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

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

Jesse Mercer, one of the most influential founders of the Georgia Baptist Convention, cared for the men and women he enslaved. Charles D. Mallary, also a slaveholder, was Mercer’s friend and an influential Georgia Baptist leader. In Memoirs of Elder Jesse Mercer, Mallary said Mercer’s example as a “master … deserves to be recorded in deep lines upon a tablet of gold.”

Mercer was concerned for the physical and spiritual well-being of those he enslaved, often weeping for their salvation. Mallary stated Mercer instructed William H. Stokes to share this personal message to them on his behalf at Mercer’s funeral: “I am afraid, my servants, that you will go to hell!"

Yet, Mercer’s concern for their souls did not extend to their freedom or concern for his own soul over his enslavement of people created in the image of God. In his last will and testament, he granted them liberty only to choose their next master, continuing their enslavement from his grave.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the GBC, 1822-2022, and the bicentennial of any organization is a time to highlight influential people and notable milestones. Multiple threads weave together to form the GBC’s story, and the contributions enslaved people and leased convicts made to the GBC is one thread that deserves to be highlighted and honored.

Some may feel these matters should not be discussed, believing they should remain silently in the past. Three reasons stand out for highlighting the place of slavery and convict leasing in the GBC’s story, especially during this bicentennial year. Before looking at them, it will be helpful to overview slavery and convict leasing in Georgia.

Chattel slavery was a labor system practiced in America where a person and their children, if any, were owned for life as personal property. It was banned in Georgia from 1735 to 1751, and following this period, the numbers of enslaved people grew moderately until the early 1800s when numbers increased dramatically. From the 1810 U.S. Federal Census to the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules the number of enslaved people in Georgia exploded from 105,218 to 462,198 (44% of the population). Georgia was second only to Virginia in the number of enslaved people and slaveholders.

Anglican evangelist George Whitefield planted a seed that advanced the union of slavery with Christianity in Georgia, where Christian masters improved somewhat their treatment of enslaved people and slavery became a means that provided financial resources for ministry. Alan Gallay wrote in Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord that Whitefield’s convictions against slavery changed after the prominent Bryan family helped him acquire a plantation to produce funds for Whitefield’s influential Bethesda Orphanage near Savannah. At Whitefield’s death in 1770, this plantation had expanded to 4,000 acres with 50 enslaved people. Seeing the profits made possible from enslaved labor, Whitefield deduced “that Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without negroes.”

Jonathan Bryan was a wealthy Anglican-turned-Presbyterian, and a member of the Bryan family that supported Whitefield’s ministry. Bryan allowed George Liele to preach on his plantation near Savannah, and Liele was himself a freed slave, the first African American to be ordained, and later became the first Baptist missionary to another country, Jamaica, to which he traveled as an indentured servant. Liele’s preaching was fruitful at Bryan's plantation, and Andrew Bryan was one of the four enslaved people who responded to follow Jesus and be baptized. Andrew purchased his freedom from Jonathan Bryan for a nominal sum and later founded the historic First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, one of the earliest Black Baptist churches in America.

This mixture of slavery and Christian ministry does not cover over the reality that slavery benefited masters at the expense of the enslaved. In a 1772 letter to Anglican minister John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement, Jonathan Bryan lamented the treatment of enslaved people, confessing, “The clothes we wear, the food we eat, and all the superfluities we possess, are the produce of their labors, and what do they receive in return? Nothing equivalent. On the contrary we keep from them the key of knowledge, so that their bodies and souls perish together in our service.” Bryan’s lament, however, did not lead him to free his enslaved people.

Convict leasing came into prominence after the end the Civil War and the abolishment of chattel slavery. It was a system that generated forced, cheap labor for the post-slavery economy. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon said, “A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man—even a black child—was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged.” Death, disease, filth, starvation, sexual abuse, and torturous punishment were the way of life in Georgia labor camps. These camps were miserable for all, and Talitha L. LeFlouria showed in Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South that life for women and children was especially miserable.

In most cases these convicts were anything but criminals. Blackmon explained that laws enacted at the end of the Civil War, commonly called Black Code laws, were used for the “capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process.” Georgia’s laws were unique in the South in that their wording did not discriminate based on race. Instead, discrimination occurred in their enforcement.

