The Beginings of a Church

THE HISTORY OF FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH OF FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA

In the late 18th century, a new religious movement was starting known as the Restoration Movement. Many of the ideas were not new but were brought here from Europe. In England and Scotland, a group called the Haldanes which derived its name from two brothers, James and Robert, were advocating the return to the principles of the first century church. Because of the sparse population on the frontier, the old denominations were not serving the needs of the people. The need for unity was great and the question was, “Why can’t there be one church as there was in the first century?”, “What is so different now that we still cannot be one in our faith?”

Several ministers felt that this was the way the church should be. They started to work within their various denominational organizations to go back to the Bible — “no creeds but Christ, no book, but the Bible” — restore the church of the first century. In 1810, an organization to work within the established church structure was formed called the Christian Association. The denominational leaders would not agree to these concepts and started expelling these ‘radicals’ from their denominations. It is important to note that this movement did not start to create “another church” but only restore the original doctrine and beliefs as found in the Bible.

Although there were many ministers from various backgrounds involved, the four most notable leaders in the restoration movement were Barton W. Stone (Presbyterian), Walter Scott (Presbyterian), Thomas Campbell (Presbyterian), and his son, Alexander Campbell. The reason these are considered so important is that they were men of letters and more is known of their work. Some other ministers involved in the Restoration Movement were John T. Johnson (Baptist), James O’Kelly (Methodist), Abner Jones (Baptist), Elias Smith (Baptist), and the colorful Raccoon John Smith (Baptist). By the late 1820’s and early 1830’s, it was apparent that the established churches were not going to permit the restoration movement to use their pulpits to preach the philosophy of “no book but the Bible; no creed but Christ”. In an article written by Thomas Campbell in 1831 he stated, “Bother George Adams, pastor-elect of the Fredericksburg Baptist, is becoming a Reformer and fast preaching reformation.” Alexander Campbell while on a tour of Virginia had visited Fredericksburg in 1831.

Tension and dissension arose in the Fredericksburg Baptist Church as the results of the new pastor’s convictions. In 1832, a number of the regular Baptists separated from the Reformers. They charged the Reformers with departing from the faith and being “Campbellites”. These accusations and the crisis that arose, caused the Reformers and Baptists to sever their fellowship and have a misunderstanding over who was to use the church building. For a while the Reformers used the church and the Baptists went to the courts to regain their property. A hearing was held and the Baptists went back to their old church and the Reformers withdrew.

The Reformed Baptist Church of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was organized on the last Sunday in January 1833, when a group of fifteen people met at the home of Alexander and Susan Walker to celebrate Communion. The Walker’s home was located on Caroline Street. This small group of “Reformed Baptists” was the beginning of the restoration movement in Fredericksburg. The church was constituted “upon the statutes and laws of Christ and His Apostles, as laid down in the New Testament.” At this meeting, Robert B. Fife and Abner Leitch were appointed to be the first elders.

During the summer of 1833, a neat brick meeting house was erected on the grounds of an old theater that had stood at 1115 Caroline Street. The original deed recorded in Deed Book J, page 224, for lot 32, dated April 19, 1833, was issued to the trustees for the Reformed Baptist. The Church building was erected by Mr. Robert C. Bruce, a local contractor and an elder in the church. The congregation was so full of enthusiasm the $2,000 of the necessary $2,500 was raised in the first year. This original building served the church well for the first 129 years of its history.

The congregation grew to thirty-six members by October 1833 when Alexander Campbell, son of Thomas Campbell, preached at the church. This was the first of several times the leader of the restoration movement preached at the Fredericksburg church. The pulpit Bible used by him at some the later services and the old communion set consisting of two goblets, two bread plates, and the wine pot, have been preserved and are on display in the Fellowship Classroom at the current church.

In the early 1840’s there were five churches in Fredericksburg — one Episcopal, one Presbyterian, one Methodist, one Baptist, and one Reformed Baptist. During 1843, the church was split by the influence of Dr. John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians. Although no Christadelphia Church was ever established in the Fredericksburg area, a considerable number of the Fredericksburg congregation was influenced by Thomas and the church was disastrously injured. The church was very weak throughout the antebellum period, but did hold together largely by its pastor, George W. Eve, a leading Fredericksburg carriage manufacturer.

The Civil War Years

In 1861, after the beginning of the Civil War, the congregation disbanded. Some members entered the Southern Army and some moved to other sections of the country. During the war the church building was used as a hospital and suffered extensive damage during the Battle of Fredericksburg. After the war, a claim was filed for the damage and in about 1899, the church received $1,700.

After the war, the building was used as a warehouse for hay and grain. Later the City of Fredericksburg used the church as a school. Legend has it that the church was used by an Afro-American woman called Happy Jenny as a mission. The majority of those attending were white. Happy Jenny was assisted by a young girl called Cadet Ella in her meetings.

The Restoration Movement had taken the name of Christian churches, although there were those who wanted to be called Disciples of Christ, others wanted to go by the name of Church of Christ and others used a variety of names. The Christian Church did not split over the war between the states as most denominations did but after the war there were problems residual to the conflict. These involved the name of the church, the use of the instrumental music, church support organizations, and publications of the church. In 1906, the non instrumental brethren requested that a U.S. special census consider them as a separate body and referred to themselves as Church of Christ. This caused some confusion as some instrument using churches were also called Church of Christ and refused to change their names. None were desirous of being called a denomination.

