A church may be a peculiar institution in a community but it was not free from those laws of social change through which all institutions have to pass.
Reverend John R. Brown, October 5, 1924
In the antebellum South, slaves were allowed to preach only with permission from their owners and normally were restricted to the area of the local parish. The duties of black preachers included conducting funerals and sanctifying marriages among slaves, and acting as crucial mediators between Christian belief and the experiential world of the slave. “In effect, they were helping to shape the development of bicultural synthesis, an Afro-American culture, by nurturing the faith of Christian communities among blacks, slave and free.” At the root, however, was the unavoidable fact that while gatherings were at times clandestine, such gatherings, funerals, and weddings that preachers performed always rested on the permission of masters and were subject to their whims. Yet it was the ceremony that was the life’s blood of a slave community.
Funerals were the last in a cycle of ceremonies during the life of a slave. Sunday worship, prayer meetings, revivals, Christmas “baptizings,” weddings, funerals, all came and went, alternating like the seasons of the year, from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, in the life of the plantation. To the slaves, these services and celebrations were special times, counteracting the monotony of life. Slaves asserted repeatedly in these seasons of celebration that their lives were special, their lives had dignity, and their lives had meaning beyond the definitions set by slavery. In their meetings, slaves enjoyed fellowship, exchanged mutual consolation, and gave voice to individual concerns. And here too, some slaves found a place to exercise their talents for leadership.
Presiding over these ceremonies was the slave preacher, leader of the slaves’ religious life and, in turn, a dominant figure in the slave community. Usually illiterate, the slave preacher often had native wit and unusual eloquence, and was inspiring enough to preach and minister in a very difficult situation. Carefully watched and viewed with suspicion, the preacher had to straddle the conflict between the demands of conscience and the orders of the masters. In many instances, masters thought preachers were ruining their slaves. “The slave preacher who verged too close on a gospel of equality within earshot of whites was in trouble.” But if he was deemed trustworthy, he was permitted to travel to neighboring places to conduct prayer meetings, allowing him, at safe moments, to share information about events and relatives who lived in distant places. Essentially it was eloquent preaching that drew and inspired his congregation. Vivid imagery and dramatic delivery were characteristic of the slave preacher’s sermon. One white observer said, “[Slave preachers] acquire a remarkable memory of words, phrases, and forms; a curious sort of poetic talent is developed, and a habit is obtained of rhapsodizing and exciting furious emotions.” The preacher, even within the strictures of bondage, occupied a position of esteem and authority.
This was the tradition that Hickman and his followers knew when he was a “jackleg” preacher in Missouri. He was the logical selection since he had brought them together and led them to the Promised Land up north. In Minnesota, a Baptist minister (as he was envisioned within the First Baptist tradition) had to be both ordained and formally educated with administrative experience to lead an organization; inspiration was not enough. First Baptist pastors all held advanced degrees. Nothing less was permitted for one of their missions that had requested dismission, and Hickman seemed to recognize this fact. Though he had been called, had the gift of an inspirational speaking manner, and was able to minister to the spiritual needs of the congregation, he lacked experience in administering a Northern Baptist organization that possessed property and had to raise funds and pay bills.
Nonetheless, it was desirable that the pastor-select would not be just any pastor but one who understood and was respected by the members of this congregation of pilgrims who shared in the same adversity to get to Minnesota. That experience crystallized a sense of themselves as devout Christians and sharpened their identity as proud black people. They had not just survived slavery; they had prevailed over it when they broke free of the chains that had bound them, for subjugation was complete when the subjugated capitulated to it. Their flight from Egypt into the Land of Canaan proved them to be children of God doing his will. The legitimate pastor was one who understood and respected this birth of a legacy.
