COLBERT COUNTY, ALABAMA
BLACK AMERICAN RELIGION - -
FROM SLAVERY TO SEGREGATION
©1978 by Dr. Kenneth R. Johnson
Used here with permission of author.
The Christian religion was an integral part of the life of inhabitants of the Muscle Shoals area. But the religious experience of the slaves was subject to the restraints imposed by the slave system and the demands of the masters. The religious doctrines taught the slaves and the church practices were controlled by whites; the doctrine and church practices were never anti-slavery in tone and never suggested that the slaves should be free. A Methodist Conference meeting in Montgomery in 1858 resolved that slavery was wise, humane, and righteous. 1 This resolution, generally speaking, expressed the thinking of all white religious groups in Alabama.
Although white religious leaders and organizations accepted the institution of slavery, they expressed real concern for the religious life of the individual slave. The action of the Baptist churches seems to be typical. As early as 1827, the Muscle Shoals Baptist Association in its 8th annual session recommended that “the brethren, who own servants do release them from their labor on that day (of worship) and carry then and their wives and their little one’s to engage in worship of the Most High.” In the 1840’s critics of slavery often claimed that the Baptists did not care for the slaves. The Baptist Association responded with the claim that “we may not have done as much as we ought to have done, yet we have not been altogether remiss.” It then recommended that ministers, churches, and Christian owners give utmost attention “to the religious improvement of their servants.” Ministers were urged to seize every opportunity to give instructions to the slaves and whenever practical and prudent, a special sermon should be given “to the colored portion of the congregation on the Lord’s Day.” Ministers were urged, when traveling and sharing the hospitality of a Christian family for the night, to call together, with permission of and in presence of the master, “those that serve and by whose toil he is made comfortable, and tell then of the better land where the weary are at rest.” Slave owners were urged to make arrangements for regular church attendance by the slaves. Five years later the same association recommended that ministers present the gospel to the slaves at least once a month and explain to them the Doctrine of Justification by Faith.2
Apparently all churches welcomed slaves to attend worship services in the same building with whites. The slaves were, however, required to sit in special sections of the building, usually in the back of the sanctuary or in a gallery. The churches also received slaves into membership. In 1840, for example, the Presbyterian Church in Tuscumbia admitted to membership “Emily" a colored girl belonging to F. O. Sherrod.3 In 1858 the Baptist churches in the Muscle Shoals Baptist Association reported a membership of 3,306 white and 753 blacks. The Tuscumbia Methodist Church in 1821 reported 156 white and 94 black members. In 1819 the Shoals Circuit of the Methodist Church reported 229 white and 2 black members. By 1832 this number had reached 430 white and 46 black. The Franklin Circuit which comprised approximately Franklin, Morgan, and Lawrence counties reported 229 whites and 10 blacks in 1820 and 596 whites and 123 blacks in 1832. The Methodist churches continued to welcome blacks, but came to feel that regular ministers failed to serve the slaves adequately. Therefore in 1832 the Methodists created two special “African Missions” in north Alabama. Thomas King was assigned to minister “to people of color” in Madison and Limestone counties, while Gilbert Taylor, a slave owner himself, was assigned Lawrence and Franklin counties. In areas where these African Missions existed, black Methodists usually were members of the Mission rather than the regular church. In 1843 the regular Lawrence County circuit reported 1,157 white and only 95 black members, while the African Mission in that county reported 203 members. 4
The Parish Register of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Florenceindicated that five slaves owned by C. B. Weams were baptized by Rev. W. A. Harris in 1837. In 1840 an infant slave named William, the property of Mrs. N. Nolan, was baptized. Two years later forty-six slaves on the plantation of Col. G. Armistead were baptized by James Young, missionary. Some other slaves who had already been baptized were "standing sponsors,” while a Mrs. Isa Brocchus was present and witnessed the sacraments. Other slaves were brought into the church in a similar manner. 5
The role played by black Americans in worship services and in administering of church affairs is not clear. Apparently white members handled the administration of church matters and conducted all worship activities. No evidence exists that blacks had any part in these activities. Yet blacks, like whites, could listen to the sermon and public prayers, join in the singing of hymns, and receive communion but from utensils different and separate from those for whites.
