Interracial Cooperative Missions among Blacks by Alabama's Baptists, 1868-1882

Article excerpt

Students of the African-American interaction with evangelical Christianity have taken pains to point out how slaves transformed the slave-owner's gospel into a litany of liberation and a homily of hope. After emancipation former slaves took "decisive action" and broke the ecclesiastical bonds that shackled them to the white man's church. Their withdrawal segregated the institutional sabbath worship experience in the South. Often excluded from the scenario is a tale of persistent postbellum interaction between white and black evangelicals, a saga that elucidates racial attitudes of the late nineteenth century and offers insight into the social expectations of Southerners, black and white. Possessing a rich heritage of evangelical religion and a complex and tragic legacy of race relations, black and white Baptist organizations, churches, and leaders struggled to balance the dictates of scripture with the demands of society as they sought to cooperate with one another in postbellum Alabama.(1)

In 1866 white Alabama Baptists faced a new and different world. Slaves were free and Confederate armies were defeated. African-Americans remained a vital part of the society, and white baptists renewed their peculiar missionary enterprise toward them, calling on one another to demonstrate "that the master is the [N]egro's best friend." Whites mixed a pronounced concern for maintaining social control over blacks with a genuine desire - perhaps driven by guilt or a fear of divine judgment - for the spiritual and material uplift of former slaves. Because black evangelical leaders likewise possessed a vision for the moral and spiritual uplift of their race, a foundation existed for interracial cooperation in ministerial training and Sunday School work, two programmatic features of organizational interaction between the races that continued into the twentieth century.(2)

For some white Baptist observers, given their racial perspectives, any desire to uplift ex-slaves seemed akin to casting pearls before swine. Rather than continuing in bi-racial churches, most black Baptists had formed their own congregations and sought to procure their own church buildings, actions some whites considered ingratitude. Sometimes the parties conducted a peaceful interfacial divorce, as in the case of First Baptist Church, Montgomery, whose white members helped their black brethren build their own church building. In Selma, however, a white pastor wielded a firearm to prevent black church members from claiming the church building, although no shots were exchanged. Antebellum white Baptists had justified slavery as a divinely ordered agency to civilize blacks. Many whites now feared the unshackled freedman's behavior would deteriorate, as former slaves lapsed into barbarism. Although hyper-retrogressionist rhetoric does not appear in surviving Baptist materials, which tend to focus on religious matters, one committee report ruefully notes that "in many places, the evidences of deterioration are painful and striking. . . . In some places the Bible is practically repudiated and denounced as the white man's book." Unlike less long-suffering whites, the Alabama Baptist Convention insisted that religious and moral education could arrest the alleged decline, deteriorationist sentiments notwithstanding.(3)

At the same time, black Baptists, newly freed from physical slavery and the spiritual oversight of whites, began to address the structural implications of their unfamiliar position. In 1868 black Baptist leaders formed "The Colored Missionary Convention of the State of Alabama . . . . for missionary purposes, and the better regulation of the Baptist Churches throughout the state." Nathan Ashby, who had preached during slave times, served as the Convention's first president. Acutely aware that slavery had not equipped blacks for life in a free society and that white racism would limit black exercise of that freedom in any case, the ministerial convocation committed themselves to a program of uplift. …