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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.

How a Baptist preacher helped America take Natchez from the Spanish

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

(In previous posts, I told the stories of how Baptists from South Carolina settled the Natchez District about the same time that the Spanish took control of the area from the British, and how the Baptists started Salem Baptist Church on Cole’s Creek, 20 miles north of Natchez.)

Concerned about so many English-speaking American emigrants to the Natchez District, who were not Catholic, the Spanish issued a religious edict in 1795. It declared “that if nine persons were found worshiping together, except according to the forms of the Catholic Church, they should suffer imprisonment.” They sent a man named Ebenezer Dayton to spy on the Baptists, pretending to be in sympathy with them as he was Presbyterian, and Dayton reported that their pastor, Richard Curtis, Jr. continued defend his right to preach the gospel and obey God rather than man. The Spanish Governor, Manuel Gayoso, arrested Curtis in April 1795, and forced him to sign a pledge not to preach. At the urging of his congregation, Curtis continued to preach, so Gayoso sent an armed posse to break up the house church in August 1795, but this time Curtis fled to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the American government began the process of taking control of the Natchez District. The months between the signing of the Pinckney’s Treaty of San Lorenzo in October 1795, until the surrender of the area to the United States on March 30, 1798, were a period of turbulence and disorder in the Natchez region. The Spanish authorities controlled the government and exercised the legal authority that existed. The control of the Spanish was weakened by a large influx of American settlers and by the knowledge that the Spanish authority was of a temporary nature.

    In February 1797, Louisiana’s governor sent orders to Gayoso to prepare dismantling the fort at Natchez in compliance with the treaty, but soon afterward, Gayoso received orders from Spain to postpone the departure, as Spain hoped to talk to the Americans about alterations to the treaty. The same month, Andrew Ellicott arrived with a commission from the American president to mark the southern boundary of the United States at the 31st parallel, which was about 30 miles south of Natchez, in accordance with the treaty to give to America all lands on the east side of the Mississippi River, north of the 31st parallel. He had a small army escort under Lieutenant Percy Smith Pope, and two dozen woodsmen from Fort Pitt. Ellicott, Pope and their party of Americans docked at Natchez on February 24, 1797. They camped on a knoll overlooking the town. At Patrick Connelly’s tavern atop the hill, the Americans boldly raised the United States flag, so that it could be seen by the Spanish in their fort. Gayoso and his garrison of 60 Spanish soldiers refused to leave. Ellicott and Gayoso wrote letters back and forth, neither party willing to give in, as the standoff continued for months. Lt. Pope preferred a direct attack, and even recruited 200 men from Cole’s Creek, which likely included some of the Baptists, to assault the Spanish fort, but Gayoso arrested the leaders and broke up the plot. Commissioner Ellicott, who was a Quaker, preferred negotiation and political maneuver to get the Spanish to leave. He counted on the loyalty of the majority of the American settlers, since it was only a few wealthy landowners who were solidly loyal to the Spanish. He got the leverage he needed from a Baptist preacher.

   The Baptist preacher whom Ellicott needed was named Barton Hannan, who had previously been active at Salem Church on Cole’s Creek. Hannan arrived in Natchez preaching fiery words, damning the pope and recruiting volunteers for a revolt. Hannan got into a drunken brawl with some Irish Catholics on June 9, 1797, and the irate Irish Catholics mauled him. Governor Gayoso arrested Hannan for disturbing the peace, which only led to more disturbances. His wife marched to Natchez, baby in her arms, and demanded that Governor Gayoso release him. Gayoso tried to calm her by caressing the baby and giving her presents. “I don’t want your presents; I want my husband,” she said. He replied, “I cannot grant your request, madam.” She answered, “I will have him before tomorrow morning, or this place shall be deluged in blood; for there are men enough who have pledged themselves to release him before morning, or die in the attempt, to overcome any force you have here.” She was not making an idle threat, for on June 12, over 300 armed men assembled at William Belk’s tavern on the Natchez Trace to organize a rebellion. The governor released Hannan, and from that point forward, the Spanish lost real control of Natchez. In December 1797, Captain Isaac Guion arrived in Natchez with a large unit of American troops, and put greater pressure on Gayoso to leave. The Spanish finally departed on March 30, 1798.

