Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rise of Black Baptist churches in Laurens County, SC

"A Negro Camp Meeting in the South" (loc.org)
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with the remarkable rise of Baptist churches led by African American freed slaves.

Baptists also found themselves in the midst of the massive post-War social upheavals of the period. Out in the Beaverdam community of Laurens County, Beaverdam Baptist Church for example, organized in the early 1800s, had in the year the War ended, 1865, the largest colored membership in its storied history – seventy-six black members. No longer enslaved, black members of Baptist churches soon began withdrawing to form separate fellowships, motivated by their new opportunity for a voice and a vote in church affairs. Their white brethren, who believed in congregational church government, encouraged and supported their believing former slaves demonstration of their own leadership in their own local churches.[1] 
But there were other, less altruistic, outside political forces fueling the departure of black members from churches as well.
Whites in churches across denominations were deeply fearful and opposed to the Union leagues and the black militias involved in elections from 1867 to 1870. As a result, there was a parting of the ways ideologically. In the case of the Baptists, their doctrine of congregational government facilitated their political tastes.[2]
In Laurens, the Baptists had organized a religious society in 1834 and established a church in 1851. By 1860, of the forty‑two members of the Laurens Baptist Church, just fifteen were white, as many slaves had received Christ as their Lord and become church members. In 1869, the church’s membership stood at seventy‑ three, both white and black, but soon afterward for some reason the numbers sharply declined. The separation of the churches along racial lines in reaction to prevailing political and social forces was undoubtedly a factor. The black members of the Laurens Baptist Church did not officially separate until 1886, when they formally organized a church under the name of Saint Paul, but they had effectively left Laurens Baptist Church by 1877. In September 1876, the Laurens Baptists, presumably all white, reorganized themselves with only five members. Under the leadership of Rev. J.C. Hiden of the Greenville Baptist Church, the group built a wooden building painted white with green blinds at the corner of Main and Church Streets. By 1888, the white Laurens Baptists would rebound to 120 members in church and Sunday School.[3]
Saint Paul Baptist Church, that fellowship of former slaves whose first members came from the Laurens Baptist Church, was the first of its kind within the town of Laurens. Along with many others in Laurens County, Saint Paul was planted by an incredibly gifted Black church planter named June Kennedy that year of 1877. These Baptist freedmen and women met on land in Laurens donated by a black businessman named C. Martin Mills. Saint Paul Baptist Church was not only the first black Baptist church in Laurens, the church also started the first school for black children in Laurens County.[4]
Outside of the town of Laurens, the formation of black Baptist churches had been ongoing even back to the early days of the War Between the States. In Waterloo for example, the black Baptists formed Laurel Hill Baptist Church as early as 1861. New Grove Baptist Church, two miles southeast of the Laurens courthouse, "was organized in the dark days of 1866." The first to preach there was Zuck Kearns, then June Kennedy. Laurel Hill and Duncan's Creek Baptist Churches have left no records, but were very early churches.
            In the Waterloo area south of Laurens in 1869, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church had 124 colored members on their roll, the largest in the local Baptist Association. That year, two black members of Mount Pleasant, Daniel and Gilbert Burnside, asked and received licenses from the church to preach with the plan to plant a church of their own from black Mount Pleasant members. The brothers organized Cedar Grove Baptist Church under a brush arbor in 1870 near Waterloo, and the church’s first members brought their church letters from Mount Pleasant. By October, 1877, the last black members of Mount Pleasant were granted letters of transfer.[5] One freed slave, speaking to a WPA interviewer in 1937, said of these days at Cedar Grove, “You remember that the Colored people, before emancipation, had their membership in white churches. After emancipation they remained with their friends until churches of their own could be established. Large crowds used to come to hear [D.B. Burnside, first pastor,] preach under a brush arbor.”

[1]           Scrapbook, 426, 432‑433, 443‑444.
[2]           W.J. Megginson, African American Life in South Carolina’s Upper Piedmont, 1780-1900 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), 291-2.
[3]           Scrapbook, 443‑444.
[4]           Scrapbook, 491.
[5]           Scrapbook, 470: Mount Pleasant Baptist, est. 1826, had the following: 1848‑‑164 White, 97 Black; 1851‑‑ 223 White, 99 Black (largest in the Association); in 1867 the white Sunday school failed. In 1869 the church had 124 colored members.