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How 19th century Mississippi Baptists viewed slavery

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 do not record discipline of slaveowners for mistreating slaves. This was partially because Baptists lacked influence over slaveowners, since few of them owned slaves, but it was also because they were unwilling to speak so boldly against the power and wealth of the white aristocrats who controlled the politics of the state.

(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.)

The first African-American Baptists in Mississippi

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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.

Book review: “Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860”

Menikoff, Aaron. Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publicaitons, 2014.

Aaron Menikoff fills in important gaps in Baptist history with this well-researched study of Baptist involvement in social reform between the American Revolution and Civil War. He is well-prepared to write on the subject, with a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and experience as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, a Baptist.
This book debunks the common idea that Baptists in the 19th century were only concerned about personal salvation, and neglected social issues. He first examines the overall attitude of Baptists toward salvation, morality, politics, and church and state, with particular emphasis on how Baptists held in tension the idea that church and state should be separate, yet a nation needed to be virtuous to survive. In other words, the Baptist understanding of separation of church and meant the government had no right establishing a particular religion, but this did not mean a separation between church and society– far from it.
Next, Menikoff examines how this Baptist attitude played itself out in five major issues of the time: political parties, slavery, the Sabbath Mail Controversy, poverty, and the temperance movement. He shows the majority Baptist approach to each issue, while also revealing how different Baptists took different sides on each of these issues. ]
On political parties, Baptists usually avoided endorsing candidates or parties, yet spoke out on political issues, and some were more directly involved as candidates and supporting parties.
On slavery, Menikoff shows the complexity and diversity of Baptist views, including the colonization movement to resettle slaves in Africa. While Northern Baptists generally joined the abolitionist movement and southern Baptists opposed it, he shows how there were southern Baptists opposed to slavery in the south as late as the 1830s, and Baptist leaders like Richard Furman called upon slaveholders not to neglect the spiritual needs of their slaves.
The Sabbath Mail Controvesy is largely forgotten today, but at the time there was great religious opposition to the delivery of mail on Sunday, including most Baptists. He tells the fascinating story of how a Baptist Senator, Richard Johnson, gave the Congressional report supporting the delivery of mail every day, calling his fellow Baptists hypocrites for trying to unite church and state over the issue.
On poverty, the author shows how Baptists were active in relief efforts for the poor, although they often blamed the poor for getting themselves into their situation and focused on targeted giving of the “deserving poor.”
The temperance movement to abstain from alcohol was the most popular Baptist cause, as all Baptists saw alcohol abuse as a major social problem. However, Menikoff shows that Baptists also had different opinions over the temperance issue, especially defending the liberty of conscience for individual Baptists who drank moderately, and those Baptists who opposed to political efforts at prohibition on the grounds that it mixed church and state.
This book gave me a new perspective on several issues, especially the fascinating Sabbath Mail Controversy as well as how complex and diverse Baptist opinions were on slavery in the south. Menikoff’s research is carefully documented, with hundreds of footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography, leaving a rich resource for further study on the subjects covered. It is not light reading, but for those interested in Baptist history, it is rewarding, indeed.

Four 19th century biographies of Southern slavery

Recently, I’ve read four 19th century biographies and autobiographies of men and women who escaped slavery in the South. If you want to read about what slavery was really like in that time, these classic books will let you hear the stories in the words of those who experienced it.

Sarah Hopkins Bradford, Harriet, the Moses of Her People.

This biography, written by a white friend of Harriet Tubman gives a firsthand account of the amazing life of an amazing woman who bravely made so many trips to the South to rescue over 300 of her people along the “Underground Railroad.” The author is somewhat patronizing toward African-Americans, yet beautifully portrays the unwavering Christian faith that sustained Harriet through it all, and the events surrounding her that some call “supernatural.” Her story has recently been made into the film, Harriet.

Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave.

The most dramatic story I have read of someone escaping slavery is that of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped in New York, and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he suffered until his dramatic rescue. Northrup himself vividly describes his experiences, which shows the cruelty of slavery in the Deep South. The events surrounding his rescue will have you on the edge of your seat. No wonder this was made into an Academy Award Winning film!

Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself.

This account of a female former slave, using the name Linda Brent, shares graphic details of brutality and especially sexual abuse by white owners. There is a constant tension between Linda and her owner, Dr. Flint, whose affections she continually rejects. Although a true story published at the outbreak of the Civil War, it reads like a novel, and I read it quickly. It gives so many insights into slave life in the South, and even discrimination against blacks in the North.

Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave.

This true story was the basis for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I downloaded it and read it in one day. Henson was an industrious man with great leadership and organizational skills. The storyline moves quickly and is so emotional, that it overcomes the 19th century formal writing style. I highly recommend this short read to get a feel for the heartless institution of slavery in the South.

