The origins of the black Baptist movement are not traced easily. Enslaved black Baptists worshipped on plantations under the supervision of white preachers as early as the 1750s. However, independent black Baptist congregations did not emerge until just before the War for Independence. One stream that flowed into the origin narrative was located along the Savannah River that provides the border between South Carolina and Georgia. George Liele, an enslaved person, was baptized around 1774 and then licensed by his slave owner’s church to preach to enslaved Africans as well as whites in the area. He preached as far north as Silver Bluff, South Carolina, and all the way down to Savanah, Georgia. First African and First Bryan Baptist Churches in Savannah trace their lineage to Liele and David George and are arguably the oldest independent black Baptist Congregations in the United States. Another tributary is found along the Appomattox River in Virginia. In 1774 when the meeting house of a plantation church burned, those black Baptists moved across the river to Petersburg and established an independent congregation known later as First Baptist Church. The National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., is the largest black religious organization and was founded in 1895 in Atlanta. Since it was the result of a merger among organizations, many black Baptists use 1880, the founding date of the oldest group in the merger, as their own. However, in the antebellum period there were organizations that extended beyond local and state boundaries. In 1840, the American Baptist Missionary Convention was formed in Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City partly as rejoinder to the slow and indecisive response of Northern white Baptists on the slavery question. When a “separatist” contingent gained power favoring National Baptist Convention (NBC) development of a publishing house rather than continuing to support white northern Baptist publications, the movement split in 1897 with the “cooperationists” creating the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention. In 1915, a fight over who owned the publishing house led to the establishment of the third body, the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated. Although often overlooked, black Baptists were engaged in the fight for social justice in the period between the Great Migration and the Montgomery bus boycott. The denominational leadership, however, took a more conservative position on civil rights activism which led to the formation in 1961 of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. While the majority of the national organizations were established because of social and political differences, there are smaller groups that are separate because of theological distinctions, most significantly, the National Primitive Baptist Convention.
General histories of black Baptists fall into a few categories. There are those that tell the stories of a particular denomination within the movement. Most of these center on the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. Washington 1986, Pelt and Smith 1960, and Jordan 1930 are the most notable, while Fitts 1994 is an important account of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention. On the other hand, Woodson 1972, first published in 1921, and Fitts 1985 are histories that attempt to trace the lineage of various groups in one narrative. And like Woodson, Lincoln and Mamiya 1990 nestles the black Baptist movement within the larger story of African American Christianity. One can also group general histories into those composed or written by academic scholars or denominational insiders. Most often, the latter tend to be either participants or eyewitnesses to denominational formation, such as Booth 2001 and Jackson 1980, which means occasional interpretive bias leads to uncritical analysis. The authors of these works are attempting to tell their side of schismatic skirmishes, however the information and primary documents often included are priceless. Booth 2001, which details the genesis of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, is a prime example. Because the themes of separatism and nationalism have been dominant in the historiography many of the general histories focus on periods when the movement appeared more unified. As a result, the coverage of post–World War II black Baptists is less comprehensive with a few notable exceptions (Crowther and Harper 2015, Fitts 1985). Omitted from the general black Baptist historiography is any treatment of the National Primitive Baptist Convention. Throughout its early history the group was more insular and its strong Calvinist theology restricted fellowship opportunities with likeminded congregations. As a result, it had no stake in the national factions that so dominate black Baptist historical narratives.
Booth, William D. A Call to Greatness: The Story of the Founding of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Lawrenceville, VA: Brunswick, 2001.
Gathers the primary documents associated with the split of the National Baptist Convention and the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, focusing on his father’s place as founding president of the new denomination.
Crowther, Edward R., and Keith Harper, eds. Between Fetters and Freedom: African American Baptists since Emancipation. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2015.
Nine essays that examine the intersection of religious and racial identity among black Baptists since the Civil War, from the formation of national voluntary organizations like missionary societies to the schism of the National Baptist Convention. There is a useful chapter on National Baptist Convention of America.
Fitts, Leroy. A History of Black Baptists. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985.
Fitts gives sometimes thin but broad coverage of the black Baptist movement, reporting on all the various boards and auxiliaries of the denominations. As a member of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, he gives special attention to missionary work by black Baptists in the Caribbean and Africa. Particularly interesting is his prediction that holistic ministry—one that includes social and economic development as well as spiritual—would be a trend in the black Baptist movement.
Fitts, Leroy. The Lott Carey Legacy of African American Missions. Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1994.
The author begins with a short biography of Lott Carey, first African American missionary to Africa, and traces his legacy through subsequent ministers and organizations that led to the formation and work of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention.
Jackson, J. H. A Story of Christian Activism: The History of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. Nashville: Townsend Press, 1980.
Jackson uses the centennial of the convention to respond to critics of his leadership. He argues for a more nuanced understanding of the black protest tradition. Generally seen as politically conservative, Jackson points out all that black Baptists were able to accomplish during segregation and emphasizes the importance of the black self-help tradition, which he believes was overshadowed by the integrationist project of Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
Jordan, Lewis Garnett. Negro Baptist History, U.S.A, 1750, 1930. Nashville: The Sunday School Publishing Board, N. B. C., 1930.
Interesting compilation of convention and auxiliary minutes, as well as articles written by important figures in the black Baptist movement. He begins the organizational history in 1840 with the earliest efforts at forming a national network of black Baptist churches, a full forty years before the date commonly used by National Baptists.
Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African-American Experience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.
Lincoln and Mamiya provide a cogent overview of the organizational origins of the black Baptist movement up to the late 20th century. They point out that despite it being the largest denominational group within the black church its organizational power may be overstated. The congregational polity of Baptists means one should focus on the exercise of authority locally by individual congregations to truly understand black Baptists’ social and political power.
Pelt, Owen D., and Ralph Lee Smith. The Story of the National Baptists. New York: Vantage Press, 1960.
Pelt and Smith trace the history of black Baptists from the early church to Puritans and Roger Williams. Most useful are the primary sources in the appendices, including excerpts from 1950s addresses of National Baptist Convention President J.H. Jackson on race, religion, civil rights, and democracy.
Washington, James Melvin. Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.
Arguably the most important text on black Baptist history, Washington traces the development of separatist ideology that eventually led to the formation in 1895 of the National Baptist Convention. In the process he builds on Jordan by thoroughly documenting forty years of national organizational history that previously was underpublicized.
Woodson, Carter G. The History of the Negro Church. 3d ed. Washington, DC: Associated Press, 1972.
This classic text lays the foundation upon which subsequent black Baptist histories are built. Its integration of black Baptists within the history of African American Christendom gives a perspective on black religious institutional development.
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