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Fred Anderson: On the Hill

Posted: 8/12/15 at 10:30am. Article by Fred Anderson.

IMG_3092-800Lynchburg is known as the Hill City and rightly so. There are steep streets which climb the hill from the riverfront to the old courthouse and the churches which line Court Street.

Like giant bookends, the street is the home to two historic Baptist churches: Court Street – the historical African-American church – on one end and First Baptist Church on the other.

In crossing the James River and observing the sweeping downtown city-scape, the two churches stand out. In the local children’s museum which also is located downtown there are giant models of the two historical church buildings.

They are part of a hands-on exhibit where children can manipulate a crane and thereby lift the steeples of the buildings. On the walls of the museum is signage to give the visitors information about the significance of these buildings.

Of course, there was a time – 200 years ago – when there was only one Baptist church in Lynchburg and hence the name First. It became the mother of numerous other Baptist churches in the community including Court Street. As the city grew and new neighborhoods developed, the church assisted in the formation of new churches.

But the mother church remained a downtown church. Across the long years, there have been many changes in downtown Lynchburg. It was once a thriving retail and commercial center as well as an industrial area.  There were (and remain) some residential areas within easy reach of the city center.

IMG_3095-1800In time, most retail moved to the suburbs; and there have been times when many of the stores were empty. There has been a revival of late with the addition of some attractions, including the fabulous children’s museum and an excellent local history museum, as well as a few specialty shops and eateries. Some Lynchburg residents are even discovering that there are advantages to living in the downtown area.

All the while, First Baptist Church has remained where its “new” building was erected in 1886 on the corner of Eleventh (one of those steep streets) and Court Streets. It has not been an easy existence. All those daughter churches and more besides have benefitted from some who had been members at old First. All those folks who decided to locate in the ever-enlarging suburbs found it more convenient to attend a church nearby. The loyal and faithful core aged and the numbers dwindled.

There was a time when the First Baptist Church of Lynchburg was the sixth largest church in the entire Southern Baptist Convention. But that was a long time ago, 150 years ago, before epic church growth when there were few churches with 500-plus members within the SBC and First had 550 in the 1880s. It was only prudent that a growing congregation erect a large building with an auditorium that could seat 700.

The “new” building of 1886 with a later educational addition became a grand and imposing edifice on the hill. Designed in the high Victorian style, it has towers and turrets and intricate architectural details. There are heavy arched doors, ironwork, stained glass, a fence and gate to define the space.  There is a soaring steeple.

According to the church’s history written by Blanche Sydnor White, Deacon Maurice Moore kept a sharp lookout on the construction of the church. “He kept a small boy nearby to carry messages to the workmen.  He used field glasses that he might observe every movement of the laborers. Stone for the foundations had been quarried in Madison Heights. To Mr. Moore, the best of everything was just good enough for his church. When the graceful spire had been completed according to the architect’s plan, Mr. Moore, fearing that the foundation which supported the steeple had not gone far enough down to insure its stability, ordered that the spire be taken down and placed on deeper foundations. The considerable amount involved in this precautionary construction was paid by Mr. Moore. It was his desire that the steeple of this temple should be seen from every section of the city. And so it was and so it has continued to be!”  Moore’s portrait and that of his wife graces the church’s fellowship hall.

The steeple remained on its secure foundation until a terrible storm swept through in June 1993 when the steeple collapsed into the sanctuary.  The gaping hole in the roof and the interior damage made some observers rush to judgment as to the future of old First.  Ty Campbell was pastor at the time and he assured the members that “our church has not collapsed.”  He added:  “Indeed, our congregation is very much alive and functioning.”

The Baptists were welcomed to use the facilities of their near neighbor, Court St. United Methodist Church, and, also, at one of their “daughters,” College Hill Baptist Church. The building was insured and the steeple was replaced and the damage repaired. The congregation was able to return to its corner on Court Street in time for Christmas 1993.

The people rallied around their church and it continued. But demographics and dynamics were greater than the storm damage. It would be very difficult to alter the course for the downtown church.

When the storm happened, Pastor Campbell lifted some lines from Blanche White’s history of the church: “Pastor and people chart their present course,” she had penned in 1965, “with realism and courage, believing that no obstacle is too great for a united congregation to surmount and that God will give strength for every task to which he summons them. They face the future with determination to make the years ahead more creative and even more fruitful than those of the past.”

The statistics reported to the BGAV for its most recent Annual gave a membership of 121 and an average worship of 40. The statistics likely have decreased since that report (press clips say 75 resident members and 30 in attendance) but the church has continued. The congregation embraced its Bicentennial this year with enthusiasm and creativity. They advertised in local media, hosted an open house with a hymn festival on a Saturday followed by a special Bicentennial worship service and reception, and in all ways tried to be brave and optimistic.

Paul Dakin has been pastor since November of last year. Although his pastorate has been only a matter of months rather than years, he greets challenges with a sense of purposefulness and joy. He has tried to cast a large spotlight upon the church on the hill, letting the Lynchburg area know about the church of today through a website, publicity and opening the doors for a public open house.

He and the congregation have celebrated what they call “classic worship in a historic setting,” deliberately keeping the best of the old in a traditional style worship. It has been found that there are some young people who have been drawn to a church, like First Baptist Church of Lynchburg, with a traditional style and with a rich, long, valued history and heritage.

The church on the hill is still a worshipping and functioning and giving congregation. It is following in the footsteps of its founding members who, in 1815, saw a need for a Baptist witness in the heart of the growing community on the James River.

Blanche White’s history of the church began with a quote lifted from a history of Lynchburg which applauded the early inhabitants for their “industry and perseverance” and added:  “This they knew, that only by earnest, persistent and straight-forward efforts could they secure the treasures held by the coming years.”  The faithful Baptists of old First remain “earnest and persistent” in their efforts.

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.