Our Commitment to Growth
The Association received churches into its fellowship in the years following its organization. In 1885, Seven Bridges Church located in the Maxton, NC area joined the Association. In that same year, the official name of the association became the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association of Croatan Indians, reflecting the local Indians’ insistence upon their proper identity as Indian people. The designation "Croatan Indians" is associated with the John White "Lost Colony" theory of origins for many eastern North Carolina Indians believed to have been friendly with early English pioneers.
By the annual meeting in 1888, the Association included 9 churches and one church, Mt. Elim, was in South Carolina. By 1900, the membership included 16 churches but 5 of those left the Association by the annual meeting that year. Steadily, the Association grew by adding new churches at most annual meetings. The number of churches reached 20 by 1911 but decreased to 14 churches by 1913 before increasing again to 20 by 1924.
Several of the churches in those first 45 years of the Association’s existence left the Association without explanation. It appears that some dissolved altogether and others reorganized under another name. By 1917, the Association included churches from North Carolina in Robeson, Scotland and Bladen counties; one church in Adabelle, Georgia; and, one church in South Carolina. The Burnt Swamp Association was beginning to reflect not just its distinction as an organization of Indian churches but also a very non-traditional geographic spread.
No new churches joined the Association from 1925 to 1938. In 1938, Sampson County, North Carolina Indians at New Bethel Church petitioned and joined the Association. New Bethel’s affiliation extended the reach of Burnt Swamp beyond the Lumbee community into the Coharie tribe.
A prior relationship existed between the Sampson county Coharie Indians and the Robeson county Lumbee. The Lumbee leaders recognized many of the Coharie people who had migrated into Lumbee territory during the middle to late 1800’s and established themselves as permanent residents among the Lumbee. Both Indian communities had been providing for the education of their children through community supported Indian schools. Cooperation between the two tribes led to a connection for spiritual fellowship when New Bethel Church organized in 1911.
Indian education was a second core concern for Indian churches in the early years of their formation. In the 1881 minutes of the association, a report on education set forth the Association’s understanding of the importance of having a school for the Indian race. A report on education became a regular item on the annual meeting agenda. These reports usually called for education opportunity for Indian preachers but, importantly, for Indian children. Several elementary schools for Indians developed in the 1880’s and 1890’s. In the years soon to come, as many as two dozen schools for Indian children, built and sustained by Indian community support, emerged throughout Indian country in eastern North Carolina.
In many instances, Indian churches also formed in the same location as the Indian schools. The Association actively engaged in a larger effort to provide a high school for Indians and helped raise financial support to that end.
"This Association, and those of other denominations of the Croatan Indians, have a committee of one from each church, who shall endeavor to raise all the money they can for the purpose of establishing a high school among the Croatan Indians; that this committee have a treasurer, who shall hold this money, and that this treasurer shall secure them for all the money paid to him, and that each committee shall make a report at every Union meeting of all the money they have raised." A movement in the Indian community culminated in North Carolina state legislature allocating funds for the establishment a school for higher level education for Indians in Robeson County. "
In the late 1800’s the state of North Carolina finally recognized its obligation to provide schooling for Croatan Indian children in Robeson County. Indian children could not attend White schools, and, by choice, did not attend the Black schools either. A few small elementary schools for Indians were finally approved in various communities. In later years, changes in Public Laws allowed for such schools among Indians in other eastern counties. However, there were no opportunities for natives beyond elementary grades to gain education diplomas or degrees."
Birth of the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association
Accustomed to limited economic and other community resources, Indian churches learned to cope with restricted opportunity. Pastors were scarce and more than one congregation often shared the same pastor. Though the specific beginning of inter-church fellowship is not clearly defined, Indian churches began to meet in joint gatherings likely during the 1870’s. Oral history reports that is the case until an official formal gathering of these Indian Baptist churches met in 1881. "It is suggested that such meetings occurred in the late 1870’s and continued until three of those churches met at the Burnt Swamp Baptist Church on January 21, 22 and 23 of 1881 for the purpose of organizing an association. (A recording of the association’s history by Bro. J.L. Carter in the 1952 Minutes indicates the association was formed in 1880.) The three churches (Burnt Swamp, Reedy Branch, and Magnolia) organized themselves and elected officers." According to minutes of that meeting, the Burnt Swamp Association formed and named such at that time. The name chosen for the new organization was the "Burnt Swamp Missionary Baptist Association of the Mixed Race", reflecting the White society’s designation for local Indians. Elder F. Prevatt preached the Introductory Sermon and the delegates present elected officers. They elected Carey Wilkins as the first Moderator, John Wilkins as Clerk and Gilbert Locklear as Treasurer. The Clerk also recognized delegates present from the three churches.
Carey Wilkins was already a recognized Indian spiritual leader. Records from a local Indian Methodist Church’s minutes dating back to 1869 indicate that Rev. Carey Wilkins had withdrawn his church membership from them and he became a Baptist. "On October 2, 1877 twelve men and eight women met to organize Burnt Swamp Baptist Church. They had previously worshiped within the Raft Swamp and Clyburn Baptist Churches. Among the charter members were Archie and Peggy Oxendine, Cary and Sally Wilkins, and their son John S. Wilkins." These Burnt Swamp Church leaders had received encouragement from the Raft Swamp and Clyburn Baptist Churches (both White churches) to form a Baptist fellowship of Indian churches. The Raft Swamp Church pastor, Rev. David Caswell, became Burnt Swamp Church’s first pastor. Rev. Caswell, Rev. Furney Prevatt and Rev. F.A. Prevatt were all active in the Cape Fear Association.
Later in that same year, a second meeting of the Association convened on November 4-5, 1881 at Reedy Branch Church. A fourth church, Mt. Pleasant Church, joined the association at that meeting. The association called Rev. Carey Wilkins as its first missionary.