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Reminiscences of the First African Baptist Church
By the Pastor

Chapter 3

LET us turn aside from the serious train of observation in which we have been indulging and state some incidents that may tend to illustrate the character of the African race.

Some years after my connexion with the church, finding the salary, which was $500, not paid punctually, I began to fear that it might be felt by them to be burdensome. Being in the habit also of employing occasional aid, and not disposed to graduate my obligations by one scale and have my receipts conformed to another, I proposed to the church in good faith and kind feeling, to fix a lower rate of compensation, and to observe a business-like promptness in paying it for the future. They took the subject into consideration, and resolved, with only one dissenting voice to continue the salary at the same point, and to pay it thenceforward with rigid punctuality. Having consented to my relinquishment of a quarter then, due, so as to begin square, they have since that period strictly adhered to their resolution. May not some of our more influential churches learn a lesson from this example? Why should a body of religious men allow themselves to be delinquent in their pecuniary engagements, though individually they are prompt and liable?

Here is a case of shrewdness. An old and trustworthy man, known as uncle A. L., who was accustomed to be sent by his minister to the banks to deposit or receive large sums of money, and who was proverbial for his orderly deportment, was one morning brought by the police before the Mayor, much to his surprise, for being out at night, beyond the lawful hour, without his master's written consent. On being asked by his Honor why he had thus transgressed the city ordinance, he, replied that he had received the usual "pass," from his master, to visit a friend, and had put it in his pocket with several checks for large amounts. Returning home, late at night, he was accosted by a watchman -- a stranger to him -- and asked if he had written leave to be out at such a late hour. He immediately bethought himself that the pass and the checks were in the same pocket -- that to show the one he must expose the other -- that the word of a slave would not stand before that of a white man in a court of justice -- that the officer was unknown to him -- and that the only safe expedient was to evade the question of the officer and consent to be locked up for the night. He preferred this alternative, and forthwith produced in court the checks and the pass! The Mayor at once dismissed him, uncertain whether most to admire his fidelity to the trust or his shrewdness in guarding his reputation.

I had once a debated question brought to me for decision: "There is a lad here which hath five barley loaves and two small fishes." One of the disputants contended that barley was the material of which the loaves were made; the other, fond of looking deeper into matters, insisted that these loaves were so small as scarcely to deserve the name -- they were bare-ley loaves -- that the less they were the greater would be the miracle of feeding the five thousand, &c. I shall not gratify my reader by telling him how I decided the philosophical question, except by reminding him that I have read in the ponderous tomes of learned doctors of divinity, expositions of scripture, equally puerile, and not half so ingenious as that of my barley friend.

A colored preacher, of strong sense and of original views, was once discoursing to the people at one of our communion seasons, and advanced the startling idea that the progress of death over the human race was staid by the ministry of Moses! I turned to him a wishful eye, as if to ask his authority for such an opinion. He proceeded: "Death reigned from Adam to Moses, and of course that implies that he ceased to reign during the days of Moses. But how did he stop his ravages? God commanded him to lift up the brazen serpent, and all who looked upon it lived. That serpent represented Christ, the author of eternal life," &c., &c. I referred him afterwards to the foregoing verse: "For until the law, sin was in the world," as proof that such language does not necessarily convey the idea that a different state of things afterwards prevailed. Erroneous as was his proposition, this effort to prove it showed thought and reasoning, while the residue of his address was lucid, touching, and powerful.

Returning from a preaching excursion into the country, about ten years ago, I spent the night at a hospitable mansion of a gentleman, six or eight miles from town. To the servant, who harnessed my horse the next morning, I offered -- as is usual in Virginia-- a small piece of silver, as a reward for his attention; stepping back with a graceful bow, he very thankfully but firmly refused to receive it. On being kindly urged to accept it, he replied with a peculiar expression of countenance: " Why, sir, you are my pastor, and I could not possibly receive any thing from my pastor." I confess I was moved to tenderness by the delicacy of his manner and the disinterestedness of his love. It will be remembered that a dime is a large sum to a poor man, and that refinement of feeling is not often imputed to the illiterate when it requires a sacrifice.

