Asa: The First African American Preacher
in Boone County
in Boone County
By Jim Duvall
Asa, a slave originally belonging to John Taylor, the first preacher at Bullittsburg Baptist Church, made a profession of his faith on August 3, 1800. Taylor tells of the revival that began in August of that year: "...we had baptized twenty, and but few young people among them, and only one man of colour. A young fellow who I had raised myself, by the name of Asa, I had learned him to read very well — he afterwards became a preacher." Taylor says Asa's conversion experience "was very striking." He was baptized with Christopher Wilson, who later became pastor at Forks of Gunpowder Baptist Church. Asa often traveled with Wilson on preaching engagements. He became a good preacher. His greatest usefulness was among his fellow blacks. Asa was the brother of Letty, and her conversion experience was described by John Taylor in great detail in his book, The History of Ten Baptist Churches, (pp. 109-112).
In early 1809 the Bullitsburg Baptist Church gave approval to Asa's preaching. The Churchbook reads, "Motioned & seconded to take into consideration the gift of Bro. Asa a Black member belonging to Bro. John Graves The matter taken up & agreed that Bro. Asa be requested to appoint evening meetings about that his brethren may have a chance of hearing him & get their minds better informed concerning his Gift." James A. Kirtley, who wrote a history of the church in the 1870s says, "In 1809, Asa, a colored brother, was encouraged by the church to exercise a gift of exhortation, particularly among the colored people. At different times, the church, with an affectionate and disinterested care, appointed judicious brethren to be with him at his appointments, and afford that counsel and instruction which would promote his usefulness in the ministry."
This was the usual policy when the church considered ordaining a man to the ministry. The next month the church encouraged Asa in the gift of exhortation. But greater than average control was kept over Asa, for more than three years later the church discussed the "propriety of the black members holding meetings." In May, 1818, the church "Agreed to Liberate bro. Gaines' Asa to exercise a publick gift any where in the bounds of the church." In April, 1823, the Churchbook says: "Agreed that we take into consideration the gifts of brethren Asa & Billy after investigation bro. Asa is liberated to preach where God in his providence may cast his lot — And the case of bro. Billy is continued untill next meeting"
In May of 1823, Billy was approved by the church as a preacher. In September of that year the Churchbook states: "Bro. Rob't Terrill laid in a complaint ags't br. Billy (a black member belonging to Sister Watts) for purloining." He was excluded from the church; we cannot determine from available records whether this is the "bro. Billy" mentioned as a preacher. There is no record of Asa being ordained as a minister.
The churchbook listed the members on separate pages as: White Males, White Females and Black Members. Only the white men were expected to contribute to the expenses of the church.
The church periodically updated its membership list. In the first list of black church members, Asa was owned by John Taylor, and he was the second black member's name on the list. He was shown to be owned by Taylor in the second list of June 1801. John Taylor left Boone County in 1802, but Asa did not leave the county. In the list begun in 1813, Asa was shown as owned by John Graves. In the 1819 list he was owned by George Gaines; by George Gaines also in the 1829 list. In the 1835 list, Asa was shown to belong to John Whitaker and that he was dismissed by letter October 1839. The church business meeting of that month states: "Bro. E. Ferris asked for letters of dismission for Asa and Rachel his wife (colored members of this church) which was granted." This is the first mention of Rachel as Asa's wife and indicates he and his wife both had been sold.
E. Ferris is nowhere listed as a member of Bullittsburg Baptist Church; this is likely Elder Ezra Ferris of Lawrenceburg, Dearborn County, Indiana, who was a physician and Baptist pastor in that area. Ferris had very close connections with Boone County Baptists for many years. If this is the case (and more research needs to be done on this), then Asa and his wife would have been granted their freedom by Ferris, as no slaves were allowed in the Northwest Territory or states established there. Asa had been owned by five different men in the year 1839, when he and his wife were granted freedom.
To review some earlier church records, we note that Asa's life was not without controversy. In the Bullittsburg Churchbook, August, 1807 we read, "contradictions exist between 3 black men Warrick, Tom and Amos and two other black men Asa and Dublin." In September 1807 the three black men first mentioned were all excluded. This entry and the following seem to indicate there was some jealousy of Asa by other black men in the church.
In December, 1811 we read, "A Complaint was lodg'd in the Church by Bro'r. John Graves's Asa, against bro'r. William...." A committee was appointed and the matter was continued. At the January 1812 meeting, "the Brethren that were appointed as a committee to enquire into the difficalty [sic] Between the black brethren Asa & Matthew reported as follows, that agreeable to the evidence given before them that they thought Matthew was guilty for attempting unjustifiable measures to get into the Church, & for saying he wanted Asa put down & himself to be above him. The Church after hea[r]ing the report of the committee, agreed to refer the matter till next meeting in order to get the parties together with their evidences that they may be fully possess'd with the matter." In Feb, 1812, "the reference respecting the black brethren was taken up, an[d] Asa laid in his Charge (as was reported by the committee) which was deny'd by Matthew, but after hearing the evidences the Church voted him clear of the Charge."
These entries indicate the church took matters seriously that related to her black members as well as her white members, as this committee took several months to resolve these issues.
(From the Bullittsburg Baptist Churchbook; John Taylor, The History of Ten Baptist Churches, 1823; reprint. edition, 1968; James A. Kirtley, History of Bullittsburg Church with Biographies, 1872, p. 14. The BBC Minutes are on microfilm copies at the Boone County Public Library, Main Branch, Burlington, KY. The grammar and spelling are unchanged except where [ ] is used to denote a change.)