   Immediately after the Spanish had withdrawn, the American officials raised the “Stars and Stripes” over Natchez, and invited Bailey E. Chaney preach. He was the son of William Chaney, the deacon who, in Richard Curtis’s absence, was leading Salem Baptist on Cole’s Creek. Chaney preached before a large gathering, the very first sermon under the United States flag in the new Mississippi Territory. At long last, religious freedom was allowed in Natchez, and a Baptist was called on to celebrate it with God’s Word.

The first Baptist church in Mississippi

Painting by Joyce C. Rogers, based on Charles D. Terrell’s concept of how the Cole’s Creek church may have looked.

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

(In a previous blog post, I told the story of how a group of Baptists emigrated to the Natchez District in 1780-81. This post tells how they started the first Baptist church in Mississippi.)

  The Spaniards had taken control of the Natchez District from the British in October 1779, shortly before the emigrants arrived, but the Spanish had not established an efficient government or any control over land sales or occupation by adventurers. The first objective of the newly arrived settlers was to earn a livelihood. In this new land they were dependent upon themselves for supplying all of their needs. As they had likely arrived in the spring of 1781, they began to plant crops, as well as devote themselves to the construction of houses. They built for their protection the usual log houses from the abundant materials that were available. The experience of one of these settlers has been described by a descendant of John Jones:

“He found rich land… a plentiful supply of game in the woods and fish and water-fowl in the creek, with plenty of spring and creek water convenient for man and beast. He soon put up a log cabin, cut and burned the cane and undergrowth… and by doling out a scanty supply of seed-corn by the grain, soon had it planted… For a time, bread was not to be had, but Mr. Jones, with his trusty rifle… kept his family supplied with game, principally venison and wild turkeys.”

   This patriotic band of Americans was living in an area conquered by Spain during the Revolutionary War but which was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 with Great Britain. Spain was determined to hold the territories she had captured, because of their intrinsic worth and because they afforded protection for her holdings south of the 31st parallel and the great Louisiana territory west of the river. The basic Spanish policy was to win the loyalty of those who resided in the territory and to increase the migration of Americans into the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. The Spanish modified their traditional colonial policy by permitting the toleration of “heretics,” the admission of foreign immigrants, and the granting of a considerable degree of commercial freedom. These policies failed to win the ultimate allegiance of the settlers in the Natchez region.

   Meanwhile, on Cole’s Creek, the group of settlers, most of whom were Baptists, met privately in their homes for Bible study and prayer, but did not worship publicly, thus avoiding attention from the Roman Catholic authorities. They lost their patriarch, Richard Curtis, Sr., who died on November 10, 1784, at age 56, but the embers of his faith were fanning to flame in the next generation. His young son Richard Curtis, Jr., was already a licensed preacher, though only 25 years old when they left South Carolina. Young Richard was 29 years old at the time of his father’s death; however, he was becoming known as a good preacher, and his brothers-in-law, John and Jacob Stampley, were also gifted at teaching the scriptures. Richard’s older brother William and step-brother John Jones were known for their prayers. By 1790, other American settlers were inviting them to visit their homes and share their faith. Whatever they may have lacked in education, they seemed to make up for in zeal.   The conditions prevailing in 1791 thus were favorable for the establishment of formal Baptist religious worship. A group of seven people met at Margaret Stampley’s home on Cole’s Creek in what is now Jefferson County to organize themselves for religious worship. The members of this group of pioneers were: Richard Curtis, Jr., pastor; William Thompson, recording clerk; William Curtis; John Jones; Benjamin Curtis; Ealiff Lanier; and Margaret Stampley. Ealiff Lanier is the only name of this group whose name does not appear in the list of those making the journey from South Carolina in 1780-81. Notably missing are several male members of the first settlers, including Margaret Stampley’s husband, who may have died. The church was informally called Cole’s Creek Church, as late as 1806. They finally settled on the name Salem Baptist by the time the church name appears in the minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association in 1807.

The Baptist pioneer trek to Mississippi

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

(In a previous post, I told how a group of South Carolina Baptists decided to flee the devastation of the Revolutionary War and make a new life in Mississippi. This post tells the story of how they got to Mississippi.)

