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Richard Henry Boyd and the National Baptist Hymn Book

Richard Henry Boyd was determined to give Jim Crow-era African-Americans their own voice in worship. Calvin College history professor Eric Washington tells the story of how the hymnal he published helped do that.

The publication of a hymnal by the National Baptist Publishing Board in 1906 emerged from a context of African-American self-dependency during post-Reconstruction America and the early period of Jim Crow America. Some African-American leaders during this period (Booker T. Washington, notably) cooperated with whites to accomplish goals to build African-American institutions. Washington openly courted Northern white philanthropic support to aid his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which served as a strong educational institution geared to the uplifting of Afro-Southerners. Likewise, the African-American Baptist statesman Richard Henry Boyd cooperated with leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention to build a publishing concern that had direct influence upon millions of African-American Baptists during this era.

Owing to the need to forge a collaborative effort to finance and send missionaries to Africa, state conventions mainly in the South organized the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention in November of 1880. Other national conventions formed for different purposes, such as the American National Baptist Convention (1886) and the National Baptist Educational Convention (1893). In 1895, these three conventions consolidated and established the National Baptist Convention. Though the convention had a parent body with an executive president at the helm, it followed a decentralized model with three boards overseeing each of three interrelated objectives of the convention: foreign missions, home missions, and education.

This organizational and denominational structure serves as part of the context that Richard Henry Boyd operated within. Boyd’s story, however, begins in the late history of American slavery.

Boyd was born into slavery in Noxubee County, Mississippi in March, 1843. Because he was a slave of the Gray family, his birth name was Richard Gray. After living in Mississippi and Louisiana, his master’s family settled in Texas in 1859. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Boyd’s master took up arms in defense of the Confederacy and took young Dick Gray along. Gray survived the war and received his freedom when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. Then came two more important events: He learned to read, and in 1869, he became a Christian. Then, as many former slaves did, he changed his surname. The man who had been known as Dick Gray became Richard Henry Boyd. He also became a licensed preacher at the Hopewell Baptist Church in Navasota, Texas. During the 1870s and 1880s, Boyd rose as a leader among African-American Baptists as he pastored churches, helped (along with Southern Baptists) to organize a district association in southern Texas, and was instrumental in founding the Texas Negro Baptist Convention. During his tenure as education secretary of the TNBC, Boyd entered into a working relationship with the Southern Baptist Sunday School Publishing Board in Nashville. Boyd was part of a faction within the TNBC that distrusted the Northern Baptists and their American Baptist Publication Society's monopoly of distributing Sunday school literature to African-American churches. In 1893, Boyd and others of this faction formed a new state convention, the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Texas. The new convention was intent on publishing its own Sunday school material, and owing to Boyd’s relationship with the Southern Baptists he received $120 worth of literature from them. Unlike the Northern Baptists, the Southern Baptists supported the publishing initiative of their African-American brethren.

Boyd and other members of the General Missionary Convention attended the 1895 organizational meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Atlanta, where they pressed the new organization to form a publishing board and publish its own educational material. The Convention did not form a separate publishing board but did agree to begin publishing material under the supervision of its Home Missions Board, of which Boyd had been elected secretary. So Boyd’s dream of African-American Baptists publishing their own educational material was underway under his own oversight in 1896.

In addition to its own Sunday school literature, the Parent Body of the National Baptist Convention allowed Boyd to publish a hymnal in 1901. In 1906 it published the famous National Baptist Hymn Book, which is still being published. In the book’s preface, Boyd stated that its purpose was “to aid the song service of the Lord’s house, and thereby make his praise more glorious.” Boyd envisioned the hymnal as “regularizing” and improving congregational singing in the churches by making sure everyone was on the same page, as it were.

Boyd also wrote in the preface that he chose familiar hymns. There are no spirituals in this hymnal. Though spirituals had been sung during slavery, they were more informal songs sung during prayer meetings and other occasions. Boyd’s statement implies that African-American Baptists sang standard Protestant hymns in formal worship. During slavery the majority of African-American Baptists worshipped either with whites or under white supervision, and during Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction many African-American Baptist churches used the Baptist Hymnal, put out by the American Baptist Publication Society. Even a casual comparison of the National Baptist Hymn Book and the Baptist Hymnal reveals obvious similarities. For example, the National Baptist Hymn Book includes 136 Isaac Watts hymns and psalm paraphrases.

The 1906 publication of the National Baptist Hymn Book is part of a larger history of African-American Baptist publishing that began in the very late 19th century. It should be understood in the context of African-American attempts to forge their own way and lift themselves in the face of post-Reconstruction pressures and Jim Crow. From a narrow ecclesiastical perspective, the hymnal helped regularize congregational singing in National Baptist worship. But it also indicates Boyd’s desire to show that National Baptists were no different than white Baptists in what they sang in worship. How they sang is another story.