Georgia Baptist bicentennial: Honoring enslaved and free Black people


Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series of articles exploring the monumental contributions slaves and convict laborers made in Georgia Baptist history.

The Georgia Baptist Convention was remarkably biracial before the Civil War, and enslaved members and pastors made a significant contribution to Georgia Baptists.

Clarence L. Mohr noted in Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord that in 1860 there were nearly 30 semi-autonomous Black churches in the GBC. That same year the GBC reported six associations had Black church membership of 45% or more: Sunbury, Georgia, Hephzibah, Columbus, Central, and Rehoboth. These associations accounted for half of the GBC’s church membership, and two of them­—Sunbury (91%) and Georgia (62%)—had majority Black church membership.

Joe Walker was one of those enslaved Black church members and a trusted leader in the Hephzibah Baptist Association. After serving as one of Franklin Covenant Baptist Church’s messengers to the association, he became the church’s first Black pastor in 1860. The association honored him in 1894, saying, “Rev. Joe Walker proved by his life that he was truly called of God to the work upon which he had entered.  He was ever heard both with pleasure and profit by all, white and Black, and was universally esteemed for his many Christian graces.”

The ministry of Walker and thousands of Black Georgia Baptists, mostly enslaved people, was a powerful catalyst for the development and growth of the GBC. The financial resources from the labor of enslaved people and leased convicts further propelled the GBC with a magnitude that deserves special recognition, particularly during the GBC’s bicentennial celebration.

Proslavery views dominated all aspects of Georgia life, and nearly all religious and non-religious people supported slavery in antebellum Georgia, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. Many Georgia Baptists mistakenly believed the Scriptures showed God ordained slavery, and they claimed their practice of slavery benefited both the enslaved and the slaveholder. Some also developed horribly misguided arguments that the Scriptures declared servitude was the destiny of Black people. A sampling of their writings highlights the GBC’s past commitment to slavery and the financial bounty it produced. As noted in another article in this series, Georgia Baptists have since repudiated racism and slavery, calling it a “heritage of sin” in a resolution adopted by the GBC.

Two of Georgia Baptists’ most notable founders confidently, but very wrongly, justified slavery. Adiel Sherwood wrote in the Christian Index he saw “no sin in the institution itself, if the slaves are properly treated” and “slaves enjoy soul liberty, a much higher privilege than mere bodily freedom.” In a letter to Lucius Bolles, corresponding secretary of the Baptists Board of Foreign Missions, Jesse Mercer argued the “institution of slavery is a civil and not an ecclesiastical one.” He protested that Southern slaveholders were not to blame because they had inherited slavery from their forefathers. He argued we “have been taught from our cradles that they were our money, that we had a right or title to them.”

John L. Dagg, Patrick H. Mell, Iveson L. Brookes, and Ebenezer W. Warren were influential Georgia Baptists who published treatises defending slavery. Their voices labored to hold back the onslaught of anti-slavery pressure from inside and outside America. Mell was a respected leader among Southern Baptists and Georgia Baptists who developed a detailed, though repugnant, defense in Slavery: a treatise, showing that slavery is neither a moral, political, nor social evil. He traced slavery from the “curse of Ham” to the “African or negro race” and  preposterously concluded their “inheritance, according to the prophecy, has been and will continue to be slavery.”

Warren was a respected Georgia Baptist pastor, editor of the Christian Index (1859), and a forceful apologist for slavery. He wrote his treatise in the form of a novel. From January 1864 to February 1865, the Christian Index published excerpts and encouraged its readers to purchase it, declaring, “We hail its appearance.” Through the character of Mr. Thompson, Warren absurdly argued that God used slavery to benefit Africans:

"God never designed them for an intellectual race. China, isolated from the world and degraded in idolatry, has a history and a literature. She has her philosophers, her poets, her teachers, her graduates, her temples. But Africa, doomed to slavery, has neither. Ignorance, stupidity, imbecility, are characteristics of her people. Incapable of self-government and self-support, a gracious providence has sent them here to find governors and protectors, who will feed and clothe them, and lead their hearts and minds to the knowledge of the living God; while they pay less for the benefit than any other set of learners on earth."

Joseph E. Brown, the most well-known Georgia Baptist of his day and Georgia’s governor from 1857 to 1865, spoke against the prospects of ending slavery and free Black people having equality with poor white people. In an open letter published in all leading newspapers in Georgia, he said of poor white people:

"They are a superior race, and they feel and know it. Abolish slavery, and you make the negroes their equals, legally and socially (not naturally, for no human law can change God's law).… May our kind Heavenly Father avert the evil, and deliver the poor from such a fate."

Henry H. Tucker was an influential Georgia Baptist leader who advocated for slavery and convict leasing. Writing in the Christian Index in 1883, he said, “We do not believe that ‘all men are created equal,’ as the Declaration of Independence declares them to be; nor that they will ever become equal in this world.”

