"For the majority that established the National Baptist Convention, the church was a refuge from a hostile white society. Black Baptists used the philosophy of self-help to survive Jim Crow, preaching a gospel of advancement through education," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of the sixth chapter of The New Abolition in which he tells the story of the Baptists (chapter five having covered the Methodists).
He begins with William Simmons, who was president of State University (later Simmons University) in Kentucky beginning in 1880 who was a preacher, academic, activist, and journalist. He wrote, "If the industrial craze be not watched, our literary institutions will be turned into workshops and our scholars into servants and journeymen. Keep the literary and industrial apart. Let the former be stamped deeply so it will not be mistaken. We need scholars."
And Dorrien writes that he was a "feminist activist" recognizing "that women, if organized, could be a source of creativity and power in the church." This was obviously controversial in the 1880's.
He was critical of a religion that did not engage the wider society and believed that "Black Baptists were failing at their Christian social ethical mission precisely because they did not work hard enough at attaining power in American society."
Like many of these theologians, he advocated for racial pride and the contributions of African Americans. He believed they "must possess more intellectual vigor than any other section of the human family or else who could they be crushed as slaves in all these years since 1620, and yet today stand side by side with the best blood in America."
Dorrien also discusses E. C. Morris, another of the founders of the National Baptist Convention. Morris was a pastor in Helena, Arkansas. I have visited his grave there. Local leaders were trying to restore the gravesite and the historic black cemetery which had fallen into neglect and ruin.
Morris believed that black Baptists were capable of freeing "the millions bound in heathen darkness" because they had already in a short time risen from slavery to vitality.
One reason African Americans had to form their own denominations was the supremacist attitude of white Christians. Dorrien quotes the Rev. J. W. Ford, a white Baptist, speaking before the American Baptist Home Mission Society in St. Louis in 1890 in which he denounced an effort by the denominational press to publish black ministers. He thought black ministers should tell their congregations "how to behave and where they belonged." If they couldn't be trusted to do that then, "The alternative is to elevate or exterminate, to use the Bible or bullet. There is either one or the other of these alternatives for the black man of the South. A great national peril calls for a great national movement." My skin crawls reading this vile filth.