The research of Blackmon and others has revealed that men, women, and children, some as young as 10 years old, were forced into convict labor camps across Georgia. They were mostly Black men (90 percent) and Black women (40 times higher than white women). Although the state legislature ended convict leasing in 1909, the practice continued for several decades in another form through state-run chain gangs that worked on roads and highways.

Thousands of enslaved Black people were brothers and sisters in Christ and faithful members of GBC churches. Church minutes and historical accounts of Georgia Baptist associations show they actively participated in all aspects of church life, and in most cases they did so alongside white church members. They gave generously to missions, and they attended association meetings. When allowed to form new Black churches, those congregations participated in Georgia Baptist associations. The labors of enslaved people and leased convicts also generated millions of dollars for GBC churches and causes.

Georgia Baptists’ story is inseparable from slavery and convict leasing, and these aspects of their story span most of the first hundred years of the GBC. Georgia Baptists defended these institutions, participated in them, and benefited financially from them. It would be difficult to identify an influential leader, lauded institution, or monumental milestone in this period that had no relationship to this painful thread. Slavery and convict leasing also produced untold financial resources for slaveholders and their philanthropic causes.

As mentioned above, three reasons stand out as to why Georgia Baptists should honor the contributions of enslaved people and leased convicts. First, it would be impossible to give a complete account of the GBC without addressing slavery and convict leasing. To omit these difficult subjects would rewrite Georgia Baptist history, making it unrecognizable in comparison to the actual people and events.

Jesse Mercer, known affectionately as Father Mercer by Georgia Baptists during this period, expressed a similar perspective in his 1838 account of the Georgia Baptist Association. He defended sharing the unfavorable stories as necessary when writing the Association’s history:

"The notice we have taken of certain individuals may not prove altogether satisfactory to some. But how could we do otherwise than we have done? It was obligatory upon us to give a faithful history of a religious body, and if in the details of that history, some individuals should appear in an unfavorable point of light, we do not think it can be considered our fault. Besides: in doing as we have done, we have Scriptural example. … These writers too, in speaking of themselves, never disguised any delinquency or weakness which may have appeared in their conduct. But always tell the plain truth, whether it praise or condemn them."

Second, highlighting the contributions of enslaved people and leased convicts—especially those who were members of Georgia Baptist churches—can serve as an example for addressing difficult subjects like slavery. Diversity is increasing in many Georgia Baptist churches and their communities. Conversations about race and justice are taking place regularly inside and outside of churches, in classrooms, across social media, and around dinner tables. It is undeniable that discussions about slavery and racism remain difficult, even for followers of Jesus.

Georgia Baptists are devoted to God’s Word, and He has not left his people without instruction for these difficulties. The church in Rome was diverse, comprised of Jewish and Gentile members. Paul instructs them with these words: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Take the lead in honoring one another” (Rom 12:9-10, CSB). Honoring enslaved people and leased convicts who made so great a contribution to the advancement of the GBC would beautifully represent Georgia Baptist brothers and sisters loving one another as the Lord has commanded.

Third, highlighting this thread of the GBC’s story is an opportunity to acknowledge and memorialize the immense contributions enslaved people and leased convicts made to the GBC. The second and third articles in this brief series will show how deeply enslaved people were immersed in GBC life and the millions of dollars Georgia Baptists received from the labors of enslaved people and leased convicts. It would not be too strong to state that the GBC we know today would be dramatically different without the roles they played during its first century.

It is right and pleasing to the Lord to acknowledge these who contributed so much to the GBC. Paul blessed the Philippians for their financial support of his ministry, and he wrote these words of gratitude to them:

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit (Phil 4:14-17, ESV).

The Southern Baptist Convention and Georgia Baptist Convention have publicly renounced slavery and their involvement with this sinful institution. Similarly, they have renounced racism and acknowledged the difficulty slavery and racism have caused to the relationships between Black and white people in America. During the GBC’s bicentennial, it is pleasing to the Lord for Georgia Baptists to follow Paul’s example and recognize those who contributed so much to the GBC.

The Philippians who Paul honored gave voluntarily. How much more should Georgia Baptists honor those whose financial contributions were forced from them, remembering that many were our brothers and sisters in Christ?

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

Georgia Baptist bicentennial: Lamenting a heritage of racism and slavery

Georgia Baptist bicentennial: Honoring enslaved and free Black people

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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. 

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