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First African Baptist Church (Richmond, Virginia)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

First African Baptist Church
VCU Medical Center, Medical College of Virginia Richmond VA.jpg
The old church building, now a property of Medical College of Virginia
Location Richmond, Virginia
Country USA
Denomination Baptist
Founded 1841
Senior pastor(s) Dr. Rodney D. Waller

The First African Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia is a prominent Black church. Founded in 1841, its members initially included both slaves and freedmen. It has since had a major influence on the local black community. At one point, it was one of the largest Protestant churches in the United States.[1]

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • In This Sacred Place: First African Baptist Church


(Singleton-Prather) I see First African Baptist Church as a very significant place historically for Africans in Beaufort County, when you think of the Africans here being the first to be freed during the Civil War. (male speaker) This church was built by hand by freedmen, and its specific point of reference in its history is that it was officially founded January 1, 1865, and that is the same date as the Proclamation of Emancipation. (Singleton-Prather) § Well, me come dis far... §§ (female speaker) This church was bought from the Beaufort Baptist Church deacons. Before that, we had a praise house next door to the church, and we worshipped in the praise house until we were able to buy this building. It's very sacred, because our forefathers worked very hard to obtain this church. Think of slaves who worked and toiled all day and took time in the evenings to help with the building of this church. (McBride) It is uniquely built in that it was built by hand with locking grooves. There are joints that fit into each other that were carved and put together by wooden nails or pegs. This allows the building to sway at high winds, in the event of hurricanes or any other type of natural storm that comes through here, and that's why it has lasted as long as it has, because of its give-and-take in its design. (Smalley) We just love this church, and it's so significant because it's located on the Point, the heart of the historical district of Beaufort. Well, the sacredness of this site, personally I believe the sacredness resides in a person as God resides in them. However, there are sacred sites as to history, and because of our founding fathers and the blood, sweat, and tears that was poured into this building, it gives one a sense of awe, especially standing in the pulpit, to know hundreds of sermons have been preached there and that different pastors, older and wiser than myself, have stood there and that I would be honored a place there. I've stayed here because of the people, my devotion to our history, but mostly my devotion to God. (Singleton-Prather) § Me come this far. § § Me find no fault. § § Me feel like journey on. §§



The First African Baptist Church was founded in 1841 by a group of black members of Richmond's First Baptist Church. The First Baptist Church housed a multiracial congregation from its beginning in 1802 until the white members of the congregation built a new church in 1841. In the years leading up to the split, whites were a minority at the church—a fact which made some of them uncomfortable. Many black members had also called for a split because they were often denied entrance after the building became crowded.[2] After they built a new church building for the white members of the First Baptist Church, the church leadership sold the building that they had been meeting in to the black members. It was then renamed by adding "African" to the title.[3] Most of its early slave members were initially from the Tidewater region of Virginia before they were hired to businesses in Richmond. Many freedmen traveled from other cities to attend its services, as well.[4]

In 1866 James H. Holmes was elected assistant pastor, and in 1867 pastor at the Church. Under Holmes, the church grew by leaps and bounds and became one of the largest churches in the country. In 1871 he baptized 600 people, in 1878 he baptized 1,100. In 1876 the original building was torn down and the congregation built a new church costing $35,000 and installed an organ costing $2,500, which was the largest organ in any African American church.[5] in 1877. The building was located at the corner of College Street and East Broad Street.[6] The original church building was soon demolished, an act which brought accusations of "a true lack of American veneration for old things" from Harpers Weekly.[3] Architect Thomas U. Walter designed the new building, using a Greek Doric temple design.[6] Many of the white congregations in Richmond used a similar style when constructing their churches.[7]

The First African Baptist Church congregation moved again in 1955. The church building was then sold to the Medical College of Virginia. Some church members characterized the sale as insensitive to the church's contribution to African-American history.[8] The building now holds offices, classrooms, and laboratories.[6]


At the time that the congregation split from the First Baptist Church there were approximately one thousand three hundred black members.[9] It soon experienced rapid growth, and by 1861, the services were regularly attended by more than three thousand people.[1] The number of members swelled to four thousand five hundred by 1869.[10] There was a dispute in 1880 which caused over seven hundred members to leave the church. The New York Times wrote that approximately four thousand members remained after the split.[11]


