The church was the most important institution in the African American community. Its influence reached so far that some scholars concluded that the African American church was the African American community. Since the founding of separate, independent Baptist and Methodist denominations among African slaves and ex-slaves, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the African American church became the most dominant force of liberation in the African American community.
The African American church in America was often obscured in the plantation church experiences. African Americans worshiped in balconies or to the rear of the master’s church. Frequently overlooked was that these African Americans, who worshiped as slaves, who drove their masters to church, cared for their children, and performed other tasks. It was not in this atmosphere that the African American church emerged. The African American church developed its own distinctive pattern long before official efforts to Christianize the New World Africa, according to Harold Carter, author of The African American Church: Past, Present, and Future.
Seventeenth Century society considered slaves infidels. The 1830 Census reflected that there were 682 slaves in Randolph County, Georgia and increased to 2,619 by 1840. The very belief that slaves were not intelligent enough to reason and to worship made it possible for the slave’s “secret religious meetings” to promote practices of beliefs they held dear. Slaves translated their African beliefs into English and Christian culture. They adapted Christian culture useful to them in the slave experience.
Carter contented that “by the time the masters were willing to concede souls to slaves, satisfied that the Christian faith could be used to enforce obedience and increase market value, the slaves had long since established their underground version of the true faith; and they were well along in their own “invisible institution”, or underground church.”
Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church was such an example. Origins of the church dated back to 1834; however, the church may be older. Fifty to sixty years of the church’s history was lost prior to 1966. The church was established in the northwestern area of Randolph County had its location about eleven miles northwest outside of the city limits of Cuthbert in Randolph County, Georgia. Located on lot number one hundred and sixteen in the ninth district, was once known as the Piney Grove Settlement, also referred to as the upper corner.
The brush arbor was the first edifice the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church. The brush arbor was also referred to as a bush arbor or yarbor. The documented history consisted solely of oral accounts passed down through generations. The brush arbor was used by slaves probably much like a praise house. According to Albert J. Raboteau’s, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, the bush arbor was a hut or building the slaves used for their nightly meetings of prayer and song.
Sometimes these praise meetings were held in secret in open fields. In these meetings the slaves vented their emotions and feelings about their life’s conditions under an attitude free from the restrictive presence of the master. The slaves practiced their religion conversions, danced, and poured out their hearts to God. Slaves felt free during this time of “secret” worship without fear of punishment or death. In the “secret” place of worship, slaves were not inhibited by the presence of their owners.
Records did not emerge that indicated who the early members were who worshiped during Piney Grove’s bush arbor era. However, an early historical compilation entitled The History of the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church by Dr. James White revealed one oral account from an Anthony Sampson, who was a native of Africa.
According to Sampson’s account, a white man named Turner Harris purportedly purchased him and brought him to Randolph County, Georgia where he lived within the Piney Grove Settlement. Sampson took part in building the brush arbor structure that later became Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church. There was no written record, however, to confirm Sampson’s claim.
The elder members of Piney Grove contended that worship was held in brush arbors for nearly thirty-six years, according to a compilation of several oral accounts in 2003. It was not until 1870, that the members decided to build another church in the same location, a wooden structure that would stand as a foundation for generations.
Oral accounts contend that twenty-three ministers served as pastor for the church. However, written records available extend as a far as 1877 and only identify sixteen former pastors. Undoubtedly, still rich in history and culture, the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church will celebrate its 179th Anniversary, Sunday, June 16, 2013. Remarkably, the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church has evolved from a brush arbor to a modernized sanctuary. Though its physical structure changed several times, its traditions and cultures remained relatively the same.#