A Brief History of
Richmond's First Baptist Church

"When the fires that lighted the evacuation of Richmond had died away... there was little left of Richmond's skyline to mind the frantic inhabitants of the past. Here and there, though, there were left old landmarks and amongst them the most beloved of those was the old First Baptist Church at Twelfth and Broad Streets, whose tall steeple stood like a sentinel against the sky at the top of the hill." ... a Richmond newspaper, April, 1865

On a June evening in 1780, one year before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown and two years before Richmond was incorporated as a city, Joshua Morris conducted a prayer meeting in the home of John Franklin at Carrington and Pink Streets on Union Hill. This group of Christian believers organized the Richmond Baptist Church, the first Baptist church to be constituted in a Virginia city and the first church of any denomination to be organized in Richmond.

The beginning was modest; there were fourteen charter members. In 1786 Morris sold his Richmond property and followed the great migration West. He was succeeded by John Courtney, a humble, devout, and courageous pastor.

The "lowly Baptists" built their first house of worship before or during 1798. "Father Courtney," as he was affectionately known, stood unflinchingly for disestablishment and religious liberty and was vilified and slandered for his efforts. He supported his family by working as a carpenter, receiving no stipulated salary from the church. He had a favorite couplet which he often quoted: "No foot of land do I possess, Nor cottage in this wilderness." He lived in a rented house between Grace and Broad Street, paying an annual rental fee of twenty-five dollars. In 1809 a deed to the house and lot was conveyed to the beloved minister. As he preached that night, Father Courtney began to quote his favorite lines then stopped and corrected himself. The next day he conveyed his property to Mr. George Pickett, his friend and landlord, saying, "I’d rather have my lines than the land."

In 1813 the women of the church formed the Female Missionary Society, the first such in Virginia and the second in the South. In 1815 a second missionary organization was begun in the church by Deacon William Crane who had come from Newark, New Jersey in 1812, opened a shoe store and joined the church. His love for black men and women led to the establishment of a school for slaves made up of twenty young men. They met three evenings each week to learn reading, writing, arithmetic and the Bible. Because of his love and devotion, two of his students, Lott Cary and Collin Teague, purchased their freedom and gave themselves to African missions, sailing to Liberia in 1821 on the first colonization ship. The Providence Baptist Church, which had been organized in Deacon Crane’s home, is today the "Westminster Abbey" of Liberia, the building in which the Liberian Declaration of Independence was signed, and is a national shrine. The heroic exploits of Cary and Teague are appropriately portrayed in the beautiful Baptist history windows in the church chapel.

First Baptist has been first in many other ways. Not only was it the first church of any denomination to be organized in Richmond, the first Baptist church organized in a Virginia city, and the first church in Virginia to organize a missionary society for women, but it also was the first in the city to organize a Sunday school for children, the first in America to send her own members as foreign missionaries to the continent of Africa, the first in the Southern Baptist Convention to have a church library.

From its inception the church has been strong in missionary concern and support. Many missionaries have gone out from her membership, among whom are the following pioneers: Lott Cary and Collin Teague; Henrietta Hall Shuck, first American woman missionary to reach China; Dr. George Green, first medical missionary to the Nigerian Baptist Mission; Reverend William B. Johnson, missionary to China who became the first Southern Baptist missionary to Indonesia. The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention occupied offices in the church building for many years. Scores of members have gone out from her membership.

Since its beginning, the church has had distinguished pastors:

  • 1780-1786 Joshua Morris
  • 1788-1824 John Courtney
  • 1825-1833 John Kerr
  • 1833-1835 Isaac Taylor Hinton
  • 1836-1849 Jeremiah Bell Jeter
  • 1850-1854 Basil Manly, Jr.
  • 1854-1874 John Lansing Burrows
  • 1876-1879 Ebenezer W. Warren
  • 1879-1884 James B. Hawthorne
  • 1885-1903 George Cooper
  • 1905-1927 George W. McDaniel
  • 1928-1934 Charles W. Daniel
  • 1936-1968 Theodore F. Adams
  • 1968-1982 Luther Joe Thompson
  • 1983-2006 Peter James Flamming
  • 2008-present James Green Somerville
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