Against the Current #2: The Question of Race

black baptistsIt is hardly surprising to find the Big Cedar Lick Baptist Church rejecting the dominant values of its belligerent and fiercely individualistic neighbors in Wilson County, Tennessee (previous post.)  The church was merely holding fast to the central values that had distinguished the Baptist faith since the beginning: humility, self-control, brotherly love, and reconciliation of disputes, all in the context of a close-knit family-like community.  What is more surprising is to find it, and a few of its sister churches in the Nashville area, holding out against the evolving practice of the Baptist faith as a whole.

The church’s constitution sets forth a list of beliefs to which the members of the church subscribed.  The first eighteen of these statements are standard Calvinist doctrine, but the nineteenth stands out:

“19. We believe that full Liberty ought to be allowed for every male member to Improve his Gift according to the Gospel and that the Church should Encourage and Recommend such as are qualified for the Gospel Ministry.”

Every male member.  Not “every white male member” or even “every free male member.”  In conformity with that statement, we find “Brother George, Negro” – a slave, since he has no last name – among the four men licensed to “exercise their gifts” within the congregation.  Furthermore, the constitution placed no racial limits on the right to vote on church matters.  At the same time that the Roanoke and Dover Baptist Associations of Virginia were recommending that their members limit the vote to whites, the Big Cedar Lick Church – whose membership included a number of free people of color as well as slaves – was making a conscious commitment to honor the fellowship of its black members.

In 1806 a sister church, the Mill Creek Baptist Church, also passed a resolution confirming that black members had the same right of “exercising public gifts” as white members, although in the case of Mill Creek that right only applied  to singing, praying and exhorting with “fellow servants.”

The records of these two frontier churches reveal an ongoing struggle to reconcile their egalitarian faith with the evolving realities of their society.  It was a futile struggle, already over in the more civilized society they had left.  In the early records of the Big Cedar Lick Church, the names of slaves and of free people of both races appear in random order on the membership list.  But in a pattern that has now become familiar, church records for the period after 1830 list slaves separately, along with the names of their owners.  By that time, black and white members were most likely worshiping separately.  When the Big Cedar Lick covenant was restated in 1821 by a daughter church, Article 19 had vanished.

Further reading: Van West, ed.,  Trial and Triumph: Essays in Tennessee’s African-American History  contains an interesting set of articles on the fluctuating fortunes of the state’s African-American population.

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