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Fred Anderson: It’s All Quite Simple

Posted: 9/9/15 at 10:30am. Article by Fred Anderson.

CEM46913323_124647696290Bruington Baptist Church in rural King and Queen County is my favorite church.  Ministers – even Baptist historians – should never play favorites.

Across the long years, this historian has visited perhaps as many as a thousand Virginia Baptist churches and has liked them all. But Bruington remains my favorite church. When I wrote a weekly heritage column for the Religious Herald, I once put that statement in print and so it is a known fact.

Sunday, September 20 at 11:00 a.m. I will return to Bruington for a special event – the church’s 225th anniversary. If you visit, you might discover why it is deemed a favorite. It is a combination of reasons: its history which dates to 1790; its significance in the early history of Virginia Baptists when out of its membership came so many capable leaders within the BGAV; its architecture and pleasing appreciation for things past; and, most of all, its people – yesterday and today.

Olive Bagby was an unforgettable character. As a young woman, she briefly served as a Baptist missionary in China; but most of her life was spent in King and Queen County. A member of an old local family, she never forgot her roots even after she moved to Richmond to live at Lakewood Manor, the Baptist retirement center.

She liked to repeat the old adage:  “You can’t go to Heaven till you’ve been to Bruington.” She once engineered an invitation for me to speak at Bruington but the date would not work on my calendar; and when I had to decline, she said:  “Well, that’s alright; just thinking about being at Bruington is enough!”

“Miss Olive” and a host of other Bruington personalities from the past are long gone; but there others remain and they will fill the pews of the old church for its anniversary.

Robert Baylor Semple
Robert Baylor Semple

Why is Bruington so uniquely special? The answer is quite simple. It had to do with its founding pastor.  He was Robert Baylor Semple. For the anniversary my message will focus upon the man and after the service the congregation will walk to the adjacent church cemetery for a wreath laying ceremony at Semple’s grave.

Why was Semple so important? First, he became a Baptist about a decade after the great persecution of the Baptists in Virginia and soon became an instrument in spreading the Gospel. He was instrumental in one of the revivals which swept the Virginia countryside and resulted in numerous conversions. He could have remained an obscure preacher but he was tapped for larger service.

He became a pivotal personality in the early period of organized Baptist denominational life in Virginia and in the young nation. He was the founding president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and presided over its first meeting which was held in 1823 at Second Baptist Church in Richmond. He steered the first Board of Managers as they appointed the first state missionaries.

For the last ten years of his life, he was at the same time the moderator of the Dover Baptist Association which covered a vast territory from the James to the Potomac; the president of the Virginia Baptist Missionary Society; the president of the Board of Trustees of Columbian College, the early Baptist school in the District of Columbia; and the president of the first national Baptist denominational body in the USA – the Triennial Convention.

His farm home in the isolated countryside of King and Queen was the Baptist headquarters in America. And all the while, he remained the pastor of Bruington, a pastorate which spanned forty years from the church’s beginning until his death in 1831.

Scene of the first meeting of the BGAV at Second Baptist Church, Richmond. Coming out of the doorway is Robert Baylor Semple, the first president.
Scene of the first meeting of the BGAV at Second Baptist Church, Richmond. Coming out of the doorway is Robert Baylor Semple, the first president.

Semple left behind a very significant and permanent contribution to Virginia Baptists. He wrote the first printed history of Virginia Baptists, a work published in 1810 under the title of A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia.

A decade or so earlier there had been attempts at writing a history.  John Williams and John Leland, two important Baptist figures of the times, pursued the project; but it was left for Semple to complete a history.

In the book, he told the epic struggle of the Baptists during the time of their open persecution and their success in achieving religious liberty for all Americans to enjoy. He outlined the progress with the constituting of churches and the formation of district associations. The book became a chief source of Virginia Baptist history and there is scarcely a day in my work that “Semple” is not consulted.

Indeed, Robert Baylor Semple looks down from the wall upon me as I have written this article on Bruington and whenever I research or write on any other topic. His portrait is just over my desk and keeps me ever mindful of the duty of a Virginia Baptist historian.

Virginia Baptist Mission Board BlogFred Anderson is the executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.

Click here if you want to read more BGAV history articles from Fred Anderson.