John Maurice Armistead was born on March 1, 1852, in Lynchburg, the only son and one of two children of Frank B. Armistead and Eliza Maxey Armistead, mulatto slaves. His father was a shoemaker, and after emancipation Armistead was working in that trade when, during services at Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, he was so deeply moved as the congregation sang “Come Holy Spirit Heavenly Dove” that he joined the church and devoted his life to Christianity.
Armistead enrolled at Richmond Theological School for Freedmen (later Virginia Union University) in 1868. He studied for the ministry there until 1873 and then at Roger Williams College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he completed his course work in 1879. In the latter year the General Association of East Tennessee ordained him and he accepted a call from the First Baptist Church of Knoxville. During his several years there the congregation flourished. While in Knoxville he also founded and edited the Baptist Companion, the major news organ for the black Baptists of Tennessee.
On November 6, 1880, Armistead married Emma J. Niles, with whom he had two daughters. Soon after, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend a convention of more than 150 black Baptists gathered from at least ten states to promote the establishment of foreign missions in Africa. At the initial meeting on November 24, 1880, he was elected one of two secretaries of what was known first as the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention and evolved into the National Baptist Convention, one of the largest black organizations in the world. Armistead, a member of the new group of African American leaders who were born slaves but grew to maturity in freedom, played an important role in the organization for many years.
In 1882 Armistead returned to Virginia to become the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Portsmouth. He continued to publish the Baptist Companion, which he renamed the Virginia Baptist, and he built Zion into one of the state’s leading black Baptist congregations. During his forty-three-year pastorate there, his congregation’s membership grew from 900 to more than 2,600. To accommodate this growth an impressive new house of worship was erected under his leadership and dedicated in 1895. Five new congregations, Olive Branch Baptist Church, Little Zion Baptist Church, New Hope Baptist Church of Saint Julian Creek, First Baptist Church of Sherwood Place, and First Baptist Church, Truxton, grew out of Armistead’s ministry at Zion Baptist. His natural drive and intelligence complemented his mastery of the spoken word. With a voice of tremendous power and range, Armistead became one of the most inspiring pulpit orators of his time, lauded as a “powerful and persuasive” speaker possessed of “originality, apt in illustration, [and] logical and systematic.”
Armistead was chairman of the State Mission Board for a number of years, and he served the Virginia Baptist State Convention as second vice president from 1882 to 1884 and president from 1884 to 1890. Founded May 9, 1867 in Portsmouth, the Baptist State Convention grew out of an effort by black churchmen to establish institutions independent of the paternalistic support of white Baptist churches in the North. The needs of African Americans for autonomy, or at least greater participation in church organizations, was evident in the controversy surrounding the American Baptist Publication Society, when white leaders refused to permit blacks to contribute written articles to Sunday school publications. Such behavior drew a rebuke from Armistead at the 1890 Virginia Baptist State Convention, and his comments helped persuade whites to grant concessions to black Baptists.
Armistead also helped establish what would become the Virginia University of Lynchburg. He was named a trustee in its original acts of incorporation as the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary on February 24, 1888, and as the Virginia Seminary on February 4, 1890, and March 20, 1895. The school opened early in 1890 but later that year construction came to a halt for lack of money. Despite the urging of black Baptist leaders, their average parishioner was not sufficiently committed to the idea of a school owned and controlled by African Americans. Faced with a crisis, Armistead and two other black churchmen persuaded the American Baptist Home Mission Society to accept the school as an affiliate in an agreement reached before the Virginia Baptist State Convention’s annual session in May 1891. Some thought that this arrangement undercut black independence, but the alternative was an early death for the institution. Armistead later served as president of the school’s board of trustees.
Armistead was also active in Portsmouth’s political and civic life. A member of the city council, he attended its meetings from February 1890 into 1891 and participated in community organizations such as the Masons, the Good Samaritans, and the Pythians. Armistead was a widower by June 1895 and later married Martha Bridson, who also predeceased him. Despite a heavy workload and personal losses, he remained committed to his ministry, and his work was recognized in 1906 when he received an honorary DD from Virginia Union University.
After serving Zion Baptist Church faithfully for forty-three years, Armistead retired on March 22, 1925, and was unanimously named pastor emeritus by the congregation. Armistead died at his house in Portsmouth on December 3, 1929.