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This Month in BGAV History: “Grand old ‘ssociation”

Virginia Baptist Mission Board BlogFor many years November has been the month set aside for the annual gathering of the tribes – the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. It was not always held in November.

In the beginning it was held in the warm and pleasing weather month of June which must have been more conducive for schedules and travel and horses. In fact, the meetings popularly were known as “the June meetings.”

There was a brief courting with unpredictable February but November won out and so once again this month the General Association gathered for fellowship, discussion, and decisions. The meeting was held in historic Fredericksburg where the BGAV last met in 2009 in the city’s grand new convention facility.

Prior to the last meeting in the Colonial City, the BGAV had met there three times in the 19th century – 1826, 1853, and 1874. Thereafter the gatherings had outgrown the town’s churches and larger localities won the prize. The new facility has made Fredericksburg a destination as a “Northern Virginia” meeting venue.

Some years ago I was depending upon a typist to help me with my heavy load of writing. In trying to discern my handwriting (something akin to a physician’s penmanship), she typed “Grand” instead of “General” in the name of the state Baptist organization. I smiled at her error and felt that in many ways the description was exactly correct.

The “Grand” old Association is a remarkable organization. Messengers come from affiliated churches and they are free to cast their opinions on business issues which may surface on the floor of the meetings.

Across the long years – dating from 1823 – there have been many issues and many strong-willed and highly-capable messengers; but the General Association seldom has known rancor in its deliberations. The messengers act like Virginians! They also act as Christians!

The meetings always have included fellowship. There are sweet reunions among friends. Lay folks become reunited with former pastors who have moved to other congregations. Clergy find classmates from earlier years in college and seminary. Messengers who have served on boards and committees of the General Association and its Mission Board exchange pleasantries.

The time spent in the hallways and the exhibit halls are good times for backslapping and handshaking. All of this helps build community.

The meetings always have included worship. The business will pause when the designated time comes for worship. Across the long years some of the finest and most skilled preachers and lecturers have addressed the assemblies. On rare occasions communion has been celebrated.

The meetings have been a sharing and learning time especially as regards Baptist agencies, institutions, schools and colleges. In the exhibit hall, the messengers and visitors had an opportunity to learn about resources and services.

It was a time to become personally acquainted with the larger world of Virginia Baptists and beyond. In recent years “breakout” sessions have been offered on a variety of topics. Messengers go home with new ideas and new resources.

Let us say another word about the chief characteristic of Virginia Baptists: Courtesy. It runs like a thread from 1823 to date. There have been many differences of opinion and debates which were great and earnest.

There have been deep controversies stretching back to the anti-missions movement in the early 19th century. But courtesy ruled and at the end of the day, community prevailed.

Robert Healy Pitt, editor of the Religious Herald for a half-century and himself a president of the BGAV, once offered the following observation during a possibly volatile time. “The blessed and unbroken fellowship which has characterized Virginia Baptists found beautiful and impressive illustration. Not an unbrotherly word was spoken in public and in all our mingling privately we did not hear an inconsiderate or unreasonable utterance.”

“Of course, there were differences of opinion and discussion. No one man, however honored, respected and influential, could expect to get everything he wished. There was utmost freedom of opinion and discussion, but when at length conclusions were reached all fell into line heartily and gladly.”

Yes, it could be called the Baptist Grand Association of Virginia! Hope you had the chance to experience Fredericksburg!