First African Baptist Church
On a June evening in 1780, Joshua Morris conducted a prayer meeting at the home of John Franklin at Carrington and Pink Streets and at the home of Mrs. Miller located on 18th and Venable Streets in Richmond. 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. In 1786, Morris sold his Richmond property and went west. He was succeeded by John Courtney, who was known as “Father Courtney” and who was respected as a humble and courageous pastor. He supported his family by working as a carpenter, receiving no salary from the church. In 1798, the Courtneys built their first house of worship, which was located on Cary Street, between Second and Third Streets. Dr. Phillip Turpin presented the congregation with a new site in 1802 located at the intersection of what is now Fourteenth and Broad Streets. The congregation, which consisted of white, free coloreds, and slaves, kept growing rapidly. The church remained at this location until 1956 when it moved into its current location at Norwood and Hanes Avenue.
The women of the church formed the Female Missionary Society in 1813, the first in Virginia and the second in the south. The second missionary organization begun in the church by a Deacon named William Crane who came down from Newark, New Jersey to open up a shoe store in 1812. His concern for African American men and women led him to establish a school for slaves, which enrolled twenty young men. Students met three evenings each week to learn subjects such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and the Bible. Two of his students, Lott Cary and Collin Teague, purchased their freedom and dedicated themselves to the African missions; they sailed to Liberia in 1821 on the first colonization ship.
On July 1, 1841 members of three Baptist churches in Richmond met at the First Baptist Church. This important meeting led to the adoption of “The African Baptist Church of Richmond,” with several stipulations. The first stipulation was that all the “colored” members of the Baptist Churches in the city who were willing to unite in the plan would be organized into a body to be known as The African Baptist Church of Richmond. The second stipulation was that thirty Deacons would be appointed from among the most experienced members of the body. The third stipulation stated that the Baptist churches of Richmond would annually appoint a committee of twenty-four white members to superintend the religious instruction and discipline of the African Church. The final stipulation was that meetings for the public must be held during daytime and that the pastor would be selected by a committee and would be white Baptist minister of good standing in the denomination.
These stipulations lasted only a few years as Rev. James H. Holmes became the first African American pastor of First African Baptist Church in 1867, following the end of the Civil War. Rev. Holmes served as pastor of the church for the next for 34 years. The old church was torn down a few years later, and the basement of the new church was dedicated in October 1877. By the following year 1,100 persons were added to the church roles and baptized in the new church. On November 25, 1900, Rev. Homes passed away from a brief illness, and on September 1, 1901, Rev. William Thomas Johnson became pastor of the First African Baptist Church. He served the longest pastorate in the church’s history, 41 years, before his untimely death in 1942.
At First African Baptist Church there is a Sunday morning worship service and Sunday school. During these services, prayer, scripture readings, hymns, offering, and sermons are the typical program. The Lord’s Supper takes place on every Second Sunday, Youth Day every third Sunday, Baptism every fourth Sunday, and Baby Dedication every Fifth Sunday. Currently, ninety-five percent of the congregation is African American; others attend service primarily on special occasions. The average attendance for a Sunday morning worship service is approximately 1,000. There are additional activities that are planned throughout the week, including Bible study and Prayer & Praise meetings. The congregants of First African Baptist celebrate the traditional holidays of Easter, Palm Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
The First African Baptist has a variety of outreach activities. The Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention helps churches extend their Christian witness around the globe. The church contributes to health related prevention, restoration, reproduction, and alleviation programs as well as poverty; women’s empowerment; Building Civil Societies; and Discipleship, Leadership, and Development programs.
First African Baptist Church
2700 Hanes Avenue
Richmond, VA 23222
Profile prepared by Sheronda Peoples