East Central Alabama was the cow’s tail for Baptists in the state. Until the Second Creek War in the mid 1830s, white settlement spread from Mobile to Huntsville and from the Coosa/Tallapoosa Rivers to the Tombigbee. But the area to the east of this vast domain, from the banks of the Coosa to the Chattahoochee, remained under Creek Indian control until the Trail of Tears forced them into exile in the West. Although Baptist churches and associations thrived in the settled region, they did not prosper east of the Coosa until after 1836.
In earlier decades, however, patterns began to form that would soon become permanent. Small log churches, often with two front doors to welcome women and girls on one side, men and boys on the other, multiplied. The organization was as simple as the architecture: a part-time pastor, clerk, deacons, and elders. Most churches met once a month, and even then only in seasons when dirt roads were passable and the weather not so inclement as to prevent travel. As late as the 1840s, the 23 churches in Montgomery, Lowndes, Dallas, Macon, and Autauga Counties numbered only two congregations that conducted services every Sunday. Such groups of churches formed loose Associations for fellowship and instruction.
These groupings were entirely voluntary, respecting the autonomy of each Baptist congregation. Once a year, usually in the Fall after crops were harvested, churches sent delegates to the Associational Meeting which typically lasted Friday and Saturday. Preaching mixed with business, which determined benevolent causes to be supported, theological differences to be resolved (or not, which led to withdrawals, splits, and even new denominations such as Primitive Baptists), and ethical issues to be debated. Church worship was simple as well. There were no Sunday Schools until late in the century except in urban churches and prosperous rural areas. There was much informality and little structure. Often churches had only a single hymnal, meaning the leader had to “line-out” the words (he would say the words, the congregation would then sing them). Attention riveted on the preacher. The pulpit stood in the middle at the front of the church, emphasizing the centrality of the spoken word rather than altar or liturgy.
To become a Baptist preacher was as simple as proclaiming a sense of God’s calling, finding other preachers to agree, a church to ordain the applicant, and another to place confidence in him as pastor. Most preachers were bi-vocational, earning their primary income from farming, trapping, teaching, or some other profession. The negative side of such an arrangement was perpetual financial worry among those who neglected secular work for church work and perpetual guilt among those who neglected congregations for paying jobs. Many churches expected little more of their pastors than preaching once a month, officiating at marriages and funerals, and when convenient a word of counsel, admonition, or encouragement.
Bi-vocationalism had its positive aspects as well. Ministers entered fully into the lives of parishioners. Their crops burned up during droughts just like their members; they sparred over politics like their congregations; they worried about the price of commodities and chaotic conditions within their communities. The very characteristics that caused better educated denominations to ridicule them (lack of education, lack of deference, low pay, lack of structure) endeared them to congregations consisting of people exactly like themselves. Their closeness of the people, the egalitarian way they were “called”, licensed, and ordained, the ease with which barely literate young men could preach, assured them a respectful hearing by a population of migratory, newly arrived frontier people just beginning to put down roots and terrified of warring Indians, deadly diseases, unfamiliar land, and lack of financial resources. Whereas the stiff ministerial requirements of Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches posed challenges to staffing their churches, Baptist lack of standards, doctrinally or educationally, favored them.
The first historian of Alabama Baptists, Rev. Hosea Holcomb, wrote in 1840:
The Baptist ministers in Alabama have been much like those in other parts of the United States: they have generally been men who were seeking a more productive soil; and have possessed but a moderate share of education . . .; they were plain in manners, and many of them preached the gospel in its simplicity, and in the power of the Holy Ghost. With regard to their doctrinal views, they have been considerably diverse; in general, they have occupied what is termed the middle ground. . . .
Elder Obadiah Echols of Columbus, Georgia, was just such a man. Born in Wilkes County in 1785, baptized in 1809, ordained by the (chillingly named) Murder Creek church in Jasper County in 1827, he was 53 years old when he became first pastor of the new Baptist church in Auburn on Sunday, June 19, 1838. He came to what was then newly settled northern Macon County after Indian removal to guide Baptists in what Holcomb described as
a small town… which may be strictly called a temperance town. According to a special agreement, no ardent spirits are to be sold there. Whoever shall have the temerity to trample on the good rules and morals of the place, so far as to sell a half pint of whiskey … forfeits his lot, and it reverts back to the trustees. What a blessed thing, if all the towns and villages in Alabama were placed on the same principle.
Although Echols was called as pastor of the “amiable church,” Elder W.B. Jones, pastor of the new church in Society Hill, was also a member of the Auburn congregation. The church joined the new Liberty Association, consisting mainly of churches in Chambers and Macon Counties. While the bi-vocational pastor of the church, Echols became one of the substantial land owners in the area and one of three men appointed by Alabama’s governor to conduct the city’s first election. Following five years as pastor, he departed for Mississippi where he lived for 15 years, then returned to Tuskegee to reside with his son until his death at age 85.
The best description of Echols as pastor/preacher/leader is found in a memorial published in the Alabama Baptist in 1883 and quoted in John Jeffers’ history of the church;
As a preacher, Mr. Echols belonged to the old style, without much method, but earnest, always entertaining, quaint, and at times somewhat tedious. In his method of speaking he was deliberate, occasionally quite emotional, and but for a habit of taking after a side thought at times, would have been effective; indeed, he was quite useful whenever engaged in revival meetings. The churches he served in the days of his manhood enjoyed a fair degree of prosperity.
That is probably a more honest appraisal than modern memorials, often better known for hyperbole than candor. And it starts the story at just the right place: not with perfection but with sincere and fervent effort.