Some history of African American churches

On Sunday, June 10, at 2:30 p.m., the Salem Baptist Church of Shongaloo will celebrate the milestone of its 163rd anniversary. Somehow, Salem was omitted from a survey done about 10 years ago for the Dorcheat Museum, so my information about the congregation is meager. But the church still meets on the 2nd Sunday of each month, and its founding date of 1855 makes it among the oldest African-American congregations in Webster Parish, if not the oldest. The founders of the congregation were women, Sisters Savilla Manning and Margaret Lewis. Many thanks to a writer with local ties, Renee La Viness for alerting me to the celebration and Mary Markray, Church Secretary, for providing me information on the church’s history. The membership invites all to celebrate this occasion with them next Sunday. Today’s Echo will briefly examine the emergence of the African-American churches in Webster Parish.

In antebellum Northwest Louisiana, almost all African Americans were being held in slavery. During the early years of old Claiborne Parish, founded in 1828, there were a few free persons of color, but by 1860, that number had dwindled to one. He was Joe Populous, a barber at the Minden Hotel. By 1861, Populous has relocated to New Orleans where he became an early enlistee in the famed Louisiana Native Guards. Dealing with religion among the slaves was a problem for the Protestant churches in our region. Their faith commanded them to share the word of Christ, but Slave Codes forbade the assembly of slaves together in groups without white supervision. Their only alternative seemed to be to allow the slaves to attend the white congregations.

The presence of slave members in area white churches was apparent. Still today, at the 1850s building of the Rehobeth Church at Mt. Lebanon you can see the balcony where slaves sat during the years before emancipation. When the Minden Baptist Church (today’s First Baptist Church of Minden) was founded in December 1844, it soon began to number slaves among its congregants. Among the earliest members of the Minden Baptist Church was Nancy, listed as a servant of Sister Allen, who was received as a member in June 1845. In 1850, Minden Baptist granted the privilege of preaching to the slave members of the church to Brother George, who was also a slave member of the congregation. By 1865, the Minden Baptist Church had 35 slave members. With the end of the Civil War and the enforcement of emancipation, the situation gradually changed and by January 1867, all African-American members had been lettered out or dismissed from the church roll. Church minutes from that month reflect the final letters of dismissal. There are differing accounts of precisely how this took place, but the following account from the Minutes of the Red River Association in 1866 is contemporary to the developments (although it is clearly shaded by the prevalent racial attitudes of the times):

“At Minden, separate services were begun for the blacks. The colored members were encouraged to withdraw and form an organization of their own. They were aided in purchasing a lot and erecting a house of worship. The pastor, W. E. Paxton, preached to them regularly, instructed them in the management of their affairs, supplied them with about three hundred copies of the New Testament; encouraged them to employ a teacher and learn to read. They were organized into a church, about sixty taking letters for the purpose. The pastor continued to preach to them regularly. He organized them into a Sunday School, and supplied them with the necessary books. A few could read, and these were selected as teachers. A discreet, pious and intelligent colored man, named William Newman, who had long been a deacon in the service of the colored members at Mt. Lebanon, was set apart to the Gospel ministry, and was chosen as pastor.”

Although this account varies in some ways from the records of St. Rest Baptist Church, it is clear St. Rest was the congregation being described.

Much of the following history of congregations comes from an excellent compilation of the African-American history of Webster Parish put together by Dr. Roy Phillips and the late James Smith for the Dorcheat Museum in 2009. This article will on skim the surface of their research as the document on churches alone runs more than 20 pages and has many images. So, for members of the congregations discussed, do not think the abbreviated descriptions I am forced to use by reasons of space are all that is included about your church. I do want to use a part of the introduction put together by Phillips and Smith.
In discussing the role religion played in the lives of the slaves, who had been dislodged from their lives and taken halfway across the world, Phillips and Smith wrote this:

“The white slave masters introduced them to the European model of Christianity as found within the Baptist and Methodist church traditions. They were allowed to attend white churches in a segregated section of their churches.

After emancipation, they were not welcomed in the majority of white churches, especially those of the protestant tradition. It should be noted, however, that some white slave masters assisted them in the establishment of their own churches through the donation of land and building materials. In some cases, some white ministers co-pastored with African American pastors and taught them how to read the Bible.

It should be noted that the African American church was the first organized institution outside of the home within the African American community. There, they were able to associate freely with one another and speak their mind without fear of retribution from the slave master.

African American ministers of the early churches were generally able to read and write. In the beginning, they quoted Bible scripture taken from the Old Almanac until the Bible became available in their churches and homes. Because of their independence, the seeds of disobedience became deeply implanted in the African American church tradition, where many of its civil rights leaders originated.

The African American church also became the social gathering place for families within the community as well as the school house for the education of the children within the community.”

With the emergence of the CME and AME denominations, a structure was developed for Methodist congregations among the former slaves. Because of the strong congregational nature of Baptist Churches, those churches were at first formed as independent congregations.

With that said, lets briefly look at the African-American churches established in Webster Parish through 1870.
Wesley Grove Christian Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1863 at Cotton Valley, Louisiana. Its first pastor was John Hawkins. The church began in a crude log cabin with pine log seats and with an old wood heater in the middle of the church.

