Euna Coone Watson agreed to join the First Baptist Church of Sanford, North Carolina, in 1925, provided she could be the first person to try out its new baptistery. Recalling the moment several decades later in an interview for the church’s centennial history, her nephew John Fore, Jr. noted that his aunt Euna “was crazy over new things and wanted to be the first person baptized in the new brick church. She would join if she was first!” He also remembered that his uncle, the town barber, used the promise of the indoor baptistery to convince aunt Euna, who was a Methodist, to become a fellow member of the downtown Baptist church. Initial designs included a “stained glass scene” and an electric heater to warm the water. Construction was delayed two years, however, because the stained glass company “went busted,” the “electric waterheater would not knock the chill off the water,” and the “baptismal pool sprung several leaks and had to be welded.” Eventually, the church used plain glass and plugged the holes, but on the night of the inaugural baptism, the heater failed once again, leaving the pool “too cold for Mrs. Watson.” After a second candidate also declined, Euna’s nephew John Fore, Jr. braved the waters to become the first believer symbolically buried with Christ and raised to walk in the newness of FBC Sanford.1

The excitement for a new indoor baptistery at FBC Sanford illustrates how southern evangelicals embraced the material culture of industrial progress in the early twentieth century United States, despite its setbacks. Observers of the American South, however, tend to view the relationship between southern religion and industrial development as protagonist to antagonist. They often characterize evangelical Protestantism as a socially conservative movement that resisted modernity and contrast it with liberal Protestantism in the North as a socially progressive movement that adapted to modernity.2 Focusing on theological defenses of racial difference and opposition to modern intellectual developments such as Biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution, historians often overlook how southern evangelicals vigorously celebrated technological marvels of the modern age. As Beth Barton Schweiger notes, historians frequently portray southern churches as “bastions of premodern and antimodern sentiment.”3 But Aunt Euna’s love of new things and her desire to be first were anything but antimodern sentiments. Perceiving southern religion as antagonistic with the forces of industrialization and urbanization that transformed the South after the Civil War, historians have struggled to make sense of the dynamic relationship between southern Protestants and a broader industrial America.4 Schweiger reminds us, though, that religion flourished in the nineteenth century South and the rest of the United States “for reasons far more complex than a simple distaste for modernity and industrial capitalism.” Furthermore, “Protestant belief bloomed most furiously in the New South, creating the Bible Belt in a place and time when the region was most deeply affected by industrialization and urbanization.”5

This essay uses the material history of indoor baptisteries in the American South to blur categorical boundaries between old and new, primitive and modern, and religious and secular by showing how seemingly “old-time” southern Baptists embraced what they considered the modern technology of indoor baptisteries. The hands of modernity, industrialization and urbanization, did not swing heavily upon southern religion.6 Instead, they facilitated the rebirth and redistribution of “old” modes of enchantment in “new” forms.7 In their celebration of indoor baptisteries, Baptists in the early twentieth century professed an old love for new things. That love was sown in Baptist “city churches” of the Old South and continued to grow stronger in New South “city churches” like FBC Sanford that sprung up in manufacturing towns along railroad lines crisscrossing the southern landscape.

This article addresses five interrelated themes concerning the promotion and construction of indoor baptisteries in the American South: the juxtaposition of primitive baptism and the modern world, the relationship between church authority and racial segregation, the promotion of indoor baptisteries as architectural symbols of white dominion over the urban landscape, the use of indoor baptisteries as a ritual tool for regulating black bodies in southern cities, and the persistence of those patterns from the old city churches of the nineteenth century to the new city churches of the twentieth century. The argument begins with a theological justification for indoor baptisteries by nineteenth century Baptist minister Isaac Taylor Hinton. It then shows that theology at work in material practice, detailing the construction of an indoor baptistery at First Baptist Church Richmond, Virginia, where Hinton had served as pastor. Comparing the case of FBC Richmond to FBC Charleston, South Carolina, and FBC Savannah, Georgia, we learn that city Baptists in the Old South often constructed their indoor baptisteries before the availability of pipes and pumps and those constructions were shaped by the history of race and slavery in the South. Within that setting, white Baptists controlled access to the baptistery. In churches that included both black and white members, they baptized white converts before their black brothers and sisters. In most cases, though, white leaders self-segregated those congregations, limiting access to the baptistery only to whites, while encasing it in architectural grandeur. Such patterns suggest that the construction of baptisteries was not a passive response to the forces of industrialization and urbanization. Rather, southern Baptists used the baptistery with religious and racial intent and celebrated it as one of the technological innovations that distinguished the modern church. Patterns displayed in the Old South persisted within the racially segregated spaces of New South Baptist churches, many of which were located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.8

Primitive Baptism in the Modern World

In A History of Baptism: From Inspired and Uninspired Writings, first published in 1840, Isaac Taylor Hinton attempted exactly what the title suggests. He compiled a history of baptism from early Christianity to his present day, piecing together quotes and evidence from existing works while interspersing them with brief commentary. Hinton prefaced his endeavor by emphasizing the importance of preserving and defending “sacred truths” at a time when “men in all professions are making unheard-of-efforts … in pursuit of secular interests.” He wrote that for the Christian, “There is something at once strengthening and delightful in the process of historical investigation.” But not all historical inquiries necessarily led to sacred truth for Hinton, even if they produced undisputed evidence. In one passage, he noted the “singular and interesting fact, that the University of Oxford (the highest Episcopal institution, in the world) has recently printed a beautiful edition of Wall’s History of Infant Baptism, with Gale’s Reply.” While he appreciated this historical account, he made it clear that defending the “historic truth on the subject of baptism” was necessary because of the doctrinal threats posed by “advocates of sprinkling” who rejected immersion as an “apostolic mode of baptism.” As a Baptist apologist, Hinton sifted through various historical accounts of church practice, built on them, and metered their meaning. Spurred by the writings of those who had made a “secular bargain with God Almighty,” he engaged history in an effort to defend what he considered a foundational doctrine of the Christian church.9

In a section entitled, “Ancient Baptisteries, and Persons Baptized in Them,” Hinton recovered the primitive practice of Christian baptism, retained its essence as immersion, and reclaimed the role of Baptists in their use of indoor baptisteries as guardians of that apostolic practice in the modern age. He explained how “the primitive christians were under the necessity of baptizing either in open waters or in private baths” because “the state of the law would not admit of their erecting public baptisteries.” After Constantine removed such prohibitions, however, urban Christians embraced the indoor baptistery. Hinton quotes, “Mr. Robinson”:

Baptisteries are first sought where they are first wanted, in towns and cities; for writers of unquestionable authority affirm that the primitive christians continued to baptize in rivers, pools, and baths, till about the middle of the third century. At this time baptisteries began to be built; but there were none within the churches till the sixth century; and it is remarkable that, though there were many churches in one city, yet (with a few exceptions) there was but one baptistery. This simple circumstance became in time a title of dominion, and the congregation nearest the baptistery, to whom in some places it belonged, and by whom it was lent to the other churches, pretended that all the others ought to consider themselves as dependent on them.

In this passage, Hinton (via Robinson) distinguished between primitive and modern Christians based on the practice of baptism by immersion, whether in a river, pool, or bath. Hinton positioned the baptistery in continuity with that primitive practice, whereas he considered the baptismal basin used by the “paedobaptists” a modern imitation. He also explained how it could be used as a source of church authority over neighboring congregations that lacked a baptistery but wanted access to one. Hinton further depicted the primitive practice of baptism by immersion as springing forth from the natural landscape and flowing over into urban life. In an earlier passage, he remembered the rivers of Damascus as “uniting immediately above the city, and running through it, they afforded a full supply of water for its public and private baths.” For Hinton, the urban baptistery sanctified and celebrated “those beauteous streams” that were “the scene of Paul’s baptism.” To all his critics, he declared, “If on some occasions the stones of the street are ready to cry out, surely Abana and Pharpar will exclaim aloud, should their limpid streams be repudiated for the modern basin!”10

Hinton’s evolutionary account of baptism, which flows from the natural to the urban landscape, illustrates the type of nineteenth century historical imagination that inspired a southern Baptist love for indoor baptisteries. The baptistery contained and protected the primitive practice of Baptism by immersion, and it connected the nineteenth or twentieth century Baptist congregation to what they considered the true New Testament church of early Christianity. In that way, the practice transcended time and space and transported the believer back to the very moment when Paul baptized Jesus. Baptists like Hinton ladled the baptismal river and poured it into the city church.

