The Black Church in Savannah
When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton told General William T. Sherman he wanted to meet with leaders in the “Negro community,” Sherman knew exactly where to find them. Soon after he came to Savannah he had held court in his office for all comers. “Since [Sherman’s] arrival in this city he has kept open house for all who choose to call upon him, white or black,” wrote Sherman’s aide, George Ward Nichols. “His rooms in the splendid mansion of Mr. Green, a British resident, are constantly thronged with visitors, and the Negroes are greeted by him with the same courtesy that is extended to the whites.” [xxi] Among those visitors were some of the ministers who would take part in the January 12th meeting. “Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he would not meet the Secretary with more courtesy than he met us,” Garrison Frazier told Stanton. [xxii]
So Sherman reached out to the local black churches to invite leaders from the Negro community. Where else could he have found them? Think about it. In 1865 there is no local branch of the NAACP, no Southern Christian Leadership Conference to turn to. And most of these men had been enslaved just three weeks before the meeting!
But here was the uniqueness of Savannah that helps explain why this meeting had to be held in this city. “There are five very large colored churches in this city,” marveled James Lynch, the young AME minister from the North. “That the colored people built such churches is astonishing.” [xxiii]
Most astonishing is that there had been a black church presence in Savannah since 1773 and uninterrupted up to the time of the liberation of all African-Americans upon the Union troops’ arrival in late 1864. There may not have been such a continuous representation anywhere else in the South. For example, black churches in South Carolina were banned shortly after Denmark Vesey and other African-American church leaders in Charleston planned an insurrection in 1822.
The credit for establishing, maintaining and growing the black church in Savannah has to go to one person, Andrew Bryan (1737-1812). A slave of Jonathan Bryan, he converted to Christianity in 1782 under the preaching of the Rev. George Leile, the first African-American ordained as a Baptist minister.
Bryan soon began evangelizing fellow slaves on plantations in the Savannah area and even some whites listened to him preach. He was able to establish a modest house of prayer. In January 1788 he was ordained as a Baptist minister.
But his efforts in converting slaves to Christianity did not sit well with many of the slave owners in the area. Many blacks were beaten for attending his services. The white men feared that the very Christian faith they themselves professed to believe in would spark an insurrection among their chattel.
The seminal moment for the development of the black church in Savannah came when Andrew Bryan was taken to a public square, probably Franklin Square, around 1789, to be whipped until he promised to stop preaching. Instead, as the blood dripped from his body, “he held up his hands, and told his persecutors that he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ.” [xxiv]
It’s obvious to me that when the lash came down upon Bryan for preaching the word, he knew
he had to stand fast, otherwise the church he was planting was for nothing, and would not go
forth. His persecutors, realizing they were powerless to silence him, took Bryan to court, which found him harmless of fault. He was allowed to keep evangelizing for the Lord. Soon there were 200 in his congregation and then 700, and before he went to meet his beloved maker in 1812, Andrew Bryan had established three strong black churches in Savannah. The foundation was laid for the enslaved blacks to worship and by worshipping to overcome; it was the triumph of the spirit over the world! Surely the memory of Andrew Bryan inspired the ministers and elders of the church meeting with Stanton and Sherman on January 12, 1865.
xxi. George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866), 101.
xxii. E. D. Townsend, "Minutes of an Interview between the Colored Ministers and Church Officers at Savannah with the Secretary of War and Major-Gen. Sherman," The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), 1 February 1865, 1226.
xxiii. James Lynch, Correspondence, The National Freedman, February 1865, 6.
xxiv. John Rippon, D.D. (editor), "Sketch of the Black Baptist Church of Savannah, in Georgia; and of their Minister Andrew Bryan, extracted from several Letters," The Baptist Annual Register (London: Dilly, Button and Thomas), 1793, 340.
First African Baptist Church
First Bryan Baptist Church
Second African Baptist Church