A Peculiar Institution

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Slavery has at times been referred to as “peculiar institution” and at times the word “peculiar” was used to imply that the institution was “special” or “unique” and not meant, as we think today, to be “strange” or “other-worldly”. In movies such as “Gone with the Wind” or the 1977 mini-series “Roots”, we see a world that exists today only in books, museums, and national monuments. To me it seems strangely different, in a word, “peculiar”.

Since I learned twenty years ago of my ancestor’s involvement in that peculiar institution, I have grappled with trying to understand what life must have been like for them and for people who were enslaved by them. Yet, something that I discovered recently has made the institution seem even more peculiar and that is the role that religion, specifically the church that my ancestors attended, played as one leg of a three-legged stool that upheld slavery as an institution that thrived in North America for nearly 250 years. The other legs or pillars being the militia and the plantation system.

Of late, I have been focused on finding more details about the family of my maternal grandfather, the Dobbs of Georgia, and the Prothros of South Carolina. That is primarily because “it is there.” For a number of reasons, there are just more historical records available for my southern ancestors than is for the mid-westerners on my father’s side who arrived late to the game.

One of those historical records is a book I recently discovered titled “First Family Memoirs – 150-year History of First Baptist Church Marietta, Georgia 1835-1985” by Ruth Wagner Miller. I became curious I had read that in the ante-bellum South, slaveholder and slave worshiped in the same building within two congregations – the white congregation and wrapped within that was the black congregation. While on the surface it may appear that everything at the time was “kumbaya”, this arrangement appears one made primarily as a means of keeping an eye on the slaves while their masters spent the Sabbath in all day worship.

Previously I wrote that my third great-grandfather, Col. David Dobbs, was one of the founding members of First Baptist Church of Marietta. He was not. It was one of his cousins, William Dobbs, formerly of Franklin County, who was one of the first 17 founding members of the church. In 1833. Baptists are credited with having the first church building in Marietta. They started meeting in a small frame building in what is now known as the City Cemetery on Powder Springs Street.

Although not a founding member, David Dobbs appears to have had some influence not only the church but in the town of Marietta. He was the church clerk from 1839 to 1847 and in 1848 he was one of men who worked to raise money for the erection of a permanent church building that was located on Kennesaw avenue in Marietta. The church clerk was responsible for recording and preserving the minutes of the church in the conference. They kept the membership lists, and handled all correspondence with the church. They also listed the names of deceased members. Finally, the church clerk was also responsible for preparing the annual report to the Noonday Baptist Association, a network of other churches in Northwest Georgia that exists to this day. So, one of Miller’s sources for the early days of the church came from records written by my ancestor.

According to Miller, in 1836, a church conference was held and at this time the church received the first black member “Dicey, a slave”. In most churches in the slaveholding South, a part of the church was set apart for the black congregation. This was not a large part of the membership, in pioneer days of the 1830s because there were few slaves in the county then. Later during the 1840s and 1850s, when slaves were more numerous, a new church was built with a gallery for the black worshipers. According to the slave schedule of the 1860 US census, David Dobbs was the largest slaveholder in Cobb county.

It appears that there were free persons of color in the congregation. In 1843, David began recording the status of black members. Free blacks had both a first and last name listed. Slaves had only first names recorded and were listed such as “Judy, a colored woman the property of Samuel Young.”

Also, in 1843 the church voted to donate its original lot to the city for a burial ground. That burial ground is now the Confederate Memorial in Marietta. In 1845 Cobb County numbered 10,518 people, 1,474 of whom were slaves. This was around the time that the Southern Baptist Convention came into being in response to the question of slavery. In 1848 the church records for most of that year are blank until September. The congregation was without a pastor for most of the year, yet they succeeded in erecting a new church building, this time a lot donated by Judge David Irwin located on the north side of Kennesaw Avenue, near Church Street. Church conference minutes record a vote of thanks to Messrs. Dobbs, Edge and Smith who are in charge of collecting money for the church and having it built.

The 1850 census shows that Cobb County had a population of 13,843 including 2,272 slaves. The church reported a membership of 149 members, including 59 Blacks. In 1850, black members of the congregation had their own church conference, held on the second Sunday of the month. The church clerk recorded minutes for both conferences in the same record book.

In the 1850s, the record shows that a Black brother was appointed as a watchman among the Black members, to report anything of a disciplinary character among them. White and Black members continue to worship together and to cooperate in church efforts. The Noonday Association report for that year tells that out of $133.45 contributed to the Association by member churches, $14.75 was given by “the colored congregation of Marietta church.”

Blacks and whites were baptized at the same location at a place called Rock Spring located at the foot of Kennesaw Mountain about a 2 mile walk from the church. The church authorized the committee to have a pool constructed there.

Miller notes that in 1852, “brother Ephraim (servant of brother Dobbs), asked to be allowed to perform marriages for persons of color.” Further, the committee on brother Ephraim’s case reported it “inexpedient at the present for him to marry persons of his color but permitted him to exercise (preach) in prayer meeting, when called on by the watchman of the church.”

In 1853 the number of Baptists in the church in Marietta numbered 203 and there was a feud going on between the members of the church regarding a deacon who had charged that the pastor and was preaching “unscriptural doctrine” in regard to “the omniscience of God, the doctrine of justification and the final perseverance of Saints.” It mentions that pastor F.C Johnson, who had earlier resigned because of “a problem between himself and Mr. Dobbs” and then had withdrawn his resignation, resigned again, and asked for letters of dismission for himself and his wife.

