Christianity is something that has always been a solid tradition in African American communities since the end of the Civil War in 1865. Once the African Americans were freed and established their own communities, the Christian church usually became the center pillar of society. It was a way to not only seek spiritual fulfillment in a chaotic world, but organize community programs and aid. One of the largest hotspots to expand on African churches in the years leading up to and during the Civil War was Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s location as the southernmost northern state made it not only a prime city to settle for free blacks, but also escaped slaves and later those emancipated during the war. Initially, the Methodist church was one of the first to accept African Americans into their churches and then to branch off into the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. The AME church had strong ties to Philadelphia and its black communities through its publication The Christian Recorder. The Christian Recorder, a weekly publication provided articles on theology and current events as well as provided aid to displaced African Americans seeking family and friends after either being sold or emancipated. However; it would soon find a rival in a new organization: The First African Baptists Church, who’s roots in Philadelphia are key to the African American narrative.
The Christian Recorder was a positive and valued source in the Black AME community, interestingly enough though, its articles often went to great lengths to discredit a new rival denomination that had popped up in Philadelphia and was giving the AME churches a run for its money with parishioners. There are various articles featured it its issues dating back to Civil War Era and many deal with a preoccupation of statistics: numbers of Baptists in the region or nation compared to Baptist converts, including a heated article dismissing claims that the Black Baptist churches were outnumbering AME churches titled “You Are Mistaken”. Another article from 1863 critiques the Baptist paper The Examiners open article about wanting to create a more ritualized infant baptism, one more in line with the ceremonious Catholic baptisms. An article from November 6, 1890 entitled The Baptists and the Methodists goes on a lengthy, fiery diatribe in response to the American Baptists article about how the AME church had at that time actually despised the Baptists so much that at a Kentucky AME conference they were rumored to have said
” We are sorry the Baptist church has sunk so deep into ignorance, prejudice and superstition as to make an exhibition of themselves in this enlighten age, therefore be it ‘ Resolved that we pray for them that they may yet return to the principles of Christian love as taught by our common Lord, and that mercy be extended to them till they repent’ “
It is odd to think that at a time when the Black community was seeking its emancipation and induction into American society, that two religious organizations could attack each other in such violent ways. The Christian Recorder, documents various “grievances” it has with the Baptist churches ideologies, actions and general presence. Through reading The Christian Recorder, the reader picks up in an obvious matter how essential the AME churches were in time leading up to the Civil War, during and after. However; the Baptist tradition is one that has been downplayed and is equally important in understanding the role of African Americans in free society in the 19th century.
Just as with the AME churches, the Baptist movement grew out of white Baptist churches. May 13th 1809, 13 parishioners from The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia kindly asked to leave the mostly white congregation of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia to create their own African congregation and by June of 1809, under the direction of Reverend Henry Cunningham, the church built its first of many on a small rented lot on 10th and Vine in Philadelphia.
In 1813, the second Pastor Reverend John King, a white minister from the south would preside over the First African Baptist Church (FAB) and would change the location twice; a jump to 11th and Vine and later 8th and Vine, but he would be replaced in 1832 by the Reverend James Burrows. Burrows was the epitome of the African Christian in the Civil War Era. He was a former slave who had actually worked in Philadelphia with his masters permission to pay off his freedom! Burrows was hugely successful, he moved the location yet again to 11th and Vine and according the FAB site, built a consistent following up until the time until he left in 1846. Sadly, and for reasons unknown, in the 1850’s the fellowship started to decline.
The Baptist church once again came to life in 1864, the year after the Emancipation, as a flood of northern migration was taking place under Reverend Theodore D. Miller. By 1867, Miller had presided over a increase of 240 to 12,000 parishioners. Because Philadelphia’s location provided a perfect settlement for the newly freed African Americans, the Baptist tradition took on and in 1867 the church moved again, it was because they had grown almost overnight and needed a bigger building for their budding community. Because the fellowship was so high and under the dedicated care of Reverend Miller, the new location on Cherry Street was entirely paid for in his 32 years of service. Miller would pass away in 1897 and leave a legacy of strength in the Baptist community. The FAB church was not just revolutionary for organizing in a mainly Methodist town, but for its contributions to the African Americans of Philadelphia in practical ways as well. In the early 1900’s after it had been solidly established in the aftermath of the Emancipation and Union victory, FAB started the first Savings and Loans for African Americans in the city and helped secure mortgages early on for the growing Black communities.
Baptist and AME churches were not the only religious affiliations who have helped aid African Americans from slavery or racial injustice. However; both were crucial in Philadelphia in the 19th century to establish a home base as well as a strong Black community. Most though are more familiar with the AME organization and its role in the emancipation process. Philadelphia could not have developed such a strong African American community with the FAB. Today, it has celebrated 205 years of practice in the Philadelphia region and continues to be a major pillar in the African American community in Philadelphia.
Photos Courtesy of NYPLA
FAB Celebrates 205th Year
The FAB Church
The Black church During the Civil War
The First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia. Charles Brooks 1922