Mapping Black Religion and Politics in Post-Emancipation Virginia

A Digital History Project

After Emancipation, Black churches and associations in Virginia became prominent institutions in the development of Black religious politics—the means and meanings of engagement in electoral politics that Black religious associations fostered. The realization of Black Baptists as “a church with the soul of a nation” and of Black churches generally being the first place to go to access and organize Black voters developed over time. The first effort to create a separate Black Baptist denomination that indicated the existence of a national sensibility failed and it would have proven futile to organize electoral participation in antebellum Black churches because most Black men did not have the right to vote. After emancipation, however, Virginia’s Black church members and leaders developed an increasing sense of their political efficacy during the decades following emancipation through the growth of their churches, and of their regional and state associations. The Baptist church associations of Virginia serve as a case study to explore the developments of black religious politics after emancipation. Three particular moments demonstrate the growing sense of political efficacy born in Black religious community: the 1868 constitutional convention and early formation of regional and state associations, the climax of the Readjuster movement in 1879-1883 and the campaign of John Mercer Langston in 1888. The changing maps of the landscape of black religious community and electoral results illustrate the relationship between these elements and highlights the impetus for changes in strategies for political engagement.

Growth of Conventions’ Early Political Efficacy

Year over year, the number of associations grew, the number of churches affiliated grew and the geographic reach expanded.  All of these changes supported the emerging sense of political efficacy these networks induced.  Several of these associations overlapped in the Tidewater, Piedmont and Southside regions, as well. The growing network represents the increased community building of African American churches, but also gave way to concerns about the ability to have regular communication.  These concerns fed the flourishing of regional associations that usually met in August, covered smaller areas and were more intimate.  Meeting three months before the state elections no doubt increased the potential for these meetings to be politicized.

In the immediate aftermath of emancipation, Black Baptists wasted no time forming regional and state associations. The Norfolk Union Baptist Association held its first meeting in 1864 and four years later, counted among its affiliated members 37 churches in the Tidewater region.  This followed the framework of the already organized urban black churches from the antebellum period.  Soon the network would stretch to the rural parts of the state encompassing old and newly formed churches.

Around the same time the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association formed covering similar terrain and counting 127 churches among its affiliates.  Like its precocious counterparts, the CSBA also experienced significant growth over the first few years after emancipation.

Both organizations would yield statewide leadership significance to the Virginia Baptist State Convention, first convened in Norfolk, Virginia in 1868 and headed by Lewis Tucker (president), James H. Holmes of Richmond, and E. G. Corprew of Portsmouth.  The VBSC sought to coordinate the efforts of all Black Baptists in the state and importantly focused its energies on the project of aiding the development of the freedpeople.  They early recognized that monetary and personnel resources were being funneled to the freedpeople and sought the same support for their efforts because they believed they were, after all, the most qualified to do the work.

In the immediate postemancipation period some religiously affiliated men held political office.  In October 1867, military governor John M. Schofield supervised the election of delegates to the constitutional convention, a move required by the March 1867 Reconstruction Act.  This election saw twenty-five black men from the Tidewater and Southside regions elected as delegates to the convention.  About a third of these men were ministers or religiously affiliated.  Among them was Burrell Toler, who was a life member of the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention and delegate from Hanover County.  Thomas Bayne and Willis Hodges, both ministers, represented Norfolk and Hampton and took leading roles in the convention.  Bayne, a Wesleyan Methodist, who had run away from the slavery, played a key role in the Republican State Convention and in the Constitutional Convention.

While the 1867 to 1868 Underwood Convention debated issues like black suffrage, education, and interracial marriage only two black men made substantive comments in the sessions and came under severe scrutiny for it.  In particular, Thomas Bayne and Willis A. Hodges voiced the concerns about black suffrage and progress raised in the associations and they pushed for the exclusion of race from the constitutional document and for integration of publicly funded schools.  They also raised concerns about black people being turned off the land by their employers as punishment for their support of the Union and for voting for Republican delegates to the convention.  Bayne and Hodges demanded that the convention do something to address those immediate issues even as they worked to reframe the constitution.  Hodges also raised the strong critique of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its exploitation of black labor.  In these ways, black elected delegates asserted themselves, their goals, and views in the constitutional convention, beyond the paradigm of the issues that made their way into the constitution.

While the early religious associations were simply a space where black people could articulate to themselves and among themselves, an ethos of self-help and political efficacy, they lived it in the expressly political realm of the constitutional conventions elections and constitutional conventions.  Truth be told, the independent Baptist community was just beginning to flourish. Over the next decade church membership, association growth and convention footprint expanded significantly.

Black Organizing and Politics

By 1879, the associations under study here, had networks that covered significant portions of the southside, Tidewater and Piedmont regions.  Many of the countries in these regions that elected black delegates to the state legislature also had churches that were in one or more associations.  Thus, the overlap of networked churches and associations and black elected officials pointed toward an increased sense of political efficacy among black Baptists and perhaps also political engagement.  A letter from Howard University students underscores the growing sense of black political networks that these churches associations represent.

