How slavery shaped rise of US Southern Baptists


Followers of the Baptist Church from the Ekuphakameni group, also known as the Shembe Church, dressed in traditional attire, climb the Nhlangakazi Holy Mountain in Ndwedwe 85 kilometres north of Durban. The devotees climb the mountain as part of their annual pilgrimage. FILE PHOTO | AFP

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

Most early Baptists in the colonies 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 at the Providence Plantations, the first permanent European American settlement, also founded by Williams, on Rhode Island.

The oldest Baptist church in the South, First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, was organised some 44 years later in 1682 under the leadership of William Screven.The Baptists adhered to a congregationalist polity and operated independently of the 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 old puritanical denominations, centred on exposition of the Scriptures in sermons and emphasis on extemporaneous, rather than, set prayers. Hymn singing was one of the characteristic features 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 in accord with what it understands to be the mind of Christ. They cherished the liberty established early in Rhode Island and played an important role in the adoption of the “no religious test” clause in the US Constitution and the guarantees embodied in the First Amendment.

Black churches constitute a major segment of American Baptist life. Many slaves were converted and became members of Baptist churches during the Great Awakening (1720s to 40s). While there were Black churches prior to the Civil War, they grew rapidly following the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), an edict that freed the slaves of the Confederate states in rebellion against the Union.

Generally, Whites in the South required Black churches to have White ministers and trustees. In churches with mixed congregations, Blacks were made to sit in segregated seating, often in a balcony. White preaching often emphasised Biblical stipulations that slaves should accept their places 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 independently of White supervision. They had interpreted the Bible as offering hope for deliverance, and saw their own exodus out of slavery as comparable to the Exodus out of 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 denominations. With eight million members, it is today the largest African-American religious organisation and is second in size to the Southern Baptist Convention.

When Southern and Northern Baptists severed organisational relations in 1845, they did so with apprehension. The chief objection of the Southerners was that the Northerners were trying to impose their sentiments on others. The North, which had nothing to gain, was pressing its views on the South, which had everything to lose. Southern churches withdrew, not to espouse pro-slavery doctrines, but to avoid any further agitation on the subject.

Slavery was not really an issue among Southern Baptists themselves. It was an established fact. The institution was not considered a theological or moral question. To Northern ministers, the outlook was different. Living further from slavery, they subjected it to stricter scrutiny and found it to be contradictory to such fundamental Christian doctrines as the Golden Rule.

The basic dispute, the morality of slavery, was irreconcilable. As long as the debate had centred on church organisation, moderates had remained in control. When the issue became slavery itself, attitudes polarised. Outspoken Northerners considered slavery a sin. Most Southern ministers did not. Compromise with sin was impossible.

Though neither side could compromise morally, both feared the effects of the rupture on the congregations and on political leaders. If Christians could not remain united, they could hardly expect the preservation of more tenuous unions. A church schism could well stimulate political fissures. The interests of harmony, however, could best be promoted by ceasing debate at associational meetings and conferences, and going their own separate ways.

In the Reconstruction Era (1865-77), missionaries, both Black and White from several northern denominations, worked in the South quickly attracting hundreds of thousands of new members among the millions of freedmen. White Southern Baptist churches lost Black members to these denominations, as well as to independent congregations which were organised 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 bastion of segregation.”

In 1995, SBC voted to adopt a resolution in which it renounced its racist roots and apologised for its past defense of slavery, segregation and White supremacy. This event marked the denomination’s first formal acknowledgement that racism had played a profound role in both its early and modern history.

Almost a year after the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, SBC approved Resolution seven which called upon member churches and families to discontinue the flying of the Confederate flag.

It can only be hoped that slavery and White supremacy are no longer facts to SBC.