William Murphy & The Bluestone Church The First All Black Church in America.
Appalachia's distinctive brand of Christianity has always been something of a puzzle to mainline American congregations. Often treated as pagan and unchurched, native Appalachian sects are labeled as ultraconservative, primitive, and fatalistic, and the actions of minority sub-groups such as "snake handlers" are associated with all worshippers in the region. Yet these churches that many regard as being outside the mainstream are living examples of America's oldest indigenoius church heritage. The emotional and experience-based religion that still thrives in Appalachia is very much at the heart of modern American worship. However, the lack of a recognizable "father figure" like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox compounds the mystery of its Appalachia's religious origins. Writer and ordained minister John Sparks, determined that such a person must have existed, and his search turned up a man less literate, urbane, and well-known than Luther, Calvin, and Knox―but no less charismatic and influential, named Shubal Stearns.
Shubal Stearns, a New England Baptist minister, led a group of sixteen Baptists in the mid-eighteenth century.―now dubbed "The Old Brethren" by Old School Baptists churches into the western mountains of North Carolina, aka., Appalachia. His musical "barking" preaching is still popular, and the association of churches that he established gave birth to many of the disparate denominations prospering in the region today. A man lacking in the scholarship of his peers but endowed with the eccentricities that would make their mark on Appalachian faith, Stearns had long been an object of shame among most "traditional" Baptist historians.
Shubal Stearns' style of preaching and emphasis on internal conversion were highly important to the “new lights”religion. He became the model for many other preachers who sought to copy his example, down to the least gesture or inflection of voice. His Hymn-lining, also called lining-out or presenting a line in sermons was very popular during this era, especially with the recently transplanted Scotch/Irish immigrants.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century brought Protestantism to Scotland, and with it came a change in the focus of the preached word as primary to the worship service. While most Bibles were being published in English, the Gaelic-speaking Scots were being aided in their understanding of the Bible by using songs in the worship services. The Scottish tradition of metrical psalmody - the singing of verses of the Psalms to repeated regular melodies - was well established, when, in 1561, Mary Queen of Scots’ noted that her subjects “unskillfully sang the Psalms, yet with much passion” on her arrival from France. The practice of “lining out” in worship services, by a precentor, was started to help illiterate congregants. This precentor - who was always male - would “set the pitch and identify the tune by singing each line before the congregation”. When this practice was adopted by the Gaelic-speaking communities, the music changed from the diatonic- based, simple singing brought to them by the Reformers to one that was pentatonic based. But what was most distinctive was the addition of the Celtic tradition of “ornamentation with the grace notes and fluid, improvised decorative figures common in traditional music” became common. This was made even more distinctive by being sung in the Gaelic language.
In Stearns style, he chants a verse of scripture and the congregation sings that line in response. He would chant each line and the congregation would repeat that line; before the congregation would finish the first line, he would start the second line in time for the congregation to start that second line and so on until the sermon/song was completed. Stearns believed that God pours his spirit like water upon a new believer, requiring no special learning or instruction; and this 'outpouring' swiftly became a flood that spread from his Sandy Creek church throughout all parts of the southern frontier. Within seventeen years, Shubal Stearn’s Sandy Creek Baptist Church was instrumental in planting 42 other churches (Virginia to Georgia) and training 125 young preachers for the ministry. By 1790, those churches had multiplied to over 400 Separatist Baptists churches, and one historian estimates that by 1850, Stearns and his "New Lights" disciples had influenced approximately 5,000 churches, including Disciples of Christ, Christian Church and churches of Christ
The Origins of the Bluestone Church The site of Bluestone meeting house was on a beautiful eminence on Big Bluestone Creek, about three miles from Abbyville, on Staunton River and just two from the North Carolina state line. It seems the gospel was first carried into the neighborhood of Bluestone by William Murphy and Philip Mulkey about 1755-56.
According to writer of Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (1988) by Mechal Sobel, they organized the very first all-black church in Virginia on the ill-managed plantation of Col. William Byrd III in Lunenburg County, Virginia. Also according to her records, it was considered to be the first all black church in America. By blending their “new lights” Separatist Baptist faith with that of the Afro-Americans had brought with them from Africa, a unique religious experience in America was beginning, and would continue to develop into the 19th/20th century. Many Africans had little trouble adopting Christianity because it preached many of the same beliefs that were central to African religions, a supreme being, creation myths, priest-healers, moral and ethical systems. Christianity's "life after death" was also attractive because it offered the promise that they would someday regain contact with their ancestors.
We cannot know exactly what this version of their early “Appalachian-style” preaching sounded like, but one is tempted to speculate that the common mode and style of that Philip Mulkey and William Murphy as they were taught by their mentor Shubael Stearns, had a heavy dependence on singsong chant interspersed with elongated shouts and wails, appearing so similar to that of modern “Lining Out” traditions or "Presenting the line” as it is also known. Before Churches had songbooks, there was 'Lined-Out' Gospel. Lining out, also called hymn lining, is a form of a cappella hymn-singing or hymnody in which a leader, often called the clerk or precentor, gives each line of a hymn tune as it is to be sung, usually in a chanted form giving or suggesting the tune. It can be considered a form of call and response.