Church Authority and Racial Segregation

To illustrate how that process worked—of preserving the primitive practice of baptism as part of the modernizing impulse of the city Baptist church—take the case of First Baptist Church Richmond. Hinton initiated talks of an indoor baptistery at FBC Richmond while serving as pastor from 1833 to 1835, though he left the congregation before construction began. Hinton’s successor, Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802–1880), continued those plans and oversaw the completion of the baptistery in February 1836. In July of that year, the congregation offered the use of the baptistery to other churches in the area.11 In 1837, “the interior of the meeting-house was white-washed and painted and the City of Richmond was persuaded to connect the house with its central water supply, thus eliminating the necessity of buying water from a nearby well.”12 Demonstrating patterns later seen in the New South, Baptists at FBC Richmond first filled the baptistery by hand and then later used the public water system to pump water to them.13

Similar to Hinton, Jeter promoted the indoor baptistery as a modern technological convenience, associating it with city churches and positioning it within what he referred to as the “age of inventions.” At the end of his autobiography, Jeter proposed that, “all the elements of nature seem to be at war with man.” Fire burns “hard-earned property,” air “may be fraught with death,” and water “may overflow the lands, wasting the products of man’s toil, and leaving desolation, want, and sickness in its track.” Over the course of his many years, Jeter endured his share of natural calamities, what he referred to as the “dark side of human life,” surviving cholera, treacherous river crossings, and torrential rain and flooding at camp meetings. Having struggled with the unpredictable elements, Jeter welcomed the industrial innovations of steamboats and locomotives. Recalling a time when travelers braved the mud and hills with horse and buggy, he dismissed complaints from railroad car passengers about slow travel. Jeter marveled at “how many centuries of thought and toil were needed to bring these common conveniences (golden pens, furniture, matches, the telegraph, phonographs, electric lights…) to their present perfection!”14

Jeter counted indoor baptisteries among those common conveniences. He considered them one of the many architectural improvements made available to rural Baptist churches. Jeter recalled that in his boyhood he never knew “a single neat and comfortable house of worship.” Few, if any, of those log churches had steeples, organs, or even adequate seating. Many had cracks so big “a stout dog might have passed through.” Their pews were “narrow, low benches, without backs.” Lacking windows or stoves, curtains or cushions, Jeter considered these “meeting-houses” unfit to stable horses and mules. In contrast, he described “city churches,” those built of wood or brick in the mid-nineteenth century, as “spacious, convenient, and comfortable.” Although he was uncertain whether the “social and moral influence” of all “useful inventions” would be for “good or for evil,” Jeter promoted the use of indoor baptisteries as one of the “changes for the better” in the churches he served. For the southern Baptist minister, the still waters inside the house of the Lord were much preferred to the unpredictable currents of the countryside streams.15

Both Hinton and Jeter celebrated the indoor baptistery as a modern convenience without reference to racial qualifications for baptismal candidates. When talks of the baptistery began and when construction of the baptistery was completed, FBC Richmond included both black and white members. Based on their writings and church minutes, there was no indication that black members were excluded from baptism in the same indoor pool as whites. But racial tension pervaded the church body. Disagreements between Hinton and the congregation over racial issues led to his resignation.16Jeter faced similar struggles, ultimately determining to resolve the conflict by segregating the membership.

In October 1838, he initiated plans to construct another building for white congregants. According to local church history, Jeter had “studied the problems of his large, bi-racial membership. Convinced that neither group in the church would achieve its maximum effectiveness under existing conditions, he sought the wisest way to bring about a separate house of worship and church organization for the colored Baptists in Richmond.” In Jeter’s plan, black members remained in the former church and white members constructed a new building. In March 1839, the church held a meeting to discuss the new construction. According to church historian Blanche White, several members opposed the plan. Two days later the “male members of the church” called another meeting and “the sisters and the colored members were not asked to participate.”17 Excluding opposing views, the white male leadership approved the building plan without a recorded complaint. Whether intentional or not, they also segregated the baptistery in the process.18

The indoor baptistery was the architectural centerpiece of the church for white congregants. Designed by Thomas U. Walter, the architect who would later oversee the construction of the capitol building in Washington D.C., the building was completed in 1839, dedicated in October 1841, and financed in part by selling and renting pews. A towering steeple, “glistening white” ceilings, pew cushions of a “lovely blue,” a “wide white desk” of a pulpit, a cushioned Bible rest, and “massive Doric pillars” distinguished the new sanctuary from the congregation’s prior home. The baptistery was placed in a recess that “extended back of these columns, the wall of which was ornamented with a large square of blue quilted damask, with a bright star in the center.” And “when the floor of the platform was moved, the baptismal service was in full view of the congregation, both on the main floor and in the galleries.” The elaborate architectural displays that surrounded the indoor baptistery set FBC Richmond apart as a white-only city church. Again, according to the church history:

The erection of this building led to the separation of the white and colored members and the organization of the First African Baptist Church, which continued to occupy the old structure, and which was set apart under the pastoral supervision of Rev. Dr. Ryland, then President of Richmond College. Seventeen hundred and eight colored members remained in the old house, while three hundred and eighty-seven white members removed to the new. During the first year a precious revival, in which the Pastor was aided by Rev. Mr. Robards of New York, added one hundred and sixty-seven by baptism to the Church in its new home.

Black members outnumbered white members more than four to one in the old church. Without its black members, the new white-only congregation was significantly smaller in size, though revival efforts did add several members.19

It is important to note that FBC Richmond self-segregated its membership during a period when rural white churches forcibly integrated blacks into their congregations. Racially segregated churches were not the norm in the Old South. From the 1830s until the end of the Civil War, it was common for whites and blacks to worship together. Following the plot led by Denmark Vesey and the uprising led by Nat Turner, southern whites worried that separate religious gatherings provided a space for slaves to communicate and organize uprisings.20 In an effort to quell this fear, slave owners required blacks to attend services in white congregations and sit in segregated seating within their sight.21 In those instances, southern whites used the spatial arrangements of their churches to maintain racial difference in the midst of religious inclusion.

  • Interior of Alfred Street Baptist Church Alexandria, Virginia from late 1950s. Red markings by lay member of congregation point to "baptismal pool." Photo provided by church historian Alton S. Wallace.

