By the very end of the 1800s, 1.7 million blacks had joined the Baptist denomination. Baptists had built more schools and colleges than any other church group. They were fiercely independent, but this also made them weak. It would fall to Elias Camp Morris, a Baptist preacher who had settled in Helena, Arkansas, to change all that.
At that time, Arkansas' black Baptists were split into two factions over the question of leadership and their relationship with white Baptists. Two freeborn northerners led one faction; former slaves and southerners led the other. The 1880s saw a steady shift towards southern leadership as southern blacks chafed against what they saw as high-handed leadership from their northern brethren. By 1882, Morris, taking charge of the southern faction, had organized an Arkansas Baptist Convention. Then he methodically began building the institutions that would strengthen the black Baptist churches nationally, and deprive northern critics of the argument that black southern Baptists were illiterate and stupid.
Morris started a newspaper and a publishing house, and then five institutions of higher learning: Arkansas Baptist College; Benedict College in South Carolina; Wayland Seminary in Virginia; Selma University in Alabama, and Augusta Institute (now Morehouse College) in Georgia.
Morris was active in the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention in the 1880s. That group, after a long debate, united with the National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Education Convention to form the National Baptist Convention, Inc., in 1895. Elias Camp Morris had insisted on incorporation, because to him, the church could not exist separate from its business interests. He was elected the NBC's first president, a post he would hold for 27 years.
Throughout his life, Morris argued for the need of the black church to tend to the material as well as the spiritual realm of its congregants' lives. Education meant nothing, he argued, if there were no professions open to the newly educated. "The solution of the so-called race problem," he wrote, "will depend in a large measure upon what we prove able to do for ourselves." For him, entrepreneurship and faith went hand in hand. Through the institutions he helped build, especially the publishing board, Morris created a way for blacks to employ themselves and their children, publish their own hymns, and build their own houses of worship.