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Reminiscences of the First African Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
By the Pastor

Chapter 2

IT IS time to introduce my courteous reader to the "great congregation." Let us go into the house, on the morning of the Lord's day. On the right of the pulpit, you see a large assemblage of neatly attired females. Their general appearance is that of serious, intelligent worshippers. Some of them possess really beautiful faces. Others are dressed in the "tip of the fashion," and all are tidy and comfortable. On the left, you see the rows of seats crowded with men in plainer garb, but bearing the same impress of neatness and comfort. Their heads are well combed, beards shaven, and their faces clean and shining. In front are males and females of the same description, while the galleries on either side, are filled with the young of both sexes. The choir, consisting of about thirty, is seated in the front gallery. Just below the pulpit you see a few intelligent strangers, white persons of the highest class, with, perhaps, a gentleman or lady resident come as a cicerone to the company. As they enter the house, a deacon met them in the aisle, conducted them to their seats, and arranged their hats and umbrellas in proper order. These persons have come in to witness the novel scene, and to hear the singing of the choir and congregation. They expect nothing of special interest in the preaching, as they can hear more studied and instructive sermons in every pulpit in the city. But the singing is the great attraction. The whole assembly is united in an old fashioned, spiritual song, and the zeal, the harmony, the fervor, the number and volume of voices, all tend to excite feelings of devotion. The pastor now rises to give out a hymn. It is lead by the choir and joined by the whole multitude standing. This done, he calls on a brother to pray. There is no delicacy involved in this unexpected request to lead the audience in their approach to the mercy seat. Several hundred men are present, all willing, many longing to be invited to this privilege, and the real trouble is to make the selection. To avoid the appearance of partiality, and yet to consult the edification of the masses is a nice point. As the laws of Virginia are rather stringent as it regards colored men's preaching, I have aimed to mitigate their effect by encouraging them to pray in public, and from the beginning of my pastoral connection with them, I have availed myself of their cheerful aid in this department of public worship. Not a few of them have a remarkable facility and power in prayer, and awaken the devout emotions of the auditors, by their own importunity. They are learning to avoid habits of whining, snuffing, grunting, drawling, repeating, hicoughing, and other vulgarities in prayer, and to understand that God, an infinitely pure and mighty being, should be addressed somewhat in the same manner, as a subject would address an august sovereign; that is, naturally, earnestly, reverently. The next thing in, the order of exercises, is a hymn of their own selection, sung by the choir, all of whom are members of the church. They study and practice music on scientific principles, have the best works on psalmody that the country affords, and take a generous pride in excelling in their noble art. Excepting a want of delicacy and softness in the female voices, good judges say they perform admirably. They have held several concerts for charitable uses, and have always had crowded and delighted houses.

If modesty allows me to say any thing of the sermon, I will simply declare that it is the very best that I can preach under the circumstances. A more important post, if we regard the number, the necessities and the peculiar relations of the hearers, is certainly not to be found in the whole country, probably not in the whole world. Here are convened every Sabbath from twelve to fifteen hundred souls, dependent mostly on oral teaching for their knowledge of divine truth. In the light of eternity, when all factitious influences will have faded away, they will be valued as highly as any souls in the universe. Even now, in the eyes of Him who made and redeemed them, and who looks on the distinctions of society, needful though they be at present, as incidental and transient, their salvation is as important, intrinsically, as is that of the great and noble ones of earth. Nay, "hath not God chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things to confound the mighty, and base and despised things, and even things that are not, to bring to naught things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence ?" With such views before his mind, the pastor feels impelled to treat his congregation, in all his official intercourse, with the utmost respect, and to explain and to enforce on their attention, in the most simple, direct manner, the great and glorious doctrines of the Cross. And yet, when these views alone are operating, when no stimulus is derived from the prospect of worldly applause and renown, when the position known to be associated in some minds, with ideas of inferiority and meanness, and in others, of sedition and darkness, there is needed to urge him to a diligent preparation for the pulpit, a treasure of piety, of pure love to God and man, which he cannot, in justice, claim for himself. Here lies the great difficulty in laboring with the African church. There is scarcely any motive to prompt to activity, but benevolence, and that is often too feeble to nerve the soul with an energy equal to the demand.

But let us return to the congregation. They behave with unusual decorum for their number. During the fifteen years of my pastorate, I have seen only two examples of laughing and whispering while the sermon was being delivered. They take off their hats on entering the door, and put them on as they are going out. Indeed, their general bearing is respectful, and their countenances bespeak an absorbing interest in the truths dispensed. A prayer at the close of the sermon of the same description with that at the beginning, and another voluntary piece by the choir, are followed by the benediction. Then the whole congregation resume the spiritual songs, which resemble the sound of many waters.