The precise sequence of events displayed at FBC Richmond—forced integration, indoor baptistery construction, and self-segregation—was anomalous, though the racial tensions were typical for that time period. Comparable city Baptist congregations, such as First Baptist Church and Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, often self-segregated before they built their baptisteries. Both congregations, the former historically white and the latter historically black, developed out of the Alexandria Baptist Society, founded in 1803. According to Alton S. Wallace, the church historian of Alfred Street Baptist, black Baptist experience with “in-door pools” came after the (white) Alexandria Baptist Society and the Colored Baptist Society divided into separate congregations. The black congregation maintained independent church meetings through the 1830s, though under the more watchful eye of white authorities. Following the prohibition of black gatherings in Alexandria in 1831, the “Rev. William Evans of Colored Baptist Society and 45 others” signed a petition from the free Negroes to the Mayor “asserting that Negroes in Alexandria will not revolt against whites, as did Nat Turner.” The Colored Baptist Society continued to meet at Alfred Street under the supervision of the Alexandria Baptist Society. In 1842, they purchased their building site at Alfred Street, which they had leased for eighteen years. In 1850, the Colored Baptist Society was “granted complete independence from [the] conjoined Alexandria Baptist Society, which now called itself the Alexandria Baptist Church.”22

The case of FBC Richmond, compared with that of FBC Alexandria, suggests that Baptists used indoor baptisteries to exercise church authority over sacred space, bounding the primitive practice of baptism within the modern world. In the nineteenth century, white Baptists in the American South racialized that authority, using the indoor baptistery for more than just a material marker of theological distinction. White Baptists distinguished their segregated church buildings by displaying the first indoor baptistery in town or a baptistery more elaborate in architectural grandeur than that of their black Baptist neighbors.23The designation “first” signified white racial status in southern cities. White Baptists in both the Old and New South staked claim to “First Baptist” as their own, thus making it necessary for black Baptists to refer to their congregations as the First African or First Colored Baptist Church, while making any equivalent reference to whiteness, such as the First Anglo Baptist Church, merely redundant. In this seemingly banal nomenclature, southern whites asserted themselves as the original, real, or true Baptist church in the given municipality.24

The White City

The type of authority exercised by white Baptists in the construction of indoor baptisteries was directly connected to their projection of the church building as a symbol of public power over the nineteenth century urban landscape. The construction of downtown churches went hand in hand with the public presentation of southern towns as white controlled civilized cities, and the indoor baptistery distinguished the typical First Baptist Church among other First Church brands. Take Savannah, Georgia. In its early years, Savannah was known as a “sickly hole in the woods.” As part of its planning efforts to civilize that sickly hole, the City of Savannah passed an ordinance in 1790 that granted lots for Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Jews to build downtown houses of worship. In 1791, the Baptist Society received a lot on Washington Square. In 1791, they exchanged that lot for another on Franklin Square. And in 1794, they began plans for building a church structure, despite the fact that as Baptist historian George Shriver notes, “there was really no formally organized and chartered church of individuals and pastor.” Rather than a local church body of Baptist believers expressing a need to build a place of worship, a conglomerate of key business, civic, and religious leaders in Savannah and beyond provided the impetus for constructing a downtown Baptist church. According to Shriver, “Jonathan Clarke, George Mosse, Thomas Polhill, and David Adams took the lead in this project and were encouraged by the Revered Mr. Reese, a Baptist minister from Wales who happened to be visiting the city. Contributions toward this end came from interested Baptists in South Carolina, interested citizens of Savannah, and from denominational bodies in the city.”25 Many of those leaders were wealthy landowners and manufacturers. George Mosse, for example, was a medical doctor from Dublin, Ireland, who immigrated to South Carolina and “became the owner of a large amount of landed property, was a prominent planter, and a leading manufacturer of leather.” He continued to practice medicine and later left the Protestant Episcopal Church to join “the Baptist faith.”26

Under the leadership of an elite group of white planners, Baptists built a church structure in downtown Savannah in 1795. In his account of the church minutes, Shriver described the structure as a “frame building some fifty by sixty feet” with a steeple. There was no mention of a baptistery. The church building survived a fire in 1796 and was leased to Presbyterians “without a home” until 1800. By 1829, the church had 131 members and in April of that year, the city deeded another location for a new building. In 1831, construction on a “new Baptist Church” for white members began and the former lots and church building were sold to the First African Baptist Church. White Baptists used the money raised from that sale to help fund the construction of their new building.27

The urban planning of a “First Baptist Church” Savannah was an attempt by southern whites to control public space and black bodies. Even after selling the older building to First African Baptist, white Baptists in Savannah struggled to maintain their authority over the worship practices of black Baptists in that former space. Andrew Marshall, who succeeded Andrew Bryan as pastor of First African Church, preached the necessity of baptism for salvation, a theological view popularized by Alexander Campbell and considered heretical by white Baptists in Savannah. Shriver describes the controversy by stating:

The fact that the black church was using the former white church building for ‘heretical’ purposes poured more salt into the wound of relationships. By January 1833, the black church on the surface agreed to place itself under the watchful eye of the white church but set down a series of conditions which actually preserved its own fundamental autonomy, a key Baptist congregational belief. Offended, in August the white church tried to exert pressure by writing a letter to William T. Williams, mayor of Savannah, which was crystal clear in intent: ‘The individuals composing the First African Church are in part the property of our citizens, and it is for them, if they feel any interest in their everlasting or temporal welfare, to interpose and save them from the baneful influence of a designing man.’

Despite the fact that black Baptists in Savannah organized themselves into a church body before their white brethren, and that black ministers converted at least one of the leaders of the white congregation, the “citizens” of Savannah still considered the “individuals composing the First African Church” as mere “property.” 28 As such, they were subject to the similar authority and control exhibited by white Baptists on other types of property, such as their baptisteries and their buildings.

Regulating Black Bodies

In “The Relation of the White and Colored Baptists,” a speech delivered at the “Great Centennial of the Colored Baptists of Georgia” in Savannah in 1888, the Reverend T. J. Hornsby of Augusta, Georgia, described the experiences of blacks within white churches in the Old South. He began by explaining that:

In most of the white churches there was a colored element attached, who had sought the same Saviour under trying circumstances. They came with fear and trembling and related their experience, and if it met the approbation of their owners, who sometimes were Baptists and sometimes strangers to my God, they were given a pass and allowed to unite with the church, and thank God, sometimes indorsing him or her as a good, obedient “nigger.” Before the church they professed Christ; in the sight of the people they were buried in baptism, which made us brethren, and the white Baptists knew it, and they also knew that we as a mass didn’t know it. So the time of our ignorance God may have winked at, but it left us brethren still, and sons of the same God.

In Reverend Hornsby’s description, it is clear that the rituals of racial difference contradicted the professed spiritual equality of believer’s baptism in white controlled churches. Describing the “individual treatment of [Christian] fraternity,” the minister remembered “the negro Baptists were quite as kind and polite as the white brother, for in the week the white Baptists called him Pete, Hamp and Bill, but sometimes on Sunday they would say Peter, Hampton and William, while this negro Baptist, in his presence, would invariably use the same title, ‘Master,’ (behind his back something else, of course). Neither was perfect.” Hornsby then describes how white Baptists exercised their control over black bodies within the very same ritual of baptism. Where the colored people existed, their converts were baptized by the pastor in charge, who was (of course) the white Baptist. When he had gotten through dipping the white converts, in walked the colored proselyte and was buried in the same water; yea, sometimes in the same spot. By regulating when black converts were allowed in the baptismal waters and stipulating the conditions of their baptism, white Baptists worked to maintain spatial distinctions between racialized bodies, even if the ritual space in which both candidates were baptized was “in the same spot.” 29

In addition to baptism, black Baptists participated in other shared rituals latent with democratic portent, though the exercise of white authority again bridled spiritual equality and redirected it as bodily difference. Reverend Hornsby also noted that Black Baptists “worshipped in the same church edifice [as white Baptists],” yet they occupied “the seats in the rear.” He continued to describe how “they sang the same songs the white Baptist sung, listened to the same sermon,” yet “the brother in color” took communion “after the white Baptist had been served with bread and wine.” Sounding a note of somber solace, Hornsby quipped, “Though a little late, it was the same supper prayed over by the same pastor.”30

  • Renovation of First Baptist Church Savannah Georgia in 1921 included a baptistery in "simple Greek Temple form." Photo of baptistery from George H. Shriver, *Pilgrims through the Years: A Bicentennial History of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia* (Franklin, Tennessee: Providence House Publishers, 1999), insert between pages 90-95.

