Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, 1885
First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, KY
A Summary by Jonathan Garcia
Elijah P. Marrs (1840-1910) was born on an estate of about thirty slaves in rural Kentucky. Marrs considered his owner peculiarly humane: "[Our master] was not hard on us, and allowed us generally to do as we pleased after his own work was done" Further, Marrs’ master allowed him to learn to read. In 1864, Marrs rallied twenty-seven other African Americans to join the Union army. During his service, Marrs never saw battle. He was, however, given several notable assignments. Discharged in 1866, Marrs eventually decided on a teaching career. In the next fifteen years, Marrs co-founded the Normal and Theological Institute of Kentucky and became a Baptist minister, serving in the Beargrass Church until his death. While another one of Marrs’ extant works is now held at the University of Kentucky Special Collections, Life and History (1885) is his best known text.
Marrs begins his autobiography by highlighting the interconnectedness of literacy and religion. As a youth he clandestinely seeks out white boys and an old African American man to teach him the "A, B, C’s". Later a minister visits his father and Marrs relates his agony in not understanding the conversation which makes his father openly weep. "When [my father] said that he believed that he had religion, I thought it was something written on a piece of paper". The idea that religion is written down motivates Marrs to further pursue both literacy and religion. When Marrs converts shortly thereafter, his master allows him to read the Bible at Sunday School. Literacy empowers Marrs as he becomes the only African American able to read Civil War news to his community.
In 1864, Marrs rallies twenty-seven other fellow slaves to enlist with the Union army during the Civil War. They hasten to Louisville because they will be freed men upon enlistment. The army soon recognizes Marrs’ leadership capabilities, and in the next eighteen months he is often promoted. In 1865, 750 women and children are expelled by their former masters and flood into the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Dutifully, Marrs both succors and transports them to a refugee camp. He writes, "They looked to me as if I were their Saviour". Yet Marrs is as susceptible to weakness and fear as other soldiers. Once, when Confederates capture his company, they demand accountability for rifle shots which had been discharged upon them a week earlier. Marrs is guilty, but "I was the first man to deny all knowledge of it. All my bravery had fled". This scare is the closest Marrs comes to death. And since no major battles are fought in Kentucky during Marrs’ service, his continued listing of all his military assignments may indicate a sense of insecurity he feels about his role in the war. Nevertheless, the Civil War clearly develops Marrs’ leadership skills in preparation for his future as an educational administrator.
Just as Marrs’ literacy prepares him for a leadership role in the war, his education also prepares him for a unique role as an African American teacher: "I was a perfect curiosity to the white people of Simpsonville, simply because I was the first colored school-teacher they had ever seen . . . [for] from the time I left Simpsonville, a slave, to join the United States Army, I returned a free man and a school teacher". County after county lobbies for the privilege of Marrs’ services: he moves over twenty times after the war, all for teaching opportunities and, later, to minister. Consequently, the K.K.K. often threatens Marrs. At one point, the persecution becomes especially bitter: "For three years I slept with a pistol under my head, an Enfield rifle at my side, and a corn-knife at the door". Marrs’ literacy and profession do not translate into equality within white Kentucky society.
Though he devotes less text to his life as a preacher than to other events in his life, Marrs considers his ministry as "the most important period of my life" (p. 93). Marrs is quickly licensed after four months of theological training. Later, when his brother asks him to co-found the Normal and Theological School, the first all-black college in Kentucky, Marrs asks rhetorically, "Why can’t I? Surely God will aide me" (p. 120). Interestingly, Marrs wants recognition for the school’s success — but instead of outright claiming it, he refers to himself in third person: "Rev. E. P. Marrs, who has been in charge of the school during the session, deserves credit for the zeal and enterprise which he has displayed in the management" (p. 127). Modestly, a few sentences later Marrs affirms, "My only object was to start the school and then to give away to some man who was better fitted for the place than I". When William J. Simmons takes the reins, Marrs works to start a Baptist church. Ironically, Marrs recounts that he is appointed to be the head preacher "of a church with only five members, and they all men and officers but one" (p. 130). Marrs contents himself nevertheless and continues to minister, the church growing slowly as he begins his autobiography.
Marrs’ final preoccupation in the text involves placing himself within a network of prominent African-American educators, ministers, and leaders. Though the main body of the volume includes catalogs of loyal friends, successful pupils, well-known colleagues, and important assignments (approximately 368 names and 100 positions, official and unofficial), the last segment of the text contains the largest number of lists. Owing to the intense opposition the African-American community experiences during post-Reconstruction America, Marrs takes pains to show the community’s strength. Thus the autobiography, contemporary evidence of African American resiliency, is Marrs’ way of punctuating his community’s growing momentum. In a move reminiscent of his childhood conviction that religion was, after all, "something written on a piece of paper," Marrs sees no better time to rejuvenate his friends’ commitment — and his own — to ideals of education, community, and religion than when he writes his autobiography.
[From Documenting the American South;https://www.docsouth.unc.edu/neh/marrs/summary.html. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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