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Beginnings of Churches and Christian Work in Mississippi

by Henry G. Hawkins

Christian chaplains (Roman Catholic priests) accompanied the dashing young Spaniard, Hernando De Soto, in his luckless wanderings through Mississippi in 1539. The next priest who set foot on Mississippi soil was Marquette, who, in 1673, along with Joliet, a tracker, did some work, chiefly of exploration. The inspiration of their trip was partly missionary; but they probably held little communication with the Indians.  They reached the conclusion that the Mississippi River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.  Marquette's health suffered from the exposure of the journey; and Joliet lost his map and record of their journey while crossing the rapids above Montreal.  but Marquette's narrative of the trip was published in 1681.  In 1682, Father Membre accompanied the expedition of La Salle as far south as the mouth of the Mississippi River.  On the trip down, every effort was made to obtain the friendship of the various Indian tribes; and Father Membre, in his interesting narrative of the voyage, refers especially to the kindly welcome they found at a village of the "Natchie" Indians, nine miles inland.

Before 1698 the Seminary of Foreign Missions at Paris, France, had established a branch seminary in Quebec; and in the 1698 the Bishop of Quebec sent out from this branch seminary three Catholic priests, to be the first missionaries resident in the newly discovered Southern field.  One of these started a mission among a tribe of the Illinois, north of the Ohio River; the second settled among the Tensas, and latter among the "Natchie" Indians; and the third, Father Anthony Davion, came still farther south, and pursued missionary labors in what is now Wilkinson County, among the Tunica tribe., planting the cross on a high rock, which was called by the French, "Roche a Davion" until 1764, when it was named "Loftus Heights" by the British, and subsequently "Fort Adams".  Davion visited Biloxi.  He finally suffered the martyrdom of death by burning at Fort Adams.

Roman Catholic missionary labors were pursued for nearly a century, but despite great individual efforts and heroism amid savage conditions, it is doubtful if many converts were made among the settlers in Mississippi, or any lasting impressions made upon the Indian tribes.  When the province became a part of the United States, and the Mississippi Territory was set apart in 1798, it was without a Catholic priest.  They had all returned to Spain and France.

Before the departure of the Catholic priests, the Protestants had done much missionary work, but in violation of the laws of the province.  Spain, which was most intensely Catholic country in Europe, in her government of the provinces of West Florida, which included much of Mississippi, made some effort at tolerance, in order to encourage immigration; but the Catholic Church received official sanction and encouragement.  A large majority of the settlers were Protestants, and were allowed full right of private worship.  Claiborne, in his history says: "It was a community of Protestants under strictly Catholic dynasty in an age of intolerance.  But here there was little persecution, no proscription, no civil distinctions made, and never any interference, except in one or two instances when the preservation of public order was imperative."  The successive commandants at Natchez were accomplished gentlemen, "trained to arms, fond of etiquette and pomp, but hospitable, generous and forbearing."

Congregationalist

In 1772 Richard and Samuel Swayze, of New Jersey, bought at 20 cents per acre, 19,000 acres of land, and located the tract on the Homochitto River in what later became Adams County.  Samuel Swayze was a Congregationalist minister, and most of the people who came with him were of that faith.  "The faithful shepherd, as soon as he provided a shelter for his wife and children, and planted corn for their bread, gathered up his fold and organized his society, undoubtedly the first Protestant pastor and congregation in the Natchez district.  Under many drawbacks, growing out of Indian depredations and discouragements after the county passed into Spanish hands, this pious teacher and his kindred met together on the Sabbath, often in the swamps and canebrakes, for divine service."

Baptist

The second Protestant preacher in the new territory was Richard Curtis, a Baptist, who settled on Cole's Creek, near Natchez, in 1780.  he is represented as a plain, honest, unsophisticated man, but zealous and uncompromising.  The Spanish government threatened to send him to the Mexican mines, and to escape that, he fled to his old home in North Carolina.  William Berry was the second Baptist preacher to appear in the territory.  As early as 1800 Baptist congregations were formed at or near Woodville and on Second Creek.  These two, with Salem and New Providence, of Amite County, and one other, making five churches in all met at Bethel, four and one half miles southwest of Woodville, in August, 1806, and formed an Association, which has grown into the present Baptist Convention of Mississippi.  In 1812, there were seventeen churches and 765 members.  The commodious brick structure used by the Baptist congregation of Woodville at the present time, still in good condition, is thought by some to be the oldest church building in Mississippi.  Unfortunately, records on the subject are not obtainable.

Episcopal

The Episcopalians were next to enter the territory.  In 1792, while the country was under Spanish control, Rev. Adam Cloud, Virginian, settled on St. Catherine's Creek in Adams County.  Public religious worship was forbidden by the authorities; but besides baptizing the children and burying the dead, Mr. Cloud occasionally preached, and in other ways ministered to the spiritual needs of the people. For this he was arrested and put in irons, and sent to New Orleans to be tried on a charge of heresy, or leave the territory.  He chose the latter, and went to South Carolina and Georgia, where he remained twenty years.  He returned in 1816; and in the year 1820 organized Christ Church at Church Hill, the first Episcopalian parish of the State.  This brave pioneer was followed by Rev. James A. Fox and Rev. James Pilmore.  The first Episcopalian services in Woodville were held by Rev. James A. Fox on Oct. 4, 1823; and on May 17, 1826, the four parishes of Church Hill, Port Gibson, Woodville, and Natchez met in Natchez and organized the Diocese of Mississippi, Natchez being the largest parish, with 35 communicants.  The Woodville congregation, under the leadership of the present rector, Rev. David E. Holt, on Oct. 4 to 7, 1923, held an interesting and inspiring centennial celebration, which received additional inspiration from the attendance of Bishops T.D Bratton and W.M. Green and several former rectors.

