Churches after the Civil War
Baptist churches became popular among African Americans in the South in part because they offered more membership rights than other denominations. Until the nineteenth century, and unlike the more-elite Episcopal church, Baptist churches routinely offered free and enslaved blacks full membership, and sometimes roles like exhorter or deacon, in their congregations; they restricted leadership roles like elder and pastor to whites. Until 1831, blacks were also free to lead their own separate Baptist congregations, providing a level of autonomy for African American communities nonexistent in most other areas of southern society. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, white Virginians become fearful that violence would result from assembling black communities, so the General Assembly passed laws restricting enslaved and free blacks from worshipping without white supervision.
After the Civil War, newly freed African Americans rushed to form their own churches, and the Baptist tradition also provided a productive model for organizing on a larger scale. Baptist churches were strictly independent, guided only by the consensus of their membership. For this reason, they could form and participate in regional associations of their choosing. Such associations became a powerful tool for freed African Americans to share resources, create supportive communities, and organize politically.
Thewas the among the earliest of the black Baptist associations. Established on August 11, 1865, its members assembled in Richmond’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and represented a combined membership of more than 9,600 people, from three congregations in Petersburg, three in Richmond, and one in Manchester. The assembly also drew participation from Baptists outside of Virginia, such as John Oliver, a Boston carpenter who traveled south to observe the situation of blacks in Richmond and stayed to work as a political activist. The association made him an honorary member, and he reported on the first meeting’s proceedings. The association also recognized and regularized other newly formed and organizing congregations, such as churches in Fine Creek, Staunton, and Walnut Grove; formed the Baptist Missionary Society of Virginia; and emphasized the importance of Sunday schools and a literate, well-read clergy.
The association gave immediate voice to a distinctly African American view of the world. For instance, while many white Baptists in Virginia viewed the Civil War through theof and Northern aggression, black Baptists saw events differently. William Williams, the association’s founding moderator, that, through the war, God had freed people from “servile despotism” and the “tyrant’s lash.” The abolition of slavery, he said, was something for which black Baptists had long prayed. And while black Christians and their white supporters had often likened the event to Exodus in the Old Testament—Abraham Lincoln was popularly associated with Moses—Williams instead described this new freedom as a type of Easter, “that morning when Jesus, by his resurrection, unlocked the gates of death.” This theological shift was important, but so was the very act of assembling. “It would have melted the hearts of our oppressors to witness this heavenly scene,” Oliver wrote in the minutes.
The meeting ordained six men as elders, including William Harris, Richard Wells, and John Jasper. A formerly enslaved preacher, Jasper would later found the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, on Brown’s Island, in Richmond. A white minister from Richmond, William T. Lindsay, attended the service and provided the ordination prayer. The ordination of black ministers as elders was a significant new freedom. Only one black Baptist preacher in Virginia had received ordination prior to the arrival of Union forces—the Reverend Daniel Jackson, who pastored the Petersburg African Baptist Church until requiredto step down in 1831. “We could but admire the aged servant of God as he stood before us,” Oliver wrote in the minutes, referring to Jackson, “with his shining locks white with many years of toil and labor, having seen the salvation of God.” Following this first session, many other Baptist associations were founded, new churches organized, ministers ordained, and missionary societies formed all over the state.
In 1867, African American Virginians established the(VBSC), the third statewide black Baptist convention founded in the postwar South. The VBSC conducted many statewide activities that the associations executed more locally, including the establishment and support of educational institutions. Because after the Civil War most enslaved and free blacks were poor, financial and organizational assistance was crucial. Black and white Baptists in the North entered the South with ready and organized help for the freedpeople, with white Baptists in the South assisting to a lesser extent. The VBSC cooperated with the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS), a white northern missionary organization established in 1832 to set up schools and provide other humanitarian support to southern blacks. The American Baptist Publication Society, often in cooperation with the VBSC, provided desperately needed religious literature. These northern, largely white, Baptist societies also hired northern and southern black agents to work among the southern black populace.
