First African Baptist celebrates 150 years of community, worship

loberle@islandpacket.comDecember 14, 2013 

The adult choir performs a selection during Sunday worship at First African Baptist Church on St. Helena Island. The church is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr/Staff photo Buy Photo

A Sunday morning service at First African Baptist Church on St. Helena Island begins with congregants singing, "I thank God for saving me."

It's a chant-like praise, an organic manifestation that grows louder, more passionate and more authoritative with each repeated verse.

A banner thumb-tacked on the wall of the sanctuary reads, "150th Church Anniversary: Working to Become More Committed to Christ."

And 150 years after its founding, the church's spirit of worship and community has remained.

In 1863, First African Baptist was organized as a "branch church" of Brick Baptist Church, the first church on St. Helena Island.

Slaves built the two-story, brick and mortar building in 1855 for their white plantation owners. They were allowed to worship there, but only in the balcony, out of sight. After the Battle of Port Royal in 1861, freed slaves took control of the church when Port Royal fell to the Union Army.

Congregants walked miles to and from church each Sunday, and eventually "branch churches" were founded in different locations on the island. First African was the second church to branch off from Brick Baptist, after Adam Street Baptist and preceding Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Robert Middleton, 84, grew up in the church. He serves as a deacon, as did his father, James Middleton. His grandfather, July Middleton, was a freed slave and among the founding members of the church who came from Brick Baptist Church.

Robert Middleton remembers the one-room wooden building with white painted walls, no electricity or running water and bare wooden pews. Every Sunday he made the three-mile walk to and from church with his family, whether he wanted to or not.

Back then, the church served as much more than just a place of worship.

"It was the backbone of the community," Middleton said.

The church was the law, it was the help, it was where the community went for almost everything.

If there were disputes, if anyone needed to be punished, the church was alerted rather than law enforcement.

"Those folks didn't believe in the law," Middleton said of his parents and grandparents. "They'd had a hard time with slavery. Everybody was against them. They only had one another and had to depend of their community.

"They trusted each other, not the unjust law."

Members would sit through scorching heat, waving hand fans to cool themselves off.

"A lot of Sundays were hot," Middleton said. "Sometimes the windows wouldn't open. But the heat didn't bother the people there."

In September 1959, Hurricane Gracie hit St. Helena. A 6-foot storm surge caused heavy crop damage and excessive property damage -- among it, a destroyed First African Baptist Church.

But the congregation came together and rebuilt the church in the same place.

"Back in those days they didn't hire anybody to do anything," Middleton said. "Everybody in the community got together and worked on the church."

In the '80s, a Fellowship Hall was added to the church, which includes a pool for baptisms. Before, members were baptized in the river that runs behind the church during hide tide as the tide was going out.

"They say the tide will take us back home," Middleton said.

Other Faith and Values stories by Laura Oberle

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