How slavery shaped the rise of the Baptists in the southern United States


How slavery shaped the rise of the Baptists in the southern United States

Worshipers of the Ekuphakameni Group Baptist Church, also known as the Shembe Church, dressed in traditional clothing, climb the sacred mountain Nhlangakazi in Ndwedwe, 85 kilometers north of Durban. The faithful climb the mountain as part of their annual pilgrimage. PHOTO FILE | AFP

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a Christian denomination based in the United States. It is the largest Baptist denomination in the world, the largest Protestant denomination, and the second largest Christian denomination in the United States, smaller than the Roman Catholic Church.

Most of the early Colonial Baptists came from England in the 17th century, after the established Church of England persecuted them for their dissenting religious views.

In 1638 Roger Williams founded the very first Baptist Church in British America on the Providence Plantations, the first permanent American European colony, also founded by Williams, on Rhode Island.

The oldest Baptist church in the South, the First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was organized some 44 years later in 1682 under the leadership of William Screven. Baptists joined a congregational regime and functioned independently of state-established Anglican churches, at a time when non-Anglicans were prohibited from holding political office.

Baptist worship was hardly distinguishable from that of the ancient Puritan denominations, centered on the exposition of Scripture in sermons and emphasizing improvised rather than fixed prayers. The singing of hymns was one of the hallmarks of worship.

Baptists insist that the fundamental authority under Christ is vested in the local congregation of believers, which admits and excludes members, calls and ordains pastors, and orders its common life according to what it does. understands being the mind of Christ. They cherished the freedom established in early Rhode Island and were instrumental in enacting the “no religious test” clause in the US Constitution and the guarantees contained in the First Amendment.

Black churches constitute a major segment of American Baptist life. Many slaves converted and joined Baptist churches during the Great Awakening (1720s to 1940s). While there were black churches before the Civil War, they grew rapidly after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), an edict that freed slaves from Confederate states in rebellion against the Union.

In general, whites in the South demanded that black churches have white ministers and administrators. In churches with mixed congregations, blacks were forced to sit in separate seats, often on a balcony. White preaching often emphasized the biblical stipulations that slaves should accept their place and try to behave well towards their masters. In return, the white masters were urged to treat their slaves well.

After the Civil War and Emancipation, blacks wanted to practice Christianity regardless of white tutelage. They had interpreted the Bible as offering hope for deliverance and viewed their own exodus from slavery as comparable to the Exodus from Egypt, with abolitionist John Brown as their Moses.

They quickly left white-dominated churches and associations and set up separate Baptist conventions. State and regional conventions were formed and the National Baptist Convention was organized in 1880. By 1900 Black Baptists outnumbered Black adherents of all other faiths. With eight million members, it is today the largest African-American religious organization and the second in size after the Southern Baptist Convention.

When the Southern and Northern Baptists severed their organizational relationship in 1845, they did so with apprehension. The main objection of the southerners was that the northerners tried to impose their feelings on others. The North, which had nothing to gain, pressed its sights on the South, which had everything to lose. Southern churches have withdrawn, not to espouse pro-slavery doctrines, but to avoid further agitation on the subject.

Slavery was not much of a problem among the Southern Baptists themselves. It was an established fact. The institution was not seen as a theological or moral issue. For northern ministers, the perspective was different. Living further from slavery, they subjected it to a stricter scrutiny and found it at odds with fundamental Christian doctrines such as the Golden Rule.

The fundamental dispute, the morality of slavery, was irreconcilable. As long as the debate centered on the organization of the church, the moderates remained in charge. When the problem became slavery itself, attitudes became polarized. Outspoken northerners viewed slavery as a sin. Most southern ministers did not. Compromise with sin was impossible.

While neither side could compromise morally, both feared the effects of the split on congregations and political leaders. If Christians could not remain united, they could hardly expect more tenuous unions to continue. A church schism could well stimulate political fissures. The interests of harmony, however, could be better promoted by ceasing to debate at associative meetings and conferences and by splitting up.

In the Age of Reconstruction (1865-1877), missionaries, black and white of various denominations from the north, worked in the south, quickly attracting hundreds of thousands of new members among the millions of freedmen. Southern White Baptist churches have lost black members to these denominations, as well as to independent congregations organized by freedmen.

During the civil rights movement, most Southern Baptist pastors and members of their congregations rejected racial integration and advocated for white supremacy, further alienating African Americans. According to historian and former Southern Baptist Wayne Flint, “The (Southern Baptist) church was the last stronghold of segregation.”

In 1995, SBC voted to pass a resolution in which it renounced its racist roots and apologized for its past defense of slavery, segregation and white supremacy. This event marked the denomination’s first formal recognition that racism had played a profound role in its ancient and modern history.

Almost a year after the Charleston Church shooting in June 2015, the SBC approved Resolution Seven which called on member churches and families to stop flying the Confederate flag.

One can only hope that slavery and white supremacy are no longer facts for SBC.

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