Erwin Brothers: Their influence on Early Baptist Work in Mississippi and Louisiana
By Sylvia Kelly Smith
It is often difficult for us to appreciate what many of our forefathers had to endure in order for us to enjoy the religious freedom we have today. Reading stories of their early struggles shows us just how lucky we are. These struggles are even more meaningful when we learn about family connections to those endeavors.
As a result of my family research I have discovered that several descendants of James N. Erwin, Jr. (1746-1794) were very influential in the establishment of various Baptist churches in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. James had six children, one of whom was William, my ancestor. William’s brothers were: John, James, Joseph, and Isaac.
There were definitely some tremendous problems associated with the beginning of Baptist work in those areas. There can be a degree of pride on our part as we study the rigors and persecutions that some of the forerunners faced in helping to establish the Baptist faith in the areas in which they lived. Some of those problems are discussed below.
“The revolt of the American Colonies from British rule, together with England's complications with France, gave Spain an opportunity to seize from England all the country along the Mississippi River from New Orleans up to, and including, the Natchez country in 1779. In 1783, the king of England ceded the whole of West Florida, including Mississippi, to the king of Spain; thus our commonwealth, then territory, passed under Spanish rule. At the same time, the king of England recognized the independence of the United States of America.”
“Thus, as soon as Spanish rule was established in the Natchez country, Roman Catholicism was the only allowable religion in the land. The hand of persecution was then raised against everyone who dared to dissent from Romanism.”
The foregoing is from a study of Baptist history prior to any record of our Erwins’ involvement. I will give more of the early history, then tie in with the Erwin connection:
“...By the close of 1779, the Richard Curtis family, living on the Great Pedee River, about 60 miles from Charleston, S.C., knew that because of their devotion to the Colonial cause during the Revolutionary War, they would be forced to leave their home. Their neighbors were Tories, which meant they were for the side of the mother country. The Curtis family found their neighborhood situation very dangerous, besides having their neighbors treat them with much distain.
In the meantime, several of the leading members of the family had become religious, and joined a Baptist church. One of them, Richard Curtis, Jr., was a licensed preacher. Some of these families, imperiled by the horrors of war, their property almost destroyed, saw no hope of better days where they were then living.
Somehow, they heard about the far-off Natchez Country, with a good climate, rich lands, and plenty of land and game of all kinds. In the spring of 1780, several families decided to move there. The trip was so treacherous, what with travel conditions along the river ways, unfriendly Indians, and smallpox, that many lives were lost on the journey.
By 1795, other immigrants had arrived in the Natchez area, and religious services were being held in the cabins or homes of the group. Since the entire area was under Spanish rule, only Roman Catholics were allowed to hold services. The governor, Don Manuel Gayoso, wrote a letter urging the Baptists to stop holding services. If they continued, their leaders would be sent to Mexico to work in the silver mines for the rest of their lives. Persecution abounded.
For the next couple of years, these leaders moved back to South Carolina for their own safety, before returning to the Natchez Country. Upon their return, the leaders found that the Baptist families who had remained in Mississippi had been having meetings in secret. The religious persecution was so prevalent in the area that the Baptist families even felt it necessary to post sentinels on the roads leading to their places of worship to warn them of any suspicious persons in the area.
By the time they returned to the Natchez area, Richard Curtis was ordained a Baptist minister, and the territory was under the jurisdiction of the United States government. The Baptist community met in conference under the guidance of Rev. Curtis and organized as a Baptist church. “This was probably in the summer of 1798. Their first church was called Salem, meaning peace. It was located on the south fork of Cole’s Creek in Jefferson County, Mississippi. This was some eighteen miles northeast of the present City of Natchez.”
“The next churches to be started were New Hope in Adams County; and Bethel in Wilkinson County about the year 1800.”
This is where we begin to find information about the Erwins. John Erwin, the oldest brother of my ancestor, William H. Erwin, was very much a part of the New Hope Baptist Church in Adams County. Another brother, Joseph Erwin, was very influential in the formation of the first Baptist church in Louisiana. This was the Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church located just outside Franklinton, Louisiana, on the banks of the Bogue Chitto River. Joseph Erwin donated the land for its building, and was a messenger to the associational meetings for several years. This land is now in the hands of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. A permanent marker denotes the location of the original church. The site of the old church is preserved, but no part of the original building is left.
A replica of the old structure has been built on the Washington Parish Fairgrounds in Franklinton, Louisiana, in their famed Mile Branch Settlement, where it can be seen today. Thousands of folks visit it each October during the Washington Parish Fair. Area Baptist churches see that it is put to good use during this time. Old-time singing takes place while visitors sit on hewn log benches on the dirt floor inside the log church. The replica even has a mud chimney like that in the original church. This replica was built as near as possible to the descriptions of the old church on Joseph's land. Through special planning, the church can be seen at any time of the year.
