The first 20 Africans arrived in the colonies in 1619, according to Henry H. Mitchell in his book, “Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years.” In less than 100 years there were about 12,000. In Africa, cultural and religious beliefs were passed on orally. For Africans in the colonies, a high birth rate meant fewer slaves were needed from Africa, but it also resulted in the loss of the influx of African languages and stories to pass on culture and religious beliefs.
When the early Africans were introduced to Christianity, according to Mitchell, they saw similarities between their traditional African beliefs and the stories of Moses and Jesus and were drawn to them. Blacks were encouraged to become Christians and in some communities joined their white masters’ church, but there was no equality in the relationship — the slaves sat in the back of the church or in the balcony, always under the watchful eyes of their masters.
Williamson County historian Rick Warwick wrote in his book “Williamson County in Black & White,” “There are numerous accounts of slaves joining white congregations.”
In much of the country, blacks weren’t allowed to worship in their own church, but in Williamson County, “depending on the individual slaveholder and his religious philosophy, slaves were provided a church of their own or accompanied the white family to worship jointly.”
However, there are no records of separate black church buildings prior to the Civil War.
According to Anthony Pickett, associate pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1870, when black slaves heard Jesus loved them, that they were human and they had value, the message resonated. The passage in Luke 15 that reads “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was fully embraced it, he said.
“They heard it differently [than their white masters,]” Pickett said. “Even though that wasn’t what they were experiencing, they felt the spirit and it gave them hope.”
When Reconstruction came, the freed slaves were able to own land — and churches popped up, he added.
In Williamson County, wherever there were small communities of African-Americans, a church would pop up, said Thelma Battle, Williamson County African-American historian.
Between 1867 and 1900 more than 25 churches “popped up” throughout the county. Most were small congregations with 100 members or less, said Hewitt Sawyers, pastor of West Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church, which dates back to 1869.
“Our first preacher, Elder Peter Starnes, was trained by a white preacher,” Sawyers said.
After being denied the freedom to worship on their own, the church became the center of the community, Battle said.
“Preachers were educated, so many churches were also schools until the county took over education,” she added. “The church helped empower the community. During segregation, the church was a social outlet, an economical outlet — it taught the people how to be self-sustaining; they were nurturing centers. It dealt with the practical and spiritual needs of the people.”
During the Civil Rights movement, the church was “hugely important,” Pickett said.
“[The preachers] spoke truth to power and truth to justice,” he said. “Dr. King said, ’I love you too much to leave you in the condition you’re in.’ The people responded to what they heard — the church gave voice to their needs, empowered the people to make a stand.”