|Dow preaches with pioneer black minister Andrew Bryan|
(11th in a Series)
In early January 1802, Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow caught glimpses through the fog of the Georgia shore. His ship had sailed through heavy seas along the eastern seaboard, but before landing in Savannah the winds calmed as he and other passengers watched a whale jump and play in the Atlantic waters.
A resident of Mississippi Territory for a few years with his wife, Peggy, Dow occasionally traveled by horse from Georgia to Natchez country. His itinerant wanderings took him through much of the wilderness of the United States and its territories, the Indian lands and overseas to England and Ireland.
In 1802 after stepping off his ship on the Georgia shore, he walked through Savannah and found a graveyard where he spent some time praying and thanking God for his safe journey. He delivered a sermon at a church that night. The congregation included 70 whites and blacks.
"Oh, the poor blacks!" Dow lamented. He had watched a vessel filled with slaves arrive in the Savannah harbor. "My heart yearns when I view their sable faces and condition," he wrote in his journal, which was later included in his 19th century best-selling book ("History of Cosmopolite").
A couple of days later, he preached "in the African meeting house" before a massive congregation. The church's pastor was Andrew Bryan, one of the most courageous black ministers in the history of the American church. While many in the white community turned their back on Dow, the black community sheltered him.
Bryan, who took his master's surname, had been born into slavery in South Carolina in 1737. When a young man, he was converted during a service in Savannah preached by another legendary black minister, George Liele, who had also been born into slavery on a plantation in South Carolina. When a young man, Liele was encouraged by his master, a British Loyalist -- who later gave Liele his freedom -- to preach to the slaves on the plantation.
In Savannah, Liele was the founding pastor of what became in covenant the First African Baptist Church. During the American Revolution, fearing that he might be returned to slavery, Liele went to Jamaica and began missionary work. Andrew Bryan, the slave Liele had led to Christ, assumed the pastorship of the congregation.
Andrew Bryan suffered through the years for his preaching. Although he received support by a handful of whites, most plantation owners feared that slaves gathering together would unify and that an uprising would follow.
In 1788, a white Baptist evangelist, Abraham Marshall, and black preacher Jesse Peter, ordained Bryan before a congregation meeting in a Georgia plantation barn. In the years to follow, Marshall, Andrew Bryan and others were whipped and imprisoned for their preaching. But due to protests by a few in the white community outraged by their treatment, a legislative act allowed Bryan to preach.
In 1802, Lorenzo Dow was met with a handshake of friendship and offered a bond of Christian love by Andrew Bryan, who, Dow wrote, "had been imprisoned and whipped until the blood ran down, for preaching; as the people wanted to expel religion from the place, he being the only preacher in town."
Bryan told Dow that "God of late has being doing great things for us. I have about seven hundred in church, and now I am willing to live or die, as God shall see fit." Later, as Dow was leaving town, Preacher Bryan "met me, and shaking hands with me, left eleven dollars and a half in my hand."
Until that moment, Dow was broke: "So I perceived God provides for those who put their trust in him." This faith sustained Dow throughout his life.
In Savannah, when turned away by several white preachers because they thought Dow "an impostor," he had a hard time finding a warm place to spend the night. Pacing about on the bank of the Savannah River while trying to figure out what to do, a boat landed and a black man called out, "Brother Dow!"
The man had heard Dow preach at Bryan's church and wanted to know if he had a place to stay. When Dow told him no, the man asked, "Will you sleep where black people live?" Dow said he would sleep in the home of any decent person.
"He went off," Dow said, "and after about half an hour came back, and piloted me to a black family who lived in as good fashion as two thirds of the people of Augusta. I stayed all night..."
Although Andrew Bryan was able to purchase his own freedom as well as that of his wife, he was unable to buy freedom for his son and his daughter, who had married a free man. Bryan's daughter and son-in-law had seven children. During the antebellum days, the children of enslaved women belonged to the mother's master.
In 1794, Bryan erected the Bryan Street African Baptist Church building in Savannah, the first black Baptist church in Georgia and possibly in the United States. In 1802, the year Dow preached in Bryan's church, it had been renamed the First African Baptist Church.
Bryan died in 1812. In the years to follow, the church had a split with one carrying on as the Bryan Street African Baptist Church and the other as the First African Baptist Church.
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