Justice & Inclusion

Why Are There Two First Baptists?

Racial Justice and the Work of the Church

by Doug Thompson

Like many towns and cities across the American South, there are two First Baptist Churches in Macon, Georgia. Their origins and development as separate congregations highlight the power of racism in American Protestant Christianity. Over the past several years, in partnership with our sister congregation of the First Baptist Church, our congregation has taken steps not only to grapple with our congregations complicated history concerning race, but better understand the wider cultural story of racial violence and injustice of which we are a part.

This has led to shared gatherings and studies, hard and personal conversations, pilgrimages to historical civil rights sites, and the appointing of a joint leadership team to shape our continued work together. We remain committed to this work and see our unique history as both a burden to bear and, so far as it leads to healing and justice, a gift to share.

The congregation of First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon (white) organized in the newly incorporated town of Macon in 1826. We know the founding members’ names and some of the church’s organizational structure. All but one of the charter members held enslaved people in bondage. In the case of at least two members, their human property numbered above ten persons, which would have made them substantial slave owners at the time in the region. Several of our early pastors were slaveowners as well. Rev. Charnick A. Tharp preached the first Sunday of the month in Macon while maintaining his pastorate at Stone Creek Baptist Church throughout 1833 and continued to live on his plantation in Twiggs County. Tharp and his family held a substantial plantation with a significant number of enslaved people. A church formed in a region that embraced the slave economy no doubt had its formation intertwined with slavery. This is a fact we as a church and as a people have known for generations, but it has been only recently that we have begun to tell the story of how deeply woven slavery and racism built and sustained our congregation.

In 1845, Baptists across the region, in reaction to a decision by their national organizational body (Triennial Convention) not to allow persons with enslaved people to become foreign missionaries, formed the Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, Georgia. The same year, our congregation also made the decision to create a separate, independent Baptist Church for its black members. A member of the congregation purchased with a partner the deed for a plot of land several streets northeast of the First and Plum Streets location. John L. Lamar held the deed in April 1845 for the expressed purpose to build a church structure called “Negro Baptist Church.”

Georgia law, however, forbade a fully independent black Baptist congregation in the antebellum period. In the aftermath of the Nat Turner uprising in Virginia, Georgia lawmakers created statutes that required any group of enslaved or free blacks that numbered more than three to have an overseer. In the case of independent, black congregations, that job fell to the associate pastor of the white Baptist congregation. From the mid-1840s until 1865, First Baptist Church (black) developed a separate identity but always under the purview of the white Baptist congregation. But beginning in 1866 after disfellowshipping their membership from First Baptist Church of Christ, First Baptist Church operated as a fully independent congregation with separate denominational structures that aligned with its memberships’ interests and racial sensibilities. First Baptist Church of Christ also continued to develop in relationship with its racial identity, notably adopting a “whites only” membership policy following the end of the Civil War. This policy would stand in place for the next 100 years.

During all of the twentieth century, the two congregations operated less than one hundred yards from one another, though having little to do with one another. The two exchanged in a pulpit swap in the 1970s and worshiped together in 2001 in an evening service hosted by First Baptist Church. But the relationship between the two congregations entered a new phase in late 2014 when Revs. James Goolsby of First Baptist and Scott Dickison of First Baptist of Christ began conversations to address the racial divide between the churches. With the help of the New Baptist Covenant, the two congregations worshiped together in the afternoon on Pentecost Sunday of 2015 to enter into a formal covenant to “witness to the body of Christ through recognizing our shared history,” worship and fellowship together, and partner to better our community.

Since 2014, the two congregations have engaged in many joint community events like Easter egg hunts and Thanksgiving meals. In the aftermath of the murder of nine members of Emmanuel Church, African Methodist Episcopal (Charleston, South Carolina), by a white nationalist, Revs. Dickison and Goolsby began discussions to engage the deeper issues of racism that prevent reconciliation in the nation and its churches. In the fall of 2016, the two churches held three sessions to understand the racial reasons for the existence of our separate congregations and the ways those two congregations understand their singular and separate existences. While breaking bread with each other over a Thanksgiving meal, the members discussed the experiences of racism in their lives. Theses three moments allowed for more direct engagement about race and racism in our society and churches.

In the fall of 2018, the New Baptist Covenant sponsored a joint trip to Montgomery, Alabama, for members of both congregations to experience the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, as well as the Legacy Museum, created by the Equal Justice Initiative. In the fall of 2019, the two congregations worshiped together for a Sunday morning service for the first time since 1845, though for the first time as ever as equals. In the spring of 2020, a lay leadership team from the two congregations was appointed and blessed to lead our covenant.

Over these past years, we have begun to build trust that members will have hard conversations but with the spirit of Christ as the guide. We are a long way from reconciliation. We are, however, working to create the beloved community in our midst.

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