It was the spring of 1863 when the Hickman group arrived at Fort Snelling, the same moment when the Dakota and Winnebago were about to be removed from their Minnesota homes. Hickman and his followers caught the eye of William Norris, a missionary who was there to minister to the spiritual needs of Indians who had converted to Christianity, and at some point they talked, Baptist (as they had come to realize) to Baptist. The issue became, where could the people from Missouri go? Their hostile reception at Lowertown in St. Paul had convinced many of them that the Saintly City was not a safe haven. The missionary would have known about First Baptist Church of St. Paul, for it was the largest and most established church in Minnesota where the Christian spirit was generous and true. Indeed, Norris himself, the first white man they had befriended since arriving at the fort, seemed likewise to be generous and true. On his word, they returned to St. Paul.
Three years later, in 1866, as the delegation from First Baptist worked with Hickman’s group in starting their independent church, Hickman may have suggested that the Reverend Norris, who seemed not to be known at First Baptist (his name does not appear in church records), be their pastor: therefore, the expanded delegation, in the name of Baptist faith, may have interviewed him in that they were still relatively new to the Minnesota Baptist community. According to the Baptist tenets of selecting a pastor, however, it probably was formally left to the members to appoint Norris without need of denominational approval. Accordingly, he was selected to lead the church. Two days later, Hickman and his group formally organized Pilgrim Baptist Church and on November 18, “the ordinance of baptism by immersion was administered from the Pilgrim Baptist Church (Colored) today between 12 and 1 o’clock, by Reverend William Norris, at the Lower Levee.” The Daily Press proudly repeated the announcement a week later:
A Baptist Church was organized in this city on the 18th last, composed of colored people. Their preacher, W. Norris, baptized eight persons in the Mississippi, near their place of worship. This shows much enterprise among the two hundred people of African descent now living in St. Paul.
Meanwhile, the negotiations with seller Charles Oakes over the property transfer continued for the next several months until an agreement was finally reached. On April 30, 1867, Wakefield recorded,
The matter of holding in trust, a building lot, in behalf of the Colored Baptist Church in St. Paul was presented and voted. We as Trustees of the First Baptist Church received the lot in question in trust as above and made the proper management with Charles H. Oakes the balance due. On motion [the Trustees] voted that D. D. Merrill be approached to attend to the matter.
On this lot on Sibley near Morris Street in downtown St. Paul, the members of Pilgrim Baptist, who numbered nine at the time, intended to build a stone-and-wood structure that had an ambitiously large seating capacity of three hundred. Pilgrim was intended to be the center of activity for black St. Paul—the community’s church. Notably the members of First Baptist did not appear to see the aspirations of Hickman as extravagant, for it was within the ethos of their own congregation to appreciate such a vision for place of worship. In 1862, in a sermon dedicating their new chapel, Pastor John Pope said,
Worship in the sanctuary involves other and different conditions. It is the united offering of our hearts. It lays under tribute a due proposition of pecuniary means. It requires the offering of the heart and with it also money. It has in it much that is designed to cultivate and gratify a judicious and sanctified taste. It was instituted as a powerful means to affect the interests of the people. As a general thing in Christian lands, church edifices reflect the social and religious study of the community. Well-located, tasteful, comfortable and liberally furnished sanctuaries are never built by a groveling, narrow-minded, covetous people. A congregation in an ordinary intelligent and enterprising locality cannot long maintain a respectable position while it is contented to serve God in a mean and shabby house.
In 1874 First Baptist Church burned down, but within the year a new building was constructed. When it opened on May 31, it was the largest and most costly church in St. Paul, described in the Pioneer Press as “the finest piece of architecture west of Chicago.” The Pilgrims needed someone to help them construct an edifice befitting their work in the Lord’s name.
We empower him to obtain any funds which the friends East may be willing to place at his control for religious and educational purposes.