Hornsby’s sermon details how southern whites used both ritual order and spatial arrangements in their churches to maintain racial difference and display class status. In Savannah, white Baptists sold their old church building to their black brethren, yet still tried to maintain control over it. At the same time, they displayed themselves as the “First Church” and distinguished their new building from their former residence by continually updating their new church building with technological and architectural improvements. According to Shriver, the “original design for the church consisted of Savannah’s gray brick walls covered with stucco, a recessed portico, and a cupola. Iron fencing was added in front of the church to prevent stray animals from gaining access.” In 1904, the congregation began saving to “remove the iron fence in front of the building, to pour a concrete pavement completely around the building, to hang electric lamps in the front of the church, to paint the exterior, and to tend to other repairs in relation to the total beautification.” The church building underwent a major renovation in 1921, redesigned in “simple Greek temple form” to include “a new chancel,” consisting of “pulpit, baptistery, organ, and choir loft, which were placed in front of the sanctuary.” Roman shaft columns and tall arched windows were added. Mr. Kleinsteuber’s Cut Art Stone Company of Savannah carved the columns and Mr. Ernest M. Skinner built the “superb Skinner organ … valued at $25,200.” New light fixtures were installed, including “hanging lamps” and “smaller side wall lights.” Wooden capitals were added atop the “lofty pilasters” between the tall windows, hand carved by “world-famous wood carvers of the Black Forest district of Germany.” Describing the renovated building, pastor Norman W. Cox declared that, “We now have what is pronounced by many competent critics, the most beautiful church auditorium in America. One of our friends of discernment recently said of it: ‘Its exterior is a dream in stone, and its interior a sublime poem in its chaste simplicity.’”31 With these building improvements, white Baptists in Savannah publically displayed their presence in the city, their social status, and their church authority.

In Charleston, like in Savannah and Richmond, observers celebrated the architectural design of the city’s First Baptist Church. In the “Statistics of South Carolina” published in 1824, architect Robert Mills declared that, “The Baptist Church of Charleston exhibits the best specimen of correct taste in architecture of the modern buildings in the city. It is purely Greek in style, simply grand in its proportions and beautiful in its detail.” Mills continued to describe the length and breadth of the structure, its “massive colums of the highest proportions of Doric,” its “requisite apertures for windows and doors,” and its “full cornice.” He also detailed the spatial order of the building, writing:

You enter the vestibule by three doors, on each of which the gallery stairs ascend; by three opposite doors you pass into the aisles dividing the pews into blocs: at the extreme end of the nave of the church are the baptismal font and the pulpit, lighted by a large vaulted window; around three sides of the nave, a double colonnade extends, rises up to the roof and supports the galleries. The lower order of columns is Doric, the upper Ionic, each with their regular entablatures.

Mills concluded by proclaiming that “The whole finished in a rich, chaste style, and producing from the unity of the design a very pleasing effect.” As in other city Baptist churches of the Old South, the baptismal at FBC Charleston, “lighted by a large vaulted window,” stood at the symbolic center of those material displays of what was considered chaste simplicity.32

Unlike at FBC Richmond or Savannah, however, white members of FBC Charleston did not self-segregate until several years after constructing a baptistery. Church records show both white and black members during the period after the congregation moved into its new church building in 1821, which included the baptistery described above. The rolls list 280 whites and 1,117 blacks in 1837, and 288 whites and 1,143 blacks in 1840. According to historians Robert Baker and Paul Craven, church members in 1853 expressed a concern that “not enough was being done for the colored members.” Dr. M. T. Mendenhall, who practiced medicine and whose family owned a mill, chaired a committee in charge of finding “a suitable place of worship for the colored people of this church, with a pastor suiting his discourses to their understanding.” The newly segregated black members remained under the control of the white church until they organized as the Morris Street Baptist Church in May 1865; they later requested and received all black members listed on the rolls of FBC Charleston.33

Prior to the end of the Civil War, white leaders at FBC Charleston organized black members in separate “divisions” based on E. T Winkler’s Notes and Questions for the Oral Instructions of Colored People, published in 1857. Baker and Craven describe this structure:

Each division had a black leader or “overseer.” These men, or women, as was sometimes the case, were devout persons deeply committed to the well-being of their people. They worked faithfully at the tasks of instruction and nurture. They gave detailed reports on the general welfare of those under their care and often prescribed discipline for those who committed moral wrongs (such as adultery charges).

Though black leaders were commissioned with the task of pastoral care, they reported to oversight committees, who then reported to the white governing body of the church. White members limited their authority on issues deemed morally significant. In one case, the “committee on coloreds” disagreed about a decision regarding a request by George Heyward, a slave, to remarry after his wife had been sold to another owner outside of Charleston. They referred the matter to the church, which then denied the request. Situated within this context of church authority and organizational oversight, the material expressions of “chaste simplicity” at FBC Charleston suggest that the religious yearning of white Baptists to regulate church space and keep it architecturally pure and aesthetically tasteful was inseparable from their racial desire to control black bodies.34

New City Baptists

Patterns evident among city Baptists in the nineteenth century persisted into the twentieth century, despite significant historical differences between the two periods. Within the racially reconfigured Jim Crow South, white Baptists continued to use indoor baptisteries and their surrounding architectural designs to display church authority, to distinguish their congregations as modern churches, and to regulate sacred space. In the early twentieth century, downtown “First Churches” were material markers of new urban culture in southern manufacturing towns. The development of mill towns in central North Carolina, one of the faster growing areas of the South during that period, illustrates how industrialization facilitated the rebirth of urban styles displayed in nineteenth-century city Baptist churches and made them available to an expanding consumer class. The pattern displayed at FBC Siler City, roughly 24 miles northwest of the town of Sanford referenced in the opening, was typical of city Baptist churches in the New South. FBC Siler City is an organizational descendent of Rocky River Baptist and Loves Creek Baptist, the two oldest Baptist churches in the area, dating back to 1756. Although all three churches remained members of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association, there was a noticeable difference between FBC and the other two churches. Rural churches were named after bodies of water—Rocky River, Loves Creek. In contrast, titles of city churches did not reference natural markers, whether rivers, creeks, rocks, shady groves, or brush arbors. Instead, they designated the congregations as the first, second, or even the third church of its kind within the incorporated city limits, as was the case with First Baptist Church Siler City. When those options were exhausted, Baptists often named city churches after their streets or avenues of residence, such as Grace Street Church in Richmond or Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.35

In the nineteenth century, Baptist churches in the Siler City area were not only located near moving water; they were at times divided by it. In the early 1800s, members of Rocky River Baptist Church who lived on the other side of the river often had trouble making it to church during heavy rains. Growing weary of their springtime struggles to cross high water, they asked to be released from their membership in order to start a new church.36 In 1825, they organized Loves Creek Baptist Church. Baptists seldom needed an excuse to split churches, parting company over any multitude of disagreements. But at least in this case, the natural landscape played a role in the creation of a new Baptist church. The arrival of the railroad, though, brought another dividing line, creating an urban pocket in rural Chatham County. In the newly incorporated Siler City, the members of the FBC were the first white Baptists to take residence inside the city limits.37

Although a branch of Loves Creek Baptist, FBC Siler City quickly distinguished its meetinghouse as a city church through its architectural design, including a steeple and an indoor baptistery. It constructed its first indoor baptistery in 1907, over a decade before the public water system was completed in 1925. It also preceded the availability of public electricity, which did not come on line until 1913. Among the three Baptist congregations, FBC was the first to make such improvements. Rocky River Baptist did not add a steeple and baptistery until 1956, when it expanded its building. Despite the architectural innovations, the earliest FBC church structure still resembled its rural Baptist “sister churches.” In 1928, however, FBC Siler hired Greensboro architect Harry Barton to design its second church home.38According to local historians, the church was “easily the most ambitious in Chatham County.” Replicating his previous design used in 1924 for the First Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina, Barton “chose a heavy Romanesque style made popular by architect Henry Hobson Richardson before the turn of the century.”39 When construction was completed in 1930, the church boasted a new M. F. Moeller pipe organ from Hagerstown, Maryland (a gift of the Woman’s Missionary Society and the Ladies Aid Society), auditorium lights (a gift of Dr. W. C. Thomas), and an elevated baptistery with a hand-painted mural in the background.40 Such displays signaled that Baptists in Siler City had come a long way from their rural church homes.

