Praise houses were the center of African American community life and worship during the plantation era and well into the 20th century. The Praise House you see before you is more than 100 years old. It was originally located about a mile away on Belfair Plantation, and served double duty as a praise house and school house for African Americans in the Belfair community. It is the last remaining praise house in Bluffton.
In the early1950’s, the Reverend Jimmy Buncomb, Deacon Oscar Frazier and Deacon “Daddy Toy” Fields led a volunteer effort to move and repair this praise house when Belfair Plantation was sold. Like an old-fashioned barn raising, men did the carpentry and heavy lifting while women prepared lunch. It was a labor of love and community celebration.
Upon relocation, this praise house served Simmonsville and Buck Island Road residents who could not get into town for services at the “big church.” Members from all of Bluffton’s large African American congregations worshipped here -- First Zion Baptist Church, St. John’s Baptist Church and Campbell Chapel AME.
The praise house tradition began in the dark days of slavery when African Americans were not permitted to travel or even gather together. Praise houses gave them a place to worship –and meet– on the plantation. Within the walls of tiny praise houses like this, enslaved African Americans would hold religious services, share news and settle disputes.
If you witnessed a typical praise house service during this time, you might have seen a “ring shout.” At the shout, men and women would move in a counterclockwise circle shuffling their feet, clapping, and spontaneously singing or praying aloud.
There were no hymnals or musical instruments. A "songster" would "set" or begin a song, slowly at first, then accelerating the tempo. These lines were answered by a group of singers called "basers" in a Call-And-Response pattern. The “stick-man,” sitting next to the leader, beat a simple rhythm on the floor with a wooden stick while the basers added to the rhythm with hand clapping and foot tapping.
The shouts formed a spontaneous, transcendent religious ritual. At times, they carried coded references to slavery with participants pantomiming the verse being sung—for example, extending their arms in an "eagle wing" gesture to urge a slave to fly from the master's whip.
Prayer meetings at the Simmonsville-Buck Island Praise House were held Wednesday and Friday evenings and Sunday morning. Typically, the deacon would ask someone to “raise a hymn.” Anyone could respond by singing a hymn whereupon all present would join in. Other times, a worship leader would sing out a phrase and the congregation would answer, then another worshipper would take the lead, changing a word or adding a verse. These devout, soulful rhythms resonated with emotion and feeling in a musical language with roots in the traditions of West Africa.
At some point in the service, the pastor or deacon would get up to preach. After the preaching, there would be an “invitation to discipleship” – an invitation to join the church. Anyone interested would give their hand to the pastor to affirm their intention. They would later be baptized in the May River.
Full members of the congregation generally sat in the front of a praise house while those seeking membership sat in the back. In some praise houses, there would be an “anxious bench” where aspiring members would kneel in front of the congregation.
An important part of praise house worship were “determinations,” a form of public testimonial. Here, people would stand and “testify” their determination to lead a committed Christian life. They might proclaim “I am determined to help someone who needs me,” or “I am determined to be kind to others.” Generally speaking, one’s determinations followed the teachings of the Bible, but congregants would also make determinations about their personal lives and behavior such as “I am determined to stop drinking,” or “I am determined not to cuss.”
There was no set length to praise house services. It would depend on “how the shoutin’ goes” as judged by the Deacon. When energy waned, the Deacon would bring the service to a close admonishing people to come back next time.
Deacons were very influential. Pastors often served several churches and could not always attend praise house services (often they didn’t even live in the same town). Deacons, on the other hand, were ever present. They were esteemed leaders and spoke with authority.
The deacons of the Simmonsville-Buck Island Praise House commanded respect. “If they said: “See you next time,” you made sure you came back. Adults did not want to disobey them, and young children (scared of the deacons’ authoritative presence) told each other in hushed tones: “Deacon will get you if you don’t go back.”
Praise house life featured many important customs from gift giving on Christmas Eve to the New Year’s Eve “watch night,” a tradition dating back to December 31, 1862. Bluffton resident Rev. Dr. Renty Kitty, Jr., explains that December 31, 1862 was “Freedom’s Eve” when African Africans came together in praise houses, churches and slave cabins across the country anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually became law.
Then, at the stroke of midnight January 1, 1863, the enslaved people of the Confederate States were legally free. They prayed, shouted, sang and fell to their knees thanking God. Today, more than 150 years later, African Americans gather in church on New Year’s Eve –just as they did in this praise house– to celebrate this seminal moment in history.
A typical watch Night service would proceed as follows:
Two deacons would lead the service with singing and shouting beginning around 7PM
The senior deacon was the “callman.” The other deacon was the “watchman.”
Near midnight, the lights were shut off and the congregation got on their knees to pray silently.
The watchman then stood by the front door, which he cracked open slightly, with a watch and a lantern in hand.
With the door ajar and the lantern shining in, the callman sang out: “Watchman, watchman what time is it?” In response, the watchman would rhythmically sing the correct time i.e. “Four minutes to twelve”
This Call and Response “time keeping” between the callman and the watchman continued to build anticipation until twelve o’clock when the watchman would exuberantly proclaim: “It is after the hour of twelve all is well. Thank God almighty!” whereupon everyone in the praise house hugged, sang, and shouted.
The rejoicing eventually moved outside to a large bonfire where coffee, hot cakes and hoppin john were served. Hoppin john, which is made of rice and black eyed peas, originated in West Africa and is a symbol of Good Luck. Tradition holds that leaving three peas on your plate insures a New Year filled with luck, fortune and romance. Often, Watch Night celebrations continued until daybreak as formerly enslaved people rejoiced in their freedom and the joy of each other’s company. (During the period of slavery, African Americans had few opportunities to see relatives and friends so they made the most of this occasion to be together).
Over time, the praise house tradition of worship dwindled with social progress and modern life. People no longer worked in the fields and walked to the praise house. They had better jobs and cars. They could drive to the big church getting there more easily and more often.
Long time Bluffton residents like Mrs. Jennie Kitty, who worshipped at this very praise house years ago, fondly remember the fun, the joy and the sense of community that emanated from this small building where people shared the good news of the Lord, rejoiced singing hymns, shared their determinations, and joyfully shouted together.
This Praise House, and others like it, was the core of African American life in the early years of Bluffton’s history. The joyful spirit and sense of community that once resonated within these walls continues to be an inspirational touchstone for African Americans today.
There are a number of praise houses still standing in the Lowcountry. These structures were once an important part of African American community life. Learn about the traditions surrounding these unique structures. The remaining praise houses are on private property and are not accessible to the public but the stories they have to tell is one of resilience and deserving of your attention.