Author: Sandy D. Martin

professor of religion at University of Georgia
ENTRY

Black Baptists in Virginia (1865–1902)

Most religious African Americans after the American Civil War (1861–1865) belonged to Baptist churches. Even prior to the abolition of slavery, Baptists, black and white, came closer to the principle of the equality of all believers than many other religious bodies. Even white Baptists recognized in principle the idea that African Americans were full members of the church, though whites generally did not consent to the ordination of their black counterparts. Once free, African American Baptists became even more assertive in forming churches and organizing independent local and state associations. These groups gave a platform to African American views of the world, from the theological to the political, and an avenue by which connections could be made both domestically and abroad. For instance, black Baptists in Virginia sought educational and humanitarian support from white Baptists in the North while at the same time, in part through the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, created in 1880, establishing missions in West Africa. This strategy eventually caused a rift between those black Baptists (so-called independents) who balked at asking white Baptists for help, and others (so-called cooperationists) who argued that they should rise above racial differences. Taking advantage of their numbers and influence, Baptist groups also lobbied hard for black civil rights. And for a time black men voted and regularly held office in Virginia. But by 1902, and the ratification of a new state constitution, such rights were effectively eliminated. In the difficult years to come, Virginia’s black Baptists relied on their now well-established institutions to pursue their social and political interests.

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