I was about twelve years old. Pastor Davis had come from the pulpit to stand front and center of the congregation, calling on all who wished to accept Jesus as their personal savior to come on down. I rose from my seat, and side-stepped over my neighbors, finally reaching the center aisle. I walked down the red carpet with the hot intensity of public scrutiny prickling the back of my neck.
I professed my faith that morning in front of my three brothers, my mother and father and all the choir, my Sunday School teachers, my Girls Auxiliary friends, the entire Lottie Moon Missionary Circle, the deacons, and the ladies that organized the Wednesday Family Night pot lucks.
Professing faith, however, was more than getting to a trail head on a spiritual path. I also confessed allegiance to a specific kind of Christianity with secular, political, and economic guardrails. This was the Christian faith where I learned that God had His eye on my every move and could smite me if I sinned. Where thinking smart for myself was a sin–cause I was a girl, and talking back to an adult was risking a spanking. Where drinking alcohol and gambling and cussing and using the Lord’s name in vain were grave sins.
I also learned that you don’t talk about race, unless you are devising ways to save the heathen from the hell of not knowing salvation through Jesus Christ.
For Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world. We were all precious in His sight, and as long as we all followed Him, no matter our color, then we were saved.
And salvation was what counted, the after-this-world stuff. What was going on in my childhood–desegregation of schools and restaurants and trains and planes and busses–was not for religious discussion.
All these memories came flooding back as I read the Minutes of the Church of Christ at Poplar Springs (Franklin County, NC). This Baptist congregation was loosely affiliated with the Tar River Baptist Association, and had been incorporated in the late 1700s to serve the inhabitants of Franklin and Nash counties who were “baptized on a profession of our faith and belief of an ever living only true God”.
The Minutes recorded the business of the church–not the deaths, marriages, and births–but the enforcement of a strict code of “membership” and allegiance to the congregation much like the code of conduct I experienced as a child of the 1960s. Shunning, shaming, and a talking-to were the tools of my church to mold behaviors. Excommunication and exclusion from community were the price of 19th century drinking, swearing, disorderly conduct, gambling, not attending church, lying and stealing–from white folks.
The Minutes also recorded the names, gender, and social status–white or enslaved–of people received into fellowship upon profession of faith. My ancestors were among those named: Anne Boon Stone (1832), her husband William (1849), their daughter Julia Stone Strickland (1839) and her husband Anderson Perry Strickland (1855).
In the decades leading up to and during the Civil War there were no entries about enslavement or the arguments for abolition, though the debate swirled among religious leaders. Time and again, southern Baptist pastors skirted the issue with justifications that slavery was a political and economic reality, not a religious problem.
If emancipation is ever to take place, it will be gradually, and under the mild, but resistless influence of the Gospel.Dr. Richard Fuller (1840s)
If pushed to comment about chattel slavery, my ancestors could have repeated Dr. Fuller’s opinion, or any one of several common rationalizations.
- The negroes are better off than if they’d been in Africa. God had brought them the advantages of assimilation and the benefits of an advanced culture without enduring the responsibilities. And they had the opportunity to hear the Gospel.
- The Bible contains many stories in which slavery appears, without God once condemning it, so therefore God must sanction slavery.
- As long as a man has salvation, it really doesn’t matter whether he’s slave or free. Spiritually, we’re all family.
And they would have pointed to the Minutes to prove that enslaved people were welcome in their spiritual family.
Within the bounds of Franklin County were saw mills and grist mills, gold mines and milling, tanning yards, a distillery, and a wagon factory, turpentine plantations and many, many family farms. Neighbors were often family–immediate and extended–and church meetings were vital tools of organizing social structures and mutual aid–for white Americans.
The threat of religious excommunication carried a weight that is hard for me to understand. I left the oppressive church system of my youth, physically and spiritually. I had opportunities and mobility that my ancestors lacked. I try to have sympathy for them, for the way social, economic, and religious structures smothered dissent, but all I can summon is an understanding. An allegiance to a system of violence and theft buttressed by religious doctrine is at the core of why Anderson Perry Strickland, and so many of his fellow Southerners, were willing to sacrifice everything to ensure the survival of an America governed by and for white men.
This allegiance is the reason that, within weeks of learning that Julia’s brother William had been captured during the Battle at Gettysburg, Anderson Perry Strickland enlisted as a private in the 24th Regiment, North Carolina Troops. I feel sure that he departed with the blessings of his pregnant wife, nine children, in-laws, neighbors, and fellow members of Poplar Springs Meeting House. Within a year, this same community would mourn his death.
Were I to stand in Blandford Cemetery at the grave of my grandfather’s grandfather, I would not mourn. I would unmoor from his hopes and dreams, and hold tight to what I cherish and envision for my country–a nation that is for everyone, where everyone’s rights are protected and ingenuity embraced. An America always striving to become more American.
Poplar Springs Baptist Church (Zebulon, N.C.) Records (MS786), Special Collections and Archives, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, USA. http://hdl.handle.net/10339/66041
Link I used fall, 2022: https://wakespace.lib.wfu.edu/handle/10339/66041
“Reckoning with Southern Baptist Histories“, Alison Collise Greene and Catherine A. Moore. Southern Cultures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Left/Right (fall 2019), pp 46-67. University of North Carolina Press: accessed digitally on JSTOR (jstor.org), 2022.
“Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery: 1845-1861“, Glen Jeansonne. The Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol. 55, No.4, (Winter, 1971) pp 510-522: accessed digitally on JSTOR (jstor.org), 2022.
Map of Franklin County: Lindenkohl, A. (1865) North Carolina & South Carolina. [S.l., U.S. Coast Survey, A. D. Bache, Supdt] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/99447451/, 2022.