   The Curtis family decided to establish their new homes along the Mississippi River near Natchez, in what was then called West Florida. After the French and Indian War in 1763, the British took Florida from Spain, (West Florida included the panhandle of modern Florida and the areas now in southern Mississippi and Alabama), and Englishmen from the colonies had begun to settle there. The stories of productive farmlands that were free to all settlers and the peace they would have from the turmoil of the fratricidal strife in South Carolina must have made the prospects of beginning again very enticing. In 1779, Spain took advantage of the British distraction with the American Revolution, and Spain conquered the Natchez district from the British and added it to West Florida. Despite this, the emigrants did not anticipate any difficulty from this source. As we shall see, they were wrong.

  The route the migrants followed to their new homes was the familiar one used by many who were a part of the great westward migration, but it was not an easy trek. Our source for this journey is John Griffing Jones, a direct descendant of one of the travelers, John Jones. He writes that they left their homes in South Carolina early in 1780, loading their horses with their clothes, furniture and tools, and traveled north by land, crossing the Appalachian Mountains, and arrived on the banks of the Holston River near the present location of Kingsport, Tennessee, a trip of about 300 miles. Primitive roads and mountains made the trip difficult, as they carried their supplies on pack horses, the men traveling by foot. They arrived on the Holston River in the early spring and immediately began the task of raising a crop of corn, hunting game to salt and preserve, while building flatboats for the river journey that lay ahead.

   In the fall of 1780, the travelers were ready to begin their voyage downriver. The party included Richard Curtis, Sr., and his wife Phoebe; two brothers William and Benjamin Curtis and their wives; Richard Curtis, Jr. and his wife Patsy; John Courtney and John Stampley and their wives (Hannah Curtis Courtney and Phoebe Curtis Stampley, respectively, daughters of Richard Curtis, Sr.); John Jones, his wife, and son William; and others whose names are unknown.  On the second boat were Daniel and William Ogden and their families, and a Mr. Perkins and his family.  The records do not reveal the names of the occupants of the third boat.

   The emigrants knew from the experience of other travelers that they might have trouble with the Indian tribes. After all, they were planning to take lands formerly occupied by the Indians and make permanent homes for themselves. The natives did not want to give up their lands. The French had virtually exterminated the Natchez tribe in 1732, although other tribes such as the Choctaws were still in the area, but they knew they would encounter other tribes along the way, especially since the hostility of the Indians was encouraged and supported by the British against Americans during the Revolutionary War. In order to protect themselves, the emigrants always traveled in as large groups as possible.

    The migrants’ travel took them down the Holston River for 87 miles to what is now Knoxville. There, they entered the Tennessee River. The three boats had only traveled about 40 miles downriver, when they faced their greatest danger. This was the country of the Cherokees, who had been faithful allies of the British during the Revolution. These Indians attacked the flotilla on a bend in the Tennessee near the mouth of the Clinch River, near present-day Kingston. The Cherokee attack focused on the first flatboat, occupied by the Curtis and Jones families. Some of the women and children took over the oars while the men fired their rifles in defense. Hannah Courtney was grazed on the head by a ball, and Jonathan Curtis was slightly wounded on the wrist. While John Jones fired his rifle, his 12-year-old son worked the oars and his wife held up a thick stool made of poplar wood as a shield. A bullet hit her stool, and later Mrs. Jones laughingly remarked that “their guns were very weak, as they did not make a very deep impression on the stool.” The second boat floated by the point of attack unharmed, but the third boat was far behind, and became an easy target for the Indians. The occupants of the third boat had contracted smallpox, and so they were floating in the rear and camping at a separate place each night. The Cherokees killed everybody on the third boat except one woman whom they captured, thereby also contracting smallpox, which took the lives of many in the tribe.

   The survivors made the rest of their trip without further molestation. They traveled about 600 miles down the winding Tennessee River, riddled with rocky shoals and swift currents, until they met the Ohio River near the city of Paducah, Kentucky. A short trip of 44 miles on the Ohio River brought them to the mighty Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois. Then they traveled another 450 miles down the Mississippi River. They landed near the mouth of Cole’s Creek, about twenty miles north of Natchez, settling 3.5 miles eastward on the creek at “Curtis Landing,” and established a village known as Uniontown, west of the present town of Fayette. Given the distance they traveled, at the mercy of the flow of the rivers and resting each night, the trip should have taken several months. Jack Curtis, a descendant of Richard Curtis who has done extensive research on the family, estimates that they arrived in the Natchez District about March, 1781. By the grace of God, they had survived a trek through the mountains, an Indian attack and navigated over 1,000 miles of rivers to reach their new home.

