Four-year old Israel, born in Russellville, Ky., held his mother’s hand and squeezed hard. His family had just heard the drop of the wooden mallet sealing their purchase by a Methodist couple from Ohio. This gifted child, born into slavery, grew to become a strong Christian young man, dedicated to Christ and his church, and he impacted Baptist life in Texas like no other.
Following his conversion, Israel Sydney Campbell (1815-1898) became a Baptist as a 21-year-old and answered God’s call to preach the next year, even though he still was a slave. Despite great trials, hardships and beatings, he was pastor of churches in Tennessee, Canada and Ohio before his ordination in 1855 at age 40. He then became a missionary in Louisiana and Texas, arriving in the Lone Star State as other missionaries also were arriving to minister here.
Galveston’s Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church
Most of the first Baptists to set foot in Texas came by ship in those days, docking at Galveston Island and trekking inland from the Gulf of Mexico. American Home Missionary James Huckins, William Tryon, George Washington Baines and Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor were among these first Baptists to arrive. In 1840, Huckins helped organize First Baptist Church in Galveston the same year several black Baptists first became a part of that church family. Huckins then aided black Baptists in the growing city to organize their own church, the Colored Baptist Church of Galveston, 20 years before the Civil War. This congregation met in the courthouse several years; it was a safe place where slaves could gather to worship and learn to read and write. In 1855, it changed its name to African Baptist Church, but the Civil War began to disrupt services more often than not.
After emancipation and the war’s end, when Gail Borden Jr. and other Baptist brothers bought and deeded land to the African Baptist Church, Israel Campbell and a fellow pastor, I. Rhinehart, went to work. In 1867, Campbell reorganized the straggling membership into a new congregation, called First Regular Missionary Baptist Church, and relocated it to 26th Street and Avenue L. This was the first entirely independent black Baptist church organized in Texas following the 1863 emancipation. It soon grew under Campbell’s leadership to more than 500 members.
In 1868, Campbell, along with Baptist pastor friends John Henry “Jack” Yates and Peter Diggs, organized the first association of black Baptists in Texas, called the Lincoln District Baptist Association. In 1872, they founded the Baptist State Missionary and Education Convention. Financially supported by the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York, this convention was the first statewide black Baptist organization in Texas. With Campbell as one of its primary leaders, the convention became a success, and, by 1890, the churches of the convention had a membership of more than 110,000. (By 1916, 72 percent of the state’s black churchgoers were Baptists.)
In February 1891, at age 76, and after dedicating a new sanctuary built that year, Campbell retired as pastor of First Regular Missionary Baptist Church. The “Father of Black Baptists in Texas” died in La Marque on June 13, 1898, and was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston.
When the devastating hurricane of 1900 pounded most of the island’s buildings into the ocean, the congregation lost its church home. However, by 1904, the congregation built a new wooden sanctuary and renamed the church, “Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church.” In 1916, the African-American firm of Tanner Brothers Contractors and Architects constructed a red-brick sanctuary on the site, which still stands today at Avenue L, along with the 1904 structure on its west side.
For 149 years, this church has been a faithful witness for Christ in Galveston, ministering to the community and training disciples, guided by the motto: “See a need. Meet a need.” Many of its members are multi-generational descendants of the church’s founders, who worship today with people from many ethnic backgrounds.
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SOURCE: The Baptist Standard
Karen O’Dell Bullock, B. H. Carroll Theological Institute