In the 1830’s and 40’s great revivals were often held by Presbyterianand other churches which brought people gathering in for miles around. A large brush arbor would sometimes be constructed and the worship and socializing continued for many days. While these revivals were predominantly white affairs, slaves were permitted to attend and stand or sit on the periphery of the crowd during preaching. Communion was administered to the slaves in a separate area. Slave ministers were sometimes called upon to preach to the slaves after white ministers had finished their sermons. 6
While the religious life of all slaves was controlled by white society, there were some black leaders and churches. In 1821 the African HuntsvilleBaptist Church became a member of the Flint River Baptist Association and reported seventy-six members. The African Cottonfort Church was also a member of the Association. 7 In the immediate Muscle Shoals area there were several slave ministers and at least one black-controlled church. Cato Hodges, a Baptist slave minister on the McKiernan plantation in the late 1820’s often preached to the slaves. Archie Eggleston, a Baptist slave preacher, preached to his brothers in bondage “the love and compassion of Jesus.” His language was filled with idioms of his race but . . .”it is spoke to the hearts of his unlearned auditors.” In the 1840’s the Methodist slave known as Williamlived on the same plantation and preached to the black population. Historians have often claimed that slave ministers were active workers against slavery. William, who assisted at least one family in the efforts to escape, seems to justify this claim.8
In Florencethe blacks built themselves a church building about 1840. It was commonly referred to as the African Church; no information is available about its organization and membership, although the worship services were organized and conducted by the blacks. Some white people might have attended some worship services but usually did not. Apparently many different black preachers preached there at various times.9
While little is known about the activities of slave ministers, an examination of some of the restraints imposed by the slave system reveals much about their work and the religious life of slaves. A slave or a free black who wished to preach was required by Alabama law to have a license from an established society or one of the denominational organizations authorized to ordain ministers. Also, religious services conducted by slave ministers had to be in the presence of five slave holders. Failure to meet these requirements could bring thirty-nine lashes for the first offense and fifty lashes for the second. While the state law did not prohibit the assembly of salves on or off the plantations for worship, there were many restrictions which made such assemblies potentially unpleasant for the slave. Neither slave ministers nor the slave church members could leave the plantation without the master’s permission, thus eliminating freedom to choose one’s church and to decide when one would attend worship services. The restrictions on travel also reduced the opportunity to spread religious knowledge to others and prevented black members from visiting the sick and performing other common Christian duties. A master could always decide when and where slaves would assemble for worship. On the other hand, a slave could hardly avoid attending church if the master wished it.
Church attendance has always been a highly social as well as a religious activity. Social gatherings of five or more slaves off the plantation was unlawful. If, in a white man’s judgment, a religious gathering was a social gathering, the black participants were subjects to punishments. 10
Additional restraints sometimes came from local government. For example, in 1842, the FlorenceBoard of Aldermendirected the constable “to put a stop to and prohibit the Negroes from holding preaching and other gatherings” within the city limits. This order was never carried out. Blacks continued to worship. On other occasions the aldermen issued other such orders. In December 1848 the aldermen adopted a resolution which prohibited “Negro Preaching and prayer meetings” and “no Negro shall be allowed to preach except Dick Kirkman,” and he was allowed to preach only in the day time. 11
The slave’s freedom to assemble, to worship God in his own way, to read and interpret the Bible, and to render what was commonly thought of as Christian duties was severely restrained by the dominant society’s desire to maintain order among the slaves. The master, not the slave, decided what was most important.
