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A Church on the Frontier

Article by Fred Anderson.

J. Francis Amos, a recently-retired physician, began his retirement in a unique way with a lasting contribution. He purchased an abandoned church and spent his own money to restore the ancient building.

And he has done it all as a memorial to those pioneers who established a religious witness on the frontier of Virginia.  He declares: “This is preserved as a monument to God and a monument to our Christian heritage.”

Old Chapel Church in Franklin County.
Old Chapel Church in Franklin County.

But it is not just any church. Old Chapel Church, in the backwoods of Franklin County, has been in succession an Anglican Church during the period of an Established Church in Colonial Virginia, a regular Baptist church and a Primitive Baptist Church.

From research and the expertise of architectural historians, it has been concluded that the small building is the oldest documented frame structure standing in the 27 counties of Southwest Virginia. It is one of only four pre-Revolutionary War frame Anglican churches in Virginia.

The little white church, 24 by 32 feet, dates to 1769 but there was an earlier Anglican chapel on the site in 1753. Perhaps as early as 1789 and until the early 1820s, a Baptist congregation affiliated with the Strawberry Baptist Association worshipped in the former Anglican church house.

The earliest printed history of Virginia Baptists – the book by Robert Baylor Semple – lists a church (or churches) in the area named Chapel, Pigg River and Snow Creek with a date of 1771. With the anti-missions movement, the congregation split and the Primitive Baptists worshipped at the Old Chapel.

The last member of the Primitive Baptist congregation died in 2009 at age 95 and the church property went on the market in 2011. Amos, a local historian and preservationist, purchased the site.

“If nothing had been done,” says Amos, “the roof probably would have collapsed within three years.”  The physician could envision that under the skin of the old siding there still were good bones of the original structure.

He solicited advice from Carl Lounsbury, senior architectural historian of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who visited the site before its restoration and confirmed that the structure was authentic.

The interior of Old Chapel Church.
The interior of Old Chapel Church.

The architect recognized “ghost marks” which indicated where the pulpit had been located in its Anglican period and the pulpit had been right where it should have been – on the side of the room.

There have been other discoveries. Once the siding and interior board was removed, the skeleton revealed the type of construction as well as the initials of the builders from nearly 250 years ago. Amos learned about Benjamin Potter, who served as church sexton from 1771-78, and was a Baptist minister in Pittsylvania County.

One of Potter’s descendants remembered that the early Baptist preacher had “lashes on his back” from the time of the struggle for religious liberty. He also learned that the church had served blacks as well as whites during the Anglican years as well as the early part of the Primitive Baptist years.

Amos was determined to restore the building to as close as the structure was in the beginning.  He removed a tiny addition and toilets which had been added. He kept the outdoor preaching stand and a crude picnic shelter which had been added by the Primitives. He built “a necessary house” to replace those inside toilets.

Dr. Francis Amos in Old Chapel Church.
Dr. Francis Amos in Old Chapel Church.

While Amos secured the ownership and provided funding, he also received support from volunteers including a group of hard-working men whom he calls “the super six.” He shares that “more Methodists helped than anybody else” and he is pleased that the first church group to request use of the site for a worship service and picnic was Trinity Episcopal Church in nearby Rocky Mount.

Amos himself is a member of Franklin Heights Baptist Church in Rocky Mount. “I have been overwhelmed by the people who have come to help,” says Amos who takes pride that “no grant money or public funds was received.” The project completely was undertaken with private funds.

The retired doctor envisions the property being used for special services, reunions and perhaps even for weddings. In the meantime it stands because one man recognized its significance to history and to a better understanding of our common heritage.

Fred Anderson is the executive director emeritus of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.