The oldest English-language religious music in oral tradition in North America, the lined-out, congregational hymnody of the Old Regular Baptists, is heard in the heart of the coal-mining country of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This music of worship once was the common way of singing sacred song in the American Colonies. Morgan Edwards wrote, “After arriving and greeting one another, men and women sat in groups together. Then there was "preaching … by the brethren, then praying and singing all around until they generally feel quite happy." The speaker rises "and talks very slowly, until feeling the spirit, he grows excited, and in a short time there fall to the ground 20 or 30 men and women under its influence. "The slave temporarily forgets all his sufferings, except to remind others of the trials during the past week, exclaiming, 'Thank God, I shall not live here always!' “ Their music became an important part of the moral universe in which most, if not all Southern Baptists dwell: a vivid faith life of baptism in cold-water creeks, repentance and salvation. Where spontaneous sermons and the rising voices of the congregation wrapped up in song.
Mulkey and Murphy’s labors were successful at Bluestone, and in 1758 they were sufficiently numerous to exercise the rights of a church. There were several white members besides at the larger number of blacks, belonging chiefly to the large estate of Colonel Byrd. Many of these slaves became bright and shinning Christians. William Byrd III (September 6, 1728 – January 2, 1777) was the son of William Byrd II and the grandson of William Byrd I. He inherited his family's vast estate (largest in Virginia) of approximately 179,000 acres of land in Virginia and 20,000 acres in North Carolina and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Unfortunately, William Byrd III had a reputation as a notorious gambler. He initiated what was said to have been the first major horse race in the New World. He squandered the Byrd fortune on building the magnificent mansion at Westover Plantation, gambling, and other bad investments. Byrd III was forced to parceled up much of the land he had inherited from his father and sold it off to raise money to pay his debts. He also sold the enslaved African laborers who had worked on his estate. Although his sale of land and slaves generated a huge sum it still was not enough to pay off his creditors. Later, Byrd resorted to a lottery, the prizes of which would come from his estate, Belvedere, at the falls of the James River. However the lottery failed to generate sufficient revenue. The breaking up of Byrd’s quarters scattered these black congregants to various parts. But, it did not rob them of their religion. It is said that through their labor in the different neighborhoods into which they fall many person were brought to the knowledge of the truth, and some of them persons of distinction. The remains of this church continued in a dwindled state until the Gospel was preached in the neighborhood of Meherrin.
Unfortunately not all white Christians Pastors were as accommodating to their black brethren. For the next 100 years, religious gatherings of enslaved Africans involved both formal worship organized and overseen by slave masters, as well as secret, clandestine meetings held under the cover of darkness. Those enslaved risked being beaten or even killed if caught attending these secret worship assemblies. Great care was taken to avoid detection. Meetings were held in secluded places (woods, ravines, areas with lots of brush to provide cover). These places were known as ‘hush harbors’. First Baptist Church of Petersburg, Virginia, originally known as the First African Baptist Church, is considered the oldest continuously operating black church in the state and is the mother church of numerous Baptist congregations in Virginia. It was those energetic young black members of the New Lights, as they were called, who assumed leadership roles and formally established First African Baptist Church in 1774 near Lunennburg, Virginia, on the William Byrd III plantation. Free members of the congregation later moved to Petersburg and changed the name to the First Baptist Church when the Byrd plantation meetinghouse succumbed to flames.
Fortunately, William Murphy’s belief and vision of salvation for all regardless of color, and integrated church services was carried on through the efforts of his son William Murphy Jr, granddaughter Margaret Murphy and her husband Elijah Davison.
Life Summary of William Murphy 1755 Age 23, he was ordained by Shubal Stearns 1757 Founded 1st all black church of Virginia, on Big Bluestone Creek with Philip Mulkey 1761 Organized Blackwater Church Franklin Co., VA. 1763 Founded Staunton Baptist Church, Staunton, Virginia. 1765 Married Sarah Barton 1771 Johnson Riot Act (retroactive) becomes N.C. law, felony for unlawful assemblies of 10 or more. Murphy and his Orange Co. Separatist Baptist church are declared outlaws 1775 Preached in Bedford, VA, as itinerant evangelist 1775 Led a delegation at a Baptists meeting, Lunenburg Co. to discuss the query that occupied the attention of the day, "Is salvation by Christ made possible for every individual of the human race?" 1779 Organized Holston Assoc. of Baptists, upper East TN (Sandy Creek refugees) 1781 Moved to Grainger Co., TN. (Overmountain Men at Cowpens) 1783 Cherokee Creek Baptist Church in Jonesboro, TN. 1798 Organized the Church of Christ on Lick Creek with Tidence Lane 1799, Left Tennessee to acquire land near St Genevieve, (Farmington) MO. 1799 William Murphy died in Kentucky at his son John Murphy's home. He and other sons were returning from a trip to Louisiana Territory where they purchased land from the Spanish in what later became St Francois County, Missouri. Both he and an associate, Silas George, died on that return trip from Missouri. We have this further insight from one historian, that William Murphy died "at the close of a great revival in the community of Glasgow KY, while visiting family at the Mt Tabor Baptist. church”. As far as we know he was the first Baptist preacher to preach the gospel while surveying land in the Missouri section when the Indians claimed the land.