While the VBSC’s impact in cooperation with other Baptist bodies was most profound in the area of domestic missions and education, it also gained national prominence by participating in African missions. Missions provided not only prestige for Virginia Baptists but also brought dignity and purpose to congregations, fulfilling the Baptist belief in sharing the Christian Bible with communities worldwide. Despite the daunting challenges of poverty and illiteracy at home, the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society—founded in 1815 by a white deacon,, and two black clergymen who eventually immigrated to Liberia, and Colin Teague—laid the foundation for Virginia Baptists in African missions. When the American Baptist Missionary Convention, founded in 1840 and largely northern, and the Northwestern and Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1864 and more inclusive of Southerners, convened in Richmond in 1866, they organized the Consolidated American Baptist Convention and elected Virginian William Troy as president. In 1880, Virginian William W. Colley helped form the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, which focused on West African missions after his own missions experience convinced him that blacks should conduct their own independent African mission work. Throughout its fifteen-year history the foreign mission board of this group was heavily populated, if not sometimes dominated, by Virginians. Indeed, the founding session elected a Richmond-area resident as board chair and Colley as correspondent secretary. This group had relative success planting missionaries, some of whom were Virginians, in western Africa during the 1880s and early 1890s.
In 1895 the National Baptist Convention emerged as a more-truly national organization, resulting from the union of the Black Foreign Mission Commission and two other bodies. The BFMC’s impact was lasting, as it is regarded as the parent body of two national organizations still currently in existence: the National Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated, and the National Baptist Convention of America.
Cooperation vs. Independence
The debate over how to advance the political, economic, and religious needs of African Americans after slavery touched on every area of life for black Americans. Virginians, like other African American Baptists in the South during the post–Civil War years, received considerable financial and educational support from often-northern white Baptist organizations as they transitioned from slavery to freedom. By the 1880s and even more profoundly in the 1890s, some black Baptists, Virginians among them, argued that African Americans should chart a more independent course. The independents stated that, while they were not unmindful of or ungrateful for the crucial support of whites in the past and while interracial cooperation was still crucial, they wanted a mutual and equitable relationship. Independents argued further that every people, including blacks, should take primary responsibility for their own freedom and unique contribution to humanity.
The cooperationists argued, on the other hand, that the independents were ungrateful for the support of white Baptists and overestimated their abilities to meet their community’s financial challenges. They also believed that independents were spiritually mistaken, and were not heeding the universal Christian principle of rising above caste and racial differences. While the debate over independence and cooperation was significant, it would be reasonable to suspect that at times both sides exaggerated the positions of the other, and that personal ambitions and financial considerations (especially of those hired by northern white groups) played a role in the conversation.
The new National Baptist Convention (NBC) found itself engaged in this heated debate between black independence and interracial cooperation. Differences on this issue caused a split, with the 1897 Lott Carey Baptist Convention emerging in favor of cooperation with white organizations as a way to maintain focus and funding on foreign mission work. The Lott Carey Convention was heavily influenced by Virginians at its founding, and continues to draw its greatest support from Virginia, the District of Columbia, and neighboring states. Still, some of the strongest advocates of independence were Virginians such as Lucy Coles, a former African missionary in the 1880s.
After slavery, religious organizations—black, white, and interracial—often vigorously participated in political discussion about postwar racial policy. About one week prior to the convening of the 1865 founding session of the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association in Richmond, the first Black State Convention adjourned in Alexandria. Across the South, African American leaders, including Baptists, met in sessions to discuss the conditions and challenges facing blacks. These conventions demanded for blacks full inclusion in the legal, constitutional, economic, and social life of the nation. They gave voice to the idea that physical freedom was insufficient and untenable without full citizenship rights and legal protections such as the right to vote and representation on juries. African American clergymen were well suited for political engagement because they were among the most educated blacks with the most experience in public speaking and negotiating with whites.
Of the approximately sixty delegates to the Black State Convention, at least six of them were ministers, with others who may not have identified as such. The overwhelming portion of the black religious populace was Baptist and thus, quite possibly, many of the convention participants were Baptists., of Richmond, may or may not have been a minister at this time, but one week after the convention, he became a major participant at the founding session of the Shiloh Association and later served as the first president of the association-affiliated Baptist Missionary Society of Virginia.
