Long before the clash between white Baptists over the issue of slavery, there were some black Baptist leaders who gradually became aware of the need of separate churches from whites. Such were the originators of plantation missions led by black preachers. It may be said, with reasonable certainty, that the evolution of plantation missions began as independent slave plantation owners were very reluctant to permit an evangelistic program with the utilization of black Baptist preachers. However, there were some exceptions to the general order of things on certain plantations.
For instance, there was one good example of a more liberal attitude, despite legal codes restricting congregations of blacks and the ministry of black preachers, on the part of a plantation owner in North Carolina. In that state, the first black preacher to receive permission to evangelize his race was “Uncle Harry Cowan,” as he was known at that time. He was the servant of Thomas L. Cowan. His master being present at a funeral was so struck with his gift to preach God’s Word that he granted him “privilege papers” to preach anywhere on his four plantations. His papers were prepared by a lawyer. Rev. Harry Cowan, the slave preacher, was extremely successful in the evangelization of black slaves on this plantation, Therefore, his owner, Thomas L. Cowan, soon extended Rev. Harry Cowan preaching privileges to other nearby plantations wherever he was promised protection. During the struggles of the Civil War, Rev. Harry Cowan was the body servant of General Joseph Johnson and preached every night when General Stonewall Jackson fell in battle.
There were many other black preachers who labored for God on plantations for the evangelization of slaves. Many of their names have been lost to historical research. Long before the organization of black churches and associations, these black plantation preachers labored ardently for the conversion of their race, Generally, black slaves were not permitted to have their own churches, pastors, and preachers. It was the common practice throughout the slave territory to permit them to attend preaching services in the white churches at the time designated under conditions prescribed by their masters. Nevertheless, the spirit of Christianity motivated black preachers to encourage the slaves to grow in grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Consequently, these blacks often stole off to the woods, canebrakes, and remote cabins to have preaching and prayer meetings of their own. To be sure, these movements were the antecedents to organized black Baptist churches.
It can be argued that the secret or underground prayer meetings served as the only forum wherein the slaves could vent their true religious feelings. The early sunrise prayer meeting was one in which blacks spent their happiest moments, no white person being present to molest, restrict, or make them afraid. It was an unusual coincidence that gave rise to these prayer meetings. The patrols would be on duty all night to see that no black persons walked or assembled with others without the written consent from their master. Early in the mornings the patrol would retire from duty and sleep during the day. Therefore, on Sunday mornings the black people would gather at the church and other places of worship and have these early prayer meetings, in their own way, while their mistresses and masters and the ever-dreaded patrols were asleep.
It is not surprising that pioneer black preachers continued similar methods for the evangelization of the race for several decades. To mention one example, for more than forty years such a preacher called “Uncle Jack” went from plantation to plantation in Virginia to preach to whites and blacks. It is not surprising that the rapid spread of such evangelistic methods soon led to the organization of independent black Baptist churches.
Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1985)