I recently came across an interesting volume dealing with early church life among the Freedmen in the South. In 1895, just 30 years after the end of the Civil War and freedom, Dr. C. O. Boothe wrote and published Cyclopedia of Colored Baptists in Alabama.
Boothe, himself born into slavery in 1845, tells the exciting story of the planting of African-American congregations in Alabama. He found only three missionary Baptist churches that were “on their own” in 1865, but by 1895 the number had swollen to 800.
Boothe identified several paths by which these churches came into existence. Very common was the separation of the freedmen from a biracial Baptist church. I shared the story of two such churches in a column last fall. Boothe shared several others.
One was the old Salem Baptist Church in Greensboro, Ala. This was where the Alabama Baptist Convention was formed in 1823, but many white members of Salem did not remain after the end of the war. The building was sold to the county for $2,000. This money was then given to the remaining African American members of the congregation to use in the construction of a new building.
Another was the St. Phillip Street Baptist Church of Selma. When its building was constructed in 1845, the slave members contributed enough to pay for the basement, while the white members paid for the upper story. At the end of the Civil War the white members paid the Freedmen $2,000 for their share in the building. This money was used to build a meetinghouse of their own.
A second path was the planting of a church by one of the mission boards. This was particularly common in the Birmingham Mining District.
But perhaps the most common method was a more spontaneous source. A man felt called of God to preach. He would gather family and friends in a grove. If God blessed, in time a church would be established. Often neighbors and friends would donate land and materials for the erection of a meeting house. Such is the story of Pine Grove Baptist near Carrollton.
Most of these 800 churches were planted in the area called the Black Belt, the area across the middle part of Alabama that was relatively flat and fertile and which was heavily involved in the cotton culture.
Boothe also identified 47 Baptist associations of churches which were formed during these three decades. In his description of the founding of two of the three associations in my area, he lamented that there were no minutes of the early sessions of the associations because no one in attendance knew how to read and write.
Elsewhere in the volume Boothe took justifiable pride in the accomplishments of the rising generation in education. He was particularly complementary of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute and of Selma University.
The latter school was the child of the Alabama Colored Baptist Convention. Boothe provided an interesting history of this organization as well.
Another feature of the Cyclopedia is nearly 150 biographies of early African-American preachers and leaders among Alabama Baptists. As I read them I caught glimpses of the heroic efforts made to establish churches and denominational life. The era of Reconstruction was difficult. Trust between the races did not exist. These leaders overcame great barriers.
Boothe expressed concern that the gains of the first three decades should continue. He offered this suggestion, one that still rings true. It was his practice in his ministry to speak to groups about seeking what he called “The Heavenly Qualities.” These he listed as purity, peaceableness, gentleness, approachableness, mercy, impartiality and honesty. This was not easy in those tense times. The usefulness of these characteristics is apparent for our day as well.
Perhaps you are interested in reading this book for yourself. One of the blessings of the electronic age is that many rare books are now available to us on-line. I found this book at a site supported by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Use your search engine to go to the homepage of the university and from there go the library page. On the lower right hand corner of the page you will find an image containing the title, “Documenting the American South”. Click on “authors and find Boothe.
You will find several other offerings on this site including a book by W.E. B. DeBois about the Black Church. It contains several early sociological studies of these churches. I consider it a rich source for understanding Black church life.
During February African-American persons and others of us who are persons of good will, celebrated many things related to the contributions of that race to the United States. To my mind one of the greatest achievements in those early decades of freedom was the church planting and evangelism work that was done.
The churches became the center of expanding community life. Certainly planting nearly 800 congregations of Freedmen Baptists in 30 years in Alabama is one of the great stories of Christian history.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.