The first Baptist missions to Native Americans in Mississippi
Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.
Native Americans were an area of concern for Mississippi Baptists. The white man wanted the Indian lands, and but the Baptists desired the conversion of their souls. In 1817, the Mississippi Baptist Association began an aggressive policy by sending Thomas Mercer and Benjamin Davis to visit the Creek Indians and see what cold be done to establish the gospel among them. The missionaries started out on their mission, but the project collapsed when Mercer died. Baptists in Kentucky started an academy for Choctaws in that State in 1819, but it closed in 1821. Richard Johnson, a Baptist leader in Kentucky, then opened an academy for Mississippi Choctaws in 1825 in the district of Choctaw chief Mushulatubbee, which was approximately the area between the modern cities of Columbus and Meridian. This school’s curriculum was secular, but the teachers hoped to “civilize” the Choctaws and lead them to faith in Christ. They met with some success among students, but the missionaries had little impact on adults in the tribe. A young female student wrote: “I do not know that one adult Choctaw has become a Christian. We all pray for them, but we cannot save them; and if they die where will they go? May the Lord pour out his Spirit upon the poor Choctaw people.” It would be many years before missions to the Choctaw tribe would have much impact.
This is one in a series of blog posts about Mississippi Baptist history. Click the links on this blog to read other posts on Mississippi Baptist history. More stories to come.
(Source: T. M. Bond, A Republication of the Minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association (New Orleans: Hinton & Co., 1849), 60, 71; Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818-1918 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 100-113.)
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 rarely record discipline of slaveowners for mistreating slaves.
(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
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.
The Mississippi Baptist story begins in South Carolina
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.
Announcement: I will be revising and updating A History of Mississippi Baptists
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!
Guest blog: GBC president Hattaway calls Georgia Baptists to pray for revival
(Below is a guest blog post from Dr. Don Hattaway, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cartersville, and president of the Georgia Baptist Convention.)
A message from Dr. Don Hattaway, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention
The Georgia Baptist Convention has been greatly blessed by God. We have some of the most dedicated pastors and leaders in the history of our convention, excellent educational opportunities and resources, and the technological ability to deliver our message to the masses. In addition, we live in a state with over 7 million lost people desperately in need of the Gospel. Considering these factors, you would think we would be making great strides in reaching our state for Christ. Sadly, the opposite is true. Baptisms are down. Giving is down. Church attendance is down. Despite all of our efforts, we continue to lose ground in the battle for the souls of men, women, boys and girls across our state. If this downward trend is to be reversed, the problem causing it must first be determined.
I have come to believe that the greatest problem facing our convention is of a spiritual nature. We are in desperate need of revival. As the president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, my vision is to see spiritual renewal experienced in the churches throughout our state. This can only happen when we humble ourselves and seek the face of God. The time has come for all Georgia Baptists to cry out to the Father in confession and repentance of sins. When we are right with God and each other, God will be able to use us to impact our state with the Gospel.
If revival is going to be experienced throughout Georgia, prayer is where it will begin. Since there is no such thing as a prayerless revival, I want to call upon all Georgia Baptist pastors and leaders to begin to pray fervently for revival in our state.
Throughout this year, I will travel across Georgia encouraging the formation of prayer groups that will regularly meet to seek God’s face for spiritual renewal. I hope to see the momentum of prayer and spiritual expectancy build throughout the year leading up to our annual convention at Ingleside Baptist in Macon, Georgia. Our theme will be “Revive Us Again!” The Scriptural basis for this focus is Psalm 85:6, “Will You not revive us again so that Your people may rejoice in You?” This emphasis is so important I have chosen to refer to this year’s convention as “Revive 2014.”
When messengers leave “Revive 2014” in November, I want them to be able to say they have experienced God’s power and presence in their lives. My ultimate desire is for Georgia Baptists to come away with a renewed cleansing from God, a unified fellowship among God’s people and a restored passion to worship God and reach our state with the Gospel message.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit descended to empower the Church. After ministering alongside Jesus for three years, the disciples were not ready to do ministry because they lacked the power of the Holy Spirit. Once the Holy Spirit descended on the Church at Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel and 3,000 souls were saved. The Church, ministering in the power of God, turned the world upside-down for Christ. We, as believers, have the Holy Spirit living within us. However, sin grieves the Holy Spirit and limits His power in our lives. God wants to demonstrate His power in and through us. For this to happen, we must humble ourselves and pray for a fresh encounter with God. Only then will we be able to minister in the power of God and impact our state for Christ.
