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131 years old African American Church becomes Museum

As the oldest black Baptist church in Marietta, Georgia, Zion Baptist Church stands on the corner of Lemon and Haynes streets, where it has stood since it was first erected in 1868. Much of the information we have about the founding and development of Zion Baptist comes from church records, written shortly before and during the Civil War. Unfortunately, most of the records kept after this period were lost in a fire.

Zion Baptist Church had its origins in First Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist Church in Marietta. In 1836, the all-white congregation of First Baptist received and enrolled its first black member, a slave woman known only as “Dicey.” First Baptist’s black membership grew rapidly so rapidly, in fact, that a balcony had to be constructed at some point during the 1840s or 1850s. Their names were entered into the church records, which have survived from that period. Slaves were listed by their first name only, while free blacks were listed by both first and last name. By 1851, the black members of first Baptist had their own conference, which met the second Saturday of every month. All black men were required to attend the conference meetings and records indicate that the conference raised money for charitable organizations and dealt with disciplinary issues within the black congregation.

The First Baptist Church records mention Brother Ephraim for the first time in 1851. Ephraim, the “servant” of one of the white members of the congregation, asked the church for permission to perform marriage ceremonies for other blacks. While this request was denied, he was allowed to preach at prayer services, when allowed to do so by the watchmen (members of the black congregation who watched over the others and reported disciplinary problems). Ephraim’s influence grew when he was made a watchman in 1853.

In 1856, some of First Baptist’s black congregation, led by Brother Ephraim, petitioned the church leaders to be allowed to form their own “African Church.” While the idea was rejected at the time (and brother Ephraim was excluded from the church for two months for his insolence), in May, the blacks of First Baptist church were given permission to have their own house of worship, while still remaining members of First Baptist. A committee was appointed to oversee the purchase or construction of a building and to devise and enforce the rules and regulations of this new church. While Brother Ephraim’s request for a license to preach was turned down, two of the members of the congregation were made deacons.

Brother Ephraim’s name appears several times in the few church records that survived the Civil War. In 1863, the white church conference was unable to meet because so many of its members had left to join the fighting. The black conference did meet, however, and granted Ephraim a license to preach. The license was confirmed in July, despite the protests of the state court system. In 1865, the blacks of First Baptist Church applied for letters of dismissal and for permission to secede from First Baptist and to form a new, completely separate, church of their own. This request was eventually granted and on Aril 8, 1866, Zion Baptist church was formally organized with Rev. Ephraim B. Rucker (formerly known as Brother Ephraim) as its pastor.

Zion Baptist Church has been active since this time and celebrated its 131st anniversary in 1997.

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