The Cherokee Baptist Churches and Slavery
By Patrick N. Minges
The years 1846-1855 were prosperous ones for the Cherokee Nation, but they were years where the issue of slavery moved from the background of the factional struggle between conservatives and progressives, and came to eclipse all other issues that beset this new nation. The number of slaves within the Cherokee Nation had grown immensely following removal; in 1839 slaves represented ten percent of the Nation, by 1860 they represented nearly twenty-five percent. The 4,000 slaves in the Cherokee Nation were owned by less than ten percent of the population. The slave revolts that had occurred following removal solidified the Cherokee elite in the belief of the efficacy and importance of vigorous enforcement of the institution of slavery.
Among the conservatives (largely Northern Baptists, as opposed to the progressives who were often Presbyterians and Methodists), the abolitionist message continued to spread and gain strength. Only five of the 1100 Cherokee Baptists owned slaves, and many slaves were members of the Baptist missions, even though their owners were not. Though Baptist missionaries seldom publicly preached against slavery, the Cherokee Baptists came to “look forward to the extinction of slavery.” Baptist missionary Evan Jones noted that among the strongest opponents of slavery were the native preachers who “are decidedly and steadfastly opposed to slavery.... We have no apology to make for slavery nor a single argument to urge in its defence, and our sincere desire and earnest prayer is that it may be speedily brought to an end.”
At the heart of the Baptist gospel message within the Indian Territory was the universal language of freedom that arose within the prophetic religion of the Afro-American-Indian Baptist churches. This folk community practiced an “art of resistance” that constituted the core of their religious beliefs and practices, and was a community whose very existence constituted resistance to the ideology of racial supremacy. This community is best understood in all of its complexity. Former slaves and the descendants of former slaves, both black and Indian, formed the core of the Baptist churches in the Indian Territory just as they had done in the old homelands. This “old ship of Zion” traveled through dark and muddy waters.
In addition, the affinities between the Baptist church and Cherokee traditional religion promoted the rapid acceptance and spread of the Baptist gospel message among the indigenous people of the Indian Territory. “Protracted meetings,” such as camp meetings and revivals, being social as well as religious functions that promoted direct participation in singing, shouting, and prayer, were well suited to those accustomed to traditional methods of worship. The preference of oratorical capabilities and oral tradition over literacy and competence in doctrinal sophistries also promoted the spread of the Baptist message.
That the Baptists were more tolerant of traditional religious and social practices, were fluent in Cherokee, and receptive to even “the most ignorant and uncultivated” of the Cherokee created some ire among the other denominations. One American Board missionary noted “persons can scarcely be convinced of sin or begin to think seriously on eternal things before they are dragged into the bosom of some church.” When accepted into the congregation, the symbolic rite of baptismal immersion was synonymous with the ancient Cherokee purification ritual of amo’:hi atsv’:sdi (“water: to go and return to, one”).
From the very first Baptist Church in Oklahoma, the congregations were of mixed cultural heritage. Missionary Isaac McCoy organized the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the first Baptist church in Oklahoma, in the Mvskoke Nation on September 9, 1832. It was composed of “three blacks, two white people, and one Indian in its six charter members.” The founding members of the church were Reverend David Lewis, his wife, John Davis — a Mvskoke, and three black members of the Mvskoke Nation by the names of Quash, Bob, and Ned. Ebenezer Baptist Church conducted its first baptisms the following Sabbath, “The following Saturday, two Creeks and two Blacks were received for baptism, and on the following Sunday took place the first baptism in the Indian’s Home. On the same day, under the shade of the wide-spreading, hospitable, forest trees, in the presence of a great gathering of wondering, dusky Indians, and their darker slaves, the Memorial Supper was spread, and observed in apostolic simplicity.” Later, the church continued to grow under the tutelage of the licensed preacher, Mr. John Davis, “On the 14th of October, thirty seven people were baptised at a meeting at the Muscogee church, eight or ten of whom were Creeks, and the rest, except one, colored persons and slaves. On the 10th of November, nine were baptized, three of whom were Indians.”
On October 20, 1833, Native Mvskoke minister John Davis was ordained to the Baptist ministry. Assuming the position of pastor of Ebenezer Church, he remained in this position until his death in 1839. In January 1836, the church membership numbered 82—6 whites, 22 Native Americans, and 54 African-Americans. An outstation of the Ebenezer Baptist Church was started some 30 miles distant, called Canadian Station. In 1839, a school was opened with fifty students at the Canadian mission with John Davis as its principal; the chief instructor at the school was a Native American Baptist minister. The outpost at the Canadian River became the center of the Cherokee Baptist missions among the Mvskoke Nation for the next twenty-five years.
When Evan Jones arrived in the new territory in the West, he and his native ministers began an outreach to the disparate members of their Baptist congregations. Jones described these missions as: “friendly deputations have visited the National Convention, from the Mvskokes, Seminoles, Shawnees, Delawares, and Senecas.” He also described community meetings held by the brethren of Flint Church who divided up several neighborhoods and “held meetings for devotional exercises.” At one such meeting, “four blacks–-two males and two females, were baptized on a profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus.”
