Shiloh Baptist (Old Site), Fredericksburg, VA
Here is an excerpt on Shiloh Baptist (Old Site) as well as a link to a PDF of the entire chapter. SBOS is the first and oldest African-American church here in Fredericksburg and one of the congregations profiled in my book Historic Churches of Fredericksburg, Houses of the Holy.
Located at 801 Sophia Street, Shiloh Baptist Church was sold to its black congregation by the resident white church for a sum of $500. Shortly after gaining its independence, the African American congregation flourished, building a large membership of both free and slave members. After the 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 two Shiloh Baptist Churches in the Fredericksburg area (Old Site and New Site). During the Civil War, the original Shiloh Church served as a hospital for Union soldiers.
As presented in the previous chapter, Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) evolved from the integrated Fredericksburg Baptist Church. The original congregation included both white and black members, and by the 1840s over 75 percent of the eight-hundred-member assembly was black. Not surprisingly, the archived transcripts recalling the division of the church and the sale of its building to the African American membership differ greatly in tone between the two races. This is completely understandable, given the time in American history when they were recorded. Although both churches share a historical bond today, this was not always the case during the racial strife of the pre–civil rights period.
In the late 1800s, the white congregation of Fredericksburg Baptist Church acknowledged the racial tensions leading up to the separation, but presented the split as a magnanimous gesture on their part. The African American records, on the other hand, negatively recall the terms of dismissal and financial debates that occurred over the property. Therefore, as the white members’ point of view has been outlined in the previous section, the following recollections present the other side of the story, as written by the black congregation.
After growing in numbers for several decades, the Baptists recognized an escalating problem with the space limitations in the old building used as the first Baptist Meeting House. Both white and black members initiated a pledge drive to gain the finances that were necessary to construct a much larger sanctuary. Despite their limited resources when compared to their white counterparts, the African American population subscribed the impressive amount of $1,100 in financial support. As written in the congregation’s minutes dated September 28, 1855, the church’s “colored brethren and sisters” pledged the sum to assist in the “construction of a new building.”
At the time it is said that there were at least 625 African American members at Fredericksburg Baptist Church. This included John Washington, who escaped the bonds of slavery after crossing the Rappahannock River and entering the Union army’s encampment, which was located at Falmouth. He then proceeded to Washington, D.C., where many other members of his church had fled and established a new Shiloh Baptist Church in the nation’s capital. After the war, he wrote and published a fascinating collection of memoirs detailing his escape in 1862.
Despite worshiping together for years, tensions between the two races heightened in 1854, nearly ten years before the War Between the States would erupt over states’ rights and the institution of slavery. It was at this time that the groups began to worship separately, with the black members meeting on Sunday afternoons as opposed to the mornings. Eventually the idea of building a newer church “in town” for the white congregational members and leaving the riverside building in the hands of the black members was approved. In September of 1855, the church secretary recorded, “It has always been our intention to give up our old house of worship to the colored portion of our church.” This decision came on the heels of the pledge drive in which the African Americans had vowed to provide a large gift.
A feud ignited over what financial obligations were to be fulfilled. The white committee members insisted that no property would be officially transferred until the beneficiaries fulfilled their “moral obligation” to make good on all pledges up to the proposed sum of $1,100. After much discussion, a compromise of $500 ($400, according to Fredericksburg Baptist Church accounts) was reached between the two parties. According to the church minutes taken on February 3, 1856:
Resolved, that we shall still consider our coloured brethren as part of our church and feel it to be our duty as well as pleasure to aid them in any way we can to build up the cause of our divine master and to secure to them the peaceable occupancy of the house they now worship, with all the privileges as a branch of our church which the laws of our state extend to them.
As was often the case during this period, the Caucasian majority frequently took a paternalistic approach to its African American neighbors who were less rooted in recognition of equality and more rooted in the moral obligation to assist those souls held in bondage. Additionally, whites often perceived blacks, especially slaves, to be both ignorant and living in a state of irreligion. In their minds, even slave owners were answering the call to “go forth and make disciples of all nations,” which included those who they ironically deprived of the ability to read and write. In essence, the denial of an education in any form prevented blacks from getting out from under the intellectual shadow of the white population.
Racism obviously posed a conflict of conscience for many practicing Christians, as the very same people offering spiritual nurturing to their “coloured brethren” were often slave owners themselves. This represented a paradoxical relationship that existed between devout believers and their servants. The majority of whites appeared to have been benevolent at best about racial equality. Many citizens, even those who opposed the institution of slavery, still did not consider the black population to be equal. To some, the path to freedom for blacks meant colonization. To others, slavery had been ordained by their personal interpretations of Biblical scripture.
However, white supremacy was not embraced by all of Fredericksburg’s citizens. A local Presbyterian woman named Mary B.M. Blackford recorded the hypocrisy that she witnessed during worship as well as one minister’s efforts to seek colonization for freed blacks. She wrote:
[Slave traders] have been using the town jail for their purpose, though it is expressly contrary to law, there being no one possessed of moral courage enough to go forward to have this abuse corrected. The town jail faces the Presbyterian Church and I have sat there during the preaching and looked out at the innocent prisoners peeping through the iron bars, and have thought that they were kept there for the crime of designing to be free and to return to those God commanded them to protect and care for. The words would occur to me as I looked around on the worshippers in the Church, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke.” At the time when my heart was weighed down by watching each day the progress made in building the brick wall that was around the negro jail spoken of above where guiltless prisoners were to be immured, and I looked around in vain for a remedy. (My dear husband did all he could do to stop it.) I was called to the door to see a plain looking country gentleman who wished to see Mr. Blackford on business. I told him Mr. B. would soon be at home and asked him to be seated. On entering into conversation with him, I discovered he had been directed by the good and holy man Father Kobler (a Methodist Preacher) to get advice from my husband as to the steps necessary to be taken to procure a passage to Liberia for a young woman, the only Slave he possessed. He told that he was about to remove with his family to Illinois, and he wished to give her her freedom and every advantage. He could have gotten, he told me, four hundred dollars for her in the neighborhood. This act of disinterestedness cheered me; it was the green spot in the moral desert I had been wandering through. I thank God for showing me just then that there were some who felt for the oppressed; it cheered and refreshed my spirits, and I can better bear to witness the progress of the jail, though I trust I shall never be hardened to such sights. The young woman who was liberated by the gentleman…was sent to town to the care of the Female Colonization Society, and was sent to Liberia by them under the protection of some missionaries who were going to that place. Along with her we sent another freed girl manumitted by Mr. Morton.*
Read entire chapter (*copy continues on page 6 of pdf)