African American Baptists
Baptists have been the largest African American religious group in Georgia since the late eighteenth century. Baptist churches have made vital contributions to the identity of black people in the state by shaping behavior and belief, serving as centers of community life, and creating independent spaces free from the control of white society.
Traveling preachers first brought the Baptist message into Georgia during the American Revolution (1775-83). Baptists (along with Methodists) proclaimed an intensely individualistic, emotional Christian message that called for a decisive, unambiguous conversion experience as the hallmark of a genuine Christian life. The evangelical message found a receptive audience among a wide variety of hearers, including slaves and free blacks in the Georgia colony.
Many black Baptists lived within this context until Reconstruction, following the Civil War (1861-65). In a few of the state's larger towns, however, black Baptists established independent congregations and functioned without white supervision. Both dating to the 1770s, Savannah's First African Baptist Church, founded by black Baptist leaders George Liele and Andrew Bryan, and Augusta's Springfield Baptist Church maintained autonomous status during the era of slavery. Additionally, large but unknown numbers of black Baptists worshipped in secret meetings of their own, in slave quarters or in other central locations. Black Baptists enjoyed their greatest freedom of worship during these clandestine gatherings, voicing their distinct travails in original songs (later called "spirituals") and listening to preachers who shaped a black Baptist vision of judgment and eschatological hope.
During emancipation. As hopes for substantial political power, equitable economic practices, and social equality faded during the late nineteenth century, the church—as one of the few autonomous black institutions—came to occupy a distinctly powerful position. The church not only shaped adherents' views of life and morality (as it also did for the state's huge numbers of white Baptists) but also became a place for political organization, artistic expression, social services, and more. This comprehensive role, established in the late nineteenth century, characterized black Baptist churches throughout the twentieth century.
Black Baptists played a conspicuous role in the civil rights movement. Baptist ministers were the main force organizing the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King Jr. led for eleven years. Baptist churches throughout the state hosted mass meetings and were sometimes targets of violence by white segregationists. Countless numbers of black Baptists staged sit-ins, marched in protests, and canvassed to galvanize voter registration. They gave the movement a distinct religious cast, as spirituals, sermons, and the practice of nonviolence blended into radical activism and protest.
Black Catholic or Episcopal churches.
Black Baptists share these practices with white Baptists, though the churches are institutionally separate. Thousands of black Baptist churches joined together in 1895 to form the National Baptist Convention of the USA (NBC). A 1915 debate over denominational management split the convention into two groups, NBC of America and NBC of the USA. Several churches left the latter group in 1961 over tenure debates and divided views of civil rights and formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Approximate national membership of the three denominations is 5 million (NBC of the USA), 3.5 million (NBC of America), and 2.5 million (Progressive). Georgia's smaller number of Primitive Baptist churches are allied with the National Primitive Baptist Convention, organized in 1907. It has approximately 600,000 national members.
Certain Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Freedom Singers.
Media Gallery: African American Baptists