The Origin & Early Development of First Providence Missionary Baptist Church
Brother Clifton P. Lewis - January 2017
“Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9)
“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet, with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed?”
“A Time When “Hope Unborn Had Died”: Early Years of Slavery and Wilderness: A deeper awareness of the challenges that existed during the beginning years of Providence Baptist Church brings into focus the stellar character of the original enslaved members. The story about the origin of Providence has been handed down orally in the tradition of the African Griot. The story began in 1856.
Back in 1856, the village of Bartow was a part of Hillsborough County; Polk County was not created until 1861 - five years after Providence began. In addition to Bartow, only the villages of Fort Meade, and Homeland existed.
Conditions Were Dangerous: The landscape was an undeveloped wilderness; the Third Seminole Indian War was in progress and victory by the United States Army resulted in the removal of Seminole Indians and their Black allies known as the Black Seminoles. Around 1848, white settlers arrived with Black slaves to herd cattle, and work small farms. Large scale orange groves had not yet been created, phosphate had not been discovered, and the railroad had not been laid. This was indeed a wilderness frontier.
Whites and Blacks Worshiped Together: In 1854, two years before Providence began; a small group of white settlers established the Peas Creek Baptist Church. The membership role of Peas Creek Baptist lists the names of several enslaved black persons. At some point, Peas Creek Baptist Church stopped meeting. It may have been during that period of inactivity when enslaved black Christians started the Providence Baptist Church. Today’s First Providence is “perhaps the county’s oldest church in continual operation in the county,” according to noted historian, Dr. Canter Brown, Jr.
The ending of the Civil War in 1865 meant the end of slavery. The increasingly harsh race relations caused the majority of the approximately seven hundred (700) freed black men and women to flee the county. The exodus of black residents left only a small number to maintain the fledgling church.
First Little School: That small group also managed to start a little school within the church. County records show that the first school for black youngsters in Polk was held at Providence beginning perhaps as early as the 1870s. City minutes dating back to the 1880s refer to “the school in the colored Church.” That “colored” church was today’s First Providence.
The county’s population increased significantly during the decade of the 1880s driven by the discovery of phosphate and the laying of the railroads. New mine and railroad workers joined lumbermen, turpentine workers, and workers in the emerging orange groves. During that time, Polk County became the center of economic growth in the state.
Among the new workers were Longworth, Brown, Hamilton, Waldon, Stephens, Williams, Macon, Green, Sweet, Mason, Burkett, Tucker, and others. The family of Ned and Emily Green were among the 1880s newcomers. Arriving from Jefferson County, Ned Green helped boost Providence’s development by donating a plot of land that made it possible for the old church building to be moved to its present King Street location. The men moved the old building by placing it on tree logs and pulling it with mules about a quarter mile from its location on Stewart near Baker Avenue.
Racial Cooperation Leads to Temperance: The influx of new settlers, both black and white, added to the already high rate of lawlessness. Since alcohol was viewed as the major cause of the violence, white citizens organized an anti-alcohol movement led by Benjamin F. Blount. According to Dr. Brown, the city leaders asked the black community for support. This led to a joint meeting being held at Providence Church in August 1889. The cooperation between the races resulted in the passage of the desired prohibition ordinance. Saloons were ordered closed within a month – and Providence played a role in making Polk a dry county.
Black Ministers Create Their Own Organizations:
During the 1880s Florida’s black clergy decided to leave the predominantly white ministers group to create their own regional and state organizations; and again Providence played a role.
The “First South Florida Missionary Baptist District Association (“FSFMBDA”) was organized at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in November 1889, with the Reverend W. B. Mills serving as host Pastor and Reverend E. C. Jones was Moderator. The venerable First South Florida Missionary Baptist District Association continues to thrive today (2017) under the capable leadership of Moderator Rev. Dr. Rayford Harper.
During the mid-1890s, Polk County experienced a severe winter freeze that destroyed the citrus crops causing Jobs to vanish and the previously robust economy to collapse into a depression.