Tearing down statues– where does it end?

News photo for commentary purposes. No copyright infringement intended.

Protesters in San Francisco have pulled down a bust of Ulysses Grant, the former U.S. president and Union general who defeated the Confederates, because Grant married into a slave-owning family. They also pulled down other statues, including that of Francis Scott Key (pictured above), who wrote the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” since Key owned slaves.

I readily agree that slavery was and is reprehensible, and the Confederates were traitors to the Union. I also agree that statues of many such historical people need to be removed to museums, not glorified front and center in our parks and courthouses. But where does this sort of thing end? What person, past or present, is without character flaws?

I wonder if these same protesters would be willing to tear down a statue of Charles Darwin, since he was a racist who said Africans were less evolved than white people? I wonder if these same protesters would be willing to deface a statue of John F. Kennedy, since he was reportedly an adulterer?

Interestingly, some of those people of the past, if they were here today, would likely be shocked by the immoral practices of some of these modern protesters, some who may cohabitate outside of marriage or may have killed babies through abortion– but at least they didn’t own slaves, so they judge themselves righteous. How blind these self-righteous anarchists are, seeing the sins of the past but ignoring the sins of the present.

These modern moralists do not see how similar their vandalism is to ISIS fighters who tore down ancient statues in the Middle East because they were “pagan.” These revolutionaries do not see how their onrush to destroy any and every injustice in the name of the people is similar to another revolution– the French revolution, a time when the revolutionaries were soon devouring each other for not being radical enough. Today’s radicals could read about it in their history books, but it seems they have torn out most of the pages.

The reassurance of Jacob’s ladder

Copyright by Bob Rogers.

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,” repeats the beloved spiritual. “Every rung goes higher higher.” The last verses urge, “Keep on climbing, we will make it,” and finally asks, “Do you want your freedom?” I can just hear Southern slaves singing this as they pick cotton and dream of liberty from oppression. It must have seemed that God was not there, but they found hope in a vision of escaping one day.

Yet when we read the beloved story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, we find a reassurance not just for the future, but for right now. Jacob had left his father Isaac and mother Rebekah in Canaan, and was on a journey to see his relatives in Mesopotamia, and to find a wife.

Ancient pagans thought that a god only dwelled in the land where he was worshiped. If you left that territory, you also left that god. So what a surprise, when Jacob got a vision in a foreign land, of a stairway from the earth to heaven, and angels going up and down it. Then the Lord himself spoke, “I am the LORD (Yahweh), the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). The God of Jacob’s father’s was not limited to a territory! The Lord continued “Look, I am with you…” (Genesis 28:15.

In amazement, Jacob named the place Bethel, meaning house of God, and said, “Surely, the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).

What a reassurance to us when we feel that we are in a god-forsaken place, that there is no god-forsaken place, for God is omnipresent, always present, always here. He is not limited by time, place, or circumstances. Look around and see what God is doing right here, right now. Surely, the Lord is in the place where you are, but do you know it?

Twisted scripture: “The curse of Canaan,” used to justify racism

Copyright by Bob Rogers

NoahSonsCurse

Canaan be cursed. He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers. – Genesis 9:25, CSB

One of the most despicable distortions of the Bible in all of history, was the use of Genesis 9:25 to justify enslaving the African people.

According to Genesis, shortly after Noah and his sons survived the flood, Noah got drunk and was lying naked in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, saw his father naked and told his two brothers. The two brothers took a cloak and walked backwards into the tent to cover their father while showing him respect by not looking at him. Genesis 9:24-27 says that when Noah awoke and learned what his youngest son had done, he cursed Ham’s descendants by cursing his son Canaan, saying he should be the slave of the descendants of the other sons.

This verse has been used to justify African slavery by those who claimed Canaan was the ancestor of Africans, and that Negroes were destined to be slaves of Caucasians. Since Genesis 10: 6 mentions that one of Ham’s sons was Cush, generally identified with Ethiopia, he has been falsely identified with Ham’s other son Canaan, as though both were African. However, the curse was on Canaan, not Cush, and Genesis 10:15-19 says that the descendants of Canaan included the Jebusites, Amorites and the settlers of Sodom and Gomorrah. All of these are well documented as being in Palestine, not Africa. The Amorites were so evil that Genesis 15:16 says, “the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (This full measure eventually was punished when Joshua entered the land to destroy this people, who were known for such evils as child sacrifice.) As for Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 19 tells the story of the destruction of those cities due to their homosexual perversion.