The black members seem to have taken their cue from the white members, for their conference minutes recount troubles, too. Grant, a watchman, preferred charges against Clarinda and Hetty for adultery. Clarinda confessed and was restored. Grant and Ned were having troubles between them, so the church suspended them and elected Ephraim and Cuffy as watchman. Then Hetty confessed and was restored. Grant and Ned settled their differences, but Ephraim objected to the church in reappointing Grant as a watchman. Eventually they settled this, too. I assume the Ephraim here is the same who was a servant of David Dobbs.

During 1855, we find first mention of student work as the church voted to invite the cadets of the Georgia Military Institute to worship with them and directed the church clerk to write a letter of invitation. David Dobbs was one of the founders of GMI. The Academy was located on the site of what is now the Marietta country Club. It was burnt to the ground by Federal forces in 1864.

In the mid-1850s, the black members of the church petition for the privilege of having an “African Church” of their own. At their next conference, brother Ephraim admitted that he had asked the former pastor F.C. Johnson to draw up the petition. The black congregation then voted unanimously to withdraw the petition. When brother Ephraim was called up to answer for his actions, he treated the church with “perfect contempt and said they could do with him as they pleased.” They excluded him and restored him two months later.

In addition to working out its differences with a Second Baptist Church, the church was also dealing with problems among the black congregation. In April, at a special called conference, the church asked the black members why they had refused to commune in the previous Sunday. “They stated that they did not feel prepared to take the communion, as their minds were rather frustrated about the alteration made relative to their occupying only a portion of the house, and they thought that they would wait until another time. They unanimously said they did not think of rebelling against the church and were sorry that the church thought so. Then they said that they were satisfied with the portion assigned them until they can make other arrangements.” In May 1856, the church voted, at the request of the black members, “privilege and power to secure a place of worship to themselves” while continuing as members of this church appointed a committee to assist them in procuring a lot and in drawing up rules and regulations by which they would be governed.

The black congregation asked to have two deacons of their own color and asked that brother Ephraim be licensed to preach. The church set apart and ordained, as deacons Joshua, property of Mrs. G.A. Campbell and Richard, property of the estate of Dr. S. Smith.

David J. Dobbs, son of David and my great, great-grandfather, was the church clerk from October 1858 to November 1861. In 1858, David had just brought his young bride, Martha, back from South Carolina. My great-grandfather James Monroe Dobbs was born in Marietta in 1859.

In 1859, D.J. Dobbs clerk for the church noted that in the colored conference a slave by the name Biner, the property of a Mr. Chovin, was excluded for harboring a runaway. At this time, D.J. Dobbs began to refer to slaves by first name and the name of the owner in hyphenated form thus “Profit – Glover” was read “Profit, property of Mr. Glover.” Before long, the hyphen was left out and the slaves were given their owner’s name as their last name.

In October 1861, the white men of the church had to contact the police (i.e., slave patrol) and asked them what city law had given the authority to the police to prohibit the black congregation from holding preliminary prayer meetings and business meetings before worship services. Evidently the white members were successful in getting the closing order rescinded.

In 1862, the Noonday Baptist Association minutes recorded “with filial regard the death of brother Caesar, a colored minister, a member of the church at Marietta. We do not know his age or length of ministerial service. He was living, were the, pious servant of the Lord.” At this time, the number of black church members was 200, twice that of white members.

During the war, records are scanty for 1863 and almost nonexistent for 1864 and the first half of 1865. In February 1863, the white Baptists could not conduct church business because they did not have a quorum. The black members did meet however and granted to brother Ephraim a licensed to preach. Upon application to the Inferior Court, they were informed that “colored persons” could not be licensed to preach, whereupon the white members appointed a committee to investigate. Later the committee reported the matter was being considered by the state legislature and in July, brother Ephraim’s license was confirmed.

Only two entries appear in the records for 1864. The first, March 13, showing the form to be three male members including one officer. The second entry written on the inside of the back cover of the record book dated May 8 reads “church conference at the urgent request of the Church.”

Marietta fell to Federal forces on day before Independence Day July 1864.

Although the records do not show, it was understood that the church building was used as a hospital, first for southern soldiers and later by federal forces. An earlier church historian reported that Sherman used the building to stable his horses “causing great destruction, sometimes shooting wounded animals and until we left the old building in later years, the bloodstains were hard to hide.” The current First Baptist of Marietta was built in the 1890s and situated on the corner of Church and Dobbs, a couple of blocks north of the town square.

In 1866, the delegation from the black church applied for letters of dismission and were to be allowed to secede and form a separate and distinct body. Their request was postponed awaiting a decision of the legislature on that subject. On March 10, 66 female Blacks and 23 male Blacks, members of the “colored church” were granted letters of dismission, at their request. But April 8, Zion Baptist Church was formally organized by Rev. Ephraim B Rucker, who had been licensed by the mother church. That church continues to this day in Marietta.

I looked for but was unable find Ephraim B Rucker anywhere in the 1870 census. I did find an Emily Rucker, female, age 34, Black, listed as field hand living alone with a small child in Marietta in 1870. The name Rucker is associated with Ruckersville in Elbert County Georgia, the county where the Dobbs family lived before settling in Cobb County.

After the Civil War, there is no further mention of the Dobbs family in the book until 1928. Miller writes: “The church closed out its year with a proper memorial in the minutes to Mrs. Mattie J. Dobbs, who was born the year the church was originated and joined the church in 1858. Married to David J Dobbs, former church clerk, she had lived to age 93, 51 years as a widow.”

This was my great, great-grandmother, Martha Josephine Prothro Dobbs. She and David J Dobbs were married in South Carolina in 1857 and moved to Cobb County in 1858. She was a member of the First Baptist Church of Marietta for 70 years.


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