Cook’s presence at the state black convention was noteworthy, perhaps even more than it had been at the association. An anonymous letter, postmarked before the meeting convened in Washington, D.C., threatened the lives of Cook and others should they follow through on plans to gather in Alexandria. Cookto the assembled group that he had refused to be intimidated by this letter because labor to free blacks was more important than their lives. After Cook’s remarks, and perhaps in direct response to them, the assembly sang “My Country ’tis of Thee.”
Shortly before the start of the convention, the Reverend Clement Robinson, pastor of the Beulah Baptist Church, in Alexandria, wrote a letter from Boston, Massachusetts, to the group, which was scheduled to assemble in Alexandria. Besides expressing his fear that he might be unable to return to the city in time for the meeting, Robinson’s letter declared his desire to be counted among the denominational representatives, his esteem for the heroism ofduring the Civil War, and his opinion that the political argument for African American suffrage should be linked to this heroism. As the curtain of disfranchisement threatened to fall in the 1890s and early 1900s, black Baptists in Virginia continued to connect the right of suffrage with service on the battlefield.
These leadership voices indicate that education was one of the most practical contributions black Virginia Baptists could make to the ongoing struggle for civil rights. In 1865, the ABHMS created the National Theological Institute in order to train African Americans as Baptist ministers. The institute established two branches, both of which started as seminaries but quickly broadened to offer education in fields beyond the clergy. The first branch, Wayland Seminary, was established in Washington, D.C., with a $1,500 grant from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Graduates includedand the Maryland civil rights activist Reverend Harvey Johnson.
The second branch was formed in Richmond as the Richmond Theological Seminary for Freedmen and held classes at a former slave-holding pen called Lumpkin’s Jail. At times operating under the names the Colver Institute and the Richmond Institute, the school prospered through the perseverance of the local black community and despite white opposition. The ABHMS also established Hartshorn Memorial College in 1883 to educate African American women. In 1899, Wayland Seminary and the Richmond Institute merged as Virginia Union University. These various Baptist institutions graduated ministers, teachers, and professionals with the skills to fight for African American civil rights.
The passage of the, , and amendments to the recognized black people’s freedom from slavery in perpetuity, their full citizenship in both the nation and their resident states, and the right (at least for African American males) to vote. Black people in great numbers voted, held public office, and continued to build businesses, establish schools, and otherwise exercise all the benefits of free citizens. Yet the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in general through the late 1870s helped lay the foundation for Jim Crow segregation, the rising tide of economic and , and, perhaps most crippling of all, black disfranchisement.
Most black Baptists responded to the changing political climate by fighting against political injustice and gathering in faith communities for encouragement. A black Canadian bishop with strong ties to Virginia offered a different, troubling response. In his 1904 collection of sermons, The Scourging of a Race, W. Bishop Johnson argued that African Americans’ unfaithfulness and ingratitude toward God, including sins such as the refusal of black males to defend the honor of black women and a disproportionate concern with material things, had merited God’s “scourging.” The scourging, Johnson argued, was meant to return the black community to faithfulness.
While black Baptists in Virginia and elsewhere may have appreciated the call to repentance and the necessity of reliance on God, a more-common theological response–one not intrinsically contradictory to Johnson’s position–was that, despite present sufferings, African Americans should continue to have faith that the wrongs suffered today would in time be reversed, and, in the meantime, the community should lay the foundation for a better future for their children and grandchildren.
Black Baptist leaders resisted white supremacy with black-owned newspapers, church pronouncements, and political assemblies. They joined others who decried lynchings, segregation, brutality on the railroads, and disfranchisement. On August 22, 1900, on the eve of a state constitutional convention (1901–1902) called in large measure to deprive black men of the ability to vote, black Baptists participated in the Virginia Conference of Colored Men to protest the threat to their Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendment rights. Among the delegates was Gregory W. Hayes, president of the Richmond Theological Seminary. The group reconvened annually and became known as the Virginia (or Negro) Educational and Industrial Association, which rallied communities and funded state and federal voting suits.
At the end of the nineteenth century, African American Baptists, as with other blacks, faced significant threats to their civil rights, and they continued to look to their religious organizations to help them celebrate their full humanity and to lay the foundations for a more just and equitable future.