ENTRY

Butt, Israel L. (1848–1916)

SUMMARY

Israel L. Butt played a key role in expanding and overseeing the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Virginia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Norfolk County, Butt escaped slavery and joined the Union army, where he learned to read and underwent a religious experience. He was ordained in 1881 and graduated with a theology degree from what later became Hampton University. Butt ministered and oversaw different districts of the denomination. Through his work, he became a school principal and served as a trustee or board member of educational institutions in Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio. Butt researched and wrote History of African Methodism in Virginia, or Four Decades in the Old Dominion, which was published in 1908.

Israel LaFayette Butt was born in Norfolk County, the son of John Wesley Butt and Adaline Grimes Butt. His mother died when he was seven or eight years old. Slavery and military service shaped Butt’s early years. With his father and a young girl, he escaped slavery in August 1862 and reached a Union army camp in Norfolk County. Brief schooling in Norfolk and a job hauling cordwood preceded Butt’s enlistment on January 6, 1864, in Company A of the 38th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. His unit fought at the Battle of New Market Heights on September 28–30, 1864, and participated in the occupation of Richmond on April 3, 1865, before being reassigned to Texas the following month. Still a private when his regiment was disbanded, Butt mustered out on January 25, 1867, at Indianola, Calhoun County, Texas, and returned to Norfolk, where he began farming a small plot owned by his father. He also worked on the farms of two white men. On December 5, 1867, Butt married Rose Zillah Simmons. They evidently had no children but adopted a daughter during the 1890s.

Butt industriously pursued the education that he had largely been denied as a slave. He learned to read while in the army. The local men under whom he studied included Dempsey Ferebee, who conducted a night school in Norfolk, and Thomas Bayne, a dentist and member of the Convention of 1867–1868. In May 1869 Butt was elected a constable of Tanners Creek Township and three years later a justice of the peace, an office he held for six years, but a religious life rather than a political career most appealed to him.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

  • Church and Academic Hall
    Church and Academic Hall

    A photograph of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) shows the school's chapel, with its 150-foot clock tower, and an academic building at right. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Hampton Students Working on Telephones
    Hampton Students Working on Telephones

    Students repair and construct telephones in a class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Students Studying Agricultural Science
    Students Studying Agricultural Science

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) measure the amount of force being applied by the screws in cheese presses. This exercise was part of the curriculum devoted to agricultural science. The message on the blackboard behind the class reads in part, "In all its effects, learning the meaning of things is better than learning the meaning of words." The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class
    Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class

    Louis Firetail of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe wears traditional clothing and stands next to a bald eagle in an American history class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences
    Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) mold clay to mimic objects hanging from easels attached to their desks. This exercise was part of a liberal arts and sciences class. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Constructing a House
    Constructing a House

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) work to finish the interior of a house that they built largely by themselves. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This carefully composed image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Staunch Methodism characterized two generations of Butt’s family. His maternal grandfather had become a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Butt experienced a religious conversion in Texas in May 1866, and he joined Norfolk’s Saint John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in August 1867. He decided to become a minister in 1874 and received a license to preach locally in March 1876. Butt attended Richmond Theological Institute (later Virginia Union University) from 1879 to 1881, was fully ordained in the latter year, and in 1887 graduated with a degree in theology from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University).

Butt was first assigned to a mission he established in Norfolk. He spent one year there, three years preaching on the Chesterfield Circuit, and two on the Henry Circuit before spending four years at Hampton. About 1888 Butt became presiding elder of the Danville District for a year and a half. He monitored the development of the various churches, organized new congregations, and made pastoral recommendations to the several bishops who presided in the Virginia Annual Conference. Butt also served briefly on the Staunton Circuit and for about ten and a half years on the Eastern Shore of Virginia before returning to the Tidewater for five years as presiding elder of the Portsmouth District and five years more as presiding elder of the Norfolk District. While he supervised the Portsmouth District he started a mission at Pinner’s Point, and he was serving in Norfolk when the John M. Brown Memorial Church was founded in that city in 1904.

History of African Methodism in Virginia

Butt was a delegate to the 1900 and 1904 general conferences of the church held in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois, respectively. At the latter meeting he served on the Committee on the Report of the Secretary of Education. He also sat on boards dealing with missionary activities and with the Allen Christian Endeavour League. While based in the Martinsville area, he had taught school and served as a school principal in 1882 and 1883. Butt was a trustee of the Norfolk District School, of Dickerson Memorial College (the church’s college in Portsmouth), and of the Girls Training School in Roanoke. He also served on the boards of Kittrell College in North Carolina and Wilberforce University in Ohio. The latter institution awarded him an honorary D.D. in 1903. Butt continued his education throughout his life and in 1905 studied theology through a correspondence course at Payne University in Selma, Alabama. In addition, he researched and wrote History of African Methodism in Virginia, or Four Decades in the Old Dominion (1908), which Hampton Institute published.

A widower, Butt married Marie Church in Northampton County on May 29, 1912. Butt suffered from asthma, diabetes, and heart disease late in life and died on January 22, 1916, in Franktown, Northampton County. He was buried in Norfolk County.

Major Work

  • History of African Methodism in Virginia, or Four Decades in the Old Dominion (1908)

MAP
TIMELINE
May 3, 1848
Israel L. Butt is born in Norfolk County, the son of John W. Butt and Adaline Grimes Butt.
August 1862
Israel L. Butt escapes slavery with his father and reaches a Union army camp in Norfolk County.
January 6, 1864
Israel L. Butt enlists in Company A of the 38th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry.
May 1866
Israel L. Butt experiences a religious conversion in Texas.
January 25, 1867
Israel L. Butt musters out of the army at Indianola, Calhoun County, Texas.
August 1867
Israel L. Butt joins Norfolk's Saint John's African Methodist Episcopal Church.
December 5, 1867
Israel L. Butt and Rose Zillah Simmons marry. They will adopt a daughter in the 1890s.
May 1869
Israel L. Butt is elected a constable of Tanners Creek Township.
1872
Israel L. Butt is elected a justice of the peace of Tanners Creek Township.
1874
Israel L. Butt decides to become a minister.
March 1876
Israel L. Butt receives a license to preach locally in Norfolk.
1879—1881
Israel L. Butt attends Richmond Theological Institute and is fully ordained in 1881.
1882—1883
Israel L. Butt teaches and serves as a school principal in the Martinsville area.
1887
Israel L. Butt graduates from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute with a degree in theology.
1888
Around this year, Israel L. Butt becomes presiding elder of the Danville District.
1900
Israel L. Butt is a delegate to the general conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio.
1903
Wilberforce University in Ohio awards Israel L. Butt an honorary DD.
1904
Israel L. Butt is a delegate to the general conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois. He also serves on the Committee on the Report of the Secretary of Education.
May 29, 1912
Israel L. Butt marries Marie Church in Northampton County.
January 22, 1916
Israel L. Butt dies in Franktown, Northampton County.
FURTHER READING
  • Angell, Stephen W. and Anthony B. Pinn, eds. Social Protest Thought: in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862–1939. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2000.
  • Dickerson, Dennis C. “Butt, Israel LaFayette.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 442–443. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Dickerson, Dennis. Butt, Israel L. (1848–1916). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/butt-israel-l-1848-1916.
MLA Citation:
Dickerson, Dennis. "Butt, Israel L. (1848–1916)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Aug. 2021
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