The greatest story of “church planting” in America may never be told. We have waited too late to gather the data.
I am talking about the explosion of new African-American congregations in the rural South in the decades following emancipation. There were only a few all-black churches in 1865, but by the end of the century there were thousands.
Some were the work of missionaries sent out by mission boards, but most were spontaneous efforts of local people.
Prior to emancipation many rural churches had African-American members. Some had even formed “shadow” congregations within them. And a few cities like Richmond, Savannah and Mobile had congregations comprised of freedmen.
Recently, the records of Unity Baptist Church came into my hands. Unity was formed in 1829 and was among the oldest congregations in Pickens County, Alabama. It served a community of plantations not far from the modern town of Aliceville. In 1866 it reported 165 members with 78 of them being freedmen.
According to the April 1866 minutes of the Unity church the question was raised as to how many of the African-American members were still living in the area. The congregation listed a total of 35. At the same meeting the congregation agreed that the freedmen could use the church building to hold services of their own one Sabbath per month.
(At that time most rural Baptist churches met one weekend a month. On Saturday they would have worship and then conduct the business of the church. This would include such matters as “opening the doors” of the church to receive new members; granting letters of dismissal to members who were moving away; and hearing and solving moral issues involving the members of the church. With everything taken care of the church would hold a second worship service on Sunday.)
The records of Unity indicate that its pastor at the time, Bro. A. M. Hanks, continued to preach to the freedmen on one Sunday and to the other members on another Sunday. From time to time over the next six years freedmen would come to unite with Unity either by profession of faith and baptism or by transfer of membership from another Baptist church.
In May of 1871 a licensed African-American preacher, Duncan Salmond, presented himself for membership by letter from the First African Baptist Church of Pickens County. This church was fully constituted and met in the Enon meeting house, which was located in the Garden community.
Perhaps, at this time the African American congregation within the Unity church began having Bro. Duncan Salmond serve them as their pastor. (The historical sketch of Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church lists him as their pastor also from 1870 to 1890.)
In August of 1872 the First African American Baptist Church of Pickens County asked that Unity ordain Duncan Salmond as a minister of the gospel. Unity seems to have gladly agreed to do so. This was done in October.
The next month the African-American portion of the Unity church, which had met separately for the most part for six years, now asked to be constituted as an independent church. Unity listed 100 African-American members at the time, so the new church may have had nearly that number of members.
The clerk of the Unity church noted in the minutes that this “concluded all connections between the two congregations.” One cannot help but wonder if the new African-American church continued to share the old building and what its name might have been.
Here may be a clue: Old Unity concluded its ministry in 1955. It is memorialized by a nice plaque on the entrance to its well-kept old graveyard. Adjoining the graveyard is a very nice new building of the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church.
In the minutes of the old Union Baptist Association, now Pickens, there is note of an African-American association of Baptist churches being formed in 1873. Its name was Lebanon. It continues to the present.
For several years the two associations exchanged fraternal “messengers.” Among the locations of the early annual meetings of Lebanon association were churches by the name of Salem, Bigbee and Pine Grove. The latter two of these continue to the present. I am wondering if today’s New Salem might be a “restart” of the Salem church which came out of Unity back in 1872.
Slavery was an evil institution. The Reconstruction period was a difficult one for those involved. Yet God was at work behind the headlines of the time. He called and raised up faithful pastors to lead in the planting and nurturing of thousands of churches. He blessed their efforts.
I suspect that few recognized his hand at work in those hard days. One day our grandchildren and their children will look at the difficult days of this era and discern the hand of God at work. We must just be faithful and obedient. God is a God of surprises.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.