Next generation the focus as Hilton Head Island's oldest church looks back

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Next generation the focus as Hilton Head Island's oldest church looks back

Published Saturday, August 11, 2012   |  1062 Words  |  

First African Baptist Church on Hilton Head Island will go "old school" next Sunday, with two services and lunch in between.

As the island's oldest institution celebrates its 150th anniversary, leaders want everyone to get a taste of what a day at church was like for their parents and grandparents.

Marsh tacky horses won't be stamping outside, and Ben White and Arthur Wiley's mules won't be hitched to wagons under the sycamore trees.

But church officers who have seen so much change here in their lifetimes want islanders to glimpse the church as the center of the community.

"For us, this is the biggest celebration in the church's history," said its pastor, the Rev. Alvin Petty. "I consider it more than an anniversary. It's a time for remembering God and remembering the saints who have journeyed on."

A new cornerstone will be dedicated and a new historical marker will be unveiled. Both will reflect the church's relatively new understanding that it was organized on Aug. 17, 1862, rather than 1863 as it was long believed.

That date is part of a bigger story.

The church on Beach City Road is one of the few tangible remnants of Mitchelville, where America's struggle for racial equality began. It was a pillar in that long-gone planned community for freedmen set up a couple miles away during the Civil War.

That's why in events throughout its anniversary year, First African Baptist has rallied around the motto: "The Old Landmark: Celebrating Our Mitchelville Past, Our Present, and Our Future."

'Always deliver'

The New South newspaper tells how the church began. The paper served a Union encampment of 50,000 after Hilton Head was captured early in the Civil War.

On Aug. 30, 1862, it reported that First African Baptist was established with about 120 members. "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," it said. It listed the order of the organizational service led by four Union chaplains.

The Rev. Abraham Murchison was installed as the first pastor. He was an escaped slave preacher from Savannah, employed on Hilton Head by the chief quartermaster as chief cook. He was literate and a strong leader. He helped recruit 150 former slaves for a black regiment, which was later disbanded by presidential order. He served as Mitchelville's magistrate under army auspices. And in Mitchelville's first election, he assumed the duties of recorder.

A New York Times dispatch from Hilton Head in April 1862 said, "His sermon was marked by considerable originality and a closeness of logic that surprised me; and the evident sincerity of his ministrations gave it an interest which does not always attend more pretentious efforts."

It mentions Murchison's deep knowledge of the Apostle Paul, and notes that he led the only church on Hilton Head even though it was home to "many hundreds of white civilians." Another source says Murchison baptized more than 1,000 freedmen in Port Royal harbor during the war.

An 1862 article in a Boston publication called the Christian Watchman and Reflector mentions Murchison's prohibition of hand clapping and feet stamping at his services.

Today, Deacon Charles Simmons Jr. says a hallmark of the church has always been its preaching, even when the Rev. Charles Aiken, who served five churches while working full-time at the sugar refinery in Savannah, held the pulpit for 27 years.

"When you left, you left with a message," Simmons said. "Our preachers could always deliver."

'Train them'

From the beginning, the church's wings spread beyond the spiritual realm to incorporate social life, civic life, education and justice. Deacon Murray Christopher says it's no accident that the church, and the four other local Baptist churches it spawned, physically sit in the center of the communities they serve.

And even when island churches met only once a month, members could worship somewhere each Sunday.

Julia Bailey, who has been a part of the church since she was 11, said they also were expected to go to a neighborhood Praise House on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. She attended Sunday school on the porch of two sisters, Matilda Brown and Anna Ferguson, members of Central Oak Grove Baptist Church.

She recalls the "moaner's bench" where people went forward after the sermon to get on their knees and pray.

Bailey was baptized in "the cove" off Broad Creek, across the road from a NAPA Auto Parts store today. Simmons recalls the singing and praying at the solemn summertime ritual, always dictated by the tides.

Bailey tells of her experience of "seeking" as a child, a religious discovery that is no longer part of the church. Those seeking to join the church were to find a praying ground where they could meditate and earnestly pray under the direction of a "spiritual mother" in the church. Children would recite their dreams to the spiritual mother, and could be told to go back and pray some more until the interpretations were right. Bailey said the seeker then had to recite all the dreams to neighbors, then at the Praise House before a deacon, and then to a conference of all the deacons.

Christopher said, "By watching what our parents were doing, we were constantly being taught. Eventually, we would have a chance to learn why they did what they did. It was discipline mostly."

Today's children have jobs, cars, computers and televisions to watch. But the Rev. Petty said, "We have a great group of young people. We're trying to build on that generation to be the focus of the church -- to train them and make sure they're ready when we older folks go on."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at

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