As a new seminary graduate in 2000, I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, with my young family to serve as a Southern Baptist pastor. And, though I was a native of the South and grew up in Mississippi, I quickly realized I had a lot to learn about Montgomery’s past — and how that past influenced the present. Montgomery was still largely a racially divided city, particularly in its churches. Black and white churches coexisted and sometimes worked together, but mostly dwelt in separate worlds. I wanted to know why this division persisted and what could be done to heal it. So, I began to dig into the complex history of the city related to race.
Questions began to emerge for me regarding why the church in my area failed on race for so long. Why did people who claimed to follow Jesus support slavery so fervently that Montgomery became the first capitol of the Confederacy with the largest slave market in America by 1860? Why, with so many churches, was Montgomery later a stronghold of Jim Crow segregation with a substantial reputation for the oppression of its Black citizenry through violence? With all of its history of injustice, why did it become the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement following the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 and activism by leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fred Gray, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy? Montgomery seemed like a collision of worlds.
As time went on and I sought answers, I realized that William Faulkner’s line from Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead, it is not even past,” applied to Montgomery as much as any place in the nation. Why did so much division, pain, violence, oppression, and injustice happen in a city full of churches who are supposed to proclaim the gospel of peace? I began to think that if I could find the answer, then maybe it could bring healing to others as well. So I researched, walked the streets, dug through archives, and talked to people who lived through much of what happened.
A seed of hope planted in the Black church
I later realized that my question about why the church failed was all wrong. Yes, the historic white church that promoted and defended slavery, segregation, and racism in Montgomery and Alabama as a means of protecting and promoting its “way of life” over and above others failed in its fidelity to Christ and gospel mission. But, I realized that I was looking at this failure through a lens of my own perspective. That caused me to miss a redemptive thread. I discovered that the Black church didn’t fail during this time. Its seed was planted in the harsh and bitter soil of slavery, put out roots in the era of racial segregation, and later bore the fruit of justice that witnessed to the hope of healing for the nations found in reliance upon Jesus.
I wanted to know when this seed was planted so I could trace how it grew. So, I went back to Montgomery’s early days in the 1820s and encountered two figures in Baptist life that helped plant the seeds that would later grow into a Jesus and Justice movement. One was an English missionary named Lee Compere (1790-1871). Compere came to the Montgomery area in 1822 after being sent to Jamaica from the Baptist Missionary Society in England in 1815. The second was a Black slave preacher named Caesar Blackwell (1769-1845).
The ministry of Lee Compere
Lee Compere had been baptized in 1812 by English Baptist leader, John Ryland, who had a close relationship with the former captain of a slave ship, who later became an Anglican priest and the writer of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton. Ryland was also friends with William Wilberforce and was associated with the abolitionist movement. Compere and his wife, Susannah, went to work among the slaves in Jamaica with the Ethiopian Baptist churches founded by George Liele (1750-1828), a freed slave, the first ordained Black Baptist preacher, and the first missionary sent from America to a foreign land.
Compere was under strict orders to not get involved in matters related to slavery or politics, but he apparently rejected that instruction. While preaching the gospel, he and his wife opposed slavery and used her inheritance to buy the freedom of slaves. This work allegedly led to no small amount of controversy. As opposition grew and their health deteriorated, Compere and his wife left Jamaica in 1817 and went to Charleston, South Carolina.
Compere’s work among Liele’s churches was fruitful, but also ahead of its time. These same Baptist churches full of slaves would rise up against slavery in 1831-32 in The Baptist War, leading to slavery’s abolition in the British Empire in 1833. Another Baptist Missionary Society missionary to Jamaica named William Knibb (also baptized by Ryland) would help lead those efforts, following in Compere’s footsteps, but ultimately being more successful.
In 1822, the Comperes moved to East Alabama to minister among the indigenous Creek people and the Black slaves that were being brought into the area. They formed Withington Station and in the 1820s saw an interracial church develop made up of Creek Indians, Black slaves, and white people. Facing opposition for his abolitionist views from other Creek who owned slaves and opposition from the building encroachment of whites upon native lands, Compere moved to Montgomery in 1829 to found the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, which ultimately became one of the leading Baptist churches in Alabama. Compere’s influence among Baptists in the Montgomery area and Central Alabama was strong, but he would soon encounter more opposition in his church and the community and leave Alabama in 1833 to go minister to the Creek who were being forced to migrate west to Indian Territory.
Caesar Blackwell, the slave preacher
Right before Compere traveled from Charleston to found Withington Station about 30 miles east of Montgomery, Caesar Blackwell came to faith in Jesus and was baptized as a slave in 1821. He soon began to preach the gospel and became a powerful evangelist, preacher, and discipler among the slave population that was brought into Central Alabama by white people hoping to become wealthy from growing cotton in the rich soil of the Black Belt region. My friend, Rev. Gary Burton, pastor of Pintlala Baptist Church in Pintlala, Alabama, is the chief curator of information about Blackwell’s life and says, “Caesar Blackwell lived as a slave and died as a slave. No one, however, was as influential within the slave population in central Alabama as Caesar.”