I was once advocating the cause of ministerial education in a tour through the country churches, and after the collection was taken up and the people dismissed, on one occasion, a colored woman came to me as I was hitching my horse to start, saying: "Please set down this quarter of a dollar for me. My name is Sophy, -- I can't read myself, but I wish others to be taught and the gospel to be preached to the whole world." -- Really, no contribution received that summer was more generous or more refreshing to my spirit. It reminded me of the two mites of the widow, of whom Jesus said, "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached, there shall this also, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."

Elder Jeter and myself exchanged pulpits one Sunday afternoon, just before he went to St. Louis. The sexton of the first church being one of my members, and having heard Mr. Jeter in the morning, went to his own church in the afternoon, not aware of the arrangement. -- When the services were closed, I walked down towards the African Church to see after some business. Meeting the sexton, I inquired, "who preached for you this afternoon?" "Mr. Jeter." "How did you like him? and what was his subject?" "I liked him very well, only he took the same text he took this morning," at the same time repeating the words. "And did he preach the same sermon ?" "Precisely the same, except that he had a paragraph this morning addressed to the rich, and he left that out this afternoon, because he thought, I suppose, that we had no rich people down there."

The church has passed through some severe trials during its brief career. The first of these originated from an agency which I had gradually and almost unavoidly [sic] become accustomed to perform in the distribution of letters from the post-office. Persons moving away from Richmond, without getting letters of dismission, would write back to their friends and request them to obtain letters and forward them. Persons recently settled in town would have their testimonials of membership sent to them here. As the pastor of the church was naturally entrusted with such matters, all these letters were sent to my care, placed in my box, and finally laid on my table. Not knowing the parties oftentimes, and having no other method of distribution, I announced them from the pulpit on Sunday at the close of the worship, and the respective parties came up and received them. This gave greater publicity to the p1an, and thus no doubt suggested the idea of using it for a different purpose and on a wider scale. About this time several servants escaped to the North, from their masters, and wrote back to their former comrades, here, detailing the manner of their escape, and proposing to them facilities and information for the same experiment. These letters were of course sent to my care, and very unsuspectingly distributed along with others. Fortunately, however, for me, they were distributed with the same open arid public fearlessness that all others had been. About this time, a notorious convict from the penitentiary, whose time of punishment was just finished, began the double work of enticing and aiding slaves to abscond for a stipulated price, and then of revealing to their masters, for a large price, their plans and places of resort. Accordingly, several were apprehended on the eve of their departure. They, in turn, disclosed the agency which he had exerted in expediting their flight. Some of them avowed that until he advised them to run off, and offered to secure the success of their attempt, for a given sum, they were satisfied with their lot, attached to their masters; and never conceived the purpose of leaving them. The officers of the law now kept a close watch on this two-faced trafficer. They conversed with him ostensibly, for the purpose of securing his aid in detecting the abettors of the fugitives. And as his object was to divert suspicion from himself he directed their attention to me, insinuating that "some one of high character, that lived a little out of town to the west of the city," was the mainspring in these secret operations. This surmise received some coloring of probability by the fact, that letters in the possession of several of the captives were sent to my care and distributed in the usual manner. However; to make the story brief, the late resident of the State Prison was clearly and conclusively convicted of this complex villany, and sent back to his cell to serve out a second period. I was mortified to perceive that a few of the congregation had abused my confidence, and had caused me unwillingly to desecrate the pastoral office to purposes foreign to its design. It was certainly no part of my purpose -- and should have been none in assuming that relation, to use my influence, either secretly or publicly to disturb the legalized usages of society. The path of duty is plainly marked out to me in the New Testament -- to inculcate both on masters and servants such principles as would tend to their mutual improvement and happiness. I felt impelled by a sense of propriety to announce to the congregation that I should not in the future deliver any letters from the North without a personal acquaintance with and full confidence in the recipients. The letters were suffered to remain in the post office, and I was released from a great annoyance and from unjust suspicions. I was mortified to learn that some white persons, even some professing Christians, advised me still to take the 1etters from the office, to read them, and to communicate their contents, if any plot was being formed to escape to their masters! Here, again was a, total misconception of the spirit and genius of the pastoral office. I had not the least intention, should have had none, when I became the pastor of the colored people, to degrade my office to a police to detect and to apprehend runaways! Let them who are appointed to this work, and who have a taste for it, engage in it. Be it mine to preach the gospel, to watch for souls, to make full proof of my ministry. To have aided servants to flee from their masters, or masters to detect their fugitive slaves, would have been equally aside from my duty, and equally destructive of all my capacity to do good. This whole occurrence was fraught with danger to the church. It raised up a host of suspicions against us, and taught us a lesson of caution. It enabled me to distinguish between real and pretended friends. The former evinced their constancy~ and confidence throughout the whole affair; the latter stood aloof or occupied neutral ground, or joined in the popular prejudice, until my innocence was established, and then they resumed their friendship.

