“‘Irregular Secession’: The Political Nature of Religious Space in the Reconstruction-era South

“‘Irregular Secession’: The Political Nature of Religious Space in the Reconstruction-era South

In the early summer of 1865, just a few months after Confederates in Raleigh, North Carolina, officially surrendered, Black Baptists found themselves faced with a choice: submit to white leadership and be permitted to use the roomy sanctuary of the city’s main Baptist church, or refuse and be relegated to the vestry room – a space so small it would require them to turn away would-be worshippers. According to the white trustees of the church, Black members “must not have so good a room” as the sanctuary if they insisted on retaining a Black minister.[1]

Portrait of Henry McNeal Turner
Portrait of Henry McNeal Turner

Raleigh’s African American Baptists, like many of their counterparts around the South, refused to acquiesce to white demands for control and opted for the inferior, inadequate space. An American Missionary Association (AMA) teacher supported them: “I saw that it would be as it always had been,” he observed. “The black man could say nothing and accomplish nothing as he wished to.”[2] That conflict eventually led to what AMA officials despaired of as an “irregular secession” of the African American congregants from the white Baptist church.[3] The schism was part of a wave of church separations across the South. Henry McNeal Turner, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, highlighted the importance of these new Black churches. By seceding from white congregations, African Americans threw off the “slave-yoke of Southern Methodism,” he declared, and stood “in the full vigor of their God-given rights.”[4] Establishing their own, independent churches was an important way that southern Black Christians made freedom meaningful in their everyday lives.

At the end of the Civil War, most Black churchgoers attended white churches. Sometimes they worshipped in the back of sanctuaries or in balconies, but often, as was the case in Raleigh, they worshipped in separate services where they might have exercised a large degree of day-to-day autonomy. Still, they lacked the true independence of a separate church. They were required to have white ministers, excluded from Sabbath schools, and denied any role in church governance. White church leaders thus retained control over the Black congregation’s leadership, which meant they also controlled the religious message Black churchgoers heard and the kinds of events they could host. Importantly, white churches also usually retained ownership of Black members’ building, even if it had been built or purchased with Black people’s labor and money.[5]

That trusteeship system meant that Black church members faced a constant threat of eviction. In 1865, for example, white Presbyterians in Augusta, Georgia, locked their Black counterparts out of the building they had been using. An AMA teacher had recently begun holding Sabbath School classes there, and white Presbyterians expelled the teacher, the minister, and the entire congregation. The white church-goers had tolerated Black religious services but refused to provide a venue for Black education. Teachers scrambled to find alternate locations to no avail. An AME church in town was not available either. “The other church belongs to the colored people (Methodists), but the chief difficulty was on account of the insurance, the policy taking exceptions to a store and making no provision for a school,” the AMA superintendent explained.[6] By requiring a different kind of insurance to use a building for a school than for a religious service, a white-owned insurance company could effectively control the ways Black people could use even the church buildings they owned.

In Raleigh, a month after their “irregular secession,” Black Baptists still struggled to disentangle themselves from whites’ control. It is not clear where the Black Baptists were now worshipping, but they may have been renting space in a white-owned building. A white newspaper warned them, “It is proper to suggest that the white people are extending to colored worshippers the most liberal privileges.”[7] The writer conveyed a number of ideas in this short sentence. First, he characterized African Americans’ occupation of church space as a tenuous privilege rather than a right. Black church-goers were in the building only with white permission. Second, in complimenting white residents on allowing their black neighbors any access at all, he revealed a belief that white people defined freedom and citizenship for everyone and could dole it out as they saw fit. And finally, he grammatically replicated Black and white relationships under slavery: white people were the subjects and actors, while Black people were merely the objects of white subjects’ actions. The editor went on to criticize worshippers’ behavior in the church, and the unspoken threat of legal retaliation was clear: “We remind freedmen, that even religious exercises, in their practice, may reach a point of illegality, and for their own benefit advise them to come down several octaves in their hours.”[8]

Even in the face of such opposition from their white neighbors, Black Christians continued to establish independent congregations during Reconstruction. In doing so, they claimed permanent spaces and worked to insulate themselves from white threats of eviction, control, and both legal and extralegal policing. “Their places of worship at present are but temporary,” Turner wrote about those new churches. “They are preparing, however, to erect themselves a permanent edifice to worship God in.”[9] Building and occupying independent churches was itself an implicit political act, but those Black churches also explicitly embraced electoral politics, providing institutional support and a space for local mobilization. State Republican Party organizations originated in their sanctuaries and used church buildings for political conventions, celebrations of Emancipation Day, and other public performances. Church buildings became a kind of alternative public sphere as Black people prepared for their future as free Americans.[10] As they fought for their independence, Black southerners imbued the buildings with political significance.

 

[1] George Greene, letter to W. E. Whiting, June 29, 1865, American Missionary (AMA) Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[2] George Greene, letter to W. E. Whiting, June 22, 1865, AMA Papers.

[3] Eliphalet Whittlesey, letter to the Secretary of the AMA, Aug. 2, 1865, AMA Papers.

[4] Henry McNeal Turner, letter published in The Christian Recorder, Jan. 20, 1866.

[5] Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005), 120; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 2nd ed. (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), 88-89.

[6] Dewitt C. Jencks, letter to Samuel Hunt, Dec. 21, 1865, AMA Papers.

[7] “Hymnology,” Daily Progress [Raleigh, NC], Sept. 12, 1865.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Henry McNeal Turner, letter published in The Christian Recorder, Jan. 20, 1866.

[10] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” in The Black Public Sphere, ed. By The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 110-50.

Caitlin Verboon

Caitlin Verboon is an independent scholar.

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