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This Month in BGAV History: In Papa’s Footsteps

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.

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It was a beautiful late spring day in the country. It was prayer-ordered weather for an anniversary gathering with dinner-on-the-grounds under a large tent. It was the 240th anniversary of Upper King & Queen Baptist Church which bears the name of the county in which it is located, a place about 50 miles from Richmond.

Upper King & Queen building
Upper King & Queen Baptist Church today.

The old church house was in pristine condition for the anniversary. The building had been completed on the eve of the Civil War and the dedicatory address was delivered by J. Lansing Burrows, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond and one of the great pulpit orators of the times.

A great congregation filled the house and its galleries and Burrows chose as his text, Psalm 45:15: “With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought; they shall enter into the king’s palace.”

A month later, the Confederates took Ft. Sumter and the war and its aftermath changed the old order. There were over 600 members in 1860 – about equally divided between whites and blacks. According to a history of the church, “through these tragic years [of war] the church did not miss a meeting or neglect of duty.” The church continued to support the distribution of Bibles in remote areas as well as giving copies of the Religious Herald, the Virginia Baptist newspaper, within the Confederate Army camps.

Again, from the written history: “When Grant’s wagon train passed through the community and took all the horses and mules, the congregation came to church in ox-carts. In the wreck of their hopes and fortunes the church record for September, 1865, reads: ‘We have abundant occasion for gratitude to the giver of all mercies for the blessings extended to us.’ The blessings were in the form of baptisms of numerous young persons. After the war, black members were dismissed to constitute a new church and the old mother church assisted – one white member gave the land and others helped in erecting a building.

After the war and continuing into the 20th century, there was an exodus of folks from the farms to the cities and the population decreased. It has been observed that the population from the most recent census is the same as the figures for the first census of 1790. King & Queen County remains largely an area of family farms and has not experienced the commercial developments in counties surrounding Richmond. The latest stats for the church indicate a membership of about 200, a third of its size at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Today’s congregation may be smaller but it is no less loyal, committed and productive. A magnificent addition has been made to the church with a fellowship hall and educational space. It is attractive, functional and inviting. It is indicative of a “can do” spirit which is not unlike their spiritual ancestors coming to church in ox-carts when horses were gone.

The anniversary service was introduced by James Ryland, an active layman in the church. In his remarks, he quoted a line from an address delivered by his “Papa,” in 1974, for the 200th anniversary: “A wise man once said: ‘Poor is the country that boasts no heroes, but beggard is that people who having them, forgets.”

James “Jamie” Ryland can be expected to remember. His “Papa” was Charles Hill Ryland, a layman from Warsaw who was keenly interested in history – including Baptist history. Charles Ryland’s “Papa” was Garnett Ryland who was in charge of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society in the 1940s-50s and wrote the definitive history of Virginia Baptists. Garnett is buried in the cemetery at Upper King & Queen.He also is the one who wrote an early history of the church. Garnett’s “Papa,” also named Charles Hill Ryland, was a leading Virginia Baptist minister in the 19th century who was a son of the anniversary church and founder in 1876 of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.

These Ryland men were immersed in the history of their people, the Baptists of Virginia, and they were devoted to its preservation and its telling. Jamie Ryland – who lives at an old family home not far from the anniversary church – is following in the footsteps of a long line of Rylands who cared about history and heritage.

In 1924 Garnett wrote and presented a history of the first 150 years of Upper King & Queen; and fifty years later, in 1974, his son, Charles, “Charlie,” was the main speaker at the church’s bi-centennial. On that occasion, he added some remembrances and observations of his own. He told the congregation that he was only ten years of age in 1924 when his father spoke and that at that young age, he drove the family’s Model T from Richmond to the country. He recalled that a “line of cars [were] stuck in the sandy road” approaching the church. He remembered that his boyish eyes were bigger than his stomach when he spied the “wagons with food lined up on the edge of the field and the tables set up under the trees.”

Charlie Ryland recalled that the anniversary of ’24 included many distinguished speakers yet the man who remained most vividly in his memory was Tunstall Banks, a former slave from a Ryland homeplace, Lanefield. “He was tall and distinguished looking. He had spent a lifetime in the ministry and his recollections of this congregation ‘before the war’ were fascinating to me.”

Charlie Ryland gave a magnificent summary of Baptist identity and concluded with the following four distinctives which Baptists have emphasized: “The first is that the Scripture is the sole guide for our belief and our behavior. Now that was a dangerous idea [in Colonial days] for the rigid doctrine of the Church of England in Virginia could not tolerate individual freedom. The second major tenet which Baptists believed is known as the Priesthood of Believers – that we are our own priests – that we do not need any earthly intercessor – and that there is no separation in our tradition between clergy and laity. The third tenet is religious liberty and the complete separation of Church and State – the most revolutionary of all of these ideas – for it then cut into the historical concept of the religious power of civil government and the civil power of a religious establishment – it destroyed a concept of Christendom which had been in vogue since the 4th century. The fourth … was believer’s baptism and meant to our ancestors regenerate members who were reborn in Christ and who had a personal faith in their Savior.”

“Two centuries ago,” said Charles Hill Ryland, “these beliefs were rewarded by persecution and imprisonment. Today these freedoms are a part of the basic law of our land.” And that is when Charles Ryland closed with the quote which his son, James, repeated 40 years later at the 240th anniversary: “Poor is the country that boasts no heroes, but beggard is that people who having them, forgets.” Thankfully there are places where the heroes, heroines, history and heritage are not forgotten.