From their inauspicious beginnings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Mississippi evangelical churches--the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian-- expanded dramatically and set the moral tone of society. Early churches were founded on egalitarian principles by members of both races. A study of unpublished church records reveals that before 1830, blacks and whites received equal treatment in the churches. White evangelicals welcomed slaves into the churches, often opposed slavery, and defended slaves' religious freedom.
The rapid expansion of slavery in the state, the movement of slaveholders into the churches, and the growing wealth of the membership presented evangelicals with a serious moral dilemma. As sectional tensions rose and the debate over slavery intensified after 1830, most evangelicals embraced slavery. Religious leaders articulated the most accepted justification of slavery, one based on Biblical teachings. The Biblical defense of slavery emphasized the spiritual welfare of slaves. After 1830 evangelical efforts to minister to blacks increased, and black church membership grew.
As they moved from sect to denomination, churches became more hierarchical and less egalitarian. Ministers sought a higher social position and placed greater emphasis on the ministerial gift. Lay participation in worship services was discouraged. Because of their preference for a different style of worship and because of white discrimination, blacks often preferred segregated services.
Some historians have characterized biracial churches as simply another white control device against slaves, but an analysis of approximately 1600 disciplinary actions from 30 churches demonstrates that while whites sometimes used church courts to punish slaves who violated the slave code, most cases against blacks involved the same charges made against white offenders.
The coming of the Civil War highlighted the divergent goals held by black and white evangelicals. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, white evangelicals lent their support to sectionalism, secession, and war. War and defeat brought about a crisis in many churches, yet out of that malaise grew a powerful, and heretofore unexamined, revival on the home front. Blacks joined in the revivals. The war disrupted life in the slave community, but many slaves saw the war as an answered prayer for freedom. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)