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|Natchez country's first preacher hid Bible in a canebrake; worship in secret|
Natchez' country's first Protestant preacher -- the Rev. Samuel Swayze -- was for a period of time forced to hide his Bible in the hollow of a Sycamore tree in a canebrake near a creek.
The preacher's grandson told a writer years later that Rev. Swayze would sit in the hollow of that sycamore tree and contrary to Spanish law, pray in his own way and believe in his own way.
His congregation, the first of the Protestant faith in this region, received the call to worship in those times by the sound of a cow's horn, blown at intervals by a follower. When the flock heard it, families would cautiously head for prayer meeting at a predetermined meeting place, but if a "suspicious" person was seen in the area, they would quietly return to their homes.
This was worship for Protestants in Natchez during the Spanish days and it was the Jersey Settlers, led by Rev. Swayze, who first brought individual, government-free gospel to this part of the world. They did this at great risk.
Individual liberty, particularly in worship, was a major reason Rev. Swayze's ancestors -- both the Swayzes and the King family -- had almost a century and a half earlier left England for America only two decades after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The Swayzes came in 1632, the King family in 1635.
These two families intermarried in the 1650s. In 1684, some moved to Long Island, N.Y., to a community called Southhold. By the 1740s, the Swayzes and Kings were in New Jersey.
Members of both families were surveyors and farmers. Historian Francis Preston Mills said the land on which they settled was "fine farm and cattle country, gently rolling hills and valleys" -- quite similar to Natchez country.
The Swayzes and Kings had been influenced by the first great Christian revival in North America -- the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Most churches and congregations were changed by this revival, which was sparked by a hell-fire preacher named Jonathan Edwards of New England.
Edwards preached that hell was real and that unless everyone repented of their sins and lived for God all were destined to eternal torment. His sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," warned: "It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery...which will swallow up your thoughts...and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all."
The Swayzes and Kings early on in America became part of the Congregational Church -- one in which the members could independently worship, handle their own affairs and not be governed by a church bureaucracy that told them what to think and how to worship. These churches were established throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony, throughout New England and carried into the interior of the country by migrating settlers, such as the Swayzes and the Kings.
SWAYZE LEADS FLOCK TO NATCHEZ
In her 1981 book -- "The History of the Descendants of The New Jersey Settlers, Adams County, Mississippi" (Volume 2) -- Francis Preston Mills wrote: "We have to admit that in the 17th Century Protestantism was young and heady with its new found freedom. The freedom of interpretation of God's word without benefit of priests is a precious but a dangerous doctrine."
The Swayzes and Kings believed in "individual responsibility through grace" and their own right to "interpret scripture." One follower explained that the Swayzes and Kings believed that "there is an immediate revelation of the Spirit of God to each individual soul whether Christian or heathen."
These two families were model citizens -- always -- and believed in law and order. They diligently avoided sin, and refused as Christians to take up arms or involve themselves in war, which was a major reason they left the 13 colonies -- they knew revolution was coming. They also refused to take an oath in court, but would "affirm or sanction a binding obligation." They would "swear" to nothing.
Because they would sign a contract, they were able to enter into an agreement with Capt. Amos Ogden, a well-respected veteran of the French and Indian War. Granted a mandamus of 25,000 acres from the King of England for his service, Ogden could not meet the settlement obligations in the grant without help.
The Swayzes and Kings, meanwhile, were looking for a place to go. The two parties met and Ogden sold them -- at a cost of 20 cents per acre -- 19,800 acres of his grant, which was located north of the Homochitto River in what is today southern Adams County.
In the Spring of 1772, the brothers Richard and the Rev. Samuel Swayze, Caleb King and Capt. Ogden surveyed the property. The Swayzes and Kings returned with Rev. Swayze's neighbors and church members and by the spring of 1773 they planted their first crop of corn in Natchez country.
Just a few miles to the west, another settler was moving in at the time on Second Creek -- Anthony Hutchins, his wife, Anne, their children, and Toney, a slave whose stories of those years survive today and remain among the most vivid and honest of the times.
The homes of the New Jersey Settlers in Natchez country were in its "peculiar" hills, said W.H. Sparks in his 19th Century book, "The Memories of Fifty Years." He said these hills "are drift, thrown upon the primitive formation by some natural convulsion, and usually extend some twelve or fifteen miles into the interior. They consist of a rich marly loam and when in a state of nature were clothed to their summits with the wild cane, dense and unusually large, a forest of magnolia, black walnut, immense oaks, and tulip trees, with gigantic vines of the wild-grape climbing and overtopping the tallest of these forest monarchs. Here among these picturesque hills and glorious woods, the emigrants fixed their homes."
SECRET WORSHIP IN SPANISH DAYS
In 1866, the Rev. John G. Jones wrote an early history of religion in Mississippi. Called "Introduction of Protestantism into Mississippi and the Southwest," Jones learned much about the Swayzes from Samuel Swayze's grandson, James. In 1834, James was pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington in Adams County. James "had been familiar with current events around Natchez for sixty years," Jones said.
Jones wrote that preacher Swayze and his flock settled near what was afterward known as Kingston, and formed what is still known as 'Jersey Settlement.'" As a defense against Indian attack, said Jones, the group "first settled in the form of a village on a creek, which from thence took the name of 'Town Creek'...Their little farms lay scattered around contiguous to the village."
Rev. Swayze, Jones noted, "was a Congregationalist minister, and had sustained the pastoral relation in that Church from early manhood. As the birth of his children dates back to 1733, it is likely that he had been a minister of the Gospel thirty or forty years previous to his removal to 'Natchez country.' Most of his family and friends who came with him were probably members of his Church in New Jersey."
