Southern Baptists and Race
June 11, 2010 2:33 PM   Subscribe

In 1796, members of the largely black Portsmouth-Norfolk Baptist Church in Virginia decided that they wanted to participate in the Portsmouth Association conference, which oversaw Baptist churches in their region of the state. Soon after, however, they changed their minds. “The black people…soon repented and came and told the Deacons they were afraid that matters might turn up disagreeably to them and dishonoring to God, and said they would be subordinate to the white brethren.”

The story of this one congregation gives us a hint of the complexity of race relations and social expectations among Virginia Baptists in the decades after the American Revolution. At the beginning of the Great Awakening in Virginia and the start of the upsurge in Baptist membership, blacks and women were welcome not only to become members but also to preach and participate the associations that were being developed. Robert Baylor Semple, a prominent Baptist pastor and historian, records several black preachers preaching in the period immediately after the American Revolution, including William Lemon, “a man of color,” who stepped up to lead a struggling church in Virginia. “He, though, not as white as to his natural complexion, had been washed in the laver of regeneration; he had been purified and made white in a better sense.”

In 1788, the General Committee of Virginia Baptists began a discussion of whether “a petition should be offered to the General Assembly, praying that the yoke of slavery may be made more tolerable.” It was deferred to the next session, where, in 1789, the “propriety of hereditary slavery” was finally discussed at length. The committee passed a resolution stating: “Resolved, That slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature and inconsistent with a republican government, and therefore recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land; and pray Almighty God that our honorable Legislature may have it in their power to proclaim the great Jubilee, consistent with the principles of good policy.”

This resolution met with much opposition, however. The Dover Association argued in 1789 that “the state of the slaves of Virginia was of so singular and delicate a nature, that no general rule could apply. They therefore advised the churches to adapt their proceedings to the nature of each case in the most prudent way.” In 1793 the General Committee “voted by a majority, that the subject be dismissed from this Committee as it belongs to the legislative body.” With this statement, slavery moved from an ethical and moral issue to a purely legislative one.

By the turn of the century, tighter restrictions were being placed on what rights black members of Baptist churches were allowed to possess. Robert Semple records that in 1802, the Dover Association tried to establish a uniform policy towards black, as well as female, membership privileges in church meetings because “some churches admitted to their church meetings, even for discipline and government, all the members of the church, male and female, bond and free, young and old. Others admitted all male members, whether slaves or free.” This state of affairs was evidently problematic to some whites, because they perceived that “the degraded state of the minds of slaves rendered them totally incompetent to the task of judging correctly respecting the business of the church, and in many churches there was a majority of slaves; in consequence of which great confusion often arose.” To solve this problem, some proposed that “none but free male members should exercise any authority in the church,” which the result that “the Association, after some debate, sanctioned the plan by a large majority.”

The gradual yet inexorable exclusion of African-Americans from leadership positions within Baptist churches and associations, and the utter refusal to deal with the moral issue of slavery, led to increasing tensions between Baptists in the North, most of whom were for abolition, and Baptists in the South. Black Baptists in the South began to form their own organizations and networks. Finally, in 1845, Baptists from the South met in Augusta, Georgia and formed their own convention. The principle reasons given for doing so were disagreements over slavery and differences of opinion about missions activity.

The Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized in 1995 for the important role racism and slavery played in their formation, with a resolution that says in part:
WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery .... Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty.
posted by pecknpah (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty.

Oh, well then, all's forgiven and like before, right right right?
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:08 PM on June 11, 2010

Oh, well then, all's forgiven and like before, right right right?

That apologies do not undo the wrongs that necessitate them should not be seen as an excuse to never make them.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 3:17 PM on June 11, 2010 [9 favorites]

Throw-away "Family Guy" clips aside, (I'm looking at you, infinitywaltz), this is really interesting stuff. Were I a member of the African-American community, I'd probably be thinking "Too little, too late," but I think it speaks to some degree of a larger question, which is how someone can utterly detest the bureaucracy, leadership and official policies of a religion (or a particular sect of that religion) while still finding value in the religion itself and in its community of believers.

Right now, that's being played out most obviously within the Catholic community, which I can actually relate to, having been born, baptized and confirmed in that community. It was a lack of faith that led me to leave the religion well before the publicization of systemic child abuse made it an issue, but I imagine I'd be leaving it now had I already decided that the tenets didn't make sense. Some stay, finding that being part of the community to be worth whatever crap gets dumped down upon them from their leadership, and I think that's a valid choice, as well.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:30 PM on June 11, 2010

Having recently read a book about colonial history that touched on religion, racism, and slavery in the colonial era, it was interesting, if unsurprising and somewhat depressing, to see a post on how matters progressed after the Revolution.
posted by immlass at 3:54 PM on June 11, 2010

My So. Baptist church was largely white; we had a "sister" church of African-American Baptists. I thought it was weird and stupid then that we had separate congregations, though the adults reassured me that the black Baptists "preferred" it. Sure they did. We had a giant modern church, and they met in an ancient wooden-slat building in the bad part of town.

It's gonna take more than a mealy-mouthed apology, Baptists. And frankly, I don't have the time to wait for you to catch up to the 21st century.
posted by emjaybee at 4:58 PM on June 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, a really interesting part of this whole story is the role Thomas Jefferson played in enabling the Baptists to gain more power and, eventually, shift from a pro-black and women viewpoint to a white pro-slavery men only stance. Here is his Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which effectively ended the Anglican/Episcopalian dominance of religious power in Virginia. Given Jefferson's Deist beliefs, it's kind of a weird partnership, and yet it totally makes sense.
posted by pecknpah at 5:51 PM on June 11, 2010

Recent history is full of "GRAR!"
posted by five fresh fish at 6:42 PM on June 11, 2010

If you don't have access to JSTOR, read Slave Religion, available at libraries everywhere. Some weird racial dynamics arose all over the South; it wasn't just subordinating slaves.
posted by shii at 8:54 PM on June 11, 2010

pecknpah, thanks for this fascinating post.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:17 AM on June 12, 2010

This is really interesting post, thanks. I am often amazed at how slowly change happens. I think that social action and legislation can plant the seeds for progressive thought, but it seems like older generations often have to die off before change can be solidified.

Also, if anyone wants to know more about the beginnings of this whole mess in Virginia, this book is worth a read.
posted by Karendy at 12:23 PM on June 12, 2010

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