One Sunday morning in June 1924, thousands of Mississippians — Black and white — flocked to a bayou in Gulfport, along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
Together they watched dozens of new converts, dressed in spotless white, slip beneath the waters of Bayou Bernard and reemerge. As the congregation sang, the preacher shouted: “In obedience to the great command, I baptize thee my brother in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen,” and 60 people were saved.
The preacher’s name was Rev. Dr. J. Gordon McPherson, but he was often called by his nickname, “Black Billy Sunday.” Years before that Sunday morning at Bayou Bernard, he had built up a reputation around the country as one of America’s leading evangelists.
Black residents on the Gulf Coast, impressed by his work, would later recruit him to lead First Missionary Baptist Church of Handsboro, one of the oldest Black congregations in Harrison County. The church traces its roots to the 1860s, with Bayou Bernard serving as the site of some of its earliest services and baptisms. Today, McPherson is commemorated on the church website in a list of its previous pastors.
The details of his life are less well known, even to historians. He has never been the subject of a biography, and the books and articles that mention him do so only briefly.
Yet McPherson’s story spans the United States and traces decades of evolution in American religious life. He hopscotched across the West, corresponded with Theodore Roosevelt, studied astrology, marketed himself as a healer, recorded sermons on the phonograph for Paramount and spent part of the last decade of his life on the Coast, preaching for Black and white audiences at a time of rigid segregation and violence against African Americans.
Since around 2018, associate minster Ruby Campbell Cowart has been researching the history of the church and its pastors over its 160 years. Documents and books are not always easy to find, and the church has burned twice in its history.
Conversations with church elders have been vital, and a tip from one member in her 90s helped her find information about McPherson. She sees him as a pastor who helped define the church — and as one of many leaders who have carried First Missionary Baptist Church of Handsboro into the present.
“We have such a rich history, and it needs to be told,” she said. “We have had anointed ministers to teach and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but more so they cared about the people in the church. And the people in the church cared enough about him that they made mention of him.”
The earliest document the Sun Herald could find about McPherson described him as the business manager of an African American newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1899. McPherson may have arrived there because the U.S. military stationed companies of African American soldiers at a base there for 15 years, starting in 1886.
The early part of McPherson’s life is sparsely documented. Vital records show he was born in 1869 in Louisiana to Mico and Rosa McPherson.
He served in the Spanish-American War, storming San Juan Hill in Cuba with Theodore Roosevelt. McPherson was proud of his service, and later used it to advance his career as a speaker and evangelist. But he was also clear-eyed about the limits of Black patriotism in defeating white bigotry. Roosevelt, he pointed out in a speech at a conference of Black newspaper editors in 1900, had two years earlier denigrated the Black soldiers in the Spanish-American War as cowards. Now that Roosevelt was running for vice president and needed their votes, he was praising them.
“It is a pretty bitter pill, but I guess we’ll have to swallow it,” McPherson said.
In 1901, McPherson was ordained as a minister at a Black Baptist church in Tacoma, Washington. Over the next 20 years, he would lead congregations in Spokane, Washington and Bakersfield and Oakland, California. But he was best known for his traveling lectures.
In 1904, he delivered a speech on “Lincoln the Emancipator” at a Sacramento celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“History fails to record another people that have done so well under similar conditions,” he said of African Americans. “Judge lynch and mob rule must vanish from every corner of this great country… God is going to shake this nation.”
By 1916, the African American newspaper — the California Eagle — had dubbed him “the most noted Black evangelist in the Golden West,” leading “the greatest evangelistic campaign ever witnessed in Pasadena.”
“Many hardened sinners hitting the trail” thanks to his preaching, the paper reported.
At the time, the country’s best-known evangelist was a white former professional baseball player named Billy Sunday, who attracted crowds of 20,000 in America’s big cities. As McPherson’s influence grew, the newspaper advertisements for his sermons began describing him as “Black Billy Sunday.” McPherson was one of several Black evangelists with that nickname, and it’s not clear if he took it himself or if it was given to him by the white press.
By 1923, McPherson had settled in New Orleans, where he married and led a church in Algiers. But he still traveled frequently to hold revivals and give speeches. Such an invitation is likely how he wound up baptizing 60 people in Bayou Bernard in 1924, and then becoming the permanent pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church of Handsboro.
According to historian Josh McMullen, who writes about McPherson in his book “Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925,” McPherson’s success in attracting mixed-race audiences amazed white observers at the time. But with seating still segregated, the invitation to white people wasn’t dangerously radical.
“They’re trying to get white brothers and sisters to come out and say, ‘Hear him preach, and don’t worry, he’s not going to be challenging any norms,’” said Lerone A. Martin, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
McPherson’s speeches were fairly conservative: He criticized prejudice and reminded listeners that Black and white people would be equal in Heaven, but focused more on urging Black audiences to pursue “moral regeneration.” ‘
While white evangelists like Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple gained big followings on the radio, Black preachers like McPherson were shut out, Martin explains in his book, “Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion.” So they turned to the phonograph.
Starting in 1926, the Atlanta-based preacher Rev. James M. Gates, a native of Hogansville, Georgia, recorded more than 200 sermons. The recordings flew off the shelves, notching sales figures equivalent to a Platinum album today.
At the time, African Americans were leaving the rural South by the millions during the Great Migration. They often found that churches in the North and in big cities worshiped differently. For Black migrants, recordings of preachers steeped in the rural Black tradition became a way to hang on to a piece of the South they had left behind.
And for the big labels, the success of “race records”—popular music recorded by and for African Americans—”seemed to guarantee that recording any form of black popular expression would be profitable,” Martin writes.
McPherson recorded six sermons for Paramount in 1931. One, titled “This Old World’s In a Hell of a Fix,” treated the Great Depression gripping the country as a sign of time running out for mankind to get right before God. In another, “Will You Spend Your Eternity in Hell?” he vividly described “the screaming, the moaning, and the groaning” among “the demons, among the murderers, the liars, and the thieves” in Hell.
A transcript of the speech is among the documents Cowart has collected from the church’s history.
“That’s a powerful sermon,” she said. “It’s just amazing to wonder: What would it have been like to listen to him in Sunday school? Or listen to him in prayer meeting?”
In 1917, the California Eagle reported that McPherson had been elected “General Evangelist” of the National Baptist Convention at its meeting in Atlanta.
At 3 a.m. on June 3, 1928, First Missionary Baptist Church of Handsboro went up in flames. A judge ordered a grand jury to investigate, but The Daily Herald, the Sun Herald’s predecessor, did not report the probe’s outcome. Later that year, the church ousted McPherson as pastor after a disagreement over who would collect and distribute the $3,500 insurance payment to rebuild the church.
After the ouster, McPherson kept preaching at churches around the Coast. In 1931, he held a “white folks night” at Gulfport’s Mount Bethel Baptist Church, where he delivered his “Fortune Telling sermon,” which included astrological readings of audience members. Martin said McPherson’s interest in astrology would not have been widely accepted by other Black Baptist leaders, as consulting astrological signs would even be considered heretical.
“So he’s clearly a trendsetter in more ways than one,” Martin said.
McPherson died in New Orleans in 1936.
Today, he is largely forgotten. But Cowart has recorded him in her history of First Missionary Baptist Church of Handsboro, which now spans some 200 pages of documents and narrative. And thanks to his phonograph recordings, McPherson’s words have become immortal. The sermons now live on YouTube.
SOURCE: The Associated Press; The Sun Herald, Isabelle Taft