The second trial that befel the church grew out of a cold-blooded and malignant murder perpetrated in July 1855, on an amiable family by one of their servants, herself a nominal member of the church. She entered their chamber at early dawn, and with a murderous hatchet butchered the sleeping mother, her lovely infant, and as she intended and believed, the husband and father! So unprovoked, so deliberate, so diabolic, so extensive was this deed of death, that the whole community was at once thrown into the most intense excitement. The miserable creature was tried, condemned and executed with the execrations of not only the white people, but so far as I could judge, of the whole mass of her own color. She plead guilty at the trial and throughout her imprisonment, and under the gallows, declared herself the sole perpetrator of the crime. Her husband, also a member of the church, was afterwards tried as particeps criminus, and condemned more, it was believed by some, from the infuriated state of the public mind, than from the conclusiveness of the testimony. Such is the constitution of our nature, that when a whole community become roused to the enthusiasm of vengeance by a triple and horrible crime, one life is scarcely an atonement sufficient to satisfy to satisfy the popular demand. And where the public sympathies all flow in one direction, it is not difficult to get witnesses to testify in favor of the prejudged conclusion. The opinions of the strongest and best men are apt to be warped by their own feelings, and by those of the multitude around them. Having always entertained a "doubt" of the husband's guilt, I was driven to the necessity of thus accounting for his conviction. He died with the avowed possession of a full hope in the divine favor, and with the most solemn asseverations of his innocence. The church shared largely, but most unjustly in the odium arising from this conduct of one, or as it was generally believed, two of its members. "Ex uno disce omnes". By the same rule few of our purest churches would avoid condemnation. Even Jesus said, "have I not chosen you twelve, and, one of you is a devil?" As well might you destroy all the aqueducts and hydrants of the city, because fires. continue to devour the houses, as to suppress religious instruction, because it fails in some cases to reform and to restrain. To hold a pastor or a church responsible for the well-doing of twenty-five hundred members is an absurdity, to which only a few favor-seeking editors of a vicious press and a few unprincipled demagogues are equal. While I was laboring with singleness of eye for the eternal good of the slaves, and collaterally for their temporal good, and thus benefiting [sic] the masters and the whole public, so far as my influence was effective, many of these masters, and of this community affected to regard with suspicion my humble but ardent and honest efforts, and to consider it a favor, almost too great for mortal goodness, to allow me to preach to their slaves! One thought they should be required to worship with the whites, though all the churches in the city together could seat only one thousand of a population of twelve thousand. Another wished them to roam about the streets and suburbs, to frequent drinking houses, and to indulge in every species of vice, rather than repair neatly dressed to the house of God and to engage in social worship! It required some charity to resist the inference that others were glad of an opportunity to scoff at all religion, especially that of the Baptists, through the African church. This was the apparent -- that the real object of their antipathy. So strong was this manifestation in certain quarters, that the pastors and deacons of the three Baptist churches in the city met together and adopted, without my solicitation or knowledge, the following preamble and resolutions. As a part of the history of the church, and as a spontaneous sanction of my official career, as well as for their general bearing, I deem their publication in this connexion just and appropriate:


