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Reminiscences of the First African Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
By the Pastor
From American Baptist Memorialindex, 1855

Chapter 1

THE congregation of the First Baptist Church had long been too extensive for its house of worship. That house, which was constructed in the olden time, and was devised for use, not for show, had been added to again and again, but was still too strait for its occupants. A peculiar feature in the congregation, was the great increase of its colored members, who seemed anxious to hear, and whose apartment was packed to its utmost, on all the ordinary occasions of worship. To build a house large enough to hold both classes of attendants, crowded as they already were, in a house of wide dimensions, seemed unwise, especially as no room would be left for increase. Moreover some very fastidious people did not like to resort to a church where so many colored folks congregated, and this was thought to operate against the growth of the white portion of' the audience. The discipline and culture of the colored people, too, were felt by the pastor to be a heavy burden to his mind, requiring more time and attention than he could give them, and yet satisfy the expectations of the whites. After long and mature consultation, it was decided to build a new and more tasteful edifice for the whites, and to dispose of the old one to the blacks, for their exclusive accommodation. This was done by a generous relinquishment of a part of its appraised value by the whites, and a noble and successful effort of the blacks to raise $3,500, with interest to the time of payment, for the purchase of the remainder.(1) In the month of October, 1841, the beautiful house, now occupied by the First Baptist Church, was dedicated to the worship of God, and the congregation, relieved of its incubus, increased rapidly under the able ministry of the Rev. J. B. Jeter. At the same time, the African Church, with a new organization, and a new enrolment of names, took possession of the vacated house, and soon filled it to overflowing. As the writer was chosen to officiate in the pastoral relation with the entire concurrence of both the whites, who stood in the position of guardians to the new enterprise, and of the blacks, who were to be ministered unto, and as he has since that period regularly labored to discharge the duties of that relation, it bas seemed to him to be worth while to give a rapid sketch of the history of the church, with some reminiscences of his interesting association with its members.

The constitution of the African Church, was so formed as to modify, in some degree, the democratic elements of the regular Baptist churches, and to make its government rather more presbyterial than congregational. This was deemed essential to the judicious control of so large a mass of persons, many of whom could scarcely be judged competent to the task of government. Indeed, with the then existing size of the body, and still more with its present augmented size, deliberative meetings would have been impracticable. In the event of a doubtful vote, it would have consumed the best part of the evening to count the voters. Accordingly, the government of the church, was vested in the pastor and thirty deacons, chosen by the church, from its most experienced members. These deacons are scattered over the city, and are expected to exercise a general supervision in their respective districts. They have thus far managed the affairs of the church, perplexing and complicated though they have often been, with consummate judgment and fidelity, oftentimes exhibiting an insight into ecclesiastical polity that would have honored heads more reputed for wisdom. Should their decisions at any time be felt to be grievous by the great body of members, or by any individual who may be subject to discipline; provision is made for calling together the committee of twenty-four, appointed by the First Church and for laying before them the matters in dispute. Their decision is to be final. Such, however, has been the general harmony of the thirty deacons, and such the acknowledged justice of their proceedings, that only in two cases, have appeals been made to the twenty-four, and in both instances the decisions of the colored brethren were unanimously confirmed. The meetings of the church (i. e. the deacons) for business, are held on the afternoon of the first Sunday in each month; the pastor presiding and making a minute of the doings. These he afterwards records carefully in a large book kept for the purpose. Reports of committees, the exclusion and restoration of members, their dismission to; and reception from other churches, a record of deaths, together with all the temporal interests of the church, constitute the numerous items of business in their meetings. This is no inconsiderable part especially if the clerkship be taken into the account, of the labor and care of the pastor, and it would be a wise economy of time, if a reliable brother could be found to relieve him of a portion of this burden. The most important committees, are, on the finances, on the premises, on letting out the house, on the private debts of the members, and on charities for the poor. These make quarterly reports of their receipts and disbursements, and manage their respective departments with great accuracy and success. In all the pecuniary trusts and business transactions which they have had to manage (and they all come under my supervision) I have not yet discovered one instance of an attempt to defraud or palpable negligence of duty, or of a want of competence to the office assumed. The man who comes among them, expecting to find things at odds and ends, and who, in his fancied; wisdom, regards them as a set of simpletons, will very quickly transfer the charge of folly from them to himself.

On registering the names of the members already attached to the First Baptist Church, who agreed to join the separate interest, the number was found to be nine hundred and forty. Since that period, the baptisms of each year have been as follows:


From Oct., 1841, to  
 	1842,   618 		1849,  185 
	1843,   388 		1850,  173 
	1844,    71		1851,  l51 
	1845,   101 		1852,   72  
	1846,   321 		1853,   54 
	1847,   170 		1854,   62  
	1848,    37  
To July 10, 			1855,   42 
                     Total           2,382

If this number be added to that which entered into the first constitution, it would make an aggregate of 3,322. But the deaths, exclusions and dismissions have reduced the present size of the church, according to the best estimate I can form, to 2,650. If there be any inaccuracy in this statement, it is due to the fact that some members may have removed from the city without dismission, and others may have died without being reported; events which I have endeavored to guard against, but which, from the circumstances of the case, it was impossible wholly to prevent. It is believed, however that there is no material error in the estimate above given.

