Have you ever wondered how the early Protestant churches in the Panhandle got their start? If we are lucky in our search for answers, the churches where we are looking will have a written history or records that will give us a hint as to who in the community was instrumental in founding the church and from what organization the officials came from that facilitated the formation. Most of the time, start-up churches were under the umbrella of an association that was authorized to establish and recognize a fledgling church. They would also provide a settled pastor or a circuit riding pastor that covered a large geographic area. In return, the new church would send representatives to annual meetings, along with tithe that supported the association’s work.
While Florida was controlled by the Spanish, the official state religion was Catholicism. I have read that near the end of their presence in Florida they became a bit more lenient in how that was regulated in efforts to bring in settlers that would provide them more presence outside the small-populated area of Pensacola in the panhandle. Other religions could meet in homes, remaining unseen in public. In reality, the areas outside the few populated places were seldom visited by the Spanish and control was on paper only. In my study of the early Baptist churches in Florida as I researched for my upcoming book on Yellow River Baptist Church, I found reference to only one very early Baptist church in the panhandle prior to the United States taking possession of Florida and it was in the Campbellton area.
Here in the Panhandle, the Association involved in the establishment of the early Baptist churches was the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Association out of Alabama. It is unclear how early they were sending missionaries and circuit riders to the Panhandle to conduct services and encourage the establishment of churches because their early records either no longer exist or I’ve not found them yet. If there was another Association in the Panhandle prior to 1840, I have not yet found a reference to their activities in any of the existing Association records I’ve reviewed. But I keep looking.
We know that they helped found Yellow River Baptist Church in what is now northern Okaloosa County, just south of the Alabama border in June 1840. The 1849 minutes of Bethlehem’s annual meeting lists several West Florida churches under their umbrella. They are: Yellow River, Milton, Escambia River and Pensacola. In 1850, the Escambia River church was stricken from the records as being “extinct”. Through the 1850s the three churches in the panhandle continue to be Yellow River, Pensacola and Milton. Then in 1859 Coon Hill is mentioned in the report on finances. Yellow River joins the Zion Missionary Baptist Association around this time, so the next Association report found in 1861 shows the following churches in the panhandle: Pensacola and Coon Hill. Pensacola did have an ordained minister, S. JOHNSON listed in the records. While there is a Milton church listed in the records, it is listed in East Georgia, so it is either a different Milton church or they listed it in the wrong place on their list. Since Milton reappears in 1868 in Florida, it could have just been an error in the report.
It is interesting that even though the Yellow River church records indicates they left Bethlehem for Zion Association, the circuit riders listed in the late 1860s Association’s reports are also ones who appear the Yellow River church’s records as the pastor for some of the services and as chair of the subsequent business meeting. It is possible that the various Associations in this area were utilizing the same circuit riders since Bethlehem’s records don’t indicate that Yellow River came back to affiliation with them. This was during the War and Reconstruction so pastors were likely in short supply and it was hard to collect funds to maintain them.
At the start of the 1870s there were three Florida panhandle churches still affiliated with Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Association: Pensacola, Milton and Coon Hill. By 1874 there was only one: Pensacola. From reading what I could find on the history of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, it seems very likely that they too trace their formation back to the missionaries from Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Association.
Why does it matter how a church got its start? The various Baptist denominations were different in how they conducted their services, how they accepted members and how they defined members, and how they interacted with the community-at-large. Understanding those differences and which ones had an influence on your ancestors’ community helps to better understand the community and what your ancestor may have believed. It puts color to the black and white portrait we get with names and dates. A good example of that is the sections in Bethlehem’s Association minutes where they attempt to deal with the issues of slaves and the need for the churches to provide membership to these enslaved persons.
Sorry this post was a month late and a bit short. Let’s just say April turned out to be a bit more intense than I was expecting. If the Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back on schedule next month.
Until Next Time
- History of the First Baptist Church of Campbellton
- Internet Archive, American Libraries, Bethlehem Baptist Association, 1849-1875
- WOODLAND Tales: Remembering a Piney Woods Church House, Facebook, by Matthew Dobson
- First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Pensapedia
- Soon to be published, A History of Yellow River Baptist Church: Oak Grove Community, Baker, Okaloosa Co, Florida, 1840-2020, by Sharon D. Marsh