In October 1865, under the leadership of Reverend Cager Nelson (1865-1871), the Saint Rest Baptist Church was organized. Saint Rest was the first organized Baptist church for Negroes in the Minden area and is called the mother church of the Fourteenth District Baptist Association. With the organized church in tact but still under a brush arbor, the members began raising money to purchase land to build a permanent structure. On October 31, 1866, Brother Romulus Bell, representing the group, purchased three acres of land.

The church was moved from the brush arbor into a boxed house with no ceiling, side walls, or glass windows. An oversized boxed pulpit was constructed, and the seats were made of split logs with pegs for legs.

Rev. J. A. Moore, Sr., (1912-1918) was the tenth pastor. Reverend Moore led the church through many accomplishments before he resigned; many men and women became faithful working members, the large debt was finally paid in full, and the mortgage note was burned. During the five and one-half years, more than 175 members were added to the church.

In December 1952, Reverend B. F. Martin, Sr., became the seventeenth pastor. From the very beginning, Reverend Martin was dynamic, youthful, and energetic. He proved himself to be the person needed to guide the activities of the church.
Reverend B. F. Martin retired on February 2, 1999, the date of his 84th birthday.

A new era began for Saint Rest with the election of its eighteenth pastor, Reverend B J. Martin, Jr. B. J. Martin retired in 2017 and was replaced by the Rev. Robby D. Williams.

Saint James Baptist Church was organized in Webster Parish by Reverend Cage and his assistants, Mr. T. J. Jackson, Mr. Calvin James, and Mr. & Mrs. A. G. Gooding. The first pastor was Reverend Cager Nelson, mentioned above for his role at St. Rest. From 1866 to 1872, the church had two locations, Mayfield Farm and Stewart Farm. In 1888. St. James Baptist Church moved to its present site.

During the early 1900’s, the Saint James and Saint Matthew Community was organized under the supervision of the late Reverend J. A. Moore (mentioned earlier for his time at St. Rest and for whom a Minden elementary school would be named) for the purpose of building Rosenwald School (known as Concord School). The community raised money for the construction. After lots of fundraising, the school was finally completed in 1925 and opened in the fall of 1926 with Mr. J. N. Stone, Sr., serving as principal. (J. N. Stone was the father of attorney Jesse Stone, later President of Southern University.)
Over the years the following congregations were formed as branches of St. James:

Saint Matthew CME Church, Saint John Baptist Church, Growing Valley Baptist Church and New Zion Baptist Church.
In November of 1867, a group of devout Christian men and women came together in Sarepta and organized a church and named it Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Reverend Long was the first pastor of the church, whose membership at the time was twenty-five or thirty people. This original church was located north of Sarepta. In the early history of the church, a misunderstanding of unknown origin occurred, and the church was reorganized. Reverend H. P. Patterson purchased ten acres of land for a large sum of $50.00 and chose the third Sunday of the month as Pastoral Day. The land purchased by Reverend Patterson was two and one-half miles due east of Sarepta proper. On that spot, the church was reorganized, and the name changed from Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church to Saint Peter Missionary Baptist Church, the name it holds to this day
In the mid-1800s, a son of a prominent family, the David James Mims family, who owned land on Flat Lick near what is now Evergreen Community, purchased land on Dorcheat Bayou, where he built a home for his family. He was one of the most successful farmers in the area between 1880 and 1910. Mims’ Webster Parish farm was cultivated by a number of African American families who lived on the land. On May 10, 1868, a few members, men and women who were members of the white Baptist Church, Shady Grove, called for letters of dismission for the purpose of organizing an African American Baptist church. The letters were granted. The Mims family gave the group five (5) acres of land on which to build a church, The Mount Comfort Baptist Church, which has remained in continuous use today.

The church was actually organized June 23, 1869. Shortly after the organization of the Mount Comfort Baptist Church, a few members of the Stanley family pulled out and started the Blue Run Church on Blue Run Road.

In 1870, the Mt. Zion CME church was organized. The first church building was constructed in 1876 on the present-day corner of Fort and Walnut Streets in Minden.

In 1870, a church was established on the north side of Flat Lake with the name Mount Obie Baptist Church. They decided to build another church. After a few years, the chartered members realized that most of the members who attended the church lived on the south side of Flat Lake, and it would be more convenient for the members if the church was relocated to the other side.

In 1875, five years later, the church was relocated on the south side of Flat Lake, at its present location. There is some controversy about how the church got it name, Blue Run Baptist Church. This story was told by Deacon Cicero Clark. He stated that the young men on the south side of Flat Lake were trying to court the young ladies on the north side of Flat Lake. The young ladies’ boyfriends saw them and started chasing them. The young men on the south side wore blue overalls. One of the young men in the bunch said, “run blue, run,” and that’s how the blue Run Baptist Church got its name.

Other African-American churches founded during the years of Reconstruction included the St. Matthews CME Church (1872), St. Mark Baptist Church (1873), Mount Nebo Baptist Church (1874) and Mount Olive Baptist Church (1877).

As one can see, the emergence of African-American congregations was an interesting and significant development in the life of our communities. It is a vital Echo of our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

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