Baptists and the American Civil War: May 12, 1861

Ulysses L. Houston, Pastor, First Bryan Baptist Church, SavannahWhile the Southern Baptist Convention continues meeting at First Baptist Church, Savannah – aligning Southern Baptists with the Confederacy and speaking the language of Christian Nationalism – certain other Baptists in the city view things quite a bit differently.

Today is the ordination service of Ulysses L. Houston, formerly a clerk and then a deacon of First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, the oldest continuous African American church in America and the first Baptist church established in Savannah. Houston’s congregation recognizes in him a call to preach the Gospel. In the years to come, Houston becomes a leader among African-American Baptists in Savannah.

According to a biography of Houston:

Rev. Ulysses L. Houston was the pastor of First Bryan Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia during 1864. He was born in Hampton County, South Carolina, February 1825.  Brother Ulysses L. Houston was converted to Christ in 1839. He was baptized by Revs. Stephen McQueen and John Deveaux.  Shortly, after his conversion to Christ he was chosen as First Bryan Baptist Church Clerk. March 3, 1851 he was elected to the office of deacon. Brother Houston was licensed to preach April 15th, 1855. Ordination to the Gospel Ministry occurred on May 12, 1861. First Bryan Baptist Church called Brother U. L. Houston as their ninth pastor during October of 1861.  The Union Army invaded Jasper County, then a part of Beaufort County, South Carolina in 1862 and provided African-Americans a small taste of freedom. Rev. Houston took advantage of this opportunity and organized Bethel Baptist Church in 1864, just prior to the end of the Civil War.  In November of 1861, Port Royal harbor was visited by Commodore Dupont and Major General Thomas William Sherman, accompanied by a navy and an army, which caused a general flight of the chivalry and among them were the white members of the Beaufort Baptist Church. By their flight, the body consisted solely of the colored brethren and sisters. Slaves on the outskirts of Beaufort, likewise enjoyed a certain amount of freedom including those in the Black Swamp Community.  With the aid of Rev. U. L. Houston, the Bethel Baptist Church was constituted. Other founders include Gideon Indson, Jack Capers, Calvin L. Lawton, Sims Burleson, Daniel Frost, Ephraim Ridgely, James Cuyler, Bryant Cuyler, R. Middlell, J. T. Mackey, G. F. Lawton, and John H. Fair.  Bethel Baptist Church then called Reverend U. L. Houston to serve as her first pastor. Reverend Houston and the Bethel Baptist Church were charter members of the first interstate Zion Baptist Association organized July 15, 1865 in South Carolina. He served as chairperson until the association was officially organized. Constituent churches of the Zion Baptist Association included Bethel Baptist and other churches from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. First African Baptist Church, (Mitchellville) Hilton Head Island, South Carolina constituted during August of 1863 hosted the first Zion Baptist Association. Rev. John Cox, pastor of the Second African Baptist Church, Savannah was elected Moderator.

Shortly after the first session of the Zion Association ended, Reverend Houston resigned as pastor to accommodate his busy schedule. Former Pastor Houston was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1868 and 1870. He also help to organize the George Baptist State Convention.

Rev. Calvin L. Lawton was called and ordained as the second pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in 1865. Reverend Lawton served Bethel Baptist Church well. During 1868 he baptized 13 souls, preached one funeral and restored 41 former members. During 1868 Bethel had 215 members. Pastor and the Officers of the church purchased one square acre of land to build a church on December 21, 1867.

As Houston’s biography indicates, African Baptist life in Savannah thrived despite, or perhaps because of, the Civil War.

Source: Houston biography (link); First Bryan Baptist Church history time line (link)