The Mississippi Baptist story begins in South Carolina

The Pee Dee River Valley of the Carolinas, from which the Baptists first migrated to Mississippi

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

   The story of Mississippi Baptists begins in South Carolina. The Baptists of South Carolina furnished the first Baptist migrants to Mississippi and thus are of special importance in the history of Mississippi Baptists. Historians record that Rev. Richard Curtis, Jr. was 25 years old when he traveled with his parents and a group of fellow Baptists, who migrated from the Pee Dee River Valley of South Carolina in 1780 to settle on Cole’s Creek, about 20 miles north of Natchez, which at the time was controlled by Spain as part of West Florida. The precise location in South Carolina where these Baptists came from is unclear. One theory seeks to connect Richard Curtis and Mississippi Baptists to the historic Welsh Neck Baptist Church in Society Hill, in what is now in Darlington County, South Carolina. However, the church minutes of Welsh Neck Baptist Church from the time period are available for examination, and they never mention any of the Baptists who first settled in Mississippi. It seems more likely that they came from the region of Florence, South Carolina. There Richard Curtis, Sr., father of Richard Curtis, Jr., lived on Lake Swamp of Lynches Creek, near modern Florence, South Carolina, in 1766. In addition, Richard Curtis, Jr. was ordained by Benjamin Mosely when he fled back to South Carolina in the 1790s; Mosely was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Florence, South Carolina from 1784-1794.

   The Revolutionary War period was one of great disturbance throughout South Carolina. There was a large group of Tories who were fanatical in support of England, but there was an equally powerful and more numerous citizenry who were American patriots. The conflict of these two groups stifled the economic development of South Carolina and brought fear and frustration into many parts of the colony. Over a hundred battles between American patriots and the British were fought in South Carolina alone. In 1774, Richard Curtis, Sr., and two of his sons, Benjamin and William Curtis, and his step-son, John Jones, enlisted with the American forces of Francis Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox.” The records reveal that they served in three campaigns against the British, and then they were mustered out in 1779. In 1779 conditions had become almost unbearable, especially when British forces occupied Charleston. From this center, the British began a campaign to bring all of the colony under their control. The British were eventually overcome by General Nathanael Greene and his forces, but the turmoil and distress created by the war were undoubtedly a factor in encouraging some South Carolinians to seek a more peaceful place to live.

   The Curtis family decided to establish their new homes along the Mississippi River near Natchez, in what was then called West Florida. After the French and Indian War in 1763, the British took Florida from Spain, and Englishmen from the colonies had begun to settle there. The stories of productive farmlands that were free to all settlers and the peace they would have from the turmoil of the fratricidal strife in South Carolina must have made the prospects of beginning again very enticing. In 1779, Spain took advantage of the British distraction with the American Revolution, and Spain conquered the Natchez district from the British and added it to West Florida. Despite this, the emigrants did not anticipate any difficulty from this source. As we shall see, they were wrong.

The Mississippi Baptist heritage of survival amidst persecution

Artist rendering of Obadiah Holmes, Baptist pastor in Massachusetts who was whipped publicly for his beliefs. He fled to Rhode Island for religious freedom, where he established the Baptist church at Newport, Rhode Island.

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

   Baptists have been the predominant faith in Mississippi so long, that nearly a century ago historian Jesse L. Boyd referred to Mississippi as a “Baptist empire.” Today, it is difficult for Baptists in the Magnolia State to imagine a time when their spiritual ancestors suffered hardships and persecution for their faith, but they did, even in Mississippi.

   John Smyth established the first Baptist church in Amsterdam, Holland in 1609, after he fled persecution in England for being a Separatist Puritan. Thomas Helwys founded the first Baptist Church in England at London in 1611, and he landed in jail shortly thereafter for speaking out for religious freedom [McBeth, 38]. Roger Williams fled persecution in Massachusetts when he opposed the Congregationalist state church, so he started a new colony in Rhode Island with complete religious liberty, where he established the first Baptist church in America at Providence, Rhode Island in 1639. William Screven was banished from Maine for his Baptist faith, and he established the first Baptist church in the South at Charleston, South Carolina in 1696. Richard Curtis, Jr., migrated from South Carolina to the Natchez area in 1780, where he established the first Mississippi Baptist church in 1791, but he was arrested by Spanish authorities who only tolerated Catholicism, and he had to flee the region for three years.

Read this blog, as I will continue to unfold the story.