As in Siler, FBC Sanford built its baptistery soon after it was incorporated within the city limits. Before moving to its new brick building in 1925, FBC Sanford met in a small frame structure, constructed of native pine in 1896. John P. Fore, Jr., who spent time in the old church as a child, remembered the smell of pine and the slatted pew backs and bottoms “that would pinch your backside.” Despite its rustic qualities, the first Baptist building inside the Sanford city limits also had a baptistery, though it was hidden behind the pulpit underneath a door “that went down to the ground.” John recalled that a “stopper” kept the baptistery full and could be pulled to let water run through “a little pipe” and “out beside the church.”41

In Gastonia, another mill town and site of Liston Pope’s classic study, Millhands and Preachers, the earliest building of the First Baptist Church, built in 1885, “was a simple rectangular structure without tower, steeple, or baptismal facilities.” But in 1900, the congregation remodeled the church, adding balconies, a new wing for Sunday school rooms, a tower, a steeple, and a baptistery behind the pulpit.”42 The sesquicentennial history of Beulah Baptist Association of North Carolina, which is comprised of mostly small rural congregations, only includes information on baptisteries for three of its thirty-five member churches. Of those congregations, Roxboro Baptist Church, a city church located on Main Street in Roxboro, was the first to use a baptistery in 1898, “eliminating the need to baptize in Turtle Creek.” The two rural churches followed. Baynes Baptist constructed a small church in 1913 with a baptistery under the pulpit and filled it with water with a “drain pipe from the roof,” while Antioch Baptist Church did not add a baptistery until 1982, when it renovated its sanctuary.43

City Baptist churches were more likely to construct an indoor baptistery before their rural predecessors. But it is important to note that rural churches may have shared a desire to modernize their congregations, but often were hindered by a lack of resources. Baynes Baptist, for example, developed its own technology for draining water from the roof to fill its baptistery in the early twentieth century. But unlike in city churches, the church history does not record any updates to that technology with pipes, pumps, or electricity in the 1920s. Those improvements came later to rural areas. It is significant, then, that rural churches like Rocky River and Antioch Baptist constructed their indoor baptisteries as part of renovations in the 1950s or later. This suggests that rural congregations benefited from the post-WWII boom and could afford such renovations. A desire to modernize did not necessarily distinguish urban from rural congregations. Rather, city churches had both the desire and the resources to renovate their buildings, make technological updates, and distinguish themselves as modern.

A letter from Frank H. Morse of Maplewood, Missouri to Popular Mechanics in 1911 illustrates the desire of some Baptists to modernize their churches. Included in the “Shop Notes” section, Morse’s letter describes how the Baptist church in Maplewood developed its own system to heat the baptismal water using a furnace instead of an electric water heater. Morse wrote that, “There were no arrangements made for heating water in the baptistery of our church, so the following plan was tried out and worked just as efficiently as a high-priced plant.” Referencing a “Diagram of Connections,” he explains how the system worked:

A water coil heater, E, was made of pipe and fittings and connected to the water-main pipe A and the pipe for emptying the baptistery B, by two pieces of hose, C and D. After the fire in the furnace burned the coals, the heater E was put in through the door as shown. The water was allowed to run slowly from the main A and through the coil. Starting this heating device early in the day, the baptistery would be full of warm water for the evening service.

Morse’s letter to Popular Mechanics suggests that some churches could not afford the technological conveniences associated with modern baptisteries installed by larger city churches. Yet these churches often developed their own homemade technologies to modernize their congregations. At least in this case, that technology was lauded as just as efficient as the “high-priced” options.44

Often elevated behind the choir loft, on a higher plane than the pulpit, the baptistery was the architectural centerpiece of city Baptist churches in the New South. Not only was the baptistery surrounded by domestic improvements, it was housed in churches constructed in Gothic or Romanesque architectural styles, as was the case at First Baptist Church Siler City. Industrial development accelerated the reproduction and distribution of nineteenth century urban architectural design, making those styles more accessible to southern Protestants.45 As noted earlier, the design of FBC Siler City was based on that of First Methodist Church of Asheboro. Like its neighbor, FBC Sanford also had a “twin church.” Its building was identical to First Baptist Church Winchester, Virginia.46For Baptists in Siler City and Sanford, city church styles included organ pipes, pews, stained glass, magnificent steeples, high arches, and chandeliers. In those types of Old World architectural expressions, southern Baptists positioned their city churches within the historical development of Western Civilization, using their technological improvements to show that they had embraced the modern era and that they too marched forward in the path of industrial progress. In doing so, they participated in a broader cultural trend of using architecture and technology to display modern America as the pinnacle of Christian civilization. But by moving the primitive practice of immersion baptism inside their city churches, Baptists distinguished themselves from the rest of Christendom, displacing Roman Catholics and other so-called paedobaptists, including those Protestants stained by liberalism, and claimed what they considered their rightful role as protectors of Christian truth.47


Demonstrating continuity of practice among city Baptists in the Old and New South, this essay has methodological implications for how historians understand the relationship between religion and modernity in industrial America. Assumptions buried deep within secularization theory continue to shape our understanding of that relationship, despite continued attempts to revise those approaches. As historians of religion in the South, we distance ourselves from the theoretical frames of secularization theory. Yet, we replicate its narrative arch when we argue that the story of the American nation was divided between southern history and northern history as marked by Civil War, when we claim southerners were closer to nature and northerners were more detached from nature, when we distinguish northern society by its more evolved division of labor, when we identify industrialization as the vehicle of northern conquest during the war and its expansion after the war, and when we assume industrialization was antagonistic to southern religion because it carried with it the secular world of the North. Various configurations of those plot lines build on foundational assumptions that religion evolves from the simple to the complex, history is divided between the primitive and the modern, primitives are closer to nature, moderns are detached from nature, modern society is distinguished by its highly evolved division of labor, industrialization is the vehicle of modernity, and industrialization is inimical to primitive religion (that is, primitive religion must adapt or change in some way in order to survive the modern world).48

The development of indoor baptisteries in the American South does not fit those grand narratives. If the classical paradigm of secularization theory and the standard story of southern religion held true, then the industrial arrival of pipes and pumps should have precipitated the religious innovation of indoor baptisteries, which would have appeared first in northern manufacturing cities and then later in southern factory towns. But that was not the case. Baptisteries first appeared in nineteenth-century city Baptist churches and often were constructed before the availability of public water systems. They were built around the same time in the South as they were in the North, and they became a standard feature of new city Baptist churches in the early twentieth century.

Baptist desire to modernize congregations was pervasive, though the material resources needed for that task were limited. In the Old South, white Baptists in urban areas were more likely to posses the wealth, labor, time, and building supplies needed to construct indoor baptisteries. Those Baptists promoted indoor baptisteries as a modern technological convenience and an architectural symbol of Christian civilization. Their ability to afford a baptistery and control its access testified to their church authority and public power. In the New South, the rise of mass-production and the expansion of the railroad made those types of religious displays more affordable and accessible to an expanding consumer class. Baptist congregations in manufacturing towns constructed indoor baptisteries before their rural predecessors and used the modern improvement to distinguish their church building as a distinctive presence in a racially segregated downtown landscape. Rural churches later constructed indoor baptisteries as they were able, suggesting they were more than willing to modernize, but waited until they could afford to do so.