Blackwell was later purchased by the Alabama Baptist Association in 1828 for $625 and given freedom to preach and travel around to proclaim the gospel and disciple the slaves being brought in to the region for several years. Of course, it’s unfathomable to us that a Baptist Association would purchase a human being for any reason, but, it was becoming almost impossible for free Blacks to function as such in Alabama at this time. Alabama made it illegal to do so by 1833-34. Wayne Flynt, in his seminal work Alabama Baptists, says,
Caesar preached freely (keeping the money he received) until 1835, when rising tensions over abolitionism caused the association to restrict his activities and require him to return all funds above his actual expenses. By this time the slave preacher had an extensive library, had imbibed Calvinist theology, and enjoyed debating the doctrines of election, grace, and the perseverance of the saints. So popular a preacher was Blackwell, that churches clamored for his services, and, when he preached at the annual associational meeting, standing room-only crowds of whites and blacks thronged to hear him (45).
Flynt goes on to say that part of what made Blackwell popular among white Baptists in Alabama was that he opposed the African spiritualism that was present among the slaves and that gave credence to dreams, visions, and voices. A case could be made that white Baptists found Blackwell useful in helping the slaves conform to their new environs and masters as they were sold in the markets in Montgomery to surrounding plantations. But, I don’t see evidence that Blackwell preached a truncated gospel shaped to produce subservience. Instead, he sought to ground the converted slaves in the depth of Christian doctrine from the Reformation. This is what Compere was also doing at the same time in the same area with the Creek as well as slaves. Just as the gospel provoked missionaries like Compere to confront the injustices of slavery and mistreatment of Native Americans in Jamaica and Alabama in the 1810s–1830s, it led Blackwell to minister a deep hope and reliance upon Jesus as deliverer in the growing slave population of Central Alabama.
Nathan Ashby, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Movement
Before his death in 1845, Blackwell led a slave named Nathan Ashby, who had had been able to purchase his own freedom for $900 (Flynt, 104), to faith in Jesus and instructed him in Christian teaching. Ashby later became the pastor of the slave congregation at the white-led First Baptist Montgomery in the 1850s. This was the same church that Compere founded in 1829 as an abolitionist, though by the 1840s it had fully succumbed to the pro-slavery position, as had almost all of Alabama. Still, Ashby, ministered to hundreds of slaves in this church and would lead 700 emancipated former slaves out of that church in 1867 to found what became First Baptist Church (Colored) on Columbus Street — the first “free negro” institution in Montgomery. This church would become the mother Black Baptist church for the Montgomery and Central Alabama region.
By 1868, Ashby helped found the Colored Baptist Convention of Alabama in his church. One hundred fifty-one delegates from 11 states met in Montgomery to form the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention with “a yearning to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached on the Mother Soil of Africa.” In 1880 it would merge with two other organizations to form the National Baptist Convention, the largest Black Baptist denomination in America. In 1877, a few hundred former slaves and freedmen would leave First Baptist and found what became Dexter Avenue Baptist Church with pastor Charles Octavius Boothe. In 1879, they would pay $270 for a lot on Dexter Avenue one block from the Alabama State Capitol where a former slave pen once stood. This church would later be pastored by Vernon Johns (1947-52) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1954-60).
By the 1880s, the Black population of Montgomery and the surrounding area was growing and starting businesses, churches, and colleges — and work was organized to proclaim the gospel around the world. Blackwell’s ministry, calling slaves to hope in and reliance upon Jesus by planting the seeds of the gospel deep in their lives, was bearing fruit. And, from those seeds would grow a strong church that looked to Jesus and called for justice in the face of great opposition.
This strength was seen over one hundred years after Blackwell’s death in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On Dec.1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery. She was a strong Christian and was a product of the Black church in Montgomery that was birthed with hope in and reliance upon Jesus in the midst of the oppression of slavery and that grew up under the injustice, daily humiliations, and forced segregation of Jim Crow. On Dec. 5, 1955, King proclaimed before the first mass meeting of several thousand Black Montgomerians assembling at the beginning of the Bus Boycott at Holt Street Baptist Church, “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.”
The boycott lasted for 381 days before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court order striking down the segregated bussing laws. Approximately 40,000 Black bus riders in Montgomery banded together to say “no” to the injustice of segregation and to demand to be treated as full and equal human beings before God and this nation. This was the first large scale mass demonstration against segregation, and it launched the Civil Rights Movement.
I want to suggest that the ministry of Blackwell (which began alongside Compere) and Ashby, as well as other Black Christians such as Cyrus Hale in the years following, be considered driving factors in the formation of the Black church of Montgomery that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement — a Christian-influenced movement seeking to apply the teachings of Jesus and the implications of the gospel related to human dignity and justice. I believe Compere, Blackwell, and other like-minded co-laborers planted gospel seeds in the Black community of Central Alabama that would see many come to faith in Christ for salvation and would then call for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
I want to be clear that I vehemently reject the idea that any of these conditions in the antebellum South were in any way good or beneficial just because many slaves came to Christ. The whole system was evil. It is of great historic shame that many white Baptists did not fight with all they had to abolish the whole hellish system. What I do want to say, however, is that God still worked, even in the worst of conditions, through Black preachers like Blackwell, Ashby, and Liele, and through all who believed their message. As these gospel seeds were planted, I believe that God was faithful to rescue and redeem out of the oppression and injustice, not because of it.
So, let us remember Blackwell and Ashby and so many other Black church leaders who laid the gospel groundwork that led to the Black church in the South upholding its witness even as it was persecuted and suffered. And, let us praise God and draw strength from the memory of our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffered and yet faithfully produced gospel fruit that would last and bear another harvest of justice a century later.