Independence within Slavery
As early as the 1750s, white Baptist missionaries with ties to revival movements in New England had succeeded in converting slaves andin Virginia. As the colony moved toward independence from the English Crown, the state saw the creation of three independent black Baptist congregations, two in Petersburg (1756 and 1772) and one in Williamsburg (1776). During this early period, there had been a tendency toward full independence for these churches. As slave culture began to define the state, region, and nation, two other models of black Baptist identity began to take shape. From its early colonial days, white Baptists had insisted on mixed congregations. Equal standing within the congregation began to give way to second-class status in the nineteenth century, particularly in the visible reminder of black members relegated to the back pews or to a separate entrance to balcony pews. When it became clear that a separate church was needed for a black congregation, as in the case of First Baptist, Richmond, black believers were given limited independence through a deacon body and assistant pastors under the supervision of a white pastor, which required. In each of the three models of church life, black Baptists in Virginia, as well as throughout the nation, had the beginnings of independent religious life, even within the bounds of slavery.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, southern white Baptists had to make sense of the, but black Baptists found in the Union victory God’s providential plan for a free people in a free state and by extension a free church. By 1867 it was clear to black church leaders that a separate institutional life made the most sense. Building on independent congregations throughout the state, a group of preachers and lay leaders met in Portsmouth to form an associational body, modeled after white Baptists’ church government practices, called the Virginia Baptist State Convention (VBSC). With this institutional step, black Baptists in Virginia began a plan for organizing churches across the state. Their widespread success in forming churches meant that a structural foundation was in place for church growth and that meant a need for more ministers.
The lack of formal training among Baptist ministers explained why Baptists had made inroads among slaves and freedpeople prior to the war more so than Presbyterians with a formalized system for ordination. After the war, freedpeople knew that their best economic chance in the United States was tied to formal education. They sought to capitalize quickly on their freedom to create schools for their children. During the war and in its immediate aftermath, the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) had sought to expandby setting up schools. Shortly after the war’s end, the ABHMS sent the Reverend J. G. Binney, a former missionary to Burma, to Richmond to establish a school. Within a few months, Binney abandoned the plan and went back to Burma. The society, however, had not given up on the freedpeople in Richmond and in 1867 sent Dr. Nathaniel Colver, an abolitionist and theology professor at the Old University of Chicago. Though his success in Richmond was limited, Colver established what became known as the Colver Institute. Prior to Colver’s arrival in Richmond, First African Baptist Church had called its first black senior pastor, the Reverend James H. Holmes. He had served the congregation as an assistant pastor since 1865. The transition to full independence in African American churches in Virginia was complete by 1867. Full independence in education would take longer and would divide black Baptists in the state for more than a generation.
Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute
From 1867 until 1890 black Virginia Baptists continued to work together with ABHMS to further black students’ primary through secondary educational needs. With the formation of a girls’ school in Richmond along with the transition of the Colver Institute into Richmond Institute, ABHMS worked to support the needs of students and focused on Richmond as a center for educational outreach. The prevailing leadership model, however, had white leaders in administrative roles and on faculty. Though ABHMS appeared to see the need for black instructors and hired a few black teachers, leadership positions remained in the hands of those the ABHMS deemed capable of leading, which in the racial politics of the time meant white men.
Virginia Theological Seminary and College
By the time Virginia Union opened, the rift among black Virginia Baptists over Virginia Theological Seminary, and the related issue of racial pride focused on black institutions led by black leaders, forced a rupture within the ranks of pastors and lay leaders. In 1899, a second body, Baptist General Convention in Virginia (BGCVA), formed independently of the VBSC to support the newly formed university and seminary in Richmond. The VBSC remained committed to Virginia Theological Seminary and the idea of racial independence. Even as ABHMS gave greater control over Virginia Union University to African Americans and the BGCVA in the twentieth century, the power of allegiances through institution building meant that the schism remained. Both organizations continue to serve black Baptists in Virginia.