In their promotion and construction of indoor baptisteries, Baptists bounded the primitive within the modern. As long as they continued to practice what they considered the primitive Christian rite of baptism by immersion, Baptists could maintain their distinguishing essence while perpetually modernizing their congregations. And modernize they did, surrounding the baptistery with elaborate architectural displays, warming its waters with electric heaters, and framing it with stained glass. Those displays, though, were fraught with symbolic import. The ritual production of Baptist modernity in the American South was inextricably linked to its contextual construction of racial difference. In churches where black and white Baptists were, in the words of Reverend Hornsby, “buried in the same water; yea, sometimes in the same spot,” white leaders distinguished a racial class of “primitive” Christians by forcing their black brothers and sisters in Christ to be baptised after them. As they continued to modernize their congregations, white Baptists segregated their church space, including the baptismal pool. They used the indoor baptistery to theologically retain primitive baptism in the modern church, while physically removing the perceived racial primitive from their midst. In both cases, white Baptists projected and protected primitive difference, working to regulate and control that difference. From the old to the new, the idea of primitive baptism was the heart of the modern Baptist.

  1. James Vann Comer, First Baptist Church, Sanford, NC: 1893–1993 (Sanford, N.C.: J.V. Comer, 1993), 88–89.

  2. William Hutchison termed what he called a “cluster of liberal ideas” in American Protestantism as “Protestant modernism.” He noted three uses of the term “modernism” in the early twentieth century: adaptation (an “intended adaption of religious ideas to modern culture”), cultural immanentism (the theological idea that “God is immanent in human cultural development and revealed through it”) and religiously–based progressivism (“human society is moving toward realization of the Kingdom of God”). Hutchison argued that the first view pervaded popular media and the second two views represented theological differences among liberal Protestants. He further distinguished between “conservative evangelicals” and “evangelical liberals.” Hutchison’s typology, used to categorize Protestantism in terms of its various theological expressions, illustrates how historians often view the relationship between religious beliefs and secular culture as the key criterion for distinguishing liberals from conservatives, and moderns from fundamentalists. That interpretation has pervaded the general historiography of American religions, most clearly evident in citations of the Social Gospel movement as evidence of what Hutchison referred to as “applied” liberalism. William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), 2, 13, 146, 269. Tied into this framework, foundational narratives of southern religion, particularly those that operate on the culturally captivity thesis, reference the Social Gospel as a placeholder of liberal Protestantism. They argue that the absence of a Social Gospel in the American South is one of the distinctive qualities of its regional religious expressions and they classify southern evangelicalism as one type of otherworldly Protestantism that has been unable to change or challenge social order. Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999). John Lee Eighmy, Churches in Cultural Captivity: A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987). In the last few decades, several scholars have given greater attention to the presence of the Social Gospel movement as well as the economic dimensions of evangelical Protestantism in the American South. Some scholars have cited the presence of the Social Gospel as a call to revise the cultural captivity thesis. John McDowell, for example, has shown that Methodist women in southern cities like Nashville read northern liberal Protestants like Walter Rauschenbusch and Josiah Strong. John Patrick McDowell, The Social Gospel in the South: The Woman’s Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1886–1939 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982). Ultimately, though, these readings do not sufficiently challenge dichotomies of modern or primitive, or religious or secular that have been used to define liberal Protestantism and its southern contrarian, conservative evangelicalism. These readings make it difficult to discern how southern Protestants were both primitive and modern, regionally rooted and nationally projecting, industrial and religious, at the same time. If northerners used the image of the South as a backwoods cesspool of religious fundamentalists for their own interests, then southerners used the northern tool of economic conquest, the factory, for their own desires. In this way, white southern Protestants employed industrial technology to move up economically, while maintaining in the antebellum South and later resurrecting in the Jim Crow South the religious and regional primitivism of a divinely sanctioned racial order. Using the so-called secular tools of modern industry to resurrect racial order after the Civil War and institutionalize it, along with other moral causes such as Prohibition, southern evangelicals were agents of their own cultural captivity. The detailed role of southern evangelicals in the institutional construction of cultural constraint, a process Michel Foucault referred to as “governmentality,” extends well beyond the scope of this article, though its basic mechanics are demonstrated in Baptist use of indoor baptisteries. On northern media images of the South, see Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006). On the pastoral promotion of progress in the nineteenth century American South, see Beth Barton Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). On Foucault’s use of governmentality, see Michel Foucault, Graham Burchell, and Colin Gordon, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality: With Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

  3. Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up, 4–5.

  4. Historians often cite antebellum religious habits as a defining characteristic of southern identity, diligently demonstrating connections between white evangelical Protestantism and the peculiar institution, noting a historical movement away from radical abolitionism to institutional concession. Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977). Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religion Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Focusing solely on regional distinctiveness, however, makes it difficult for historians to observe the industrial and economic habits that are practiced within the region but trend nationally. Much like the long shadow of Puritan studies cast on the field of American Religious history, telescopic attention to antebellum religion can obscure evangelical Protestant embrace of modern industry and its mass-produced goods from the interpretive frame. To see those habits requires a broader focus, one that may include consumer habits along with church doctrine. For such a possibility, see Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009).

  5. Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up, 4–5. Evangelical Protestantism thrived during the heaviest periods of industrialization in manufacturing towns like Rochester and Rockdale. Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978). Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978).

  6. This essay assumes that modernity is not a unified and pervasive force, but remains incomplete and unevenly distributed. For a description of the difficulties of locating modernity, see Kathryn E. Lofton, “Making the Modern in Religious America, 1870–1935,” (Ph.D. Diss., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), 2005. On multiple modernities, see Gustavo Benavides, “Modernity,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 186–204. On the uneven distribution of modernity, see Manuel A. Vasquez, The Brazilian Popular Church and the Crisis of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). It also assumes that in terms of theological doctrine and religious practice, southern evangelicals were not of one mind or spirit, particularly on matters of race. Joel Williamson has argued that monolithic depictions of southern ideology dismiss complex historical patterns of racial conflict and change, especially during the period between 1850 and 1915, a period he refers to as “The Great Changeover” in race relations. Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black/white Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). Racial complexity is one reason that Williamson dismisses W. J. Cash’s singular thesis of a “southern mind.” W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941; New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

  7. For an example of a revision of Max Weber’s secularization thesis as new modes of enchantment, rather than religious disenchantment, see Cecilia Loreto Mariz, Coping with Poverty: Pentecostals and Christian Base Communities in Brazil (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994). For a classical sociological formulation of the relationship between evangelicalism and modernity, see James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983). For a revision of that approach, see Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

  8. Most of the Baptist churches discussed in this essay were associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Use of the term “southern Baptist” is meant to emphasize material practice over denominational identity and to suggest that their practices were relevant to broader evangelical developments in the American South. Love for indoor baptisteries was not limited to SBC churches and as evidenced in the opening example, it could even strike a Methodist. Drawing on selected historical cases, the argument is intended to apply to Baptist churches and churchgoers who considered themselves southern and expressed interest in indoor baptisteries, which at times may extend beyond geographically defined boundaries of the American South. On the difficulty of state-based definitions of the South, see William James Cooper and Tom E. Terrill, The American South: A History (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), xx.

  9. Isaac Taylor Hinton, History of Baptism: From Inspired and Uninspired Writings (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1849), 5–6, 6–7, 238.

  10. Ibid., 98, 160–161.

  11. Typescript of First Baptist Church Richmond Minutes, 1836–1838, Virginia Baptist Historical Society, University of Richmond, Virginia.