Swayze was, said Jones, "beyond doubt, the first Protestant minister that ever settled in what is now the State of Mississippi, and his Church was the first Protestant Church ever organized in this country."
The necessity of building homes, planting crops and establishing themselves for survival in the wild Natchez hills were among the reasons the Jersey Settlers didn't immediately build a church sanctuary. But they did worship in the open air, in homes, wherever the little congregation could gather.
Six years later, by 1779, said Jones, the Spanish had taken Natchez from the British during the American Revolution. At that moment "Roman Catholicism was declared by law to be the only allowable religion of the land. The voice and hand of persecution were soon raised against Mr. Swayze and his little Church at Kingston, and their religious privileges were greatly abridged. Diligent search was made for Protestant Bibles and religious books, and whenever they fell into the hands of the priests or their emissaries they were committed to flames."
Jones reported that Swayze, "in order to secure himself and his Bible from the inquisitorial grasp of Catholic hierarchy, retired to a canebrake on the margin of a small stream and fixed him a seat in the hollow of a large sycamore tree, where he often sat to read the Holy Book, and where he kept it concealed from the eyes of his persecutors. From thence this stream took the name of 'Sammie's Creek,' which name it yet bears to perpetuate the Christian name" of Swayze.
During this time, said Jones, Swayze and his flock gathered in secret. A plan was devised -- "when there was no apparent cause of alarm, a person designated was to pass through the settlement on Sabbath morning with a cow's horn, which he was to blow at intervals -- as a hunter would do -- as a signal to assemble for public worship. The people went timidly and steadily to the house of prayer, with the understanding that if any suspicious person were reported as being in the neighborhood, they were to disperse immediately."
GAYOSO ATTENDS PROTESTANT SERVICE
For the settlers, even the Protestant preachers, there was rarely offense taken against the Catholic Church, only against the Spanish government. Settlers were required to take an oath of allegiance to Spain, but didn't have to take an oath professing the Catholic faith.
The settlers could privately believe, of course, what they wanted but they could not assemble to worship any religion but Catholic or legally marry in any ceremony but Catholic.
By the 1790s, Manuel Gayoso was the governor of the Natchez District. A well-educated and rising Spanish government official, Gayoso and his pregnant wife's ship was pushed off course for days by a hurricane in the Gulf on their voyage here.
Gayoso was progressive, gregarious, gracious but firm. He was often seen walking the few streets of town or standing at the top of the bluff watching activities in the lower town below. He was known to happily greet visitors and settlers as they debarked vessels at the landing. He lived at the mansion he built known as Concord, located two miles from the fort (next to the old Armstrong Tire plant.)
In 1790, Samuel Forman, in Natchez visiting family, made many friends here before deciding to move on. Before he left, Forman's uncle told him: "Well, you must direct Moses, the coachman, to get up the carriage, take two of your cousins with you, and take leave of all your good friends." The carriage had been brought over the mountains of Pennsylvania, and refitted in Natchez with "neat banister work around the top of the body."
Forman's cousins, Augusta and Margaret, accompanied him on his "farewell tour." Each host family cleared the roadways "or bridle-path" for the "comfortable passage of the carriage" in a day when all traveling in Natchez "was on horseback."
On this excursion, Forman learned that Gov. Gayoso had given a Baptist minister permission to preach on Sunday. The service was held in the home of Col. Anthony Hutchins on Second Creek, where he had been living for more than 15 years.
This marked "the first time a Protestant minister had been allowed to hold a religious service...After service we were invited to stay and dine at Colonel Hutchins'. When we were ready to depart, all came out of the house to see us off..."
THE CASE OF ADAM CLOUD
George Willey, who at the age of one arrived in Natchez with his family in 1788, said attempts were made by Protestant ministers during Gayoso's tenure "to preach, but were not encouraged. The only sermon I remember to have heard during the Spanish rule was preached by an Episcopalian named Cloud."
Willey was referring to Adam Cloud, a Virginian who was settled along St. Catherine Creek, and known to baptize children and preach religious services in defiance of Spanish law. After Cloud's sermon, Willey's father and Gayoso walked home together.
Along the way, Gayoso said he personally believed in toleration of all religions, but added, "you know I have a master," meaning the Spanish government. The next day, Willey said Cloud was banished from Natchez although years later, during American possession, Cloud returned.
In Jack Holmes' 1966 biography of Gayoso, he said the real reason Cloud was expelled was because a man name William Vousdan -- "a prominent planter known for his quarrelsome spirit" -- wanted Cloud removed from Natchez because Vousdan "coveted Cloud's property which lay adjacent to his." Holmes said Gayoso tried to intercede and help Cloud, but was overruled by his superiors.
In 1797, after Gayoso ascended to the governorship of Louisiana, the Spanish were feeling particularly paranoid about these preachers as Americans kept heading west with their independent-minded thinking. Gayoso directed all of his commandants to "take particular care that no Protestant preacher, or one of any sect other than the Catholic, shall introduce himself into the province. The least neglect in this respect will be a subject of great reprehension."
Months later -- April 1798 -- the Spanish by treaty left Natchez and the Americans took possession. The Rev. Samuel Swayze, however, didn't live to see it. He lived in Natchez country only a decade before he died in 1784.
Yet he is remembered as the first Protestant preacher in this region of the world and his Jersey Settlers the first flock of Protestant-minded believers who thought government -- conservative or liberal -- British, Spanish or even American -- should have no voice in when, where or how they worshipped.
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