As a woman of African descent, I was interested in looking at Baptist history from the lens of Africans and African-Americans. Some of the questions I pondered were: Who were the first Black Baptists? Where was the first African-American Baptist church? How were African slaves converted to become Christians, and more specifically Baptists? Why was the Baptist theology of Christianity appealing to African-Americans? How are our current traditions like those of historical Black Baptists? I am seeking to answer these things in this paper.
In August 1619, the first recorded Africans, approximately 20, arrived in Jamestown. Two notable names are Antoney and Isabella who are noted as marrying and bearing the “first black child born in British colonial America.” It is further recorded that they baptized their son in the Church of England and lived as Christians who were indentured servants because “it was morally unacceptable to enslave Christians.” These early Africans arrived before the system of slavery was fully functioning. Therefore, they were eventually able to work off their debt, buy their freedom and purchase land. Those who became “free landowners of African descent initially had the right to vote and even held office. In fact, they had about the same economic opportunities as their free white counterparts who they toiled side-by-side with as indentured servants.”
Unfortunately, blacks even owned other blacks as servants. Eventually, the white colonists found it more economically beneficial to own African servants than European servants because Europeans had support from and could appeal to the king. Africans had nowhere to go for help and “could not blend into populations of they escaped, and this distinction made their recapture easier.” As Christianity grew in the United States, and particularly Baptists for the purposes of this paper, there were mixed emotions among Baptists about whether to share the gospel with slaves. Many southern Baptists were slaveholders and used scripture to justify keeping other humans in bondage. Slaveholders cited racial inequity as expressed in their minds through the Bible story about Noah and Ham.
Blacks were naturally inferior because of the darkness of their skin and therefore destined to be servants. They believed that they were called to enslave “heathens” to bring them under submission to Christianity. Other Baptists believed and stood firmly on the premise that slavery was wrong. They “insisted that it should be abolished as soon as pragmatically possible. They urged the evangelization of slaves and called upon masters to observe scriptural admonitions regarding ‘Christian’ treatment of those in bondage” Others, however, disagreed with evangelizing slaves because they feared losing their economic viability of their “property” if they began to see themselves as equal to their masters and desire freedom.
Many Anglican masters wanted slaves to denounce their African heritage and traditions. In the early 1700’s, Francis Le Jau, one who desired to religiously educate slaves compromised with slave owners by saying that admission of Africans into the Church of England through baptism meant that they “must instantly, and unconditionally, abandon their cultural and religious traditions as well as give up all hope of securing their secular freedom.” Some slave owners agreed with Le Jau’s plan. They believed Christianity would make their slaves more docile, subservient, and obedient. Others were not in agreement with sharing Christianity with Blacks, such as refusal of “one man to take Communion when enslaved Africans were at the Holy Table and queries from a woman about whether she would be forced to see her slaves in heaven.” Though slave owners eventually gave in and seemingly “permitted” their slaves to worship, it was not a freedom that slaves enjoyed. Oftentimes, black Baptists whether slave or free, “were required to sit apart from whites in the galleries, and because of limited seating, many black parishioners were physically unable to fit in church.”
As more and more Blacks were converted to Christianity, autonomy in Baptist traditions and ways of life appealed to them. One could start a congregation without approval or jurisdiction from a higher group or authority. Many slaves were converted to Christianity during the revivals and camp meetings of the Great Awakening. The singing and excitement of worship appealed to them emotionally and culturally.
Baptism was also a big draw because it was similar to African water rites. Most importantly, the messages of egalitarianism and equality in the eyes of God resonated with them. Messages about God’s deliverance of the children of Israel gave them hope that they were not destined to be oppressed forever. God would soon deliver them as well. For some, conversion to Christianity became a form of resistance. It was a way to “express defiance of the authority of the master and opposition to slavery…for slave women, ‘who no longer wished to allow themselves to be abused for sinful purposes,’ conversion was a desperate act of defense against the lust of white masters.” Preachers, such as Nat Turner and others, rose up and led rebellion against the status quo of slavery.
Over time, black Baptists began to pull away from white parishioners. They wanted a space that was their own where they could truly worship without judgment or hindrance. George Liele was one of the first Black Baptists in Georgia. He was later ordained and created the first African American Baptist Church in America. In addition to traditional church settings, slaves also sought out private spaces to worship away from the masters. Many call these settings “invisible institutions”. Locations included swamps and spaces set off in the woods where they could not be located. Theses safe spaces allowed them to commune together and, for a short time, forget all their trials and suffering. Blacks listen to other Blacks preach and affirm their identity and their humanity. They also “sang spirituals that spoke of sorrow, joy, justice, salvation, and liberation.” Music was used as a coping mechanism as well to express emotions, share messages and process through pain. It is difficult to think about the use of the gospel to oppress and incite fear.
When I think about the church being the center of the Black community throughout the most challenging eras of our history, it makes perfect sense. Africans were taken from their land, stripped of their heritage and culture, separated from their families and “force-fed” a faith that was intended to keep them down. However, the message of Christ and the cross permeated their hearts and served as a source of inspiration and purpose. The gospel truth cut through the deepest places of pain and oppression to bring life to a people that were in the perpetual darkness of slavery. Even in pain, community was established and hope was fueled.
Today, the Baptist church – and the church at large – is still a place of refuge, of community, of safety. However, it saddens me to think that in some ways we still use the gospel as a tool to ostracize others instead of a resource to spread the love of Christ to all humanity.