The civil War broke the traditional restrictions on black Americans and laid the foundations for a new order. The arrival of Union armies in the South brought to some salves a freedom of movement they had never enjoyed before. The Emancipation Proclamation and later the ratification of the 13th amendment abolished slavery and basically altered the legal positions of the blacks, without making clear what their legal rights, privileges, and responsibilities were. The reality of this new situation was recognized on the state level on December 13, 1865, when Alabama Governor R. M. Patton of Florencestated:
We will not only extend to
the Freedmen all his legitimate
rights, but will throw around him such effective safeguards
as will secure him in their full and complete enjoyment. At
the same time, it must be understood that politically and
socially ours is a white man’s government.12
Similar recognition of the new position of blacks was evidenced on the local level by a resolution adopted by the Florence Aldermenon December 4, 1865, which stated that:
All laws and parts of laws
in the Code relating to slaves
be and the same are hereby repealed. And all Freedmen
residing within the corporate limits of said Town or coming
therein, are hereby declared to be governed by the same
laws, and liable to the same penalties for the violation thereof
as are provided for the white inhabitants of said Town. And
they shall be assessed and required to pay the same taxes
as are assessed to the white inhabitants. 13
The practical effect of the new legal status of the black man insofar as his religious activities were concerned was that it broadened his options. He was free to control his own religious life.
As would be expected, traditional practices had a strong influence on the ex-slaves and white. Some whites continued to welcome black members to established churches, but on the same segregated basis as before the Civil War.
The Trinity Episcopal Church of Florencecontinued to welcome black members who sat in the old slave gallery while whites occupied the main part of the sanctuary and controlled the church offices and worship activies.14 Apparently the blacks who elected to remain a part of the Episcopal church did not challenge the leadership of the white members, although tension did develop on some occasions. In 1875, after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts by the National Congress, “a gentleman of colored persuasion” appeared in the Episcopal Church and took a seat in a pew already occupied by “a white lady.” This black man had already gained some attention by teaching young colored children to demand their rights and “how to shoot”. Apparently the black man was unmolested by unhappy white church embers, but the local newspaper editorialized that if this was a sample of his teaching and example, it “may lead to some unpleasantness if persisted in.”15
In the Brick Presbyterian Church some black members withdrew. Other blacks continued as members until their death but most of these gradually stopped attending services. The withdrawing faction built an all black Presbyterian church nearby. In this project they received encouragement and support from the Brick Church.16
The Baptistchurches in the Shoals area reacted differently. Many Baptist churches had large Negro memberships, and in some cases blacks were in the majority. White members recognized that “under the new order of things, Negroes going free,” the blacks would control the churches if they demanded and exercised their rights as members. To avoid black dominance of traditionally white-controlled churches, whites encouraged blacks to withdraw and establish their own churches. In these situations whites often helped erect buildings and sometimes provided ministers and assisted the black church financially.17 This move to establish racially separate churches seems to have been acceptable to both races at the time. But the establishment of Negro churches raised the question of associational membership. In late 1865 the Mount Pleasant Colored Baptist Church, consisting of former members of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, petitioned the Muscle Shoals Baptist Association for membership. The all-white association would not receive the church but recommended that it wait until more black churches were established. A Colored Association could then be organized. In the early 1870’s Dr. Joseph Shackelford and other leading white Baptists assisted the black churches to organize the Muscle Shoals Colored Baptist Association. 18
Some blacks organized their own Baptist churches totally independent of whites. In Florence the “Baptist African Church” was organized and a building erected at the corner of Market (now Wood Avenue) and Alabama streets some time prior to July 14, 1868. The church did not own the lot on which the building was situated. On December 23, 1873, three church trustees, John Poke, Richard Foster, and Abraham Jackson purchased the lot from W. H. and Amanda Wade for the sum of fifteen dollars.19 The building continued in use until 1901 when the present building was constructed. Also, by 1901, the church was known as the St. Marks Baptist Church.