At a meeting of the members of the three Baptist Churches of this city, October 27th, 1852, the following statements and resolutions were unanimously adopted; and the Pastors and Deacons were requested to sign them and procure their publication:

The religious instruction of the colored population of the city of Richmond has, by circumstances not under the control of the present generation, been devolved, in a great measure, on the Baptist denomination. The execution of this task has neither yielded nor provided worldly honor or profits; but has been a source of constant anxiety, toil, and annoyance. We might have shrunk from the unthankful service, could we have done so, consistently with the dictates of our consciences and our responsibility to Christ. But, feeling that Providence has called us to the delicate and important duty, we have endeavored, with singleness of purpose and due regard to the interests of masters and servants, to discharge it. The work has mainly been committed to the hands a brother, intelligent, pious, and discreet, of spotless reputation, enjoying the confidence of our own denomination and entitled to the full confidence of the community; a man born and reared among us, with interests identical with our own, and, in our judgment, eminently fitted for the service. In this work we conceive that we are justly entitled to the sympathy and encouragement of all who feel an interest in the moral and religious welfare of our colored population. But we are sorry to perceive, from many indications, that the late atrocious murders committed in this city, by members of the First African Baptist Church, have awakened a degree of opposition to our efforts, and concentrated on our denomination an odium which we deem unreasonable and unjust.

We sincerely hope that our fellow-citizens, who, under the excitement caused by the recent tragedy, have formed a hasty and intemperate judgment on this subject, will candidly reconsider the matter. None can more sincerely deplore or deeply abhor the flagitious crime referred to, or more heartily approve its exemplary punishment than we do. If we taught, or gave any countenance to the teaching of any doctrine, which either directly or by fair implication encouraged so base a crime, we should deserve to be held in universal execration. But can it be necessary that we should vindicate our doctrine in a city where our ministry has been so long established? Our religious views are in harmony with those of the evangelical denominations of the country. Their ministers occupy our pulpits, and our ministers occupy theirs. As to repentance, faith, regeneration, justification, the work of the Holy Spirit, the necessity of holiness, and all the great doctrines of salvation by grace, our opinions are identical with those of the great body of learned, godly and useful ministers, whose labors have blessed the world. Our views on the subject of baptism are peculiar; but of all the Christian denominations, the Baptists are the last that should be charged with ascribing an undue efficacy to baptism. We neither teach nor believe baptismal regeneration, nor the remission of sins in baptism. Opposition to these sentiments constitute a portion of our known denominational peculiarities. We hold and teach, as explicitly as words can teach, that none are fit subjects for the ordinance but penitent believers in Christ, who bring forth fruits worthy of repentance; that in no case has it any saving efficacy, and that none are in [any] way benefited by it who do not habitually and to the end lead a life of piety. If the slaves, or others who attend our ministrations, are ignorant on this point, they are willfully and stupidly so; and to prevent the perversion of God's truth and ordinances is not within the compass of mortal power. With ample opportunities of knowing, we have not discovered among them sentiments opposed to our teaching on this subject; and if they hold such views at all, it must be to a very limited extent, and in spite of every effort of their religious instructors to the contrary. But is it an unheard of thing that church members should commit crime? We would it were so. It were an easy but invidious task to show that the members of other communions, as well as of the Baptists, not slaves merely, but intelligent and respected white persons, have committed gross crimes, for which they have been punished, or have deserved to be. But shall we charge the communions to which these felons belonged with countenancing these crimes, or their creeds with sanctioning them? Nothing could be more unfair or ungenerous. Such outbreaks of human depravity are unfortunately to be found in all churches, all societies, and all lands; but surely the community that abhors them, and expels those perpetrators from their bosom, (as is true of the African Church,) is not subject to just reproach on account of them. Among the twelve Apostles of the Saviour, one proved a traitor, a demon. Shall the Son of God be reviled as having countenanced the murderous treachery of Judas, or incited it by his teachings" In a church containing, as does the African Church, more than 2,500 members, many of whom, in spite of our best efforts to instruct them, remain very ignorant and imperfectly impressed with their moral obligations, and all of whom are exposed to the pressing temptations of a city residence, that some crimes should be committed, will surprise no one acquainted with the depravity of human nature. Under any teachings, and any discipline, and in any connexion, every experienced and candid man will admit this must be expected; but we verily believe, as we believe the gospel of our salvation, that crimes would be far more numerous than they are among this class of our population, but for their religious instruction and discipline, imperfect as under the circumstances they must necessarily be.

