ARTICLE: Saillant on Funeral Ceremonies in the Sea Islands

John Saillant, “‘All Is for the Wind:” Notes on Funeral and Baptism Ceremonies on a Georgia Sea Island, c. 1868–1887,” Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

Saillant writes:

“In 1843, black Baptists from Savannah, Georgia formed the First African Baptist church of Saint Catherines Island. Most or all of these congregants were slaves in Savannah who were being relocated from the coastal riverine city to a remote island to work in agriculture or possibly in an occupation like constructing small watercraft. In the early 1840s, there were three black Baptist churches in Savannah that the congregants probably were already attending, which would have afforded them a religious identity and an awareness of Protestant theology. Their new home was a Sea Island about ten miles long and one to three miles wide, located about fifty miles south of Savannah.[1] The new congregation sporadically maintained a ledger. In it the congregation recorded a founding covenant in 1843, a list of dismission to other churches in 1844, a number of financial and governance records from the late 1870s to the 1890s, and a few final notes ending in 1908. Church members opened their book as slaves but closed it as freedpeople. The ledger was acquired by the Georgia Historical Society, where it resides today. Before it was donated, one or more individuals inserted some unbound material, all relevant to the church, into the ledger. These all appear to be documents preserved by the church on Saint Catherines Island. The earliest of these is the list of dismissions dated 1844.[2] Unfortunately, they were interleafed without regard for chronological order, so no date can be determined unless the document states one. One of these is an undated loose sheet that contains abridged sermon or ceremonial notes.

“The sheet is significant because sermon notes from nineteenth-century black Baptists are extremely rare, even rarer for a small institution located in a remote area such as the First African Baptist church of Saint Catherines Island. Most of the sermon notes, manuscripts, and publications produced by African American ministers from the Revolutionary era to the Civil War era originated in Anglican, Congregational, or Methodist churches—all with stronger ties to print culture than Baptists enjoyed.[3] These short and cryptic notes are virtually unparalleled for the coastal South.[4] The historical moment, possibly between 1868 and 1887, is also significant. A new black population was added in 1865 to those who had migrated in the early 1840’s. Saint Catherines Island became a short-lived haven for slaves freed by Union forces led by General William Tecumseh Sherman.[5] The island including its church, quickly fell under press from white men who were reoccupying or buying land on the island after the brief period of apparent black independence.[6] In 1868 a number of islanders migrated inland, then, in 1870, established Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, about seven miles southwest of the commercial district along the Savannah River.[7] It seems likely that the notes examined here were written by a preacher or a member of the Baptist congregation that remained on the island.

“A transcription and interpretation of the notes is offered below, after some commentary on the document and speculation about its provenance…”

Read it all: JSR Volume 19 (2017)

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