Before the Civil War, Virginia’s African American churchgoers worshipped with whites or under white supervision. Virginia legislators had prohibited black Virginians from holding separate, unsupervised services following Nat Turner’s Rebellion in August 1831. The situation was similar across the South, for whites in most other slaveholding states also mistrusted autonomous black meetings. During the Civil War, black Southerners started to form new churches that were free from white control. In Virginia, where about 85 percent of black churchgoers were Baptist, the formation of the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association in August 1865 marked a key moment in the quest for spiritual self-determination.
Peter Randolph, one of the association’s founders, explained why so many African Americans were eager to form their own churches: “I think I voice the sentiment of my brethren when I say, that we chose rather to grope our way in the dark, than to have thrust upon us the kind of preachers we had had in the dark days of slavery, men who could neither sympathize with us, nor preach us the full Gospel. Besides, we knew that our white brethren denied our manhood, and with their own hands had bought and sold human flesh.”
The process of creating new black churches looked different in different places. In areas overrun by the Union army relatively early in the war—on the Lower Peninsula, for example—black men and women relied on support from the Union army and Northern philanthropists to form new churches fairly quickly. In interior counties that did not see the Union army until late in the war, African Americans often gained their ecclesiastical freedom more incrementally, first asking whites for permission to worship separately, and only later pressing for full independence.
The formation of individual congregations was an important step toward black spiritual autonomy, but black Virginians also wanted to create new denominational organizations that would unite these local churches. This happened first near Norfolk, under the protection of the Union army. By 1864, area churches had formed the Norfolk, Virginia, Union Baptist Association, probably the first all-black association in the South. Black residents of central Virginia did not form an association until after the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond. On August 11, 1865, they formed the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association, which quickly outstripped the Norfolk-based association in both numbers and influence.
The pioneer churches of the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association were ones that had an all-black membership even before the war. In order to obey the post–Nat Turner laws, these churches had white ministers until emancipation. When freedom came, African Americans in these large, primarily urban churches removed their white, Southern ministers and selected their own leaders. Richmond’s First African Baptist Church was the largest and most prominent of these semi-independent churches and claimed 3,474 members in 1865. In all, seven massive, urban churches—four from Richmond, two from Petersburg, and one from Manchester—formed the nucleus of the association. Together, they claimed 9,674 members. By 1868, there were 75 churches representing 25,122 total members.