After the Civil War through the 1890’s the church at Fredericksburg was unsuccessful in becoming reorganized. In 1897, Reverend Rutledge and a Mr. Robert McCauley, from the Berea Christian Church in Spotsylvania County came to help reorganize the congregation and in 1898, the Virginia Christian Missionary Society became interested in the work and sent Reverend Cephas Shellburne to reorganize the church. Reverend Shellburnes tayed two years and the church began to move forward. Reverend Shellburne was succeeded by several other pastors who stayed only for short periods of time but the church continued to grow. Some of the other ministers were Reverend Farrer, Reverend Motley P. A. Cave, Chestnutt, H. D. Coffey, Howard Kruse, Phillips, Bradford E. R. Perry (grandfather of H. H. Newman), J. T. T. Huntley, and Pettit Coffey. At some point in time during this period the church became known as the Main Street Christian Church.

Early 20th Century

In October of 1912, the Sunday School was reorganized which was followed by establishing a Missionary Society in 1913. The Pastor’s Aid Society, later named the Pastor’s Club, was formed in 1928. The Pastor’s Aid Society gave money to the pastor’s salary and assisted with other expenses of the minister.

In 1927, Reverend Hunter H. Newman, a recent graduate of Lynchburg College, Lynchburg, Virginia, was called as the pastor. The centennial year of the church, 1933, saw three new Bible School classrooms added to the back of the building. A special Centennial Commemoration was held with the guest speaker being a former minister, Reverend Motley. Another three rooms were added in 1938 to the left side of the building and two more rooms were added to the right side in 1947. Memorial windows were installed in 1952. These windows were later moved to the church on Washington Avenue.

Late 20th Century

Though Reverend Newman’s uniting efforts, the church grew to a membership of over five hundred and the Sunday School consisted of ten classes. As attendance grew, plans were being laid for expansion. Several years passed as meetings were held and ideas exchanged as to what would be the best course to take. Finally, in November 1956, the congregation voted to purchase a site at the corner of Washington Avenue and Pitt Street, now known as 1501 Washington Avenue.

On January 7, 1962, church officials along with the Mayor of Fredericksburg, attended the ground breaking services at the new site. The new church was designed by Mr. Francis C. Welton, an architect from Richmond, Virginia, and was built by Mr. Hiter D. Carr, a Fredericksburg contractor, at the cost of $172,000. The church steeple is 110 feet. On October 1, 1962, the congregation under the new name of the First Christian Church began meeting in the basement of the new building and in November started holding regular services in the sanctuary.

Reverend Newman announced his resignation due to ill health in July of 1964 after serving the church for thirty-seven years. During his ministry at Fredericksburg Reverend Newman had served on the Board of the Virginia Christian Missionary Society and as its president. He also had been the President of the State Convention of the Disciples of Christ in Virginia in 1953. He also had received the Lynchburg College Alumni Association’s Thomas Gibson Hobbs Award for his long service at Fredericksburg.

The national organizational meeting of the Christian church was alternately known as the International Convention of Christian Churches, the International Convention of the Disciples of Christ, and the International Convention of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). In an attempt to refocus the Christian Churches the Centennial Convention at Des Moines created a commission to try to unify the Restoration Movement. There were three basic groups. One did not believe that there should be any organization above the local congregation and strict interpretation of the scriptures known at the Rightist. A second group believed that the Restoration Movement had been to unify the Church and everyone was free to believe what he or she wanted and they were known as the Leftist. The third group believed in a unity plea based on the Bible and a willingness to cooperate with other churches while maintaining local autonomy. This group was referred to as the Centrist. The Rightist had basically withdrawn with the 1906 creation of the Church of Christ. Strong differences were being expresses between the Leftist and Centrist groups. Some Centrist had already withdrawn and were called independent Christian Churched. They did have an annual meeting known as the North American Christian Convention that had exhibitions of materials and church related activities and a preaching session but not a church business session.

On March 1, 1965, Reverend E. Elwood Campbell began a ministry at First Christian Church. During Reverend Campbell’s ministry, the church continued to grow and held the respect of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in Virginia. The Virginia convention of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) was held at First Christian Church of Fredericksburg in 1966 and 1976.

In 1982 – 1983 while celebrating its 150th anniversary, a new building project to add additional office space, classrooms and an elevator was begun. Reverend Campbell resigned his ministry effective December 1991 as a result of his health.

Gary Staddan arrived in November of 1992 to assume the senior minister’s work. First Christian remained active in the state and national Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) activities even though there were some concerns with the national headquarters’ activities in socio-political affairs. The church became a supporting church of the Disciple Renewal organization in May 1993, and attended the National Conference in July of 1994 sending five delegates. The report of the delegates caused more concerns in the congregation and in November efforts were begun to determine if the National Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) and the First Christian Church of Fredericksburg with its local congregation autonomy were in philosophical agreement.

In May, 1994, the congregation voted to sever its affiliation with the Disciples of Christ but remained within the restoration movement. The reasons for this change can be tracked back to the original declaration that the church would be founded “upon the statutes and laws of Christ and His Apostles, as laid down in the New Testament”. The Disciples of Christ’s denominational tendencies that had emerged after their restructure in the 1960s and philosophical differences that had evolved over the last several years concerning the origin of the scriptures, the uniqueness of Jesus as the Savior and the mission of the church in the world.