Baptists and the American Civil War: August 17, 1862

First African Baptist Church Hilton Head

First African Baptist Church Hilton Head

Today is Sunday, and a new Baptist church is born. But it is not a typical Baptist church.

Union troops are now firmly in control of much of South Carolina’s coastline. One island town stands out above the others: Hilton Head, one of the wealthiest of the state’s towns prior to the war. Previously home to several millionaires (most millionaires in the United States prior to the war were large Southern planters) in one of the South’s richest states, the island is now in Union hands. Hilton Head is headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, overseeing the blockade of Savannah. Whereas the town’s former millionaires made their fortunes in cotton from the labor of slaves, the Union blockade of the Southern coast has made cotton worthless. Meanwhile, black males on the island are now freemen, with many serving as the first Black Union troops.

Against this backdrop, the First African Baptist Church of Hilton Head is established today. The New South Newspaper, a local Union-published paper, reports on the historic event:

We omitted in our last issue to chronicle the organization of the First Baptist Church of Hilton Head, and the ordination of its pastor. These events occurred on Sunday, [August] the 17th instant, and the ceremonies attending them were conducted in a very impressive manner. The society thus established numbers about 120 members, all of whom are contrabands. Of these nearly 70 were professing Christians under the rule of their late masters, while the others have been converted and baptized since our advent among them. Abraham Murchison, a colored man in the employ of the Chief Quarter-master, has been selected as the minister to these people, and was duly installed as their pastor on the Sabbath before last. The following was the order of exercises : Ordination Sermon—Chaplain H. S. Wayland, 7th Conneticut Volunteers; charge to candidate—Chaplain W. C. Patterson, 1st Massachusetts cavalry ; ordination prayer and right-hand of fellowship—Chaplain H. Hovey, Volunteer Engineers ; charge to the church—Chaplain Whitehead, 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

The First African Baptist Church of Hilton Head remains in existence to this day.

Sources: “Church Organization at Hilton Head,” New South Newspaper, August 30, 1862 (link); Hilton Head Island historical sketch (link); First African Baptist Church of Hilton Head website (link); painting located inside the church building