By Fred Anderson
Virginia Baptists have been engaged in numerous significant undertakings across their long history. One of the most outstanding was their contribution to the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. It was the 300th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the New World and a major exposition was planned for the Hampton Roads area.
The site was Sewell’s Point which would allow boats and ships to approach the exposition grounds. It also would place the event within close proximity to Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Newport News. It would be an ambitious year-long event with permanent and semi-permanent buildings.
It was anticipated that millions of Americans would make the trek to the exposition. It was a showcase not just to history and culture but to the assumption that the United States had arrived on the world scene. Its naval fleet was to be evident and indicate that the USA was a world power.
There would be substantial buildings erected by various states and the states would have a certain day promoted as their day at the great fair. The governors of the states would be present for their day. Out in the waters there would be recreations of the famous battle which had taken place nearby – the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac. It all was to be a splendid affair.
Virginia Baptists took the lead to construct “the Baptist Building” for the exposition and to fill it with exhibits showing the growth and significance of the Baptists of America. The cost of a building was estimated at $10,000 which was a large sum for the times. (In purchasing power alone it would be the equivalent today of over $250,000.)
In fundraising, the idea was floated that after the exhibit closed the building would become the site of a new Baptist church. The General Association solicited part of the needed amount from among the district associations. Churches were approached directly with appeals for contributions.
E.E. Dudley, pastor of Central Baptist Church, Norfolk, was released by his congregation to solicit the churches. “The building is going to be built,” wrote Editor Robert H. Pitt in the Religious Herald, “now let us put a worthy exhibit in it. The denomination owes it to itself, its history, its position, to see that this is done and well done.”
The building was to be for all Baptists, representative of the various states, the two geographic sections – North and South – and the denominational bodies – the Southern and Northern conventions. It was to highlight the history of the Baptists as well as their role in the social and religious life of the country. It also would foster a fraternal spirit among Baptists who only 40 years earlier had been on opposite sides in a great war.
“It has been generally agreed that Northern Baptists are to have one side of the building and Southern Baptists the opposite side,” said a promoter. “Virginia is only one of the fifteen states which ought to be well represented on this [the Southern] side. Our Seminary, our Foreign, Home and Sunday-school Boards, our colleges and schools, our orphanages and sanitariums ought all to be creditably presented.”
The word went out from Virginia for the other mainline states to contribute. The South Carolina Baptist paper, the Courier, endorsed the effort: “If this proposed exhibit will have the effect of creating among Baptists a more active interest in their history it will have accomplished a good purpose. The Baptists of South Carolina need waking up in this matter. We might furnish some material for the exhibit. Old Virginia, the mother state, is calling. Should not the younger sisters and the children answer?”
Ground was broken for the exposition in February 1907 and the buildings needed to be in place by the time of the opening in April. C.S. Blackwell, one of the great preachers of the age, pastor of First Baptist Church, Norfolk and on the building committee, reported that the Baptist Building would be “a permanent structure in semi-colonial style.”
“It is desired that the floor and wall space be filled with exhibits of Baptist educational institutions, missionary, publications, press and historic exhibits. It will be Baptist headquarters where the brethren from all lands may meet, know each other, get information and inspiration. [We will] distribute millions of pages of literature free of charge to let the world know who the Baptists are, what they stand for, and what they have done.”
George J. Hobday, who had just left as superintendent of the Virginia Baptist Orphanage at Salem, was retained as the caretaker for the building. He lived on the grounds for much of the year. After all, he had an important and valuable collection to watch. Several of the portraits of early Virginia Baptist leaders were loaned for the exhibit and today these still are on view at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society in Richmond. People at a distance sent their relics and treasures.
Charles Ryland, founder of the Historical Society, shared in the Religious Herald that someone in Kentucky had loaned the portrait of John Gano, one of the leading Baptist preachers in early America. Throughout the year Baptists came in large numbers. George Hobday was the official greeter and must have shook enough hands to wrench his own hand.
Baptist Day was held on May 23 when it was expected that “more representative Baptists will assemble than were ever together before.” Richmond was the host city for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention which was held from May 16-20 and the Northern Baptists were meeting about the same time in Washington.
“From the Northern Assemblies at Washington and from the SBC at Richmond,” said the Herald, “they will come down the Potomac and James rivers and meet in Hampton Roads, where these historic waters meet, and here recount the struggles for religious liberty they and their fathers have engaged in on this continent from the days of Roger Williams until this good hour.”
Editor Pitt already had visited the exposition for the opening day on April 26, which was exactly 300 years after the landing of Admiral Christopher Newport and the little band of English settlers. Pitt wrote his impressions: “The [Hampton] Roads never seemed more beautiful than on that radiant morning, when we steamed past the long line of fighting machines. Flags gaily fluttered from every mast and spar, cannon boomed, launches darted hither and thither, craft of every description danced on the sparkling waters, the great throngs were in good humor, and all was merry as a marriage bell. President [Theodore] Roosevelt was, of course, on hand and delivered one of his characteristically fine speeches and seemed to enter with boyish abandon and zest into every feature of the occasion.”
“In the evening, as we made our way back, we steamed down the line of ships again. The darkness had fallen and the promised electrical illumination was in full glory. Its beauty was unique, startling, overwhelming. Ropes of electric lights were so arranged as to give the outlines of the graceful hulls, and every mast and spar, funnel and turret was limned in light against the dark background. I had never seen and had never expected to see anything like it.”
In December, the Jamestown Exposition closed. In time, the U.S. Navy took over the site for its large naval base. Some of the buildings were destroyed and some remained for new purposes. It does not appear that the Baptist Building became a church.
But by the close of the great fair, some three million persons had visited the Jamestown Exposition and the Baptists had presented themselves to the nation. For the Baptists, it was a time of great accomplishment as well as a sense of unity with the Baptist General Association of Virginia leading the way.