JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–While conducting research for one of my books on Black Southern Baptist church studies, a new piece of information emerged which challenged the historicity of a traditional axiom of Black church history. This experience motivated me to dig for the roots of the oldest Black Baptist church in America.
For years, the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, Aiken County, S.C., has been considered the oldest. Founded sometime between 1773 and 1775 by George Leisle (Black) and Waite Palmer (white) on the plantation of George Galphin across the river from Augusta, Ga., this church has been acclaimed as having greatest antiquity among Black churches in this country. However, the question may not be settled.
History has not been consistent in designating “the first Black Baptist church.” As early as 1888, James Simms in his book, “The First Colored Baptist Church in North America,” maintained that First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Ga., was the oldest. Miles Mark Fisher in his “Short History of the Baptist Denomination” states, “In Virginia both the present Harrison Street and the Gilfield churches claim priority.” The most recent participant in the debate is Mechal Sobel in “Travelin’ On: A Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith” who claims that the first Black church was constituted circa 1758.
Sobel, a Ph.D. from Yale, has done a scholarly job in her book. She maintains, “The Separatist Baptist revival that began with Shubal Stearns in 1755 not only brought Blacks into the new mixed churches, but it also led directly to the first all-Black Baptist congregation” (p. 102). Two white missionaries, Philip Mulkey and William Murphey, started a predominantly slave congregation on the plantation of William Byrd III on the Bluestone River around 1758; the Bluestone church would predate the Silver Bluff church by at least 15 years.
The primary source of Sobel’s research is Robert B. Semple’s 1808 book, “A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia.” Semple’s records reveal: the names of the founders; the date of constitution; the location of the church; an evaluation of the spiritual status of the slaves; the general racial composition of the church; significant historical events in the life of the church; the presence in association records of the church. In summary, Semple’s account yields the following conclusions: Mulkey and Murphey planted a church in 1758 or 1759 on the Byrd plantation near the Bluestone River consisting of “several White members besides a large number of Blacks. … Many of these poor slaves became bright and shining Christians.” After the breaking up of the quarters on the Byrd estate the Blacks scattered to different places and the church declined. However, “The remains of this church continued in a dwindled state… .” The church revived in 1772 and has an unbroken history to the present. In 1808 the Meherrin Baptist Association showed the Bluestone church as a member church with 115 members.
Fisher wrote in 1933, “It would not be surprising if some undiscovered document should reveal a Negro church organization prior to the Silver Bluff Church… .” Could it be that Sobel discovered such documentation?
There are some objections to the claims of the Bluestone church as the first Black Baptist church in America. First, there is the “silence of the historians” argument. This position holds that if the Bluestone church really has greatest antiquity, why haven’t the major Black Baptist historians mentioned it? This question may be answered by an understanding of the nature of the historian’s approach. The historian’s approach is based on three realities about sources: the existence, availability and knowledge of documentation. The silence of historians could be explained by their ignorance due to the dearth of documentation. They simply had not been exposed to it. Nondiscovery is not synonymous with nonexistence.
However, it should be remembered that not all Black Baptist historians were silent on the possibilities. Miles Mark Fisher, as early as 1933, raised the possibility as quoted earlier.
Second, there is the “authentic Black church” argument. This protest resists the Bluestone church’s greatest antiquity on the grounds that it was not really “a Black church” since it was multiracial. The “authentic Black church” argument raises the question: What is really a Black church? Some definitions of a Black church include: 1) the numerical predominance definition — a simple majority or more of Blacks makes a Black church; 2) the jet Black definition — a 100 percent membership of Blacks makes a Black church; 3) the Black-led Black purpose definition — a church with a Black pastor and the purpose of meeting the needs of Blacks is a Black church; 4) the functional definition — any church committed to and involved in the human liberation movement is a Black church (theologian James Cone’s definition of “blackness”). Clearly the Bluestone church was a predominantly Black multiracial church. The question may boil down to this: Is Black numerical predominance a sufficient determiner of “being a Black church”? If not, where do we draw the line? Must a church be jet Black, have a Black pastor and function to meet Black needs in order to be classified as a Black church?
In my quest to discover the oldest Black Baptist church in America I was able trace the history of the Bluestone church. It is now the First Baptist Church of Petersburg, Va. A visit to the church, an interview with the pastor and viewing the historical records of the church yielded the following: While they were not aware of Sobel’s, Semple’s or Fisher’s research, their records corroborated the finding of these scholars. It was like the “Roots” experience.
The similarities were startling. The founding dates, the names of the founders, the location, the “scattering,” the reorganization date, the list of pastors, the relocations and the names of Black preachers ordained were either identical or close enough to be explained to be the same event, person or date. Given the probability that the earliest records were orally transmitted, this is remarkable!
What then must be concluded? I am convinced that, based on evidence, there was a predominantly Black congregation as early as 1758 on the plantation of William Byrd III on the Bluestone River in Mecklenburg County, Va. This church struggled, many members scattered, but the congregation revived in 1772, according to associational records, or 1774, according to church records. That church can trace its unbroken history to the First Baptist Church, Petersburg, Va., a Black congregation today that claims the title: “The Oldest Black Church in America.”
Depending upon documenting specificity, it may not be an open and shut case that the Silver Bluff church was the first Black Baptist church. In any case, the search goes on.
Smith is director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division.