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The Early Baptists in Alabama
By John T. Christian
     The settlement of Alabama was of comparative late date. Perhaps Hosea Holcombe gives the best account of the rise of the Baptists in this State. He says: "The northern part of the State, i.e., north of the Tennessee river, particularly Madison county, which is a beautiful and fertile county, was settled many years before any other part of the state, except a small section on the Tombigbee River, about St. Stephens. In the first settling of Madison county there were some Baptists. Elder John Nicholson, who became pastor of the first church constituted in Madison county, John Canterbury and Zadock Baker, were, as we learn, among the first Baptist ministers, who labored in this wilderness. The beauty of the country fertility of the soil the excellent springs of water, combined with many other advantages, soon drew a dense population into this region, and in the course of a few years, a number of Baptist churches were formed. Worldly inducements brought a number of ministers into this region; some of whom died in a short time; and others removed; and although there were those who stood high in the estimation of the people, yet, as we have mentioned in the history of the Flint River Association, it appears that they labored in vain. The hearts of preachers and people were fixed too much on the fleeting things of time and sense. It was easy to accumulate wealth, and professors of religion as well as others, gave themselves up to the flattering prospects of gain. Elders R. Shackleford, W. Eddins, and Bennet Wood, were among the early ministers in this country; men, whose names will live long in the recollections of many; others settled about the same time, among whom were Jeremiah Tucker, George Tucker, John Smith, J. C. Latta, and J. Thompson, all of whom have since died, or left the country.

     "About the year 1808, or earlier, some Baptists were found in the southern part, near the Tombigbee river, in Clarke and Washington counties. Wm. Cochran, a licensed preacher from Georgia, is said to have been the first in Clarke county, and a Mr. Gorham, who died in a short time, the first in Washington county. The last named county lies on the west side of the river, and Clarke on the east. In the latter, a church was organized in 1810, by Eld. J. Courtney, Elder Joseph McGee, who was highly esteemed as a minister of Christ, settled here shortly after. There was no great increase of Baptists in this country until after Jackson's purchase was made. In 1815 and 1816 the tide of emigration began to flow into this Indian country, and on until 1820; and after that there was a continual flood, pouring in from almost every State in the Union. From the Tennessee river to Florida; and from the Coosa to the Tombigbee, there was scarcely a spot but what was visited by emigrants, or those who wished to be such. Churches were formed in almost every part of the State, and a number of laborious, and indefatigable ministers of the gospel, came in and settled this country.

     "Houses for the worship of God were scarce for several years after the writer came to this country in 1818; and many of those which were erected, were more like Indian wigwams than anything else; only they were, more open and uncomfortable. It was common in those days when the weather was favorable, for the minister to take his stand under some convenient shady bower, while the people would seat themselves around him on the ground. In many instances, large congregations would assemble; and they were far more attentive to the Word than they are at this time in many comfortable places, as in some instances a hard shower of rain would disperse them" (Holcombe, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Alabama).

     Holcombe gives an account of the revival services held, which soon became common in the South. "The first camp meeting," says he, "perhaps, ever known in Alabama, was held with the church, where the writer has his membership. This meeting took place about the first of October, 1831 it continued for five or six days, and twelve or fifteen families tented on the ground. Here the Lord made bare his arm, and displayed his power in the salvation of many precious souls. The groans and cries of repenting sinners, the songs and prayers, the shouts and praises of Christians, formed an awful, and yet delightful harmony. At this meeting there commenced the greatest general revival ever known at that time, in middle Alabama; it continued over twelve months; during which period there were near 500 baptized in three or four churches. One of the happiest seasons of the life of the author was the cold winter of 1831, and '32; during which he baptized over 150. From that time camp meetings became common among the Baptists in different parts of the State; yet some churches disapproved of the course. That there were extravagances at some of those meetings, we think few will deny; yet there was much good done. "It was not unusual to have a large portion of the congregation prostrated on the ground; and in some instances they appeared to have lost the use of their limbs. No distinct articulation could be heard; screams, cries, shouts, notes of grief, and notes of joy, all heard at the same time, made much confusion, a sort of indescribable concert. At associations, and other great meetings, where there were several ministers present, many of them would exercise their gifts at the same time, in different parts of the congregation; some in exhortation, others in prayer for the distressed; and others again, in argument with opposers. A number of the preachers did not approve of this kind of work; they thought it extravagant. Others fanned it as a fire from heaven. When the winnowing time came on, it was clearly demonstrated that there was much good wheat; notwithstanding, there was a considerable quantity of chaff" (Holcombe, 45, 46).

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[From John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, Volume 2, 1926; rpt., pp. 323-325. - jrd]




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