A study in pre-war race relations at Fredericksburg's landmark churches

On Friday March 20th, 2009 I had the privilege of speaking at Manassas Museum. My presentation discussed the split between the whites and blacks attending Fredericksburg Baptist, resulting in Shiloh Baptist (Old Site), as well as the denominational split between the Methodist church over the issue of slavery. The transcripts of my lecture are below:

View 2-min. Quicktime video

Good evening folks. It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight and I would like to thank each and every one of you for coming. I would also like to thank the entire staff here at the Manassas Museum for their invitation and hospitality. I spoke here back in the fall on "The Great Revival during the War Between the States" and jumped at the chance to return.

Tonight I will be sharing a few excerpts from my book "Houses of the Holy" which tells the stories of the historic churches of Fredericksburg, before, during, and after the Civil War. There are some wonderful transcripts in this title and over 70 photos, several unpublished until now. I will be very happy to take any questions you may have at the end and I also look forward to signing some copies for you.

I'd like to start off with a couple passages from my Introduction:

In order to understand the experiences of the historic churches of Fredericksburg, one must first look at the locality and the important role that organized religion played in the town. Today, the town is known as "America's Most Historic City," while the neighboring county of Spotsylvania is referred to as the "Crossroads of the Civil War." Both are literally saturated with landmark homesteads, museums, plantations and battlefields that draw thousands of tourists each and every year. Churches remain among some of the most coveted attractions for their historical significance and architectural beauty.

Fredericksburg has also been referred to as a "city of churches," as its silhouette is dominated by a plethora of bell towers and steepled roofs. Today there are over three hundred congregations spread throughout the surrounding region. Clearly, anyone walking through the town can see the important role religion played in the day-to-day lives of the town's inhabitants.

The issue of race-relations as well as the debate over the institution of slavery is also a major piece in my book and the subject that I would like to focus on tonight. It's a controversial and unpleasant subject at times, but it plays an important role, not only in the history of these churches, but also in the history of our nation.

Here you see an overhead shot of Old Town today. This is the historic district. Tonight I want to focus on three congregations: Fredericksburg Baptist Church, Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) and Fredericksburg United Methodist Church. The others you see here are also covered extensively in my book. These include St. George's Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg.

First up this evening is Fredericksburg Baptist Church. During the Civil War, this structure suffered extensive damage from Federal artillery fire prior to the city's occupation by Union forces during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Like many area churches, the pews were torn out and the sanctuary was used as a Federal field hospital. Today, the building remains much the way it did after the war damage was repaired.

According to records from the early 1800s, the first “official” Baptist Meeting House (a prelude to a sanctioned house of worship) was established in Fredericksburg around 1803. The original sanctuary and its attendees included whites, slaves and free “Negroes.” Non-white members were required to use side-door entrances and separate seating areas, as the interior space of the sanctuary was racially separated. This trend would continue in churches throughout the South for years to come. Throughout the course of my research I was amazed at how many of Virginia's early churches were integrated. Now, this by no means is what we would consider in modern times to be equality, but it was a sanctioned mixing of the races.

Beginning with a small congregation, Fredericksburg Baptist Church persevered through the years and grew significantly in member numbers. Within a decade of its inauguration, the church boasted over eight hundred attendees on its rolls. Surprisingly, almost three fourths of its membership was made up of slaves and free blacks. This multiracial fellowship represented what may be considered a hypocritical dichotomy, as Christians appeared able to come together on Sundays to celebrate the Sabbath, yet remained separatists during the rest of the week.

Tension between whites and blacks was an inevitable problem as racism and rights for minorities became a highly contested topic of the day. These arguments often pitted whites against whites as abolitionists and slave holders belonged to the same congregation. Denominations themselves often remained benign on the issue in order to appear neutral on the subject. Often this resulted in shared desire to venerate separately.

Fredericksburg Baptist wished to use the split as an opportunity to relocate. At the time the expansion was proposed, there were approximately 625 African-American members in the church's congregation. This group, made up of both free and slave blacks, had been granted permission to attend services on Sunday at the same time as they attended. The inclusion however was a facade and by 1854, tensions began to interfere with worship. Separation appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

A pledge drive was established to assist in financing the construction of a newer and larger building. Despite their limited resources, and given their social situation, the minority members were able to raise an impressive sum of money. In the congregational minutes book that was dated for September 28, 1855, it reads that the congregation's "colored brethren and sisters" pledged $1,100.