It is perhaps due to a full understanding of the subject, to add a brief statement in respect to the process of instruction.

Finding the labors of the pastoral office, often too great an addition to my other duties, and wishing to elicit the sympathies of other ministers and other denominations in behalf of the church, I have invited more frequently than is usual, clerical gentlemen of the different persuasions, to address the congregation. They have always been received affectionately and gratefully, and have evinced great pleasure in preaching, and the highest admiration of the order and decorum of the hearers. Those students of the Richmond College, who are looking forward to the ministry, are also occasionally introduced to the pulpit and encouraged to exercise their gifts as a means of improvement to themselves, and of profit to the people. I have sometimes departed from the established order of worship, by interrogating from the pulpit the more intelligent members, as to the meaning of sundry texts of scripture, and of the most commonly used terms of theology. Sometimes I have stood up and invited them to interrogate me, taking the discreet precaution to promise that what I could not explain at once, I would investigate for a future occasion. At other time, I have asked for analyses of sermons delivered at previous meeting. Often have I witnessed in these interviews, a spirit of inquiry and a shrewdness of response showed any thing else than indifference to the great subject of redemption. In the progress of these lessons, I compiled a "Catechism for Colored People," which has been of essential service in teaching and impressing important truth. The plan of the work is as follows: A doctrine is propounded, not in the form of an assertion, but as a question. The learners give the answer according to their belief, and a passage of scripture then quoted to confirm the answer by them, is repeated until it is familiar to their minds. By this plan, the prominent sayings of the Bible on fifty-two subjects, are grouped together and recited, with such incidental explanations as the point in hand seems to require . While this mode of instructing the people is less exciting, and therefore less popular and captivating, it is nevertheless productive of a more sure and steady progress in divine knowledge than ordinary sermonizing. After all, it is truth preached and not the preaching that enlightens and saves the souls of men, and if our churches could at times, be converted into places of study, and the attendants into simple students of the Bible, more good would result than is now derived from religious orations. Many elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen retire from our fashionable churches, only to express their admiring opinions of the tuneful voice, the graceful gestures, the polished diction of the preacher.

The kind of preaching best suited to colored people is the didactic. Warm appeals to their passions, unaccompanied with appropriate arguments and facts, would rouse a tempest of excitement, and when it subsides, few would be able to say what produced their emotion. The wildest enthusiasm might easily be wrought in the less informed and the least pious among them by a particular species of address, but it would be productive of spiritual pride, and end in deluding and undoing their souls. They should be made to know that the gospel of Christ is available to salvation only so far as it is apprehended by the intellect, felt by the heart, and practiced in the daily life.

A very important agency in their religious cultivation is the distribution of suitable religious books. By the kindness of the Virginia and Foreign Bible Society, I have already circulated many Bibles and Testaments among them. Some of them can read, and all of them can get the scriptures read to them. And who can tell, but that the unbelieving master, or neighbor, or employer, of the humble inquirer after truth, may share an equal blessing, while tracing for his benefit, the lines of celestial love! Tracts and larger treaties have been occasionally, distributed as rewards for committing to memory the greatest number of scripture verses. The best method of doing good, however, with books, is to lend them systematically and for short periods. If the work is lent, not given, it will be read by more persons. If the period is short, say one week, it will be read at once, if system be observed, it will be returned. Who will put into the pastor's hands a small sum to buy and circulate such works as the Pilgrim's Progress, the African Preacher, the life of Sam'l Pearce and the Church Members' Guide? I firmly believe that the holidays, the long winter evenings, and other intervals of repose, such as rainy weather and confinement at home afford, would be spent far more profitably both to themselves and others, if they were furnished with well selected books, and encouraged to read them. They will make more useful servants, if in a state of bondage, and more safe and reliable residents, if free, by having their minds imbued with rational views of Christianity. How can we expect them to develop the great principles of the gospel in a well ordered life, while they are dependent on desultory oral instruction for their entire knowledge? I am fully aware that some will think I am approaching delicate ground, and yet with the most considerative feelings and with the admission that grave abuses might follow, I am constrained to believe nevertheless, that greater benefits would accrue both to themselves and to society by increasing their facilities to understand that gospel, whose maxim is "on earth peace, good will towards men." I am a Southern man by birth, education and habits. I deplore the ultraism and recklessness of the North on this subject, and not the less on account of the increased restrictions which have been thus occasioned to the colored people. But I would respectfully ask Southern Christians if they are not in danger of neglecting known, imperative duty, because others are not disposed to mind their own business. Let us not be frightened from the path of real benevolence, either by the rashness of the North, nor by the morbid sensitiveness of the South.


[Taken from American Baptist Memorial, 1855, pp. 289-292. jrd]

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