D. D. Merrill, 1853
Born near Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1815, Andrew M. Torbet received an early education in Edinburgh. While he was still a young man at a mercantile house his father sent him to America; the rest of the family followed in June 1836. Settling in Paterson, New Jersey, Torbet became a member of the First Baptist Church of that city. It was here that he received his calling for a life in the gospel ministry and where he was licensed to preach. Accepting the calling to a church in Piermont, New York, he was ordained on August 22, 1839. On that same day, after his ordination, he baptized his mother and father off the shoreline of the Hudson River. In 1845 he became pastor of the Baptist church in Zion Hill, near Suffield, Connecticut, where he married Caroline Hosmer-King, with whom he had six children. He soon left Zion Hill for a pastorate in Medina, Ohio, and later served a church in Canton; and in November 1852 he accepted the call to the pastorate of First Baptist Church of St. Paul. On December 2 he was formally installed. When he arrived in the pulpit, the church could already see qualities in him that were critical to its survival.
Within a year of Torbet’s appointment as pastor of First Baptist Church, in 1853 the trustees felt that rather than have him stay in St. Paul during the critical early years when its survival was most tenuous, he would better serve the immediate needs of the church by traveling throughout the territory and out east to raise money:
To Whom It May Concern: I hereby certify that at a meeting of the Church held this day, it was resolved that we send our pastor (Rev. A. M. Torbet) to represent us as a church, and the religious interests of the territory, at the anniversary of the various societies in New York, and that we empower him to obtain any funds which the friends East may be willing to place at his control for religious and educational purposes and for our own Church edifice founded. Done by order on our behalf of the First Baptist Church. Daniel D. Merrill, Church Clerk.
Feeling, after what I trust has been a full and prayerful consideration of the whole subject, that it is my duty to accept the Financial Agency of the Minnesota Central University pressed upon me by the Board of Trustees. I therefore tender my resignation of the Pastorate of this Church. I shall ever cherish with grateful remembrance the many tokens of kindness which I have received at your hands, and the pleasant years of toil it has been my lot to perform among you. With my poor prayers to God for the continued prosperity of the Church, I remain yours in Christ. A. M. Torbet.
Indeed, the university was a brainchild of the church. The territorial legislature chartered Minnesota Central University in 1854 through the efforts of the Reverend Timothy Cressey, pastor of First Baptist and Torbet’s predecessor. The cornerstone was laid in Hastings in 1857 when Torbet joined the university, with territorial governors Alexander Ramsey and Henry H. Sibley, and Cressey present. But the timing for the enterprise and for Torbet’s career was unfortunate, because in 1859, when the school doors opened, the university was already in decline owing to dwindling financial support following the Panic of 1857. The building consisted of only one room. Torbet began looking for a new pastorate.
For the next three years, he worked in churches in Taylors Falls and St. Croix Falls, though not as a pastor. By 1862, realizing there were no pastorate opportunities available—his successor, Reverend John Pope, stayed at First Baptist until 1866—Torbet moved to the far Northwest, finding work eventually with the government mail service. In 1868 the board of the Minnesota Baptist Association reported a year of “healthy growth” of 130 Baptist churches embracing a membership of 4,208, ninety-four of whom are ordained ministers. “The people have twenty-five meeting houses in Minnesota and thirty others in the process of erection.” The increased possibility of returning to a Minnesota pulpit may have attracted Torbet back to St. Paul. On July 26, the fifty-three-year old former pastor preached a sermon at First Baptist titled “Truth.” It was not until September that his son-in-law and church trustee, D. D. Merrill, may have contacted him to expect a call from Robert Hickman requesting on behalf of his congregation that he become Pilgrim’s new pastor.
The church had been without an ordained pastor since February, the culmination of tensions that became apparent at a fund-raiser in December. At first all had gone well. “The members of the Colored Baptist Society, called ‘Pilgrim Church,’ gave quite a festival at Mozart Hall last night, the object being to raise money to build a church.” About three hundred persons were in attendance, approximately one-third of whom were white. A string band was in attendance and provided some very fine music during the evening.
