“Welcome” surely was the first word spoken when the brand new Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) met for its first meeting which was held at the Second Baptist Church of Richmond.
One of the most important Baptist figures in all of America presided and must have uttered that word of sincere greeting. Robert Baylor Semple already had been moderator of the precursor to the General Association, a loose organization known as the General Meeting of Correspondence of Virginia Baptists. Already he was at the same time the moderator of the Dover Baptist Association – once the largest district association of Baptists in the world – and the president of the Virginia Baptist Missionary Society as well as the president of the General Convention of Baptists of the United States.
In the latter capacity, Semple virtually was “Mister Baptist” of America. His home in rural King and Queen County became the unofficial headquarters of the Baptists; and from that home, he made the frequent pilgrimages to Bruington Baptist Church where he was pastor for over forty years.
The first meeting of the General Association held in June 1823 attracted 15 of the 21 elected delegates. Among the visitors was Luther Rice, the pioneer missionary, who was devoting his life to organizing Baptists for missions support. Semple preached the first sermon from the text of Hebrews 13:16: “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”
Throughout the long years which have followed, the General Association through its messengers, member churches, elected leaders, and Mission Board staff has continued “to do good and to communicate” the Gospel.
The new organization needed a constitution; and the leaders turned to the most educated of the Virginia Baptist clergy of the times – a minister named Edward Baptist. The constitution contained the mission statement which is still found in essence with nearly the same wording:
And the very next sentence today reads: “There shall be full recognition of the autonomy of the local churches.” The original constitution carried the same strong concept: “[It] shall in no [way] interfere with the internal regulations of the churches or associations… not infringing the rights of individuals or churches.” It was proof of the welcome extended to all who shared the mission.
The new organization needed to know the religious landscape of Virginia, a vast territory which included those counties which later would become West Virginia. The Board appointed two young “preacherboys,” barely in their twenties, to travel by horseback for two years, preaching to whoever could be gathered, surveying the religious scene and determining where one day Baptist churches might be planted. The two young missionaries were Jeremiah Bell Jeter and Daniel Witt, both of Bedford County. They acquired the nickname of “the Bedford Plowboys.”
In the western area they traveled through frontier territory. In some places they met open resentment to a Baptist presence. In others, they were warmly received. In the eastern area, they traveled “through a section of country 150 miles in extent” south of the James where “ministers are scarce and preaching is needed exceedingly.”
Daniel Witt wrote in his journal: “The Baptist cause once was flourishing and prospering. But alas! The fine gold has become dim, the voice of praise and prosperity is no longer heard in the tabernacles…Zion languishes…O that the Lord of the harvest would rouse Virginia Baptists…to zeal in the best of causes.”
When Daniel Witt referred to an earlier time when “the Baptist cause was flourishing and prospering,” he was making reference to the early decades of a Baptist witness in Virginia. In 1714, responding to an appeal and a need, British Baptists sent a “messenger” or missionary named Robert Norden to plant the first Baptist church in the colony. His church in time was responsible for another 18 churches.
The 18th-century Virginia Baptists experienced restrictions and even open persecution from a society dominated by a state religion, the Anglican Church. Numerous Baptist ministers and laypersons were arrested and imprisoned for their faith. The Baptists desired full religious liberty for all persons to exercise their conscience in matters of religion. They would settle for nothing less.
Through enduring persecution, circulating petitions and influencing the founding fathers, Virginia Baptists were able to help secure religious liberty into the governing documents of Virginia and the new nation.
There were two great parties of Baptists in Virginia in the mid-1700s, the Regulars and the Separates. In time, they united; and through the Baptist General Committee of 1783-99, the Baptists maintained a vigilant presence to assure that full religious liberty and the separation of church and state would prevail. With religious liberty secured, they formed the General Meeting of Correspondence which, as its name implies, served as a communication means for the scattered Baptists.
When the last gathering of the General Meeting of Correspondence was held in Charlottesville in 1821, only three delegates attended. They realized the need for a new organization which would take missions as its central purpose. When the meeting concluded, two of the three delegates rode their horses side by side, talking as they headed homeward while following the meandering Rivanna River. The two were Edward Baptist and James Fife. Years later, Fife reminisced that it was somewhere along the banks of the Rivanna that the idea for forming the new General Association was conceived.
The welcoming first meeting in Richmond in June 1823 was the fulfillment of their vision. Through the years there were several separate boards affiliated with the General Association and their purposes were reflective of their names: Bible, Education, Sunday School. In 1855 the work of Virginia Baptists was enlarged with the creation of one primary board, the State Mission Board.
In 1920 the Board employed its first paid officer; and slowly across the years, other staff positions were added. In the 1950s through the early 1980s under the executive leadership of Lucius M. Polhill and Richard M. Stephenson, the staff of the Mission Board expanded to include specialists in a variety of ministry areas.
In the late Eighties and through the balance of the 20th century, Reginald M. McDonough provided executive leadership as the Mission Board and its staff was reorganized and refocused through future strategy planning. The thrust of renewal was felt once more in the ministry direction called “Kingdom Advance” as articulated by the current executive director, John V. Upton, Jr.