Founded by slaves, First Baptist Church lets freedom ring

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/CNS) – On a Sunday morning in the late 1700s, a Williamsburg plantation owner was walking his lands when he heard the sounds of worship coming from a nearby arbor: A group of slaves was holding a Baptist service. The landowner was so moved by their songs and prayers that he decided to give them use of a carriage house in which to gather.

Now, this congregation is celebrating its 240th anniversary. Known today as First Baptist Church, it is one of the oldest black congregations in the United States and an important part of American history.

First Baptist has been a symbol of African American resilience and deep faith. For February – Black History Month – the church is partnering with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to share its story with the world.

In particular, First Baptist invites members of the community to ring its newly restored church bell. The church had acquired the massive steel bell in the late 19th century, but it has been inoperable since the days of racial segregation. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has returned the bell to working condition so it can be rung every day in February.

During Black History Month, people will have a chance to ring the newly restored bell in the bell tower of First Baptist Church. (Photo by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
During Black History Month, people will have a chance to ring the newly restored bell in the bell tower of First Baptist Church. (Photo by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

“Bells call people to faith. They send folks forth to do good work in the world,” said Reginald Davis, the pastor of First Baptist Church. “But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who prayed in our church, also said that freedom rings. A silent bell represents unfinished work of freedom and equality. This bell, in this sacred and historic church, will be silent no more.”

Davis has led the congregation for the past 12 years. He says the history of First Baptist Church is an essential part of U.S. history.

“We want the American people to know that black history is American history,” Davis said. “You just cannot tease out one part of history and leave the other part out.”

First Baptist Church of Williamsburg had humble beginnings. It started as a group of slaves and free blacks in 1776. Five years later, after the previous preacher left, a slave named Gowan Pamphlet stepped up and began delivering Baptist sermons.

Religion was central to the slave community, said James Ingram, who portrays Pamphlet at the Colonial Williamsburg Museum.

“They realized that the religious teaching of the Bible was different than what they had been told,” Ingram said. “It was through the stories in the Bible that literally became the medicine that could heal their wounded souls.”

The Church of England and other white religious institutions preached that the Bible condoned slavery. But black preachers taught that in their humanity, blacks were equal to – and deserved the same rights as – whites.

“The lashings, beatings and the crucifixion of Jesus were especially important,” Ingram said. “They related to that because that’s what’s happening in their lives every single day.”

For the past 17 years, James Ingram has been portraying Baptist preacher Gowan Pamphlet at Colonial Williamsburg. (Photo by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
For the past 17 years, James Ingram has been portraying Baptist preacher Gowan Pamphlet at Colonial Williamsburg. (Photo by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Black Baptist congregations were viewed with extra suspicion because they were associated with slave rebellions. According to Linda Rowe, a Colonial Williamsburg historian who has done extensive research on the religious life of colonists, the congregation spent a significant time meeting in wooded areas instead of inside a building.

“In the early 1800s, Gowan Pamphlet’s congregation was still meeting in a secluded area on the outskirts of Williamsburg,” Rowe said. “A local citizen heard the congregation singing and praying. This moved him to offer them a meeting place downtown.”

As the congregation grew, it gathered the resources to build a brick church in 1856. The women’s auxiliary of First Baptist raised the money to purchase a church bell for ringing during services and other special events.

In 1956, First Baptist moved to its current location at 727 Scotland St. But for the past 60 years, the church bell has been inoperable.

“There was a crack in the yoke from which it was suspended and possibly some issues with where it was mounted,” Rowe said. “The rope to pull it was in an out-of-the-way place, so it gradually fell out of disuse.”

Last year, First Baptist reached out to Colonial Williamsburg to restore the bell and highlight the church’s history. The result is the Let Freedom Ring project, in which citizens are invited to proclaim their belief in freedom and equality by ringing the restored bell.

First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg have created a website – www.letfreedomringchallenge.org – for the project. There, visitors can reserve a time to go to the church and ring the historic bell. (Spots are available on weekdays and Saturdays from Feb. 1 through 29.)

After making a reservation to ring the bell, participants are urged to spread the word on social media. Recent tweets include:

  • #WhyIWillRing for Rosa Parks. It takes courage to change. America needs change.
  • #WhyIWillRing – for our first black @Potus President Obama. It took too long to have one but we finally did it.
  • #WhyIWillRing because I HAVE A DREAM too!

During its history, First Baptist Church has hosted such civil rights icons as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. The Let Freedom Ring Project allows visitors and community members to recommit to black history and American values, Davis said.

“We invite people from every faith, racial group, economic group, educational group to come here and make that commitment again,” Davis said. “I believe our issues can be solved, but we have to make a commitment as a nation that we’re going to correct the wrongs.”

Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For more Virginia General Assembly coverage, visit the In the Rotunda section.

Go to our Celebrating Our Black History section for additional coverage.

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