Inside the nearly 200-year-old sanctuary are stone memorial plaques honoring former pastors and leaders of the South's oldest Baptist church.

But many of the parishioners who filled the balconies at First Baptist Church have long been forgotten.

Until now.

A black-and-gold plaque was recently attached outside the wall of First Baptist, located at 61 Church St., to honor the thousands of slaves who worshipped there.

“We dedicated the plaque to the memory of the enslaved members whose names we don’t know. But God knows their names," said the Rev. Marshall Blalock, First Baptist's pastor. "They're written in the Lamb's Book of Life.”

First Baptist, currently a Southern Baptist congregation, was once home to more than 800 parishioners before the Civil War — most of whom were enslaved blacks. Today, the church is making efforts to acknowledge its shared history with Morris Street Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation at 25 Morris St. that was started by freed slaves who left First Baptist after the Civil War. 

The shared history between the congregations, which are distinctly different in their cultures and worship styles today, describes how oppression and marginalization infiltrated into holy places during the 19th century in Charleston. It shows how the black church became an institution where slaves could embrace their African roots in worship, and interpret Christianity through the lens of their injustices in America.

'Impossible Dream'

First Baptist was established in Charleston in 1696 when 28 members from Maine moved to the South. The current Church Street edifice, fronted with four thick, white columns on a large portico, was built in 1822.

Early on, the congregation was a mostly white, middle-class crowd. Many members were shipbuilders who embraced Baptist ideologies, like congregational autonomy and religious freedom. Worship consisted of Scripture readings, prayers, preaching and singing.

By 1826, the former 28-member congregation had grown to more than 800. Membership consisted of 150 white members and 700 blacks, according to church records. Around the same time, South Carolina's slave population was counted as 265,300 compared with a white population of 237,440.

Racism still prevailed in the sanctuary. Slaves, who attended church with their masters, were forced upstairs to stand in the balconies during worship. 

Slaves listened to white preachers emphasize Bible passages that instructed slaves to obey their masters and sang songs led by white leadership. Communion and Sunday school was segregated.

Regarding church governance, slaves couldn't vote on decisions or serve in any church-wide leadership roles. 

Since it was illegal for them to assemble and worship, and own land, they attended white churches simply to hear from God. Owning their own place for worship was simply unfathomable.

"That was an impossible dream for many years," said the Rev. Leonard Griffin, pastor of Morris Street.

Soon, the dream would become a reality.

The invisible becomes visible

Many slaves established "invisible institutions" on slave plantations. Here, hidden in forest brush, blacks held secret worship services where they sang spirituals and heard from black preachers who preached about Hebrew liberation from Egyptian captivity in the Book of Exodus.

Muffling sounds so they wouldn't get caught, they expressed celebratory styles of worship that included clapping, dancing, tapping drums and playing tambourines — all customs that traced back to Africa. 

Free from white-controlled churches that restricted their voice, the invisible institutions became a refuge.

Dr. Walter Strickland, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke on "400 years of Black Church history" at First Baptist in November.

"It was a worship service of their own," Strickland said. "A lot of the roots of the celebratory practice we see had its roots on the African soil. ... (The invisible institution) is the Christian faith applied directly to the black experience in America.”

Soon, Strickland said, the invisible institution became visible. After the Civil War ended in 1865, most of the black members at First Baptist left to start their own church. In 1865, 73 former slaves established an edifice on Morris Street. 

This occurred at other churches on the peninsula, as well. Central, Memorial and Calvary Baptist churches were all congregations started by freed blacks who left white churches after the Emancipation. Other denominations, like the AME Church, also did this.

"They were in search of a place where they could worship as full human beings," Strickland said.

Griffin echoed that sentiment. In black churches, slaves selected songs, heard sermons, danced, shouted and prayed in a place where they were free and secure. But it was more than just a place where they could worship within the context of their culture. More than anything, they longed for dignity.

"When they came to church, it was no longer ‘boy this, or girl that,'" Griffin said. "It was pastor or reverend, deacon or Sunday school teacher. It took on a whole new lifestyle for a lot of those slaves. A whole new perspective on the social strata. A whole new perspective on leadership."

Morris Street grew quickly. In the 1950s and '60s, it was pivotal to the Civil Rights movement, welcoming the likes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to its Charleston pulpit.

Striving to become one

Today, both congregations are vibrant and bustling with ministries. First Baptist brings in about 300 on a Sunday. It houses a K-12 school on its site.

Morris Street sees about 175 worshippers regularly. It's part of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, and hosts a food bank.

The evidence of these early roots are displayed in both churches' worship styles today.

First Baptist takes on the Charleston Tradition style of Baptist worship. These services are more classical and formal, and less outwardly expressive. First Baptist's pipe organ provides music as hymns are sung.

“When you sing 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' with the pipe organ and the choir and everything, it’s beautiful worship," Blalock said.

For congregants, this traditional style is proffered to many of today's contemporary platforms.

“I’ve always preferred the traditional style of worship that presents the gospel. So many of our churches have almost moved to more of being an entertainment service instead of a true worship service," said Rob Powell, who heads the Deacon ministry at First Baptist.

At Morris Street, worship is more expressive. Parishioners sing and clap and even shout in service. Griffin preaches with a call-and-response style. The members enjoy it.

“I’m more of a celebratory person. If I feel something, I just can’t sit there," said Wendell McCoy, who heads the deacon ministry at Morris Street.

But despite their cultural differences, both congregations are striving to unify on various fronts. This comes at a time when other churches in the Charleston area are aiming to build bridges between white and black churches by hosting combined regular worship services.

Griffin and Blalock have preached at each other's churches. They hope to eventually host combined services.

“When we’re thinking of the kingdom of God, we can’t think of it in black or white," Griffin said. "We have to think in terms of God’s kingdom being of people that have a heart to do the will of God, who’ve accepted Christ as Savior."

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