On some plantations, the laws restricting the open evangelistic strides of black preachers were gradually ignored by generous or kindhearted masters.
The pulpit vitality of certain black preachers or “exhorters” was so potent that white Baptist churches were no longer able to contain them. Hence, the emergence of independent black Baptist churches gradually appeared on the scene of American Christianity. The roots of black Baptist beginnings in South Carolina, Georgia, Canada, Africa, and the West Indies may be traced to an organized effort as early as the 1780s.
The pioneer black missionary and preacher who led indirectly to the establishment of independent black churches was Rev. George Liele. He preached powerfully on the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. Many black slaves were converted by the preaching of this great pioneer. Among the two most prominent were David George and Andrew Bryan. These men established the earliest independent mission churches among black Baptists in America.
We may note in passing that historians have not agreed on the place of the first independent black Baptist church in America. Some have cited the First Colored Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, as the oldest black Baptist church. On the contrary, a few historians like M. M. Fisher have advanced the theory that the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, Aiken County, South Carolina, was the first such church.
For a necessary starting point, let us survey Baptist beginnings in Georgia. The First Colored Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, perhaps the oldest black Baptist church in America, was organized January 20, 1788, by Andrew Bryan along with a few slaves to whom he had preached the gospel. Bryan was the stave of Jonathan Bryan, esq., who indulged him to preach on his plantation. After a short while, Jonathan Bryan permitted Andrew Bryan along with a few other black Baptists to erect a rough building on his land at Yamacraw in the suburbs of Savannah, Georgia. This was designated as a house of worship for the little congregation inspired by Andrew Bryan.
It is not surprising, however, that Bryan’s little mission or church encountered many interruptions from whites who opposed the idea of an independent black religious congregation. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, this was a limited congregation in its independence. Nevertheless, there were certain whites in Savannah who held to the custom of not allowing the assembly of black people without the presence of a white person. Hence, many of the early members of this church were taken before magistrates, imprisoned, and whipped.
In every instance, the congregation was united in willingness to endure persecution for the continuation of the plantation church. Sampson Bryan, who was converted about a year after his brother Andrew Bryan, was very supportive of Andrew and the congregation during this intense period of persecution. Both Bryan brothers were twice severely whipped because of their persistence in the evolution of an independent black Baptist church movement. About fifty of the members were also severely whipped by outside white agitators.
With few exceptions, members of Bryan’s entire congregation were persecuted for their faith and practices. Rev. James M. Simms has left us a succinct account of their sufferings.
Frequent, then, became the whipping of individual members by patrol on the plea of not having proper tickets-of-leave, which finally culminated in the arrest and punishment of a large part of the members, all of whom were severely whipped; but Rev. Andrew Bryan, their pastor, and his brother, Sampson Bryan, one of the first deacons, were inhumanly cut, and their backs were so lacerated that their blood ran down to the earth, as they, with uplifted hands, cried unto the Lord; and this first negro Baptist pastor, while under this torture, declared to his persecutors that he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but will freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ.
Subsequently, the majority of the congregation were accused of plotting insurrection and placed in prison. Their meetinghouse was also taken from them sometime about 1790.
Fortunately, Jonathan Bryan, the master of Andrew and Sampson, interceded for these persecuted black Baptists fully believing that they were martyrs to prejudice and wickedness. They were examined by the justices of the Inferior Court of Chatham County who found them innocent and released them. Chief Justice Henry Osbourne also gave them liberty to continue their worship any time between sunrising and sunset. Bryan informed the chief justice that he would give them the liberty of his own house or his barn at a place called Brampton to serve as a meetinghouse, not to be interrupted by anybody.
Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1985)