The first African-American Baptists in Mississippi
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.