“The colored people were all in their holiday dresses,” and seemed to enjoy themselves hugely. All were orderly, quiet, and happy. “Every shade and tint of color was visible, from the blackest Aunt Dinah to the brilliantly handsome brunette, with not a drop of negro blood apparently.” A supper had been prepared that did great credit to the Pilgrims and it was enjoyed by all. Previous to partaking of the supper, Rev. Mr. Paterson [pastor of First Baptist Church] made a statement in regard to the object of the festival. He said the Pilgrim Baptist Church had recently purchased at great sacrifice among themselves a lot worth $500, and were now anxious to raise means to build a small church on the lot. This was the purpose of the gathering, which went on until late in the evening.
Then what followed best reflected the vulnerability that Norris, Hickman, and the Pilgrims faced in holding a function open to all members of the community, including those whose character was other than that to which the members of Pilgrim Baptist Church aspired and sought to be identified. Two days later, the Pioneer could not resist printing the follow-up of the event. Apparently, a group of young blacks, intent on having a more raucous time, wanted to dance later into the evening. The Reverend Norris attempted to oppose this and when they refused to leave, he went into the adjoining room and turned the gas off at the meter, leaving the hall in utter darkness. Two or three young men “mounted his reverence,” and were about to rough him up when a policeman came in “and nipped the melee in the bud.” Instead, Norris’s intervention created more of a commotion. The officer decided that the minister had no right to turn off the gas, but he advised him to prevent the band from playing as it had been hired by the church and was under their orders. When Norris tried to tell the band to leave, the musicians refused to leave because they had made a new contract with the “worldlings” who wished to dance. “The shepherd of the flock,” evidently too ineffective in managing his parishioners, “left in disgust, and the dance went on until a late hour.”
The reference to Norris as “shepherd of the flock” seemed intended to implicate the so-called worldlings as members of Pilgrim Baptist Church. That idea is implausible, however, since such an association would undermine the respectability of the congregation and their wish for the support of the white community. Still, it seems evident that the bond between the pastor and congregation had ruptured—on one hand, Norris felt abandoned by the congregation and publicly humiliated; on the other, Hickman did not have confidence in Norris’s leadership. The festival had commenced without opening words from the symbolic host, the pastor of Pilgrim Baptist. Only Paterson spoke, a man whose church had proved itself to be a genuine patron, a man who within the six months of his arrival, knew enough to show support for Hickman. Within this circumstance William Norris concluded it was time for him to leave, egged on by the mischievous editor of the Pioneer who wrote a noxious account of the event titled “Row at de Church”:
Last evening, a poor-looking, shriveled up old darky, blacker than the ten of clubs, or ten black cats in a dark night, handed in the following advertisement for insertion: “The Pilgrim Baptist is a regular nuisance. They are drunkards, liars and adulterers. No confidence can be put in them. I believe that they are a disgrace to the community and much more to the cause of Christ.—Rev. W. Norris, once pastor.”
In answer to the question “What’s the row?” he straightened himself up to nearly five feet, and with an air of dignity that repelled undue familiarity or further inquiries, exclaimed, “It’s all writ down on dat there paper.” Now we have no idea that the allegations on “dat paper” are true, and regret that our colored friends, in imitation to white christians, have got into a church brawl. It don’t look well, even to “worldlings.” We fear “Rev. W. Norris, once pastor,” has allowed his passion to get the better of his judgment, to say nothing of his christian character.
With no one speaking in his defense, leaving his reputation to sway alone in the wind, Norris was gone and with him went the official, if not the authentic, leader of Pilgrim Baptist. That role, as far as the congregation was concerned, was still filled by Robert Hickman.
In 1867, within a few months after Merrill secured the property, Pilgrim was able to acquire the lot from First Baptist on which to build a new church, but they had no funds for construction, and the last venture in fund-raising did not go well; the St. Paul Pioneer did not help matters.