Will you join me in consistently praying for a spiritual renewal throughout Georgia in 2014? We must not delay. God wants to do a new work in us and in our convention. Let us join Him in His work.
(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product. If you see an inappropriate ad, feel free to contact me, Bob Rogers, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Guest blog: Georgia Baptist president’s observations on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention
(Below is a guest blog by Dr. John Waters, pastor of First Baptist Church, Statesboro, Georgia, and president of the Georgia Baptist Convention. He shares his personal observations about the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, which met last week in Houston, Texas.)
Southern Baptists gathered in Houston, Texas, this month for our annual convention meeting. Controversy or unsettled issues often marked previous conventions, so the annual meetings usually morphed into an annual show down, with messengers already having made up their minds regarding a particular issue weeks before their arrival.
This year’s Southern Baptist Convention, however, seemed to mark a course correction. With a shockingly low attendance barely breaking the 5,000 mark, not many Southern Baptists made the trek to the Lone Star state for this annual meeting, but those who attended participated in a well-planned and effective event.
Having attended this year’s annual gathering, I offer the following four observations about this year’s Southern Baptist Convention:
1. Baptists are beginning to favor cooperation over conflict.
With several potentially divisive issues before us, Baptists chose to respond with wisdom, grace, and a plea for unity. The theme of “Revive Us: That We May Be One” set the stage for a spirit of cooperation that sadly has been absent in many of the previous conventions. The report regarding Calvinism and the resolution about Boys Scouts of America were characterized more by their thoughtfulness than their abrasiveness, and messengers seem to be resisting the urge to fight, choosing instead to make strong statements tempered by love and the spirit of Christ.
2. Previous “hot issues” seemed noticeably absent.
With the commotion caused in recent conventions about the Great Commission Resurgence (Orlando, 2010) and the descriptor name of “Great Commission Baptists” (New Orleans, 2012), it was remarkable how these hot topics seemed to be long forgotten. Even though these issues were passionately debated and subsequently approved, Southern Baptists seemed to have put them in the past, relegating them to the historical archives of the Convention for anyone who wants to search for them. But did the adoption of these quasi-controversial matters substantively change the make up and DNA of Southern Baptists? Given the deafening silence about these issues only a few years after their acceptance, they apparently were forgotten as quickly as they were adopted.
3. The call for global missions has been re-ignited among Baptists.
It was difficult to miss the mandate to get the Gospel to the nations, and rightly so. Over the past 30 years or so, Southern Baptists privately swelled with pride when talking about our global mission strategies and our thousands of fully funded missionaries around the globe. But the growing statistics of lostness among the nations and the fatness among Southern Baptist churches have been a wake up call. Danny Akin’s closing sermon was particularly insightful, as he reminded messengers that they could be parachuted into places on the globe and walk for weeks on end without ever meeting a single believer or seeing a single church. They would find, instead, countless people groups representing millions of souls that have never once heard the name of Jesus. In an over-saturated America with churches on every proverbial street corner, maybe it is time we managed with less at home so that we can poke deeper and wider holes in the darkness in parts of the world that don’t even have access to the Gospel.
4. Fred Luter’s genuine spirit set the right temperature for Baptists.
Noticeably uncomfortable in certain settings requiring parliamentary finesse, president Fred Luter displayed an affable and infectious spirit that endeared him even more to Baptists, if that is even possible. He capably handled all of the business required of any SBC president, but his love for churches and pastors was apparent and set a gracious tone for the entire meeting. His gregarious manner was perhaps best displayed after he struck the gavel for the close of the annual meeting and then looked into the crowd and shouted, “Love y’all!” With men like Fred Luter leading the Southern Baptist Convention, the days ahead will be good ones indeed.