Based on these views, some might think enslaved people attended but were not members of GBC churches and associations. Yet, the GBC reported in 1860 that enslaved people and a small number of free Black people represented more than 23,000 members of Georgia Baptist churches, though with certain limitations. Blakely Baptist Church in the Bethel Association spoke for most Georgia Baptists when they described their founding in 1837, saying, “[F]rom this beginning the colored brothers and sisters were as much a part of the church as were the white members and rendered a rich, spiritual service.”

Enslaved and free Black people were faithful church members. They attended church services and church conferences, though at times mandated to do so. They were baptized with their white brothers and sisters. They used a catechism to grow in their understanding of God’s Word, and they participated in church discipline of their own. Licensed and ordained Black men served as preachers and pastors. They were messengers to Georgia Baptist associations, and at least once a Black church hosted an association meeting. When allowed, they began new Georgia Baptist churches, and they gave financially to missions, associations, and their churches.

Chattel slavery and convict leasing were economic engines that produced great prosperity for slaveholders and their causes. It is impossible to calculate the total benefit the GBC, its churches, and its associations received from them. Even so, there are traces, like meteor flashes across the sky, that give insight into the significant resources the labors of enslaved people and leased convicts provided for Georgia Baptists.

Jesse Mercer grew his second wife’s riches into a fortune that they shared with several causes, none more than Mercer University. In 1911, the GBC’s auditor stated Mercer’s contribution to the university was estimated to be as high as $400,000 and had been derived from his wife’s inheritance. In 2022 dollars, these gifts amount to about $14 million. Similarly, Robert G. Gardner wrote in On the Hill: The Story of Shorter College that Alfred Shorter was a successful entrepreneur and increased his wife’s riches, enabling them to give an estimated $200,000 to $250,000 to Shorter University, roughly $7.9 million today. The seed money both men used to amass these fortunes came largely from the labors of the enslaved people and the plantations their wives inherited.

Other examples show the GBC and its churches were beneficiaries of resources derived in part from slavery and convict leasing. The six GBC associations with significant Black membership noted above gave 70% of the GBC’s missions contribution in 1860. Wealthy slaveholders likely made much of this contribution.

In 1965 Mercer University reported in The Mercer Cluster that the Iveson Brookes estate gave the university $500,000 that year. Brookes developed a sizeable estate from enslaved people and plantations he received through three marriages.

James Monroe Smith was a financier and benefactor of Georgia Baptists, and he engaged heavily in convict leasing, profiting from subleasing hundreds of convicts across Georgia. E. Merton Coulter noted in James Monroe Smith: Before Death and After that in 1911 Smith loaned $50,000 to the GBC and $75,000 to Tabernacle Baptist Church, Atlanta. After his death in 1915, his estate reduced the GBC’s debt to $25,000 and Tabernacle’s debt to $50,000. In 1919, his estate gave an additional $25,000 to the GBC for their effort in the Baptist 75 Million Campaign that Southern Baptists launched to support missions.

Joseph E. Brown contributed to various Georgia Baptist causes, from churches to the GBC’s ministry to orphans. He contributed so much to Second Baptist Church in Atlanta that the Christian Index reported in 1893 their new church building was “erected to the honor of his name.” Other Christian Index articles show he also provided discounted and free travel on his railway for Georgia Baptists traveling to the GBC and SBC meetings in Georgia. Brown was a slaveholder and one of the largest lessees of convict labor in Georgia, and their labor certainly contributed to the wealth he shared.

In an 1860 editorial about American slaveholders, C.H. Spurgeon, the British “Prince of Preachers,” said he detested the “wickedness” of a “manstealer” and would not fellowship with a slaveholder, even at the “the Lord’s table.” As the Georgia Baptist Convention marks its bicentennial (1822-2022), Spurgeon’s rebuke of slaveholders brings sharp clarity to the context of many notable leaders during the GBC’s first 100 years.

Enslaved and free Black Georgia Baptists played significant roles in GBC life. Although none of their names, except George Liele and Andrew Bryan, currently appear on lists of founders, presidents, moderators, editors, trustees, donors, missionaries, or influential pastors, they were an integral part of the gospel advance across the state and around the world. The extraordinary financial resources derived from the labors of enslaved people and leased convicts also fueled the convention and its ministries. Together, these men and women are worthy of honor from a humble Georgia Baptist Convention during this bicentennial.


The other two articles in this series can be found at the following links:

Georgia Baptist bicentennial leads to conversations about slavery, racism, and biblical reconciliation

Georgia Baptist bicentennial: Lamenting a heritage of racism and slavery


Troy Bush, lead pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, Ga., previously served as an urban church planting strategist and international missionary. He holds a Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has also taught urban ministry and missions.