The question may arise, on reviewing these statistics, why has not the church increased of late, in the same ratio, as at the beginning? The answer is, in part, this; the house is generally filled with professing Christians, and there is not the same material out of which additions can be made. It has seemed also, desirable, that special efforts should be made to edify and confirm so large a body of avowed believers, and this conviction has given its appropriate bias to the teachings of the pulpit of late years. Long and attentive observation has deepened my impression of the importance of extreme caution in receiving this class of people into our churches. They should be instructed with great patience, made to feel the danger of self-delusion, and impressed with a deep sense of the responsibility of a profession of religion. While other pastors have been urging their auditors to the courage of openly confessing Christ, I have deemed it my duty to throw obstacles in the way of mine, by holding up the dangers of a premature confession, using my best efforts meanwhile to familiarize to their minds the distinctive doctrine of the gospel, and to encourage them to trust in the divine promises. Each applicant for baptism is required to converse first with a deacon and to obtain his approval. He is then expected to bring from his master, if he is in bondage, a testimonial of his general propriety of conduct, or of his recent improvement in that respect. (2) He is then carefully examined by the pastor in relation to his views of doctrine, his experience of evangelical truth and his purposes of future consecration to God. I have observed a gradual change for the better in the congregation with regard to experimental piety. They have less superstition, less re1iance on dreams and visions, they talk less of the palpable guidings of the Spirit as independent of or opposed to the word of God. They have less of the "I am right because I know I am right" feeling. They are more ready than formerly to give a reason of the hope that is in them with meekness and fear. In a word, I perceive a growing disposition among them to consult and to obey the revealed will of the Master, and to subject their pretensions to the unerring test "By their fruits ye shall know them." After all, I may be asked, "Do you be1ieve that all your communicants are really born from above?" Alas! for the evil days on which we have fallen! What pastor can extend the charity of hope, even to every individual of a numerous charge? There were sad delinquents among the apostles of Christ and the earliest churches. And yet, when we take into account the character of these people, the scantiness of their privileges, and the weakness of public sentiment among them as a restraint on their passions, the wonder is, that so many of them are enabled to endure to the end. I believe as large a proportion of those who hear among them, receive the truth, and as large a proportion of the baptized among them, maintain a consistent life, as among the whites, especially of similar opportunities for spiritual culture. To indulge a contrary opinion would be a reflection on the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth, would be an impeachment of that infinitely lovely and loving One, who is " no respecter of persons. And if we have to make the most liberal deduction from the number of those who have professed conversion, yet the residue would exhibit a most encouraging degree of success. Of the 2382, baptized since Oct., 1841, three-fourths, one half, or even one-third, proving genuine converts, would justify the exclamation, " what hath God wrought!" I do not, for a moment, however, entertain the idea that such a discount is necessary. I rejoice in the persuasion, that the sustaining grace of God has triumphed, and will triumph in the eternal glorification of a large majority of these priceless souls, and that in a world where neither birth, nor color, nor wealth, nor station, nor social position, nor intellectual polish, but only moral excellence will be esteemed, hundreds of them will be raised to the highest seats of honor, and will illustrate through advancing ages, the beauty of holiness and the unsearchable love of God. What a privilege it is for a poor sinner to be allowed, in the smallest degree, to aid, instrumentally, in effecting so blessed a result! Who is sufficient for these things?

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Endnotes

1. The citizens of Richmond, also contributed $2,750, so that the house cost $3,252.

2. As a specimen of these testimonials, I subjoin one at hand.
                             RICHMOND, July 6th, 1855.
Rev. Robert Ryland,
Dear Sir: -- My woman, Clarissa Hill, has expressed a wish to unite herself in Christian communion with the church of which you are the acting minister. She is a most faithful servant, and one, of whom it affords me pleasure to say, that I believe she endeavors to conform to the great principles of her faith, and I believe she will be an exemplary and honorable member of your church, should you think proper to receive her as such. She has belonged to me for sixteen years, during which time her conduct has been most unexceptionably moral, and therefore; I cheerfully consent, to her being baptized and admitted to your communion.
Very respectfully, &c.,
C.S.M.

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[Taken from American Baptist Memorial, 1855, pp. 262-265. The author does not identify himself in these essays; he merely writes "By the Pastor." In the letter above and in the "Resolutions" in chapter three his name is given as Rev. Robert Ryland. - Scanned and formatted by Jim Dvuall.]



Chapter 2 of this History
Bio of Robert Ryland
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