Monday, October 05, 2015

Rise of Black Churches in Laurens County, SC

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with the rise of black churches.
Bethel AME in Laurens. Built by freed slave Columbus White. Razed 2008.
Christians of African descent in Laurens County, SC, during the era of Reconstruction saw it as a duty to form their own churches, and white Christians felt a duty to help them. Leaving the white churches was "self‑inspired secession." In the white churches the Negro had no "voice in the government of his religious organization. At first the whites opposed the negroes' leaving, but the Baptists with their tradition of religious freedom "were the first to sanction and even encourage such separation."[1] The first South Carolina African Methodist Episcopal "Conference resolved that a separate religious organization was necessary for the Negro. Leaders argued that prejudice ruled out both races worshiping at the same altar.[2] Morgan Scurry, born a slave near Chappells in Newberry County, thought everybody should belong to the church and be a Christian. He added his thoughts to the racial separation of the churches many years later in the Slave Narratives,
The white folks sometimes had n-----rs to go to their church and set in the back or gallery. In our neighborhood, n------rs had their own church dat they made of poles and brush and called it "Brush Harbor." They made seats from small logs sawed off of rough plank.[3]
      The greatest contribution of the black churches may have been their very being. They helped give the Negro identity and community and kept alive "an indigenous black culture."[4] The African Methodist Episcopal church, which before the war had no Southern membership, had 400,000 members by 1880. However, Baptists were more successful because of the church's freedom to make its own decisions on the preacher, discipline, and finances. Untrained men were welcomed as leaders.[5]
            In Clinton a colored man, zealous for learning, stole some of Dr. Jacob's Greek and Hebrew books and hid them under leaves in the woods. When he was caught, he was turned over to his denominational council as he was studying for the ministry, but he was excused because he only wanted the books for use in learning. Later when the council considered licensing him, someone objected that he had not been to seminary and did not know enough. Someone else on the council countered that he had spent four years in the Columbia Penitentiary "and that was education enough for any man." He was duly licensed.[6]
            The first collection of $500 in Clinton was done by a black congregation. "It amazed the white churches." Although to Jacobs, early on after the war "preaching seemed to be the favorite employment with negro men, . . . the preachers have improved with time and the work of the colored pastor may now be taken seriously." Dr. Jacobs praised the rise of the freed slaves into solid and productive citizens: “"The colored people of Clinton have made wonderful progress in all that goes to make good citizens. They are a tax‑paying and property‑owning set and are working hard to get for themselves a good reputation.”

John A. Leland implies that the Freedmen's Bureau helped initiate the separation of churches and schools. The withdrawal led eventually to politics, he said. The Bureau and later the Republican party instructed that the black man should vote against his former master on every occasion because of his obligation to God who emancipated him and to the Radicals who were God's instruments to free him.[7]

[1]           Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861‑1877, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 193, 194. By 1874 the separation was nearly complete statewide.
[2]           Williamson, 189.
[3]           Morgan Scurry in Slave Narratives, II, ii, 89‑90. He adds, "There wasn't much time for learning to read and write. In Ku Klux times, I met five or ten of them in the road one night. They never bothered me. They had long white sheets over them and the horses. Slits were cut for the head, eyes, nose and mouth. I think everybody should belong to the church and be a Christian."
[4]           Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice‑Hall, Inc., 1969), 85.
[5]           Cruden, 82.
[6]           Jacobs, Literary, 35.
[7]           Leland, 39‑40.