As one of the largest meeting halls in Richmond, it was often rented for white events.[1] Its large interior and prominent location in Richmond made it a sought after venue for events such as concerts and political rallies. The practice of renting the church was controversial among members due to the use of a church for secular events and due to the racial segregation often imposed at the events. The practice continued, however, due in part to the significant income that it provided.[12]

John Hartwell Cocke lectured on temperance at one of the earliest major events hosted at the church.[12] While the government of the Confederate States of America was based in Richmond during the American Civil War, the church was often used for speeches by politicians including Governor William Smith and President Jefferson Davis. Judah Benjamin also spoke at the church to recruit blacks into the Confederate Army.[13] In 1865 Horace Greely, abolitionist publisher of the New York Tribune spoke at the church regarding the post-Civil War Reconstruction.[3]


Though it was always a Black church, it was initially led by a white minister and a board of thirty black deacons because it was illegal for blacks to preach.[2] Though the majority of the members were slaves in the years before the Civil War, most of the early leaders were freedmen due to greater liberties that they possessed.[14] The first senior minister, Robert Ryland, served from 1841 until 1865. Ryland owned slaves and believed that slavery was the best way to convert Africans to Christianity.[1] The church also sent several of its members to Africa as missionaries.[15]

Though Virginia state law did not permit slaves to marry, the church would hold wedding ceremonies for its members. The church allowed slaves to divorce and remarry if their spouse were sold out of state.[1]

Their services were marked by enthusiastic singing and exhortation and were a popular attraction for visitors to Richmond. There was a space located near the pulpit that was reserved for white visitors. Some white residents of Richmond frequently cited the positive tone of services there as proof that their slaves lived happy lives, much to the dismay of their slaves.[16]

Even though it was against state law to teach blacks to read, Ryland published a catechism for members which allowed them to learn to read. This practice caused some controversy, but Ryland defended himself by citing the fact that his lessons emphasized submission to authority.[17] His practice of educating slaves was initially controversial, in part due to a high-profile murder committed by a member of the congregation. Richmond's white churches eventually defused the situation by coming out in support of Ryland's educational programs.[18] Ryland later touted the conservatism of his congregation against those who feared slave rebellions.[19]

Some members were also allowed to occasionally preach from the pews, and some of the lay preachers were purchased from their owners and emancipated with funds raised by the church.[1] It did not gain its first Black senior minister until 1867, however.[6] The first Black man to serve as senior minister was James Holmes, a longtime deacon who was born a slave.[20]

Founding members


  1. ^ a b c d e f Leveen, Lois (24 January 2011). "The North of the South". New York Times. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  2. ^ a b Kimball 2000, p. 126
  3. ^ a b c Richardson 2008, p. 144
  4. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 29
  5. ^ Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. p666–670
  6. ^ a b c d "First African Baptist Church". Richmond. National Park Service. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  7. ^ Richardson 2008, p. 145
  8. ^ White, Alvin (28 May 1949). "Historic First Baptist Church Site Wanted by Medical College of Va". Baltimore Afro-American. Retrieved 2 February 2011.
  9. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 70
  10. ^ "The News". The Guernsey Times. Cambridge, Ohio. 5 August 1869. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  11. ^ "Churches and Ministers, Home and Foreign Events" (PDF). New York Times. 8 August 1880. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  12. ^ a b Kimball 2000, p. 45
  13. ^ Furgurson 1996, p. 292
  14. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 127
  15. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 145
  16. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 51
  17. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 68
  18. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 67
  19. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 248
  20. ^ Kimball 2000, p. 258
  21. ^ Kneebone, John T.; Dictionary of Virginia Biography (27 August 2015). "Lucy Goode Brooks (1818–1900)". Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Charlottesville, Virginia: Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 4 December 2015.


  • Furgurson, Ernest (1996), Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War (2 ed.), New York: Vintage Books, ISBN 978-0-679-74660-7
  • Kimball, Gregg (2000), American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, ISBN 978-0-8203-2234-6
This page was last edited on 15 June 2018, at 05:02
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