  12. Blanche Sydnor White, First Baptist Church Richmond, 1780–1955 (Richmond: Whittet and Shepperson, 1955), 54.

  13. FBC Richmond also constructed its baptistery around the same time as northern Baptist churches. To get a sense of regional comparison, consider the First Baptist Church of America in Providence, Rhode Island, the oldest Baptist church in the United States. FBC Providence was “the first Baptist meeting house in New England to have a steeple,” erected in 1775 and measuring 185 feet high. The church made additional improvements in the early nineteenth century, adding new pews in 1832 and installing an organ in 1834. It constructed an interior baptistery in 1838, surrounding it with the English Georgian architectural style commonly used in Anglican churches. “Exterior portico and steeple and many interior elements, such as the Palladian window behind the high pulpit, the fluted Tuscan columns, the groined arches in the balcony, and the split pediments over the doors,” were layered onto the basic design of a plain Baptist structure. The construction of the indoor baptistery at FBC Providence, like at FBC Richmond, also preceded the availability of a public water system, which was not completed until after 1864, under the leadership of Mayor Thomas Doyle (1827–1886), who was memorialized as a “Pioneer of Urban Renewal.” Marilyn J Chiat, America’s Religious Architecture: Sacred Places for Every Community (New York: Wiley, 1997), 13, 60. J. Stanley Lemons, First: The First Baptist Church in America (Providence: Charitable Baptist Society, 2001). “Architecture,” The First Baptist Church in America ( Thomas Doyle Monument Description (

  14. Jeremiah Bell Jeter, The Recollections of a Long Life (Richmond: Religious Herald Company, 1891), 322–323, 154–155, 199–200, 300–303, 248–251, 312–313.

  15. Ibid., 154–155, 199–200, 300–303, 312–313.

  16. An encyclopedia entry on Taylor from 1872 notes that, “…he resolved on fixing his residence in the West. He was, however, induced to accept the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. The church had a large colored membership, a fact which some embarrassment was experienced by him in the consistent application of his principles. This, in connection with his original predilections, led to his removal in 1835 to Chicago, then in its infancy.” John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper, 1872), 267.

  17. White, FBC Richmond, 54–55.

  18. Church records show 42 baptisms in 1836, and 272 baptisms in 1837, the year after the congregation offered use of the baptistery to other churches in town, and 13 baptisms in 1838, the year that racial tensions peaked. From 1839 to 1843, there were a total of 543 baptisms. From 1843 to 1846, there were only a total of 16 baptisms. White, FBC Richmond, 239–240. Baptismal records confirmed by Virginia S. Darnell, local church historian, 26 June 2008. The possibility of both blacks and whites being baptized in the same pool of water could have been too much for some white members’ sense of spiritual and racial purity, particularly the white male leaders who called a second meeting to approve plans for segregating the congregation. But this is purely speculative, and may be a projection of later prohibitions concerning interracial bathing back onto this time period. In the Jim Crow South, indoor baptisteries were constructed within racially segregated congregations. Much like with the segregation of public swimming pools, indoor baptisteries in segregated churches eliminated the possibility of immersing blacks and whites in the same body of water. By moving the baptistery indoors in the early twentieth century, southern Baptists, whether consciously or nor, eliminated the danger of what they perceived as a racial indiscretion from their distinguishing ritual practice. A heightened concern among southern whites to maintain racial, spiritual, and physical purity may help explain the widespread adoption of indoor baptisteries in the New South. They were celebrated as a modern technology, but their implementation had racial consequences. Industrialization made baptisteries more accessible to southern Baptists at the same time that southerners struggled to define and defend racially segregated spaces in the early twentieth century. These included the secular consumer spaces of trains and theatres (where passengers drank from individual cups and sat in segregated seats) and the religious consumer spaces of local churches (where worshipers took communion from individual cups and were baptized in segregated baptisteries). Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Evangelical identity was strongly solidified in biracial congregations from the 1830s to the 1860s. Charles Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), has argued that black conversion and participation in biracial congregations had the concomitant outcome of reinforcing white superiority and Biblical justifications for slavery. When black Protestants left those congregations for their own independent churches after the Civil War, white evangelicals struggled to redefine their racial superiority and used segregation as a tool to reinforce racial boundaries.

  19. In the years after the construction of a new church building for white members, Jeter professed to “unusual barrenness” in the church. He also protested liturgical changes, including instrumentally accompanied music, which he referred to as “mechanical music.” He eventually resigned in 1848, turning down an offer from the church to raise his salary from $1,000 to $1,500, and traveled west to frontier St. Louis. Jeter, Recollections, 58–60. White, FBC Richmond, 55–61.

  20. Douglas Egerton has argued that Denmark Vesey organized a plot, not a revolt. Douglas R. Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), xiv.

  21. Donald Mathews famously noted the significance of bodily proximity for the policing of social norms in Protestant congregations: “The fact the every Virginian, for example, was required by law to attend church services each week was designed to reinforce the moral policing of the church-wardens by bring people together within sight and touch of each other to hear the moral precepts of the community explained.” Mathews, Religion in the Old South, 4.

  22. Alton S Wallace. I Once Was Young: History of Alfred Street Baptist Church, 1803-2003 (Littleton, Mass.: Tapestry Press, 2003), 233–235.

  23. Black Baptists in Alexandria later built their own indoor baptistery in the early twentieth century, once they gained the material resources needed to modernize their congregation. For most of the 1800s, members of the Colored Baptist Society “baptized outdoors in Huntington Creek and at various sties along the Potomac River. In 1900, they moved to a site at “Battery Rodgers near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.” In 1920, they constructed their first “indoor pool” at the Alfred Street Baptist Church. Its members continued to use the pool “in various states of disrepair” until 1980, when it moved to a new church building, which included a new baptistery. Correspondence with Alton S. Wallace, 19 February 2010. Wallace does not mention the construction of an indoor baptistery in his otherwise thorough history of Alfred Street Baptist Church. He does include a detailed time line at the end of the book, which I summarize as follows. In 1806, black members of the Alexandria Baptist Society organized their own Colored Baptist Society, though it remained within the white governing body of the former society. In 1810, white leaders permitted the first black minister to preach to its black members. Slaves from Mount Vernon joined the Colored Baptist Society in 1815. In 1819, the Alexandria Baptist Society allowed the Colored Baptist Society to worship independently at 313 South Alfred Street. Wallace, I Once Was Young, 233–235.

  24. Black Baptists often changed their congregational names to distance themselves from the implied racial placeholder of a (white) First Baptist Church. For example, the Colored Baptist Society of Alexandria changed its name to the First African Baptist Church in 1855 and then to the First Colored Baptist Church in the 1870s. But then in 1888, it changed its name once more to Alfred Street Baptist Church to avoid being confused with the white congregation, which had changed its name from Alexandria Baptist Church to First Baptist Church Alexandria. Wallace, I Once Was Young, 233–235. In comparison, black Baptists in Siler City, North Carolina, organized as First Baptist Church in 1919. But they later changed their name to North Sixth Avenue First Baptist Church, to designate the location of the congregation and distinguish it from the downtown white congregation of First Baptist Church Siler City. According to the church history, they returned to their original name of First Baptist Church after North Sixth Avenue was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1991. Annie Fox, “The Story and History of First Baptist Church,” in First Baptist Church, 75th Anniversary, 1919–1994 (history compiled by and in the collection of the First Baptist Church of Siler City, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., n.d.), unpaginated. A copy of this document was obtained from the town manager, Town of Siler City. As of 2005, the church marquee stated the name of the congregation as First Missionary Baptist Church. Both examples illustrate the difficulty of referring to two churches by the same name.

  25. George H. Shriver, Pilgrims through the Years: A Bicentennial History of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia (Franklin, Tenn.: Providence House Publishers, 1999), 17–19.

  26. Lucian Lamar Knight, A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians(Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1917), 234. Historian Hywel M. Davies describes Jonathan Clarke as “one of the white benefactors of the negro church.” Hywel M. Davies, Transatlantic Brethren: Rev. Samuel Jones (1735–1814) and His Friends: Baptists in Wales, Pennsylvania, and Beyond(Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1995), 219. Clarke’s letters and his, “An Account of the Negro Church at Savannah, and of two Negro Ministers,” is cited in several surveys and monographs, including Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 248.

