The Primitive Baptist Church on the Falls of the Tar River was founded in 1757, and its congregation met just a short distance from where Rocky Mount Mills stands today. It’s members consisted of a large number of the residents of Rocky Mount at the time. Thanks to the work of the Southern Historical Collection’s Bernetiae Reed, the Community Histories Workshop now has digital access to hundreds of records from the church spanning from the 1760s to the 1780s. The records are a great genealogical resource for anyone who has descended from early settlers of Rocky Mount or their slaves, many of whom also attended church services. In the church’s early years, Reverend John Moore led the church as pastor for many years, leaving the position around 1780. Many members of the Battle family attended the church, including Elisha Battle, John Battle, other family members, and their slaves.
These records also offer an insight into what life, society, and religion were like for colonial Americans around the time of the American Revolution. In the early 1700s, nearly 80% of the settler population in America attended churches. The Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s caused a large revival in evangelicalism, which helped make the Baptists one of the largest denominations in the country by the 1770s. The records described who was selected for roles like delegates to the association, scribes, and other important positions within the congregation. Some even contained a question and answer section where the church members could ask questions about scripture or more philosophical questions about faith and Christianity.
In a time where no concrete forms of law enforcement existed in American society, churches often acted as a form of law enforcement for the town. Many of the records from the Falls of the Tar River were concerned with people being cited, suspended, or excommunicated from the congregation for various transgressions. These issues would often be brought up to the church by a member who would publicly accuse a person when they were caught behaving improperly. While today’s churches advocate for the private forgiveness of sin through prayer and personal reconciliation, the Primitive Baptist church required public atonement for sins and misbehavior. The person who transgressed would be cited to come in to the next conference and either repent or defend themselves in front of the congregation.
“At a meeting of Conference held the 2nd of November, an act was passed that if any Church member shall frequent any place of lasciviousness as horse racing … or allow their families under their care so to do they shall be dealt with as in other immoral practices except in cases where necessity of lawful business calls.”
In many ways, getting a citation from the church was like getting summoned to a trial. This took place during a time where there was no police or real law enforcement in the colonies, and it was left to local communities to decide how they would address actions or situations they deemed unlawful. The accused would stand in front of the congregation and explain themselves, either denying their wrongdoing or making acknowledgement of their fault and giving satisfaction to the church. It is unclear from the records exactly what giving satisfaction entailed, but many times someone could not be readmitted into the church until satisfaction was given in front of the entire congregation. If some members weren’t present, the matter was referred until the next conference when hopefully all members would be there. This referral would be repeated until the whole congregation was there to make a collective decision.
There were a significant number of suspensions and excommunications at the Falls of the Tar River. Some congregants were more troublesome than others, being cited several times and over the course of several years throughout the records. Some conferences were called specifically to address bad behavior or interpersonal issues, like the one called “on account of a difference between Henry Horn and William Taylor.” Taylor was suspended, but it is not explained why. The records show a variety of reasons for people being cited – many are mundane, while some come from quite interesting circumstances.
Reasons for suspension or excommunication included behavior such as:
- Disorderly conduct
- “Misbehaving in drink”
- Not attending church
- Attempting the debauchery of someone’s daughter
- “Persisting in their offenses” after initial acknowledgement
- Lying about the age of a horse
- Arguments and disagreements between church members
“Wm Barnes appeared but gave no satisfaction and he was excommunicated. At a conference held at the meeting house the 2nd day of November 1776 the Church received information that Elizabeth Battle had told an untruth.”
Many of the church members charged with these accusations admitted their fault, gave satisfaction, and were restored to the church. There were several others who were permanently excommunicated. In 1875, following a fire that burned down their meeting house, the congregation built what was then the largest church in the state with a seating capacity of 10,000. The church no longer exists today, but the physical records can be found at the Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount.
By Sierra Dunne
“Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel02.html. Accessed February 28, 2019.