Baptists and the American Civil War: March 15, 1863

First African Baptist Church, Savannah

First African Baptist Church, Savannah

This month the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia licenses Deacon James M. Simms to preach. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1823, Simms for much of his life was not involved in church. But in 1857 he had purchased his freedom, and in 1858 returned to the church and within a few months had been elected church clerk.

Simms is an excellent craftsman, as is later noted: “He was a very fine workman, and had charge of the woodwork of the church. This he executed with remarkably good taste.”

One month after being licensed to preach, Simms is found guilty of “teaching the children of his race,” and is fined $50. In February 1864 he flees Savannah and travels to Massachusetts, where he remains until February 1865. During his sojourn he is ordained to the Gospel ministry by the Twelfth Street Baptist Church of Boston. After the war, Simms enters politics and is elected to the Georgia legislature, and is given a judgeship by the governor of Georgia.

After a dispute with the First African Baptist Church over the validity of his ordination in Boston, he leaves that congregation and joins the First Bryan Baptist Church. Following his service in politics, Simms returns to preaching.

Sources: Emmanuel K. Love, History of the First African Baptist Church, from Its Organization, January 10th, 1788, to July 1st, 1888, Savannah, Ga. 1888, p. 166 (link); James M. Simms, The First Colored Baptist Church in North America, Constituted in Savannah, Georgia, January 20, A.D. 1788, Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1888