  27. Shiver, Pilgrims Through the Years, 17–19, 36–37.

  28. According to Shriver, there was “no record of the mayor’s response in the Minutes,” the “First African Baptist Church remained open,” and in 1837 it was “readmitted into the association.” Shriver, Pilgrims through the Years, 36–37. Andrew Bryan helped found the First African Baptist Church in Savannah in 1778, prior to white Baptist plans to construct a downtown building. Bryan, a black Baptist minister, converted Thomas Polhill, the son of a white Episcopal minister and one of the key figures mentioned above in the initial city planning. By 1830, Bryan’s congregation numbered twenty-four hundred members. Despite the fact that the First African Baptist Church was both chronologically first and much larger than its white counterpart, the downtown church for white members “was referred to on the streets and even in its own Minutes as “First Baptist.” It was not until 1921, however, that its name was officially changed from “Savannah Baptist” to “First Baptist.” Shriver, Pilgrims through the Years, 18, 33–34, 105. Mechal Sobel, Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 189–190, 284–285, n10. At the time of planning for the church in Savannah, David Adams served as a deacon in Richard Furman’s congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. James A. Rogers, Richard Furman: Life and Legacy(Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001), 91.

  29. Rev. T. J. Hornsby, “The Relation of White and Colored Baptists,” in E. K. Love, ed., History of the First African Baptist Church, From its Organization, January 20th, 1788, to July 1st, 1888, Including the Centennial Celebration, Addresses, Sermons, Etc. (Savannah, Ga.: Morning News Print, 1888), 254–255. For another example of state laws concerning baptism, see the Biography of London Ferrill.Ferrill, a slave who was converted and baptized at a revival, was allowed to travel and preach the gospel. In one instance, however, the law prohibited him from baptizing new converts. Based on the narrative, it appears those converts were white Virginians. It reads, “He (Ferrill) commenced preaching, and the people appeared to receive the word gladly, and when he had gained about fifty converts who were ready to be baptised which ceremony he was not authorised to perform by the Virginia law, he procured the services of Preacher Bowles, and he baptised them. The white people frequently invited Ferrill to their houses to sing for them, as he was considered a great singer, and was sent for, far and near, to preach funeral sermons when the servants would die.” Ferrill is later described as having a desire to leave the state of Virginia. After the death of his master, he bought a wagon and two horses and moved with his wife to Kentucky. There he “continued to preach, baptizing in the Ohio river at Maysville and Covington, in Elkhorn, Town Fork, and in all the ponds for miles around Lexington. A pool was then constructed in the Church lot in which he baptized two hundred and twenty persons in one hour and twenty-five minutes, and sixty at another time, in forty-five minutes and has baptized, in all, upwards of five thousand.” Biography of London Ferrill, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Colored Persons, Lexington, KY(Lexington, Ky.: A. W. Elder, 1854).

  30. Hornsby, “The Relation of White and Colored Baptists,” 254–255.

  31. Shriver, Pilgrims through the Years,96, 98, 107–108.

  32. Prior to construction of a new building for FBC Charleston in the early 1800s, “The first house in which the Church worshipped…was on King Street…The next house was a frame building, erected in 1699, on site of the present church edifice, with a parsonage on the same lot…The third house, build in 1746, is he building on Church Street, long known as the “mariner’s Church.” H. A. Tupper, Two Centuries of the First Baptist Church of South Carolina, 1683-1883 (Baltimore: R. H. Woodward, 1889), 305–306.

  33. Robert A. Baker and Paul J. Craven Jr., The History of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina 1682–2007, (Springfield, Mo.: Particular Baptist Press, 2007) 218, 265, 296–297. Description of D. T. Mendenhall also based on Philemon Barry Waters and Herbert M. Milam, A Genealogical History of the Waters and Kindred Families(Atlanta: Foote and Davies, 1902), 167.

  34. Baker and Craven, History of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, 218, 265, 296–297.

  35. For a discussion of architectural differences between rural and urban churches in the twentieth century American landscape, see James Hudnut-Beumler, “The Many Mansions of God’s House: The Religious Built Environment as Assimilation and Differentiation,” The Material History of American Religion Project, Electronic Journal (1997), See also Peter W. Williams, Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

  36. This story is based on notes from an informal interview with Reverend Greg Burris, pastor of Rocky River Baptist Church (6 October 2006).

  37. Other factors may have played a role in the construction of indoor baptisteries, such as proximity to water or pollution from cities. In the case of Siler City, these explanations are less persuasive. Using the terrain feature on Google Maps (, FBC Siler City is roughly 4,000 feet from Loves Creek and only 1,200 feet from a tributary of that creek. In comparison, Rocky River Baptist Church is approximately 4,500 feet from Rocky River and 3,000 feet from Nick Creek. Loves Creek Baptist is about 3,500 feet from Rocky River and 2,000 feet from Loves Creek. Distance to water then was likely not an issue. In terms of pollution, FBC Siler built its indoor baptistery before local factories reached large-scale production levels. Also, raw sewage should not have been too much of an issue, since outhouses were used. However, animal excrement was a real problem, as a position of “Public Scavenger” was created in 1914 with the job of removing dead animals and excrement from city limits. Pollution of local streams was a possibility, though members of FBC Siler could have more easily walked a short distance upstream to avoid those potential problems than maintained indoor baptisteries without using public water or electricity. Early baptisteries often smelled of mold and mildew as well. This suggests that Baptists based their decision to baptize indoors on more than just sanitation alone. For a more sustained account of the religious and industrial development of Siler City, see Chad E. Seales, “Cultivating the Desolate Meadows: Industry, Religion, and Social Differentiation in Siler City, North Carolina, 1884–1932,” The North Carolina Historical Review 85 (January 2008), 57–87.

  38. Murray M. Andrew, First Baptist Church, 1889–1989 (Winston-Salem: Hunter Publishing Company, 1989), 26.

  39. Rachel and Ruth Selden-Sturgill Osborn, The Architectural Heritage of Chatham County, North Carolina (Charlotte: Chatham County Historic Architecture Survey Committee and the Delmar Company, 1991), 49.

  40. Andrew, First Baptist Church, 27.

  41. Comer, First Baptist Church, Sanford, NC, 88–89.

  42. Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), 19.

  43. Ron Boswell, The Blessing of Beulah: Prepared for the Sesqui-centennial Celebration of the Beulah Baptist Association of North Carolina(Roxboro, N.C.: Beulah Baptist Association, 1984), 188, 118, 116.

  44. Frank H. Morse, “Heating Water in a Church Bapistry,” Popular Mechanics (March 1911), 441.

  45. Historian Ryan Smith has argued that the proliferation of nineteenth century architectural church design in the U.S. was associated with anti-Catholicism, what he calls the “seed of Protestant adaptation.” Ryan K. Smith, Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses: Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 17.

  46. Comer, First Baptist Church Sanford.

  47. For another example of church architecture as a marker of social status, see Wilmington, North Carolina, which was advertised on post cards as the “City of Beautiful Churches.” Walter H. Conser, Jr., A Coat of Many Colors: Religion and Society along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006). For a description of the connection between Gothic civilization and Christian values, see Paul Frankl, Gothic Architecture, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 14. For a discussion of evangelical use of architectural displays to gain respectability, see Christopher H. Owen, “By Design: The Social Meaning of Methodist Church Architecture in Nineteenth-century Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly75 (Summer 1991), 221–53. The national trend of using classical architecture and technological innovations to show the United States both as modern and as the rightful inheritor of European civilization was most clearly and grandly demonstrated at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Alan Trachtenberg describes how the architecture of the White City reflected classical, Gothic, and Renaissance styles. In the displays of the White City, “architecture” stood for “educated and tasteful picturing” and it was used to associate artistic displays with “wealth, and the power to donate and administer with social station and training.” Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age(1982; New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 117, 119, 144.

  48. For classical examples of this evolutionary narrative, see Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1912); and Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959). For a useful overview of these approaches, see Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 85–117, 193–228.