Located on Sophia Street, Shiloh Baptist Church was, as I mentioned, sold to its black congregation by the resident white church. Shortly after gaining its pseudo independence, the church flourished, building a large membership of both free and slave members. After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the congregation appointed its first black pastor, Reverend George Dixon.

When the Civil War ended, members who had fled north to escape the fighting returned and the church once again thrived. Today there are several Shiloh Baptist churches in the Fredericksburg area. During the Civil War, the original Shiloh Church served as a hospital for Union soldiers.

Shiloh Baptist sprung forth from the integrated Fredericksburg Baptist Church. The original congregation included both white and black members and by the 1840's over 75% of the 800-member assembly was black. Not surprisingly, the archived transcripts recalling the division of the church and the sale of its building back to the black members differs greatly in tone between the two races. Upon examining both church minutes and individual member's recollections, it appears that the perspectives of both groups with regard to the reasons behind the move, as well as the manner in which it took place, are as different as night and day.

This is completely understandable, given the time in American history that they occurred. Although both churches share a strong bond today, this was not always the case during the racial strife of the pre-Civil Rights period. I want to take a moment to briefly address the subject of slavery as it plays a pivotal role not only in the history of these churches, but of course in the history of our country.

Traced back to the earliest colonization of America, human bondage remained one of the most controversial aspects of the country's culture. The first Africans arrived in the "New World" as Indentured Servants at the Virginia Company's Jamestown Settlement in 1619. There they were initially able to earn their freedom by working as laborers, artisans, servants, and cooks for white, European settlers.

However, the role of "indentured" servant was radically redefined by 1640, when the colony of Maryland became the first settlement to officially institutionalize slavery. Ironically, the practice was then propagated in the north, where, in 1641, Massachusetts wrote that "bondage was legal," in their own legislative Body of Liberties. This act inevitably ushered in the accepted ability for one human being to hold property ownership of another.

Slavery led to an obvious contradiction in the social structure of America's own roots as the very same settlers who had fled Europe in order to practice their own form of liberty, now denied freedom to an entire race of people. Although some Christians were kind and even at times charitable towards those held in bondage, there was no denying the moral-hypocrisy that surrounded the institution.

The early Christian churches did not take up the cause of eliminating slavery until much later in the century and some church leaders attempted to justify the act by quoting passages from the Bible that outlined the proper treatment of slaves, specifically the books of Deuteronomy, Ephesians and Colossians.

In 1693, the famous Boston theologian, Cotton Mather, wrote a propaganda-piece titled "Rules for the Society of the Negroes," which argued that slavery had been spiritually sanctioned because "Negroes were enslaved because they had sinned against God." As a Christian, I find it bothersome to think that the Word of God was manipulated like that.

As I mentioned in my intro, I was struck by the differing viewpoints that have been recorded when reflecting on Fredericksburg at the time of the Civil War, particularly books and articles that were penned in the early 20th-Century. Obviously there was a lot of material presented over the decades following the war that tried to dull the sting of racism, or even sometimes encourage it. As a result, a lot of historical publications promoted a white dominated agenda.

There is a movement about today in regards to American history that is trying to address the notion of biased memory and the need to re-incorporate the perspectives of black Americans. Especially in regards to race relations and of course slavery. I myself am only starting to comprehend the challenge this presents. I'd like to give you an example of a piece of historical memory that I myself incorrectly penned and have since then, come to learn the whole story thanks to my friends at the National Park Service.

Ms. Hannah Coalter the lady of the palatial Chatham Manor (which is located up on the hill overlooking the river and the city) offered all ninety-two of her slaves a choice between immigration, or continued bondage after her death. The idea was that they could become a contributing member to society if they desired and had skills. Sounds good right? Wrong…

Although the offer appears at face value to be a generous one, it should be noted that it was only to be granted on an individual-by-individual basis and had no stipulation for keeping relatives together. This inevitably resulted in an agonizing choice of freedom over one's family. Making matters worse, Coalter's successor, Horace Lacy, was not interested in granting freedom to any of Chatham's slaves. He filed a petition with the local court to overturn the offer. The court sided with the plaintiff citing that the servant population of Fredericksburg were not considered citizens and therefore, had no right to make decisions regarding their release.

Every account that I read of this from a 'white standpoint' painted a portrait of generosity and amicable respect. Now please don't misunderstand me there were whites who championed for freedom and liberty for blacks, but the majority of the population at the time was benevolent at best.

Beyond the court system, the complexity of overturning the institution of slavery can be found in the vast difference of perspective that existed between those both for, and against, the practice. For example, an anti-slavery advocate from North Carolina wrote that:

Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.

On the other hand, George Fitzhugh, a wealthy Virginia Planter wrote in 1850 that:

The slaves are all well fed, well clad, have plenty of fuel, and are happy. They have no dread of the future-no fear of want. [The slaveholder] is the least selfish of men...The institution of slavery gives full development and full play to the affections.

So here you can see the completely different points of view on the subject. Another example of this can be found in Shiloh Baptist's origins. When what initially appears to have been a gracious act, may have furthered the divide between the races.

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 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.


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.

Now 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.


Here is an image of the original building. 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.

George Rowe was an elder in the church and owned seven slaves himself. He had established a familiar relationship with the congregation. 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. At that time a longtime and active member of the church named George Dixon was appointed as the first African-American pastor.

Unfortunately a few weeks later, the entire town was devastated. This prompted over 300 members, Dixon included, 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 met sporadically in homes and old warehouse on Fifteenth Street. Unfortunately, the church building was counted among the structural casualties of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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 equals.

If you ever get a chance to read through any of the local slave narratives or books on them, I highly recommend it. They can be uncomfortable at times, but the stories of those that emerged from human bondage to become teachers and sextons and soldiers and even politicians is awe inspiring. Shiloh Baptist also has one of the best websites of any historic church I've seen. It is filled with historical information.

And speaking of inspiring, let's move on to St. George's Episcopal Church, whose magnificent bell tower has inspired countless paintings over the years.