It was then determined that the black members would retain the existing building by the riverside, and the white congregation would take all pledges and construct a new building in the center of town. This of course did not sit well with everyone, so a church committee was appointed to oversee the matter. Eventually a compromise of $500 was agreed upon. Here you see the result.

Upon payment, the deed to the church was transferred. The original membership rolls on file at the Shiloh Baptist outline the legacy of the African-American congregation. In the first column are listed the names of each individual who was received into membership in Nov. and Dec. of 1853. The second column records the date in which each member was baptized into the faith.

The third column shows the month and year when a member was received by letter as a transfer from another church. The fourth column (mostly empty) presents the month and year that a member was reinstated into the church after being previously removed from membership. And the fifth column (which I have highlighted in the box) is the most striking, as it lists the date of "May 4, 1856" over and over as the day in which all of the church's black members were dismissed. This date is significant, as it represents the official split between the races. As the white side of the church "took" the identity of the previously integrated house of worship, the black members were "dismissed" from the official Baptist records.

This in turn enabled the newly formed African-American Baptist congregation to be received into the denomination as a separate body from that of their predecessors. Both churches were then required to draft new constitutions. After they officially gained their own house of worship, they were still not entirely free. Virginia law required the supervision of a white elder, who was tasked with supervising the proceedings.

As was often the case during this period, white Christians took a paternalistic approach to their African-American neighbors that were less rooted in recognition of equality, and more on the guilt-driven, moral obligation to assist those souls held in bondage. This often posed a complex conflict of conscience, as the people offering spiritual nurturing to their "colored brethren" were also slave owners themselves.

That said, I do believe many whites felt that they were truly acting in the best interests of their fellow believers. Charity and compassion is a Christian virtue and despite racial inequality, decency and a sense of common good abounded in the Baptist Church. As a historian I try not to judge people outside of the context of their time and I don't want to sound like I am condemning either side.

I was amazed throughout the course of my research how different the histories of this period were recorded between the white and black congregations. I some cases the recollections were either very different or conflicted one another. I decided to write both sides exactly as they were revealed to me and let them stand on their own merits. This deliberately allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Shortly after gaining its pseudo independence, the African-American church flourished, building a large membership of both free and slave members. After President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the congregation appointed its first black pastor, Reverend George Dixon. When war ended, members who had fled north to Washington DC returned and the church thrived.

Here is an image of the original building that I believe was taken in the 1920's. Despite reaching an agreement over the split, another debate developed regarding the legal requirement of a white pastor shepherding the church.

This concern was addressed in multiple meetings that were recorded. Minutes taken by the white congregation on February of 1856 stated that:

Whereas we desire the colored portion of our church to enjoy the privilege of regular public worship in the house we formerly occupied, therefore, resolved, that the esteemed Brother Elder George Rowe, who has for several months been laboring among them with much acceptance, be requested to continue these labors, and to administer the ordinances of the gospel among them, and also, in conjunction with our pastor, to attend to the order and discipline of the church so long as it may be mutually agreeable to the parties concerned, the colored brethren being expected to make him such compensation for his services as he and they may agree upon.

So not only were the black Baptists required to have a white member supervise their services, they also had to pay him a fee to do so. George Rowe was an elder in the church and owned seven slaves himself. He had established a familiar relationship with the congregation and records indicate that his time there was without problems. By 1858, Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) was blossoming and its numbers continued to increase. Rowe remained in the position of congregational "overseer" until President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect at midnight on December 12, 1862.

Unfortunately a few weeks later, the entire town of Fredericksburg was devastated. This prompted over 300 members to flee north to Washington where they established a daughter church in a large horse stable christened "Shiloh Baptist of Washington DC." This church is still in operation today. Those who remained in town are said to have met sporadically in homes and old warehouse on Fifteenth Street.

It is my personal feeling after reading some of the transcripts of the day that the black citizens simply wanted to manage their own church services and affairs. And that right would eventually come, but certainly not for a long time. In reality, Shiloh Baptist's history was reset so to speak at the end of the Civil War. Only then were they truly able to govern their own affairs and worship as they wished.