For more than 150 years, Olivet Baptist Church has stood as a
landmark of faith to thousands of African American Christians. Established in
1850, Olivet is the oldest black Baptist Church in Chicago and is often referred
to as the "mother" church of many of the city's African American Baptist
congregations. "Most of the Baptist churches were offshoots of Olivet, the
oldest and largest Negro Baptist Church in the city."1
The large size of Olivet's membership, particularly during the early 1900s, can be attributed to its role in the Chicago migration story. Detailed studies written on the quest by southern blacks for a better life in northern cities, appear by several scholars. However, limited research appears on the participation of this historic congregation in the journey. The religious history of Chicago's African American community is rich and deserving of attention, or else much of it will be lost. This underwritten episode in history must be included in order to complete the tale of the city's black migration experience. So we will take a brief look at Olivet Baptist Church and highlight some of its history and relevance to Chicago.
THE PROMISED LAND
Chicago was the promised land for many blacks fleeing the racist and oppressive conditions in the south. Black southerners arrived in large numbers during the early 1900s. Not only did they bring their hope for a better life on earth, there was also the sense that the God who had led them from bondage to freedom, would sustain them in their new surroundings, thus they searched for and found, churches willing to help them adjust to the bright lights of the big city.
Olivet Baptist Church was already an established religious institution with respected leadership. She, along with Quinn Chapel AME Church founded in 1847, were the oldest churches catering to black Christians. Of course, not everyone welcomed blacks to Chicago. In 1919, the city experienced a period of racial unrest when a race riot broke out between whites and blacks. Olivet Baptist Church was at the forefront of trying to keep the peace.
During the Chicago riot, the Olivet Baptist Church was the headquarters of the Peace and Protective Association--an organization composed of the leading Negro citizenry--which met daily for thirty or forty days, counseling sanity and peace and giving defense and aid to needy and innocent riot victims. 2
Olivet Baptist Church was at the forefront of trying to keep
the peace on the outside, while inside the doors of the church, internal issues
dating back to its earliest days, threatened to destroy the church.
Carter G. Woodson, the historian who established Black History Week, wrote in his 1918 book on the great migration, that while whites did not welcome southern blacks to the city, there was also prejudice from blacks who were considered "native" to their environments. "They are not wanted by the whites," he wrote, "and are treated with contempt by the native blacks of the northern cities, who consider their brethren from the South too criminal and too vicious to be tolerated."3 Classism was a serious problem among black Chicagoans. Olivet, as the leading church in the city, was not exempt from this issue that had haunted the church since it was first established. Mechal Sobel in her book on pre-Civil War Baptist history offers a vivid description of the situation.
Ex-plantation blacks who went North before, during and after the war faced a more jarring confrontation with a black Baptist world view that had moved closer to the contemporary white one...in Chicago, where the first black Baptist church, the Zoar* Church...was constituted by old Chicago families that had been free for many years. When a large number of Southern Baptists recently up from slavery joined, very serious and disruptive problems resulted. Under the pastorate of H.H. Hawkins (1855-1857), twenty-one of these migrants were accepted and then rejected. 4
The problem of classism was not unique to Olivet or to Chicago. Other migrant rich cities such as Cleveland and Detroit saw similar situations develop. Yet, despite these issues, black churches fulfilled their roles of providing help and hope to the southern migrants..
THE BLACK BAPTIST CHURCH IN CHICAGO
Church membership in Chicago grew significantly when the southerners arrived due in part to the fact that the church was the primary institution in the lives of many African Americans. Kenneth Kusmer agrees.
Church membership was perhaps the most important indicator of status in the black community because, often 'the only institution which the Negro may call his own...[is] the church...and more nearly than anything else represents the real life of the race. 5
Olivet Baptist Church lists 600 members in 1903. By 1921, reports show a membership
of 10,012.6 The church established programs to meet not only the spiritual
needs of the people, but the cultural, social and economic needs of the newly
arrived migrants. More than forty different organizations within Olivet were created
for this purpose.
At Pilgrim Baptist Church, another popular Chicago congregation, "the entire congregation...is divided into one hundred groups."7 The northern urban church became a hub of activity, giving meaning and purpose to the new migrant's life.
Black Baptist churches in Chicago experienced great growth. "In 1916, Illinois Negro Baptist churches numbered 184. By 1926, there were 259 congregations with memberships of 23,224 and 83,839 respectively. Census records show 325 Baptist churches in Illinois in 1936. Of these 153 were located in Chicago, claiming 111,9056 members."8
Of the Chicago churches formed, many were products of Olivet. Church members sometimes became dissatisfied with a pastor or the church structure which caused dissension and the formation of new congregations. One of the most serious of these church "splits" gave birth to the first of Olivet's many children, the Bethesda Baptist Church. Bethesda was formed in 1882. "In Chicago, a number of members of Olivet Baptist Church withdrew by letters for the purpose of organizing a church."9 Other churches emerged from Olivet in the early 20th century. They include (with membership estimates): Pilgrim Baptist Church (7500); Ebenezer Baptist (6000); and Greater Bethel (6000).
However, Olivet remained as one of the city's leading congregations. It was, for many, the place to be on Sunday morning. Historian James Grossman relates the story of one woman, arriving from the south in 1922, who attempted to attend services at Olivet, apparently unaware of what to expect. "We couldn't get in. We'd have to stand up. I don't care how early we'd go, you wouldn't get in."10
The leadership included Rev. Richard de Baptiste (1863-1882); Rev. Elijah John Fisher (1903-1915); Rev. Lacey Kirk Williams (1916-1940) and Rev. Joseph Harrison Jackson (1941-1990). Both Rev. Williams and Rev. Jackson served as presidents of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. Jackson's presidency lasted twenty-nine years, from 1953-1982.
Olivet is a bright and shining light among the black religious community of Chicago and the world.
1Alllan H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890-1920 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 91
2Miles Mark Fisher, "The History of the Olivet Baptist Church of Chicago," (Master's thesis, Divinity School, University of Chicago, 1922), p. 89.
3Carter G. Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration (Washington, DC: The Association for the Study of Negro Life, 1918), p. 186-187.
4Mechal Sobel, Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979) p. 241-2.
5Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), p. 92.
6Fisher, p. 104-5.
7Robert Lee Sutherland, "An Analysis of Negro Churches in Chicago," (Doctoral dissertation, Divinity School, University of Chicago, 1930), p.78.
8Lewis G. Jordan, Negro Baptist History, USA 1750-1930. 2nd ed. (Nashville: Townsend Press, 1995), p.333.
9Johnson, p. 6-7.
10James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), p.156.
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