The Methodist Church South experienced a drastic change in its black membership during and immediately after the Civil War. This denomination had approximately 203,000 black members in 1860. When the General Conference met in 1866, the number had declined to about 49,000. Some efforts were made by the white Methodists to keep the blacks in the church. The Tennessee-North Alabama Conference meeting in Edgefield, Tennessee, in 1866 appointed S. M. Cherry to serve West Huntsvilleand a colored charge in North Alabama. The West Mobile Methodist Conference immediately after the war invited the Negroes to attend worship in their churches “as in the past.” The Montgomery Conference acknowledged the need to continue the mission to Negroes but recognized that “old habits of thought and action” had changed and that existing conditions were unfavorable to establishing the mission at once.20 Yet white Methodists were reluctant to abandon the Negroes.
The 1866 General Conference Methodist Church, South, authorized the organization of blacks into separate churches and conferences. Colored Methodist churches were organized and then slowly brought together into conferences. In December 1870, representatives of the black Methodist churches met in Jackson, Tennessee, and organized the Colored Methodist Black Episcopal Church. William H. Milesand Richard H. Vanderhorstwere elected Bishops of the new denomination. Although white Methodist influence was strong in the CME church, it slowly grew in number and increased in independence. By 1876 its membership had increased to about 88,000.21
We have no record of the organization of the first CME church in the Muscle Shoalsarea. On October 29, 1866, the Pittsburg Freedmen’s Aid Commission organized a school in what was then called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Florence. 22 The “Pisgah Church” which was then or later became a CME church was about ten miles from Florence and was in existence in May, 1867, when the Union Leagueheld a county-wide meeting of black leaders to discuss ”the welfare of the Colored race.”23 Numerous other CME churches in the Shoals area trace their history back to the late 19th century.
While many blacks maintained close ties with their former church organizations, a majority chose to break with the past and affiliate with all black denominations. The all black African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches were powerful organizations in the northern states prior to the Civil War. The presence of slavery generally served as a barrier to their extension southward, although the AME churches did exist in Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans before the war and the AMEZ Churches had been established in the border states. In 1863, while the Civil War was in progress, the AME Church launched its southern organizational campaign. Ex-slaves, exercising their freedom of religious choice, flocked to meetings held by AME missionaries. In November, 1865, the Louisiana Conference consisting of six states, including Alabama, was organized. In July, 1868, the Alabama Conference of the AME Church was organized at a meeting of church leaders in Selma. The AMEZ Church began its southern campaign in 1862. Its growth in the South was much slower than that of the AME Church. AMEX churches were being organized in north Alabama by the late 1860’s.24
Local records do not make clear when the first African Methodist churches were organized in the Muscle Shoals area. The Florence African Methodist Episcopal Church was in existence as early as April, 1867. AME leaders were also organizing churches in the Tennessee Valley during this same period. W. C. Handy in his autobiography claims that his father, William Wise Handy, organized many Methodist churches in Florence and Lauderdale County.25 The Greater St. Paul African Methodist Churchin Florence claims William Wise Handy as a founder. In any event, by the mid 1870’s, the AME and AMEZ churches were established in the shoals area. The religious transition of black Americans from Slavery to Freedom was complete.
Although little is known of the early black churches in the Muscle Shoals area, some generalizations can be made about the religious experience of black Americans. In rejecting slavery, blacks did not reject either the religions or the churches they had become familiar with as slaves. Blacks continued to accept the Christian doctrine and continued affiliation with the same churches or organized new churches similar to those they had known as slaves. Blacks did reject white control of their religious life. After the Civil War the whites, with apparent sincerity, welcomed blacks to continue in the established churches but only on condition that they accept an inferior position. For the freedmen this situation was too similar to slavery. Freedom for the freedmen meant the opportunity to control their own religious life and the right to worship in a dignified, self respecting manner. The failure of whites to respect this right, left blacks no real alternative to withdrawing and establishing all black churches. Thus the establishment of racially segregated churches represented an effort by blacks to enjoy the maximum individual freedom and responsibility in a religious environment heavily influenced by white racial attitudes.
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