Not only did the curse of Noah apply to Canaan and not Cush, but a prejudice against a descendant of Cush is specifically condemned in scripture. Numbers 12:1-16 tells how Moses own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, criticized Moses for marrying a Cushite woman, and the Lord became angry with Aaron and Miriam, cursing Miriam with leprosy for speaking against Moses and his Cushite wife. There are many other scriptures that condemn racism and teach that God does not show favoritism, showing how God accepts people from every race and nation who follow Him (Genesis 12:2-3; 1 Samuel 16:7; Psalm 96:3; Isaiah 2:2; 56:6-7, Jonah 4:11; Acts 10:34-35, Galatians 2:11-14, Colossians 3:11, James 2:1-4, Revelation 7:9).

Thus, not only is it a devilish distortion of scripture to say that Africans were cursed to be slaves, it is also a correct conclusion from scripture to say that those who practice racism against Africans (or any other people) are cursed!

 

Movie review: “Free State of Jones”

FreeStateofJones

“Ever heard of the ‘Free State of Jones?'” my father asked me when I was a boy. “When Mississippi seceded from the Union, Jones County seceded from Mississippi, but Mississippi forced Jones County back into the state, and the Yankees forced Mississippi back into the Union.”

It wasn’t quite so simple as that, but Dad had the basic story right. Now this little-known (but well-known in south Mississippi) and strange piece of Civil War history is on the big screen, in Free State of Jones.

My wife and I saw the film in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is in the county immediately south of Jones. The theater was packed for an afternoon matinee, as people are fascinated by a film about local history. Some people personally knew minor actors in the film. Behind us, someone whispered in a swamp scene, “That must be the Okatoma.”

What they saw was an mostly accurate, violent film about the stubborn, tragic character of Newton Knight, who led a band of escaped slaves and poor white deserters, at times numbering in the hundreds, that literally took control of Jones, Jasper and part of Smith Counties in south Mississippi late in the Civil War, and rebelled against the Confederacy.

FreeStateofJonesArmy

(Above: Newt Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, leads his band of rebels.)

Why did they do it? Jones County had the lowest percentage of slaves in the state of Mississippi. A law passed during the war allowed whites who owned 20 or more slaves to be exempt from fighting. Poor white farmers in south Mississippi had no interest in the war and resented being forced to fight. As Newt Knight famously said, “This is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

Notice that I said the film is mostly accurate. There are some dramatized scenes based on the true story, of details that we cannot know, such as some of the interactions between Newt Knight, his wife Serena, and his common-law African-American wife, Rachel. Also, the film takes major liberties with Newt’s killing of the Confederate officer who was trying to capture Knight. The movie invents a dramatic scene involving an ambush at a funeral and shows Newt killing the officer in a church. The historical records indicate that what really happened was that Newt hunted down Major Amos McLemore at the Deason home in Ellisville, killed the colonel in the house, and then fled. This scene is the only major departure from the historical record that I saw in the film, and even though the film took liberty with the events for the sake of drama, at least got it right that Knight hunted down and killed the man who was trying to capture him.

Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Newt Knight is convincing, as is all of the acting. The costumes and cinematography are realistic and gripping. Little details are correct, such as names of places, and the correct Mississippi flag of that era. The plot appears to reach a climax of victory and then it feels like an alligator painfully dragging you into the swamp. That is because this is not fiction, this is history. History doesn’t always fit into neat plots with satisfying endings. But the adage applies here: truth is stranger than fiction.

Caution: Free State of Jones is rated R for graphic war violence.

FreeStateofJonesNewtTalks

  (Above: Newt Knight rallies poor people of Jones County to fight.)

If we are made in the image of God…

CreationOfManHands

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” — Genesis 1:26, HCSB

 Essay Copyright 2015 by Bob Rogers

The Bible says that human beings are made in the image of God. Scholars debate the theological significance of this– that humans resemble God as spiritual beings, rule with God as stewards of His creation, and have a relationship with God by faith. But let’s come down to earth and think about the practical significance of this:

If we are made in the image of God, then abortion is wrong, and murder is wrong, euthanasia is wrong and war is wrong unless it can be shown to be justified by saving more lives than it takes, because these things kill a soul that is made to be with Jesus.

If we are made in the image of God, then racism is wrong, sexism is wrong, pornography is wrong, kidnapping is wrong, and slavery is wrong, because it devalues somebody who is made in the likeness of the king of kings.

If we are made in the image of God, then it is wrong to abuse a child, or abuse a wife or husband, or abuse an elderly person; and it is wrong to neglect and mistreat people because they are poor or mentally unstable or mentally handicapped, physically disabled, or unable to care for themselves due to illness. For each human life is a spiritual life, capable of spending eternity with Christ, so how we treat them down here on earth will be remembered forever up there in heaven.