Our William's name seems to be linked with several early Mississippi Baptist churches, either as a messenger from an individual church to the Mississippi Baptist Association, or in the formation of new churches. See the list below for the churches that William and his brothers were associated with.
According to records, William Erwin was also named a trustee in 1818. Minutes from 1850 listed Wm. H. Erwin as a minister present at Galilee Church when it began August 14, 1824, with 11 members. Their membership at the time of the 1850 minutes was 123. William was invited help them to organize their church in 1824.
The following is a compilation of churches within the Mississippi Association from 1807-1827. One of my cousins, Mary Broussard of Denham Springs, LA, is presently serving on the State Historical Committee of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. She was able to compile the following information of just our Erwins for us. Other names were omitted to keep our record from being so hard to keep up with.
Mississippi Baptist Association 1806-1848
Messengers from churches'
Since some of the old Mississippi Baptist churches are still in existence today, I was able to locate Galilee Church in Gloster, Amite County, Mississippi. The church pastor and secretary, after searching through the original records of the church, confirmed that Rev. William H. Erwin and Rev. Joseph Slocum were listed as ministers at Galilee Church when it began on August 14, 1824, with eleven charter members. Although William H. Erwin was not listed as one of the congregation’s charter members, church records do indicate that he was involved in the initial formation of the church. Today, the church has merged with the First Baptist Church of Gloster to become Galilee First Baptist Church. In the year 2001, Jesse L. Garrison, retired Baptist minister and direct descendant of Rev. William H. Erwin, lived just seven miles from the Galilee church. Rev. Garrison also owns the old William H. Erwin Bible.
The papers from this first meeting of Galilee Church state: “Articles of Faith and practice of the Galilee Church of Jesus Christ Constituted the 14th day of August 1824 by Joseph Slocum and William Erwin.” Below this are listed two pages of articles of their beliefs, followed by two pages containing names of persons who became members over the following months. Members were made up of both the black and white races.
Page #5 begins:
“1824, Saturday, August 14th
We whose names are hereinto annexed members of the Baptist Church, met at Gallilee [sic], and being found orthodox was regularly constituted by Elder Joseph Slocomb and Wm. H. Erwin and pronounced a Gospel Church.”
Following this discovery, the Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission based in Clinton, Mississippi, was kind enough to send several articles which involved our Erwin family in the early Baptist churches.
One of the articles dealt with the subject of education. Baptists all over the nation were becoming interested in the subject of education. In October of 1817, a resolution was passed by the Mississippi Baptist Association to begin work on this. By the time of the associational meeting, a constitution for “The Mississippi Baptist Education Society” was approved. A group of eleven men were elected
as trustees. This group included: David Cooper, president; James A Randanson, secretary; Bartlett Collins, treasurer; George W. King; Ezra Courtney; William Erwin; John Smith; Shadrack King; Jacob Buckholts; Joel Glass; William Grummond; William Snodgrass; and David Collins.
The same reference lists “Erwin....” and seven others as delegates from the Mississippi Association to the State Convention in 1826. We do not know if this was William or John, although we do know that William was a messenger to the Mississippi Association that year from the Sandy Creek Church, so William most likely would have been the state delegate as well.
A second reference tells more about the objectives and work of the Educational Committee. It also lists William Erwin as one of the first trustees, mentioning that this set of trustees and officers were to serve for three years.
The five original churches in the state of Mississippi were all close to where both William and John Erwin lived. Salem, the first church in the state, was described as being located:
“...on the South Fork of Cole's creek, in Jefferson county, some eighteen miles northeast of the present City of Natchez." (Both William and John lived in Adams County, which includes Natchez). "There is some conflict as to the exact date, but it seems evident that the organization was completed in 1798, after Richard Curtis and his friends had returned from their exile in South Carolina.”
“The next churches to be constituted were New Hope, in Adams county, and Bethel, in Wilkinson county, about the year 1800. The two others were New Providence and Ebenezer, in Amite county, constituted in 1805 and 1806, respectively.”
John Erwin was listed as a messenger from New Hope for several years from its beginnings with the association in 1806 through the year 1824. William was also shown to be a messenger from there at times. In 1822, he was shown as a minister there. William was also shown to be a messenger from Bethel for a time.
William H. Erwin moved from the Adams County, Mississippi area around 1829. By 1830, he had moved with some of his family to East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, according to census records and records of land deeds which have been located. Unfortunately, our William died in early January of 1832. Perhaps it had been his intention to be a leading force in the building of Baptist work in that area of Louisiana. We will never know.
The preceding is an excerpt from A Gathering of Garrisons, a 722-page book by Sylvia Kelly Smith, and is reprinted here with permission. Full references to quotes are listed therein.
The author lives in Franklinton, Louisiana, and is a descendant of Lot Garrison and Margaret Erwin. Margaret Erwin was a daughter of William Henry Erwin (1781-1832), who was a grandson of James N. Irvine and Agness Patterson.