 1832.

2 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1838, 1839; Minutes, Providence Baptist Church, Forrest County, Mississippi, May 11, 1844, January 11, 1845, March 8, 1845.

3 T. M. Bond, A Republication of the Minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association (New Orleans: Hinton & Co., 1849), 250; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1853, 26; “The Unintended Consequences of Prohibition: Introduction,” Washington State University, accessed online 17 April 2022 at http://digitalexhibits.wsulibs.wsu.edu/exhibits/show/prohibition-in-the-u-s/introduction.

Mississippi Baptist church discipline in the 19th century

   During the 19th century, Baptist churches in Mississippi maintained strict discipline over their members. Henry Nichols was excluded from Sarepta Church in Union Association “for drawing his knife and offering to stab his brother and for spitting in his face.” Benjamin Brown was excluded from Ebenezer Church in Amite County for “attending a horse race and wagering thereon.” James Dermaid was excluded from Providence Church in what is now Forrest County “for “disputing, quarreling, and using profane language, and absenting himself from the church.” Providence Church also excluded “brother Alexander Williams and sister Leuizer Maclimore upon a charge of their attempting to go off and cohabit together as man and wife.” In 1828, the African Church at Bayou Pierre had a query for Union Association: “Is it gospel order for a Baptist church to hold members in fellowship who have married relations nearer than cousins?” The association answered that it was not. Jane Scarborough, wife of Rev. Lawrence Scarborough of Sarepta Church accused “Sister Harris” of being drunk at a wedding and for hosting “Negro balls” (debutante balls for blacks). Instead, the church charged Mrs. Scarborough of gossip without evidence, and excluded her for making the accusations!1

Mississippi Baptists moved gradually from a policy of tolerating mild use of alcohol, toward a policy of complete abstinence from alcohol. A Committee on Temperance made an enthusiastic report to the Mississippi Baptist Convention in 1838 of “the steady progress of the Temperance Reformation in different parts of Mississippi and Louisiana; prejudices and opposition are fasting melting away.” In 1839, D. B. Crawford gave a report to the Convention on temperance which stated, “That notwithstanding, a few years since, the greater portion of our beloved and fast growing state, was under the influence of the habitual use of that liquid fire, which in its nature is so well calculated to ruin the fortunes, the lives and the souls of men, and spread devastation and ruin over the whole of our land; yet we rejoice to learn, that the cause of temperance is steadily advancing in the different parts of our State.” Local churches consistently disciplined members for drunkenness, but they were slower to oppose the sale or use of alcohol. For example, in May 1844, “a query was proposed” at Providence Church in Pearl River Association on the issue of distributing alcohol. After discussion, the church took a vote on its opposition to “members of this church retailing or trafficking in Spirituous Liquors.” It is significant that in the handwritten church minutes, the clerk wrote that the motion “unanimously carried in opposition,” but then crossed out the word “unanimously.” In January 1845, Providence Church voted that “the voice of the church be taken to reconsider” the matter of liquor. The motion passed, but then tabled the issue, and did not come back up. In March of that year, a member acknowledged his “excessive use of arden[t] spirits” and his acknowledgement was accepted, and he was “exonerated.”2

The Mississippi Baptist Convention heard frequent reports on how to defend against desecrations of the Sabbath. In 1840, M. W. Chrestman reported, “The Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, is an institution of Divine Origin, and is therefore of universal obligation… On the Lord’s Day all manner of servile labor is positively prohibited, with the exception of works of necessity and mercy… Every necessary arrangement and sacrifice should be made; every carnal pleasure and sensual gratification should be denied… Resolved, That we recommend that our ministering brethren with greater zeal and diligence explain and enforce the proper observance of the Lord’s Day.” Local Mississippi Baptist churches considered violation of the Sabbath a serious matter. In March 1837, William Dossett, a member of Providence Church in what is now Forrest County, confessed to the church “that he had been hunting a deer on the Sabbath, which he had wounded on the preceding evening.” After “considerable discussion of the subject,” the church was satisfied with his explanation.3

SOURCES (All available at the Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission Archives, Leland Speed Library, Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi):

1 Minutes, Sarepta Baptist Church, Jefferson County, Mississippi, August 1815, June 1828, July 1828; Minutes, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Amite County, Mississippi, February 6, 1813; March 6, 1813; Minutes, Providence Baptist Church, Forrest County, Mississippi, December 10, 1842, September 2, 1843; Minutes, Union Baptist Association, 1828.

2 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1838, 1839; Minutes, Providence Baptist Church, Forrest County, Mississippi, May 11, 1844, January 11, 1845, March 8, 1845.

3 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1840; Minutes, Providence Baptist Church, Forrest County, Mississippi, March 4, 1837.

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.

Announcement: I will be revising and updating A History of Mississippi Baptists

Left to right: Dr. Shawn Parker, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, Dr. Anthony Kay, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission, and myself. We are standing by a painting of the first Baptist church in Mississippi, Salem Church (Coles Creek) in Jefferson County, by retired Mississippi Baptist pastor Robert Mamrak. Photo by Barri Shirley.

I am pleased to announce that on November 3, 2021, I signed a contract with the Mississippi Baptist Convention to revise and update A History of Mississippi Baptists by Richard Aubrey McLemore. The book was published by the convention, which holds the copyright, in 1971.

I expect the project to take a few years, as I will be doing a thorough revision of the original work, checking it for accuracy and rewriting in a more narrative style. After the revision is done, I will add two more chapters to update the last 50 years. You can read the full news story about the book here.

Follow his blog for stories that I learn and share along the way!