First Baptist: The Condensed Version

by Emily Miller, 2022 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

In order to set the stage for the many interweaving threads that form the contemporary complexities of First Baptist churches on Main Street and Park Street, let’s begin at a point in history that now only exists on paper: the original Charlottesville Baptist Church. In establishing some framing first, we can set the stage to dive deeper into the specific people and events that bring life and meaning to the congregations today.

1820 marks the first records of Baptist services taking place in Charlottesville, led by Reverend Daniel Davis at the Charlottesville Courthouse. Finally formally established in 1831, the Charlottesville First Baptist Church was located at the corner of Fourth and East Jefferson Streets. The original Charlottesville Baptist Church was home to many prominent Baptist Virginians, including Dr. John A. Broadus, former president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; the two founders of the first college YMCA; and legendary Baptist missionary Lottie Moon, whom I will cover in more depth in a later blog post. 

By 1863, at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Charlottesville Baptist had approximately 800 black members, who by some accounts outnumbered the white congregants, despite the fact that black members were segregated to the balcony of the church. On April 20th, 1863, just four months after Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the black members of the church issued an application through white church member C.L. Thompson to leave the church and form their own congregation elsewhere. I had the opportunity to sit down with Pat Edwards, historian at First Baptist Church on Main Street, who gave three main reasons for the split: the anxiousness of the black members of the congregation to become educated, their eagerness to take hold of church leadership that they had always been denied, and the realization that Emancipation could mean true freedom in more ways than one. The letter given to the governing board of Charlottesville Baptist by Thompson is below.

However, the break was not exactly clean. The formation of an independent church by black members with the conditions they set forth was a contested matter until over a year later in July of 1864 (in the meantime, the black members of the congregation met in the basement of Charlottesville Baptist). In fact, the black members made some concessions; namely, that the new black church had to have a white pastor—a Virginia law passed in 1832 made it illegal for African Americans to worship without a white minister present. The first three pastors at First Baptist Church on Main Street—Reverend J. Randolph, Reverend H. Fife, and Reverend J. George— were all white men. Reverend William Gibbons, who was formerly enslaved at UVA and in other parts of Albemarle county, became the first black preacher at First Baptist Main in 1868.

In the meantime, the two First Baptists experienced several location changes. Black congregation members had already been meeting separately in the parent church as well as the old Delavan Hotel, also called the “Mudwall” Building, located on West Main street. In 1868, the members of the new black church bought Mudwall, and in 1883 the new church building was completed as it is on Main Street today. As for First Baptist Church on Park Street, the building moved in October 1853 from Fourth and Jefferson streets to Second and Jefferson streets. On February 2nd, 1977, after plans for a new building had already been made, a fire destroyed the church and the current building was later erected on Park Street. It’s worth noting as well that Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, now located on Lankford Avenue, is an offshoot of First Baptist on Main that separated during the nineteenth century, and that Jefferson Park Baptist Church, now located on Jefferson Park Avenue, is a church plant of First Baptist on Park (both offshoots will be covered in later posts).

Reading the bare-bones history of it all, I imagine more questions than answers come up in the minds of the reader (they would for me, at least). Who, truly, are the people behind these religious movements? How does this story intertwine with Civil Rights, integration, Charlottesville? As we go deeper and deeper each week, the picture will become clearer. Next week, I’ll introduce the Cabbell Family of UVA fame, and the ways that their influence shaped the history of UVA, Charlottesville, and most importantly, First Baptist Church.

Learn more about the Emily’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

The Narcosis of the Evangelical Mind: The Rolling Stone Interview

New Memoir Recounts the Anxiety and Thrills of Growing Up a Conservative Christian

On June 16, Charles Marsh sat down with Alex Morris, senior writer at Rolling Stone, to talk about his new memoir Evangelical Anxiety.

We’ve been fans of Alex Morris’ work for years. She writes on a variety of hot topics in political and pop culture and her coverage of white Christian nationalism and evangelical Christianity has broadened the magazine’s scope to include the American religion beat. 

She published a brilliant and widely-praised essay on December 2, 2019, “False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.” Alex’s writing has also appeared in New York (where she was a contributing editor for over a decade), GlamourMarie ClaireBillboardDetails, and Southern Living.

So it was a thrill when Alex reached out to ask how Marsh, who grew up in the evangelical church in the Deep South, ended up on an analysts’ couch, and whether anyone can survive fundamentalism unscarred – 

And when she wrote in her intro: “Marsh’s book is an erudite glimpse into the psychology of white evangelicalism and how the current proliferation of white Christian nationalism could spring from the religious imperatives Marsh details.”

Read the Rolling Stone interview here.

For more information on Evangelical Anxiety, click here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Two Separate Churches

by Emily Miller, 2022 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

The day I first found out that Charlottesville had two First Baptist Churches, it felt like something of a footnote. I was attending a lecture on racial reconciliation for a CIO leadership program, and the speaker was discussing the tendency for homogenous racial groups to stay together, particularly in faith communities.

“There’s actually two Baptist churches in Charlottesville–Main and Park–who used to be one, but split, and now are two,” he said. “And they’re still segregated today.”

And with that, the lecture moved on, and there was nothing more to say about the two First Baptist Churches. I sat still, admittedly having stopped paying attention too closely and instead thought about the two churches. First Baptist Church on Main Street was just a few blocks from where I was living at the time of the lecture. I drove by it nearly every single day. I knew people who attended First Baptist Church on Park Street. And yet, I had no idea–and frankly at the time, no reason to care–about the deep, profoundly complicated relationship between and histories of each of the congregations.

I was dumbstruck. Charlottesville had become my city, and I claimed to be someone who was socially aware of what was happening within the city limits. And still, right under my nose was a story that I would come to find reverberated across the culture of Charlottesville, UVA, the state of Virginia, and even the Southern Baptist Convention.

With the fellowship opportunity from the Project on Lived Theology, my digging began. Mornings spent between classes in downtown Charlottesville at the Albemarle Historical Society became my newest obsession, and every visit has unlocked something new: tales of heroic activism in people like Fairfax Taylor, the closest thing to Virginia royalty in the old-money Cabell family, and even a murder involving a local church historian. Each intertwining thread, when carefully untangled and woven back together, forms a microcosmic narrative reflective of the imbalance that exists in the (dare I say, increasingly) separate two Baptist churches of the United States: black and white. 

And now, with the start of the summer, I’m eager to become a mouthpiece that brings the truth to life. All of the church history is here, in our city, but it’s also disconnected: profound authenticity hides within a vast number of newspaper clippings, dusty old books, penciled-in family trees, and court records. I’m hoping to begin to produce a narrative by the end of this summer that brings all the pieces together in such a way that we can tell the story beyond a footnote.

In the midst of it all, I’m met with an essential question: where is the kingdom of God in this story? Where is the Jesus of liberation? We’re talking about churches after all. I say truthfully that a dim yet distinct undercurrent of hope has infused every account of church history I’ve read. I sense a strong spiritual passion–what Richard McKinney describes simply in his account of First Baptist on Main Street as “Keeping the Faith”– permeating the history of civil rights in Charlottesville.

I can’t wait to dig deeper.

Learn more about the Emily’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.