Baptists Yesterday  |  Bruce Gourley

Bruce Gourley, online editor for Baptists Today and Executive Director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, provides observations about Baptists of yesterday that can benefit Baptists today.


Two Churches in Atlanta: African American Baptist History

Today America celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Baptist minister, Civil Right's leader, and one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century.

David Gibson, Religious Reporter for Politics Daily, published an editorial over the weekend in which he highlighted the differences between today's Ebenezer Baptist Church (Martin Luther King's home congregation) and the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (a prosperity gospel megachurch pastored by the controversial Bishop Eddie Long). Both churches are in Atlanta, but in Gibson's words, "Ebenezer Baptist is 20 miles away from New Birth Missionary Baptist, and light years distant in terms of black history and a lot of contemporary black Christianity."

A historic congregation founded in 1886 in the wake of the Civil War and in the era of Jim Crow laws under which blacks in the South were harshly persecuted, Ebenezer Baptist Church preached a gospel of freedom and community uplift, while fighting against injustice and poverty. The congregation's long history of faithfulness to the gospel message reached a pinnacle in the work of native son Martin Luther King, Jr., whose vision for racial unity forever changed America.

Yet other than on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, African American Baptists in today's Atlanta are much more likely to be found on the sprawling campus of Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist megaplex, than anywhere near Ebenezer Baptist. New Birth's 25,000 members have propelled Bishop Long into one of the most succesful - and richest - preachers in America. In turn, Long preaches a gospel of individual prosperity, "winner-take-all, capitalist mentality that Dr. King struggled against in the name of social justice."

The contrast between the two Atlanta congregations represent a larger struggle for the future of African American Baptists, and black Christians at large in America. At a time when the povery rate in America is staggerlingly high and the wealth gap equivalent to that of third world nations, a 21st century gospel of materialistic, individual prosperity threatens to overwhelm the legacy of Dr. King and the historic emphases of African American Christianity.

The struggle between social justice and individualistic materialism in the religious world is not unique to the black Christianity, but is nonetheless remarkable. A year ago, Eddie Glaude, Jr., professor of religion at Princeton University, declared that "The Black Church is Dead." It is Glaude's controversial piece that led to Gibson's musings this past weekend, and Glaude ends his obituary with these words:

The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God's love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most.

The knowledge of history helps us as Christians and Baptists to "breathe new life" again and again into the present and future, and compels us to honestly evaluate who we are and where we are going. We ignore or rewrite history (i.e, the myth of America founded as a Christian nation, or the myth of slavery not being the reason for the American Civil War) to the peril of soul and society. The story of Ebenezer Baptist Church and of Martin Luther King, Jr., can help all Christians rise again, and again, to the timeless challenge of the gospel of Christ.


Unruly Kids and a 200 Year-Old Church

Two hundred years ago local farmers complained that unruly kids were vandalizing fences, and a  magistrate called Baptist Sunday School teachers to appear in court on charges of inciting the children's activities.

The Baptists explained they were trying to teach the children to read and be "good and obedient," and the charges against the teachers were dismissed.

The story represents the intersection of the beginnings of the Sunday School movement and the birthing of a new Baptist congregation in Britain.

Prior to the twentieth century, the Sunday School movement was an effort, begun in Britain, to educate and train idle children in urban cities. No one knows how many churches may have started from this effort to educate children, but Halesowen Baptist Church was one such congregation.

Classes for children in local cottages eventually led to church meetings in the houses, and in 1811 a chapel was built to house the Halesowen congregation. Intially, some worshippers walked as many as 30 miles to and from the chapel for Sunday services.

The church's beginnings are rocounted in this news article, while current information about the church is available on the congregation's web site.


When Baptists Were the Queens of ... Basketball

pages of the New York Times

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A 204 Year Old Baptist Letter

"Sir:  Under Divine protection, the Ministers and Messengers of the several Baptist churches of the North Carolina Chowan Association, held at Salem, on Newbiggin creek, in Pasquotank county, in the District of Edenton, and State of North Carolina, having met by appointment to offer up the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart to the great Author of their Being, for the unbounded display of goodness and of tender mercies bestowed upon the children of men; and while rendering adoration, prayer and thanksgiving, with deep humility for the great and unspeakable gift which brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, they feel a profound sense of the bounty received by the hands of the Supreme towards the several churches in our connection by the overpowering of the Spirit upon them; not only in effecting a great increase in numbers, but in the substantial interest of the churches, being supported and strengthened by a very great and uncommon measure of Christian love, union and harmony among the Brethren. While we have great cause of thankfulness for all these bounties and mercies, we have felt the deepest gratitude to be due for the civil and religious liberties we enjoy under the administration of the government over which you, Sir, at present preside: for which liberties our fathers have, in times past, suffered at the stake and have bled and died.

The sense of contrast between the present moment and a late period when we were feelingly alarmed at the threatened invasion upon the general toleration of a free conscience in the worship of the God of our Fathers; we have now great reason to shout with loud acclamations of joy and praise that we now live under our own vine and under our own fig-tree in peace. And while we pray that the sons of liberty may be long held at the helm of government, to rule and govern these United States, we feel the strongest emotions to be thankful that under your patronage and administration, there is none shall make us afraid.

Living under a government of our own choice where the rights of men feel an equal and impartial distribution, how much ought we to rejoice at the envied happiness and freedom of our fellow-citizens throughout these States unrivalled and unequalled by any nation on this terrestrial globe, and in the midst of national wealth, prosperity and peace, added to extent of empire under the wise policy of your administration, we feel no danger of your violating your trust or attempting to endanger the happiness of the people who have chosen you as their Chief and Head. And while our prayers and praises are due to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, who has made you an instrument in his hands to give such blessings to such a people, we pray that the God of Battles may be your sun and shield; that he may give you grace and glory; and that he may withhold no good thing from you. And may we devoutly be permitted to add our prayers to the great Disposer of events, if it is His will, that that life devoted to public good from the commencement of our glorious Revolution to the present day, may be prolonged with blessings to yourself and common country."

Can you guess to whom this Baptist associational letter was written?

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33 Votes - and Race - Separated Baptists in 1964

In May 1964, the Southern Baptists treked to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for their annual meeting, in conjunction with American Baptists' annual meeting. The sojourn northward revealed the divisions in Southern Baptist life over issues of Baptist cooperation and race relations.

The year 1964 marked the 150th anniversary of American Baptists' first national organization, the Triennial Convention, formed in 1814 for the purpose of mission endeavors. Seven Baptist groups in America celebrated the anniversary, and sought to form a committee to foster better relations among the various groups. Southern Baptists, however, refused to take part in the joint committee.

By a vote of 2,771 to 2,738 - a mere 33 votes - SBC messengers voted against the cooperative proposal. A "heated debate" characterized the discussion regarding the debate. Agreeing to be a part of the joint committee meant joining hands with African American Baptist groups, and some Southern Baptists refused to do so.

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