How the Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a seat of black energy in Atlanta for generations
(The Conversation) – The Georgia Senate race catapulted historic Ebenezer Baptist Church back into the limelight. For 135 years the church played an important role in the fight against racism and the civil rights movement. It was the spiritual home of civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is now the home of the state’s first black senator – Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Church’s senior pastor.
As a scholar of Afro-American religion and Christian theology, I think it is important to understand how the Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a seat of black power and organized in Atlanta for generations.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church, a predominantly African American congregation, was founded in 1886, nearly 20 years after the end of the Civil War. The pastor, Rev. John Andrew Parker, was Ebenezer’s first pastor from 1886 to 1894. Little is known of the early years of Parker and Ebenezer. According to historian Benjamin C. Ridgeway, Parker organized the church in a small building on Airline Avenue in Atlanta.
The name Ebenezer, which means “stone of help”, comes from the Hebrew Bible. In the first book of Samuel, the Israelites are said to have gathered in the city of Mizpah to offer burnt offerings to God. When their enemies, the Philistines, got word that the Israelites were at Mizpah, they sent forces to attack them.
With God’s help, the Philistines were finally defeated. The prophet Samuel then named a large stone “Ebenezer” to remind the Israelites of God’s intervention in their fight against the Philistine army.
As historians Roswell F. Jackson and Rosalyn M. Patterson noted in their 1989 article, “The choice of the name Ebenezer, ‘Stone of Help’, was profoundly prophetic.” In their view, Ebenezer’s name turned out to be a fitting description of the role of the church in the civil rights movement that followed.
Growth of the church
Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, King’s maternal grandfather, was second pastor from 1894 to 1931. Williams led the Ebenezer Church into the 20th century as a religious group mobilized to combat the segregationist policies that plague the African American community in the state of Georgia.
By 1913 the church had grown from 13 to almost 750 members. Williams developed a stand-alone form of the social gospel that highlighted the importance of African Americans owning businesses and taking social action against racial and economic injustices in their local communities.
Williams was known for his powerful preaching, impressive organizational and leadership skills, and led several initiatives including boycotts against the local Atlanta newspaper The Georgian, which was known for using racist language against African Americans.
In 1906, Williams led a fight against the white primary system, which prohibited African Americans from voting in the Georgia primary. In 1917, Williams helped establish the Atlanta Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.
A year later he was elected branch president of the NAACP Atlanta chapter, and within five months of his tenure the chapter had 1,400 members.
As the historian of religion Lewis Baldwin notes in his book The Voice of Conscience, “Williams clearly used that [Ebenezer] Church as a power base and focal point for such activities, an approach that would also be used by [Martin Luther] King, Sr. and King, Jr. ”
Working for social change
After Williams ‘death in 1931, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., Ebenezer’s assistant pastor and Williams’ son-in-law, became the Church’s third pastor. During his 40 year pastor, “Daddy” King, as he was affectionately known, led Ebenezer with a mixture of evangelical faith and progressive social action.
When King Sr. found a reason for social action in the Christian scriptures, he urged other black churches to join the social gospel – a late 19th century Protestant movement that applied the Christian message to the social and moral concerns of the Stressed society.
In addition, King Sr. held demonstrations and rallies to protest discriminatory and segregationist policies in the city of Atlanta, including the desegregation of the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Board of Education. In the first 15 years of King Sr.’s pastorate in Ebenezer, the membership of the Church grew to 3,700.
MLK’s spiritual home
Ebenezer stepped into the global spotlight when Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the call to co-pastor his father in 1960. Previously, King was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1954 to 1959.
During his tenure on Dexter Avenue, King was President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that successfully ran the Montgomery Bus Boycott from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956. In 1959, King resigned from his position as pastor at Dexter Avenue, serving alongside his father, as well as serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also based in Atlanta.
King preached some of his most memorable sermons from Ebenezer’s pulpit. In one of his sermons, published in a collection titled “The Strength to Love,” King describes racial prejudice as indicative of “softmindedness,” the tendency of a person to uncritically hold onto intolerable beliefs.
In the same sermon, titled “A Hard Mind and a Tender Heart,” King argued, “Prejudice against race is based on unfounded fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings.” To overcome this, King argued that people must cultivate both a hard mind and a tender heart, a connection of a critical mind with concern for others.
This message can be found in contemporary movements for racial justice and justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement. While many BLM members do not belong to any organized religion, the movement emphasizes the importance of spiritual well-being for African Americans as they fight for black liberation.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church has been an institution since its inception in which evangelical zeal and progressive social activism have come together to promote social change.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the king’s spiritual home from hosting the annual memorial service in honor of the murdered civil rights leader, which typically has 1,700 attendees. After Pastor Warnock was elected to the US Senate, attention was drawn to the Church again.
One cannot gauge the importance of MLC Day without understanding the tradition that formed one of America’s most influential civil rights activists.
(Jason Oliver Evans is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. This article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of the religion, News Service. )
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