In July 1836, a black slave named Adam presented himself for membership in the First Baptist Church of Louisville, Mississippi. Most of the congregation was white, including Adam’s owner, but they accepted him into their church with a unanimous vote and great affection. The church clerk recorded the event: “Adam, a black brother owned by Mr. Henry Fox came forward and related to the church what the Lord had done for him, the church being satisfied, unanimously received him a member and extended to him the right hand of fellowship. On motion agreed that he be immersed on the third Lord’s day in August.”[i] A month later, the church received a white woman into their fellowship with equal warmth, and both of them—slave man and white woman—were subsequently baptized together. It was one of the few times in Adam’s life that “master” and “slave” gave way to “brother” and “sister.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, Adam’s experience was not isolated the South. Even in the most notorious slave-holding states, black and white Christians often worshipped together. It was not, of course, always that way. Most eighteenth-century slave-holders had argued vehemently against teaching the slaves Christianity on the grounds that the blacks might get a mind to rebel. In time, however, most planters realized that if slavery was to survive, they would have to make a biblical case for it and conduct it in a biblical manner. Evangelization of the slaves thus became, in the words of one 1845 convention, “the great duty . . . the fixed, the settled policy of the South.”[ii]
Slaves who became Christians were treated decently in some churches. Blacks and whites sang together, prayed together, listened to the same sermons, and shared without distinction in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When they were able to attend, blacks had as much right to vote in the Saturday business meetings as any other member, and in fact, churches frequently heard grievances black members would bring against their white “superiors.” Of course, the social distinctions so embedded in Southern culture did not entirely give way in the churches. Blacks sat in a special section reserved for them, usually at the back of the church or in an upstairs gallery, but most former slaves remembered little of that after the War. What they remembered was that at least on Sunday mornings, they stood on relatively equal ground with their masters.[iii]
Nevertheless, most Southern church-members, together with many of their ministers, continued to insist on the rightness of slavery. Some saw Christianity as a useful opiate to keep the slaves occupied. Everyone, even atheists, could see the great benefit of a slave population quieted by a message of love and peace. Wrote one Alabama slave-owner:
The days of [violence] in the management of negroes have gone. The time for brute force is past, and men must admit that there is another way to make negroes contented and profitable—a way which, while it improves the moral status of the negro, will strengthen the hold of the master upon him.[iv]
Another owner used Luke 12:47 to prove slaves should obey their master—“That’s Scripter!”[v] Why waste a whip, when one could just as easily crack the Word of God?
Freedom finally came at the point of a Yankee bayonet; it should have come by the Sword of the Spirit. Southern churches, however, never seemed to understand their full duty before God. They welcomed blacks as brothers and sisters, and yet continued to insist on the rightness of subjugation. Inside their church walls, they were quite willing to live by Christ’s law of love, but that was as far as it went. Pastors today must insist that the Word of God cannot be so confined. Rightly preached and faithfully lived, it will affect not only the Church, but the very fabric of society.
[i] John B. Boles, ed. Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 41.
[ii] Boles, 101.
[iii] See Larry M. James, “Biracial Fellowship in Antebellum Baptist Churches,” in Boles, 37-57.
[iv] Boles, 105.
[v] Boles, 116.