Like other Baptists I have sometimes jokingly referred to the denomination’s executive minister or area minister as the “bishop.” Apparently, the joke is not that funny for I recently became aware that the title of bishop actually has a rich history among certain Baptist groups.
In my recent reading of the minutes of the African Baptist Association (now called the African United Baptist Association, AUBA) I was struck by the references to a few leaders being the bishop. In fact, the first reference to the first bishop is on the first page of the first minutes. It reads:
- “Names of the Ordained Ministers of the African Baptist Churches. Halifax – The Rev. R. Preston, Bishop. Hammond Plains – The Rev. John Hamilton. Bear River – The Rev. Henry Jackson.”
A few years later there was mention of another bishop. The minutes read:
- “Moved and seconded that Rev. B. Smithers be head and bishop of the Association.”
- “That the Rev. Benson Smithers be Bishop over all the African Churches. Voted.”
Those unexpected references caught my attention and led me on a bit of a quest to find out more about black Baptist bishops. This is what I have discovered thus far.
The first bishop of the AUBA was Richard Preston and he was a giant in the black Baptist community. Preston was directly responsible for the establishing of a number of churches (including Cornwallis, the “mother” church of the AUBA), the founding of the AUBA, and creating the African Abolition Society. His appointment as bishop made complete sense based on his service, talent, and reputation.
The title seems to apply to one person at a time – in other words, only one bishop in the AUBA at a time rather than every local church having its own bishop.
The selection of a bishop seems to be made by the churches and affirmed by a vote of the association delegates. No length of office is indicated in the minutes.
The title was certainly a term of endearment for honoured leaders, but it seemed in some way that it was also a position of leadership over the churches of the AUBA. However, there is no description of the responsibilities, and one is left wondering how the churches balanced a bishop with congregational government.
I am not sure when or why the office/title of bishop was dropped by the AUBA. What seems to be the case is that by the late nineteenth century there were no more references to a bishop. What most likely happened was that the title of bishop was changed to president, for in 1878 the following vote was recorded in the AUBA minutes: “A vote was taken and the honour of President of the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia was conferred on [the chairman, James Thomas] unanimously.”
While there is much to be learned about the office of the bishop among the churches of the AUBA, what we know for certain is that black Baptists in the AUBA were not alone in their usage of bishops; black Baptists in the United States, as well black Methodists and Pentecostals had and continue to have bishops.
Looking around the world today, other Baptists also have bishops. For instance, a quick look on Wikipedia indicates that Baptists in Georgia (the country not the state), Latvia, Congo, Latin America, and India have bishops. The largest Protestant body in the Ukraine are Baptists, and they have bishops as well.
Finally, it is interesting to note that some are advocating for the use of bishops in contemporary Baptist churches. For instance, Nigel Wright in the Baptist Union has proposed the idea that the use of bishops among Baptists has some biblical, historical, and pragmatic merits. His proposal is not for a copying of the historic episcopacy of other traditions, but rather, to envision a missional and functional purpose for bishops that is fluid and adaptive to the needs of local churches. Of course, his proposal has led to some robust criticism among fellow Baptists.
In conclusion, whatever you think about bishops, the minutes of the AUBA indicate that the usage of the term (whatever it meant) for particular leaders has some history among Canadian black Baptists – and that reality opens new ways of thinking about how Baptists envision ministry today.
Submitted by Gordon Heath
 See Minutes of the African Baptist Association, 1855, 1.
 See Minutes of the African Baptist Association, 1868, 6.
 See Minutes of the African Baptist Association, 1873, 3.
 See Minutes of the African Baptist Association, 1878, 5. There was also a chairman in the 1870s and a moderator in the 1880s. All this suggests an evolving leadership structure, something worth further study.
 Nigel Wright, Challenge to Change: A Radical Agenda for Baptists (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991); Nigel Wright, The Radical Kingdom (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1986).
 Andy Goodliff, “A Case for Baptist Bishops: A Critical Engagement with Nigel Wright,” Baptist Quarterly 50, 2 (2019): 58-58.