Methodist

The work of the Methodists in the Natchez country began with the appointment by Bishop Asbury at the session of the South Carolina Conference, which met in Charleston, Jan. 1, 1799 of the Tobias Gibson as preacher in charge of the Natchez circuit or mission.  Asbury knew the Spanish government had just been superseded by the American, and that the time was ripe for the Methodists to go into the American settlements of the Natchez country.  His choice of Gibson was a wise one, except that his healthy failed and he died April 5, 1804.  The family record of the Griffings near Selzertown, twelve miles from Natchez, shows that on Oct. 10, 1799, Gibson performed the marriage ceremony of Jonathan Jones to Phoebe Griffing.  It is supposed that Gibson preached in Wilkinson County in 1799 or 1800, because the record is that he visited all the settlements and held services during those years.  It is known that the eccentric Methodist evangelist, Lorenzo Dow, in 1803, preached at Fort Adams, Pinckneyville, and at a point in Wilkinson County, near Laurel Hill, La., and at Midway, near Centreville.  In this same year Dow, at Kingston, Adams County, gave his watch for the lot on which the first Methodist Church building of Mississippi was erected.

In October, 1804, Learner Blackman, of Kentucky, was appointed by William McKendree, president of the Western Conference, to take supervision of the work in the Mississippi Territory.  He arrived at Randall Gibson's near Port Gibson, Nov. 6, accompanied by Lorenzo Dow.  At the session of the Western Conference held in Scott County, Ky. Oct. 2, 1805, the work, which had been hitherto only one circuit, the Natchez, was divided into three distinct circuits, Natchez, Claiborne, and Wilkinson, comprising the Mississippi District of the Western Conference.  Learner Blackman was presiding elder, and Caleb W. Cloud was preacher-in-charge of the most southern circuit, Wilkinson, which "must embrace all of Wilkinson County, extending eastward to the waters of the Amite and Bogue Chitto rivers, and as far south into West Florida as the Protestant settlements could guarantee the safety of the preacher." The Mississippi Conference was organized in 1813, and is the mother of several Conferences.

The first bishop to preside over the Mississippi Conference was Roberts.  The family of W.A. Dickson, at Centreville, Miss., have i their possession the parchment signed by R.R. Roberts at Pine Ridge, M.T. ,Oct. 13, 1816, certifying the ordination of William Winans as elder.

June 26-30, the Methodists of Woodville, Miss. Celebrated the one hundredth year since their church was erected.

Presbyterian

Many of the emigrants to the Natchez district were Scotch Irish, very tenacious Presbyterians.

In May, 1800, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America authorized Rev. James Hall to preach the gospel in the Natchez country.  The Synod of Carolinas (North and South) included in its bounds the territory of Alabama and Mississippi, and in October, 1800, appointed James Hall and James H. Bowman, of South Carolina, and William Montgomery, of Georgia, to evangelize in the Natchez country, provided for their support and sent them westward.  They came through the wilderness on horseback.  They spent from October to April (1801) in the country.  they found some places for service near Black River, Bayou Pierre near the site of Port Gibson, Cole's Creek at Uniontown, Washington, Natchez, Pinkneyville and others, nine in all.  From the nine, five churches were subsequently organized.

Rev. Joseph Bullon had been sent in 1799 by the New York Missionary Society to work among the Indians of  North Mississippi, near Pontotoc.  He was Presbyterian, and after four years of work among the Indians, he settled near Natchez and engaged in farming, teaching school and preaching.  He was an organizer; and in 1804 he established Bethel Church in Jefferson County, which was the first Presbyterian church in Mississippi, constituted in regular form.  It afterwards was united with the Rodney Church.

In 1804, James Smylie came from North Carolina.  He was the first Presbyterian minister to settle permanently in the Mississippi Territory.

The oldest congregation in Mississippi that is still alive is at Pine Ridge, five miles from Natchez.

By 1812 there were eight churches, and in 1815 these churches, which had become a part of the Synod of Kentucky, were constituted an independent Presbytery, to be known as the Mississippi Presbytery.  The first meeting of this Presbytery (with three preachers and four elders present) was held March 6, 1816, at Salem church, Pine Ridge, Adams county.  In 1830 Oakland College was established by the Mississippi Presbytery, its successor being Chamberlain-Hunt Academy at Port Gibson.

Christian

It seems that the Christians, or Disciples, did not organize in the State until 1838, the first congregation being formed at Battle, eight miles from Jackson, followed in the same year by organizations at Utica, Columbus, and several in Wilkinson County.  General William Clark, who preached at Battle once a month for many years, along with Joe Mathes, organized in 1841 a congregation in Jackson, which before the Civil War was one of the wealthiest in the State.  Mr. Phares, in 1843, opened in Wilkinson County a college for both young men and young ladies, which flourished until the outbreak of the Civil War, sending out many useful men and women.

* Abstract from the History of Protestantism in the Old Southwest, reproduced from the "New Orleans Christian Advocate," August 21, 1924.  Bob Anding, Miss. Historical Society, 1980.