Home | BGAV Blog | Three Centuries of Baptists in Virginia

Three Centuries of Baptists in Virginia

John Smith's map of Virginia. (via Wikipedia)
John Smith’s map of Virginia. (via Wikipedia)

There have been Baptists in Virginia for a long, long time. A little over three centuries ago this month in May 1714, English Baptists appointed two “messengers” to go to the Virginia Colony “with all Convenient Speed.”

The gathering of support and funds and the long ocean journey meant that “Convenient Speed” was finally realized in the spring of 1715. One of the messengers gave his life to the mission and died on the voyage.

The other, Robert Norden, a minister from County Kent in southeastern England, gathered some Baptists who were living along the south side of the James River near present Hopewell and planted what traditionally has been held to have been the first Baptist church in Virginia.

There are several remarkable findings about the early church plant. First, the impetus began within Virginia. There were some Baptists, likely from Kent, who had settled in Virginia and they were the ones who sent word back home to send a minister.

Second, the cause was advanced first by an individual church, the Baptist church at Canterbury, the ancient cathedral town, and by the Baptist association in Kent. These former neighbors to the Virginians advocated for the sending of a minister and they collected funds for the effort.

Third, the organized denominational body – the General Assembly of General Baptists – accepted the appeal from the grassroots in Kent and endorsed the mission. Never underestimate the power and influence of individuals, a church (or two or three) and a local association!

In June 1715 Robert Norden took the required oaths before the Prince George County Court. It must be remembered that Norden, a Baptist, was a member of a despised minority group of dissenters from the Established Church.

It must be remembered that all of this took place long before full religious liberty was realized in the New World. Two Baptists also petitioned the Prince George court for permission to use their homes as meeting houses for the Baptists.

The first church traditionally has been identified by the name of Burleigh although some refer to it as “the Prince George church.” It is likely that it was one church with – to use a modern term – “multi-sites” which were in the adjoining counties along the south side of the James.

Little is known about the original church. It is thought by historians that it existed for about 50 years and likely fell apart over doctrinal disputes. The Baptists always were a free people and, as such, were free to disagree. Whatever happened, the planting of a Baptist witness spread like much of the ground cover in a garden. Baptist churches in time were everywhere!

There was much that appealed to people about the Baptist ways – their worship style which was less formal than the approved State Church, the Anglican; their demonstrative, heart-felt expressions of their faith; their defining principles which were radical for the times and focused upon the value of the individual.

Fifty years after the first church, there were enough Baptists in the colony to constitute a threat to the Established Church and, therefore, for a period of ten years, 1768-78, there were numerous overt acts of persecution against the Virginia Baptists.

The Baptists prevailed. They faced their persecutors with an early display of what we now call “non-violence.” They endured but not as beaten chattel. They held their heads high, accepted imprisonment, experienced social ridicule and at the end of the period of persecution they had gained in public sympathy. Within a few more years, they claimed religious liberty as an earned prize when they lobbied to have it placed into the documents of Virginia and the New Republic.

The three centuries of a Baptist witness in Virginia has produced a tremendous influence for good. Across the years there have been thousands of churches which have worn the Baptist name and countless thousands of converts to Christianity through those churches.

There have been larger denominational entities formed – district associations at the grassroots level, just as in Mother England, and state-wide organizations and the Virginians have played key roles in the various national Baptist bodies.

There have been several benevolent organizations including homes for the aged, an orphanage which now is a full-service organization for helping families, another orphanage which was created expressly for African-American children and youth, a prison chaplain ministry and others. These have adapted to the changing needs of the populace. There have been several schools, colleges and seminaries.

And to think it all started because a few individuals who had settled in Virginia wanted a minister and desired to unite as a congregation of Baptist believers.

Fred Anderson is the executive director emeritus of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.