There is no doubt that African-American Baptist ministers met many of these early delegations. Most of the earliest ministers in the Indian Territory were African-American slaves or freed slaves. Though seldom credited by name, their effects were well noted, “Four black women came forward to tell what God had done for their souls. They were approved and baptized on profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There has been for several months considerable attention to religion among the Blacks on both sides of the line, principally through the instrumentality of a Black man who resides in the vicinity.”
Some of the black ministers were well known. Among these were Joseph Island, Old Billy, and Brother Jesse Brother. Jesse worked among the Mvskoke where his efforts were often less than appreciated, “One of them came and tied another rope around my wrists; the other end was thrown over the fork of a tree, and they drew me up until my feet did not quite touch the ground, and they tied my feet together. Then they went a little way off and sat down. Afterwards one of them came and asked me where I got this new religion. I said in the Old Nation. `Yes,’ replied the Indian, `you have set half of this nation to praying and this is what we are going to whip you for.’ Five men gave me five strokes each.”
Many believe that the Mvskoke were opposed to the Christian missionaries because they were concerned about the impact of the Christian mission upon their slaves. However, the issue is hardly so simple. Many of the Mvskoke were not opposed to preaching to the slaves, they were opposed to preaching the Christian gospel within the Mvskoke Nation altogether. The traditionalists had consistently opposed Christianity and the Mvskokes were often seen as the most hostile to the Christian message. In addition, the Mvskoke had real reservations about Christianity because of the struggles that they saw between the French and Spanish Catholics and the English Protestants as well as the denominational struggles within the Protestants themselves. The Mvskoke wondered that if Christians could not solve their own problems, how were they to be of assistance to any one else?
Native Christians were often punished for following black ministers: “One woman who received fifty lashes for affirming her faith in Christ went down to a spring…washed her wounds, and walked ten miles to hear Joseph Islands preach that night.” The most famous of these black Baptist preachers was Monday Durant, “a large, strong, man, of fine physical proportions. He readily spoke the Mvskoke language, and commenced preaching when a young man.” Durant had been with the Mvskoke on the “trail where we cried.” The blacks who fled west with the Indians “secretly held their meetings, baptizing after midnight in the streams, with guards posted to keep from being surprised and arrested.” Durant worked both the Creek and Seminole Nations and founded his own church in 1854.
There is little doubt that not only did Evan Jones and Jesse Bushyhead meet with African-american ministers in the Indian Territory, but were also quite accepting and even encouraging of their black brethren:
Agreeably to the suggestion in our last Report, Mr. Jones, of the Cherokee Mission, visited the late Creek Station (Ebenezer’s Canadian Mission) in September last and attended a Creek protracted meeting. He was received with great affection and joy, and preached several times by an interpreter. He had also the happiness of seeing four candidates baptised, one of whom was a Creek chief of respectability and influence. Mr. Jones reports the state of the people to be highly encouraging. The members of the church appear well, and the religious meetings are thronged, many of the congregation attending from a distance of twenty or more miles... “Religious meetings are conducted by two black men, both slaves. The oldest, Jacob, is ordained; the other called Jack, a blacksmith, acts as interpreter. They are allowed one day in the week to support themselves and their families in food and clothing; and these days they devote to the service of the church, hiring the working of their little corn and potato patches.”
Later that year, another Baptist minister visited the same mission and found a revival in progress with about one hundred people having been baptized by Pastor Jacob, “some of whom were white people and some were black, but most of them were Indians.”
Within Bushyhead’s Flint Church itself, there is evidence not only of black membership dating back to its foundation in Tennessee, but there is also considerable evidence of a black ministry. In the early 1840’s, Minister Bushyhead became the center of a controversy because he was an ordained minister as well as slaveholder, though the situation was hardly as simple as the hard-line abolitionists made it out to be:
About the years 1840, or 41, Bro. B. purchased a Black man with his wife and child (by his own desires for the purpose of affording him an opportunity to become free). The man is a Baptist Preacher. As soon as he came home, Bro. B. told him he must not consider himself any more as a slave but act faithfully as a free man. He furnished him with a horse to ride to his preaching places on sabbath days. This is the black man I have once or twice had occasion to allude to, having been called on several times to baptize hopeful converts, the evident fruit of the blessing of God on this man’s labors. With respect to this transaction, I am fully satisfied that our dear departed brother was activated by the same generous and benevolent motives which pervaded and governed his conduct in all relations in life and the dispositions of all his time and talent.
“Uncle Reuben, ” Jesse Bushyhead’s slave, was a minister and preached to the slave communities in the Cherokee Nation for many years. Reuben’s converts also became members of the Baptist church, “The colored persons baptized at this place are the fruits of the preaching of a Black man, a slave, who devotes his sabbath and frequently week[day] evenings to tell the love of Jesus to those of his own color, and God has blessed his labors.”