In view, then, of all these considerations, this meeting, composed of Baptists of the City of Richmond, adopt the following resolutions:

1. Resolved, That we are as deeply interested as any portion of the community, in the submission and good order of the slave population, and that we fully respect the rights of masters and the laws of the land, and approve of' the maintenance of a vigilant and efficient police for the suppression and punishment of crimes.

2. Resolved, That we are strongly impressed with the importance of giving !to our colored population, as careful, faithful and thoroughly religious training as their peculiar circumstances may permit; and that we have shown the strength of our conviction, by our self-denying and thankless exertions to promote the object.

3. Resolved, That, called by Providence to the task, we shall continue to provide for the instruction of our own slaves, those under our charge, and such others as may be permitted by their masters to attend to our ministrations, in the manner which in our judgment is best adapted to prevent the perpetration of crimes, and promote their spiritual interests.

4. Resolved, That we entertain an undiminished confidence in the Rev. Robert Ryland, Pastor of the First African Church, as an upright and honorable citizen, a devoted and humble Christian, an able and faithful minister of Christ, and deem him eminently qualified for the delicate, difficult and important post which he occupies.

5. Resolved, That, while we have endeavored to instruct the colored people under our charge in the most efficient manner, we would not affirm that our plans in all cases have been the best possible; and we will pay due deference to any candid and judicious suggestion that may be made on the subject.

6. Resolved, That the superintending committee of the First African Church be requested to publish the constitution of their church, together with such other statements as may be necessary to set forth fairly the plans of instruction and discipline there adopted.

B. MANLY, Jr., Pastor lst Baptist Church.
Archibald Thomas, James Sizer, James C. Crane, C. Walthall, Richard Reins, R. H. Bosher, J. W. Farrer, John C. Stanard, Deacons.

R. B. C. HOWELL, Pastor 2d Baptist Church.
Jesse Snead, George Steel, Albert Snead, John F. Tanner, A. M. Bailey, J. B. Wood, F. J. Barnes, Deacons.

J. B. JETER, Pastor Grace Street Baptist Church.
W. Goddin, J. E. Henderson, George Woodfin, John Jacob, Deacons.

I take pleasure in adding, that numbers of our most respectable citizens, irrespective of religious views, expressed to me in private, during the greatest prevalence of these suspicions, their friendly sentiments and their cordial approbation of my efforts to evangelize the colored people. In the darkest scenes through which we passed, I enjoyed an undoubting assurance that the sober sense and kind feeling of the public would ultimately triumph, and that God would not permit His cause to be overwhelmed and debased.

These anticipations have not been disappointed. The thoughtful portion of the citizens believe that the instruction given, and the influence exerted over the colored population of this city, through the agency of this church, are among the best that could be devised, for promoting good order and right principles among them, while these ends are made subservient to their highest good, their fitness for everlasting happiness.


[Taken from American Baptist Memorial, November, 1855, pp. 321-327. The author does not identify himself, we learn from the “Resolutions” that his name was Rev. Robert Ryland. jrd]

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