Within the black community, Hickman was being recognized as a race leader. If the community had its own wealth, his standing alone could generate the funds he needed; but it didn’t and he couldn’t. The black community, at the end of the 1860s, was predominantly composed of semi- and unskilled laborers. Pilgrims needed the help of white St. Paul, and the Pioneer had done its best to taint the Pilgrims as a truly devout congregation. Hickman knew his church needed someone whom the white community already knew. Moreover, he needed to further redeem himself from being associated with an unfortunate incident involving the inebriated behavior of some black picnickers. The Daily Press, which was usually supportive of the Pilgrims, reported:
The colored populations of St. Anthony, Minneapolis and St. Paul united in a massive picnic at Hansen’s Gardens in the outskirts of this city. It was designed as a kind of celebration of the anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves of the West Indies, though not exactly in the anniversary day.
The assembly was much divided on opinion as to the best mode of celebrating. Some of those wanted speeches and music, singing, etc., while others desired a grand dance and a celebration of that kind. Brief addresses were made by Rev. Mr. Hickman, pastor of the Colored Baptist Church, and by Rev. D. Cobb of the Jackson Street M. E. Church, he being sent for especially. Shortly after the addresses were over the gayer parts of the congregation began to form with a dance.
The titles “reverend” and “pastor” were misleading since Hickman had not yet been licensed and ordained; but their use may reflect the honorific light in which his members had always seen him—as the only recognized leader of Pilgrim Baptist Church. The article continued:
The selection of the place for celebration was hardly judicious as some of the men and brothren [sic] showed themselves rather weak on the beer question. When our informant left the youths and maidens were whirling in the giddy manner of the dance.
Though the Press did not implicate Hickman in acting in a low-class manner, any affiliation with such people might sully the reputation he sought to create, one that was “blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, and of good behavior.” Indeed, the tenets of the church dictated that a minister should be free from all vices, and “have a good report of them who are without.” It would have displeased church officials and it mattered what people thought of him—righteous Christians as well as likely donors.
Weeks later he learned from Trustee Merrill, by now a confidant, that he might be able to secure the services of a highly respected clergyman and fund-raiser—indeed, a former pastor of First Baptist itself as well as a former member of St. Paul’s Board of Education, someone who had appreciation for the value of a friendly press. The overture itself would make Hickman and his pilgrims appear to be the epitome of responsible stewardship, the kind of upstanding people whom St. Paul would do well to welcome to its bosom. The proximity of the proposed site to the home of William Marshall, the Missouri-born governor of Minnesota and popular Civil War commander, in itself underscored the rectitude of the venture. On September 13, the Daily Press reported:
The Pilgrim Baptist Colored Church, we understand, have, if the funds necessary for the purpose can be obtained, resolved to build a church edifice upon their lot, situated about half a block west from the residence of Governor Marshall. They have requested Rev. A. M. Torbet to supervise the work for them, and as he is well-known in this city, being formerly the pastor of the Baptist Church here, the community may rely upon the faithful application of any funds. They may subscribe and pay towards the erection of said building. [Members of t]he church are to circulate a subscription paper for this object, and as it is a want deeply felt, we hope our citizens will be ready and willing to assist those who have moved in this matter to supply it, and thus furnish the colored people in our midst with the phase of worship. This work is to be pushed as fast and as far as the funds will permit immediately.
On the same day, “several” black men and women were baptized in the river “at the foot of St. Peter Street. Quite a crowd was in attendance.” The message was simple: these colored people, cleansed by God’s grace, wishing to be Pilgrims, were not like those other colored people who danced and drank too much and otherwise gave their race and what should have been their most prized possession—the church—a bad name. Yet, Torbet’s role, as tactfully described—the same statement appeared in the Pioneer and Dispatch—was “to supervise the work” rather than pastor the church. It was the Pioneer, in its last unfortunate reports on the experiences of Norris, that had made the pastorate too public and undesirable as the newspaper enthusiastically mocked the inevitable misadventures of being “ ‘shepherd’ of a colored flock.” This characterization largely reflected a city whose history with its black residents was far from stellar, one that had evolved in the twenty years since officially becoming an American settlement.