In 1881, six Howard University students who were Virginia residents wrote then U.S. Senator William Mahone a letter requesting their professor be appointed to the foreign service.  The tone of the letter suggested that they wanted to trade their political support in the coming election for this appointment.  Six individuals from different cities throughout the state could hold little sway, but individuals connected by religious and political networks could.  Notably, many hailed from counties and cities that had hosted association meetings and that were part of the association networks included in this study.

Just as black people attempted to utilize networks for political effect, William Mahone, leader of the Readjuster movement, also tried to marshal the network for political ends.  In March 1883, he directed his county chairmen to conduct a canvass of the black churches in their counties.  He obtained reports from about 37 counties of churches from different denominations.  The letters from the chairmen revealed the varying levels of familiarity they had with the black church communities but one letter indicated how much more the churches and conventions knew.  This county chairman just sent the statistics page from the local convention.  Mahone’s canvass covered much, but not all of the Baptist associations and the canvass could not compare to the depth of connection that regular meeting of the associations and their delegates fostered.

Though Mahone tried to organize black voters to maintain Readjuster control of the legislature in 1883, the Danville Massacre stifled black voter turnout causing the Readjuster coalition to waver.  The party lost further ground in 1885 when Democrat Fitzhugh Lee won the gubernatorial seat over Republican John S. Wise  Though Mahone tried again to gain control of the state government in 1889, the biracial political coalition was effectively lost.  At the same time that the party lost its footing there were noticeable declines in the numbers of churches and people affiliated with the statewide VBSC.

Graph of the number of churches associated with the Virginia Baptist State Convention, the numbers of members and the numbers of counties from 1879-1888
Growth of the VBSC from 1879-1888. The increased membership tracked along with the successes of the Readjuster Movement and declines followed the demise of the Readmuster Movement, before rebounding around the time of John Mercer Langston’s successful congressional run.

Over the period of the Readjuster Movement the numbers of churches, members and counties covered by the VBSC increased to a peak in 1885.  After the defeat of the Readjusters in 1885 with the election of Democrat Fitzhugh Lee, the numbers of church members took a steep drop of nearly twenty percent.  By 1889 that number had still not rebounded.  Between 1879 and 1885, the number of churches represented at the VBSC also increased by about 25 percent from eighty churches in 1879 to nearly one hundred churches in 1884. Most of the other associations generally maintained their geographic scope, increasing representation by only one or two counties.  Membership numbers fluctuated in similar fashion, cresting between 1883 and 1885 and declining thereafter.  This pattern suggests that there was at least some correlation between the political success of the Readjuster movement and the growth of the convention networks.  Perhaps there was a reinforcing feedback loop between the political movement and the broader state associations.  As black Baptists gained greater confidence in their political efficacy through their networks, their churches also grew. Despite the declines in the VBSC, however, the regional associations—the BCBA and BBA—continued to grow.  In this picture the BBA grew most of all.

Graph of the Bethany Baptist Association (BBA) from 1882 to 1889, showing the number of churches, members and counties affiliated with the association.
Bethany Baptist Association grew during the turbulent declines in the Readjuster Party’s place in Virginia politics.

John Mercer Langston Election, 1888

The 1888 election of John Mercer Langston as congressman from Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District represented the final evolution in the development of black religious politics. Resting on the networks (epistemology of community) and sense of political efficacy that black church associations cultivated, the campaign and subsequent contested election hearing, codified soul liberty as the freedom participate in government.

Langston’s campaign rested on church people and church networks that were hidden from public view but clearly politically efficacious. His poll-watching outfit was prominently organized in the districts of Petersburg where many members of the Gilfield Baptist Church lived. The main poll watcher, J. A. C. Stevens, who recorded the names of the men who voted for Langston, was a member of the Gilfield Baptist Church. And though another church member reported that he did not hear about the election in church, Langston counted the pastor, Rev. Henry Williams, Jr., among his supporters and black church women as stalwart aids in the electoral process. A critic of Langston’s tried to undermine Langston’s success by claiming that the black women supported Langston were caught up in a religious frenzy. To the contrary, Langston reported that if a voter required assistance, “he was promptly aided by his more intelligent wife or daughter.” Langston drew support from deep roots in a district with a very strong church presence.

When the election results reported that Langston lost to democrat E. C. Venable, but Republican candidates Benjamin Harrison and Levi Morton defeated democratic incumbent President Grover Cleveland, Langston sprung into action, challenging the election result, the democratic leaning election board’s disfranchising tactics and the vote totals.   The substance of the claim rested in part on the work of the Gilfield church member, Stevens, who had recorded the names of the men who voted for Langston and read their names into the congressional hearing record. When the congressional committee completed the election investigation, it found electoral irregularities and determined that Langston did in fact win the election. Langston was finally seated in September 1890, just months before the end of his term. Underlying Langston’s political success were church people and church networks that reflected the presence and evolution of black religious politics.


The Baptist church may have been a church with the soul of a nation. And if so, that’s because it’s early iterations developed in tandem with a growing political context. At least that is what becomes evidence from the Virginia case.

By 1895, the National Baptist Convention coalesced from the efforts of people who had tried and failed to form a national organization. But once the strength and utility of an organized and mobilized religious community could be seen, those mechanisms could be used at a larger level–a national level.

Even though or especially because the church membership did not hold, the directions these networks went and would continue to go varied. The form did not determine the content of the political project. The specificity of time and place informed how churches moved and what political choices they made.