Bushyhead’s slave became the center of a controversy within the Baptist denomination and precipitated the crisis that led to the “Great Schism” of 1844-1845. Antislavery activists from the North, forming the American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1843, published in their Free Missionary magazine the following note, “Mr. Bushyhead, A Missionary among the Cherokee. He lives in a fine dwelling, has a plantation and several wretched human beings under his irresponsible power.” Bushyhead’s status within the Baptist Church as one of the denomination’s finest native ministers was rocked by the scandal. It drew even further attention to the struggle over slavery within the Cherokee Nation.
The missionary position, that of being “between two fires,” ended as a result of this controversy surrounding this disclosure. The Home Mission Board in 1844 was forced to reject the application of a slaveholding minister from Georgia to be a missionary because, “When an application is made for the appointment of a slaveholder or an Abolitionist as such, the official obligation of the Board to act ceases.” In May 1845, at a convention in Augusta, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed creating its own missionary boards. The schism in the churches reflected a larger schism that was taking place in the United States over the issue of slavery.
The issue of slavery became a critical issue for the denominations in the late 1840’s and into mid 1850’s. The American Baptist Missionary Union, spurred on by the crisis in the churches in general and the Bushyhead incident in particular, sent frequent inquiries to Evan Jones as to the “institution of slavery” in the Cherokee missions. Beginning with a six-part questionnaire in November of 1848 and climaxing with a decisive split with fellow missionary Samuel Worcester over dismissing slaveholders from the church, the pressure on Evan Jones was relentless.
Yet, the schism was not only within the denominations, it filtered its way down into the churches and even into the Flint Baptist Church itself. By the Spring of 1858, the Southern Baptist Convention sent its first minister, the Reverend James Slover, to the Cherokee Nation. Slover took advantage of the fact that Evan Jones had expelled Cherokee slave owners from the church. He also well knew that the slave owners represented the wealthier class among the Cherokee, and that the churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention had large purses. Slover, by offering the native ministers the opportunity to “set their own price,” was able to attract away Young Duck (a deacon at Flint Church), David Foreman (ordained at Flint Church – a former interpreter in Valley Towns), and John Foster (dismissed for being a slave owner). Reverend Slover, who prided himself on being different from the “Jones’ Baptists,” reportedly preached that “he owns one `nigger’ and would own more if he were able.”
In the Mvskoke Nation, Jones found that the “Southern Baptists have their field.” However, there were some ministers who would not be won over to the Southern cause regardless of the bounty offered by the wealthy class. On a visit to the Mvskoke Nation in 1857, Evan Jones and Pastor Lewis Downing of the Peavine Baptist Church ordained a free black man by the name of “Old Billy.” Billy continued to preach the “Jones’ Baptists’ ” gospel of liberation in spite of attempts
toby the slaveholders to silence him. Southern Baptist missionary Henry Buckner stated that “Billy ought to have a hundred lashes” if he continued to preach among the Creeks.
“Brodder Billy” was given a note warning him that if he preached the “abolitionist” message in his next Sunday sermon message, he would be on violation of the Creek law and would suffer the consequences. He took this note to his pulpit the following Sunday, read the note to his congregation, and asked them what he should do. According to John Jones: “They told him to preach and they would protect him.” Jones further stated “Billy has some of the principle men of the Creek Nation on his side. I doubt not God is also with him. One of the District Chiefs said to me and Bro. Downing, 'If they whip that little nigger, they will have to whip me first.’” Later that summer, Jones and Downing ordained Henry Davise to help “Old Billy” in his ministry to the Mvskoke Nation.
Though the Southern Baptists (and the Southern Methodists as well) had the money and offered many opportunities to those who would preach the pro-slavery gospel, many of the conservatives were well aware of the costs of such a discipleship, “It was so plain a case to see that these men were bought, that many turned away in disgust. Seeing that there were two denominations calling themselves Baptists, everybody was led to inquire into the difference between them, and set to examining the question to see who was right. Young men sprang up from obscurity and urged upon the people the sin of slavery, more clearly and efficiently than ever before. Many who were always opposed to it had their own sentiments more sharply defined in their own minds…The contributions of the Pea Vine church were larger than usual.”
Though the struggle was about slavery, it was also about something deeper. In the minds of those conservative Cherokee sitting in the pews at Peavine Baptist Church witnessing what was going on around them, larger questions arose. Though they were Baptist, they still clung to the “old way;” the similarities between the gospel message of the Jones’ Baptists and the message of equality, community, and religious identity that helped define Cherokee culture loomed large. In choosing not to reject the “old ways,” the Jones’ Baptists forged a dynamic syncretic religious consciousness that laid the foundations for tremendous social movement. In solidarity with the quintessential Cherokee values of the “beloved community;” these religious ideals proved to be the most important factors in an emerging relationship between the traditionalist community and the Baptist churches.
[From Patrick N. Minges, Slavery in the Cherokee Nation: The Keetoowah Society and the Defining of a People, 1855-1867; via The Cherokee Registry on the Internet. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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