Grove Avenue Baptist Church
In 1817, Benjamin Harris named a large area of land in what is now downtown Richmond “ Sydney.” Until 1854 many Sydney residents attended First Baptist Church, which was located twelve blocks from the closest resident of the Sydney area. Because of the distance and lack of transportation, prayer meetings were held at a member’s home in Sydney. These meetings developed into a Sunday school and, shortly thereafter, a lot was purchased on which a small wooden chapel was erected. The chapel became the “Sydney Section” of First Baptist Church. In 1868, the Sydney Section was officially dissolved and with the support of several of the local Baptist churches became the Sydney Baptist Church. The church grew slowly until 1883. In that year the 93 church members moved to the corner of Main and Harrison Streets for proximity to a trolley connection that made the church more accessible. The church was then renamed the West Main Street Baptist Church.
Seven years later the West Main Street Baptist Church had grown to 362 members, and the decision was made to sell the Main Street location and purchase a lot on Grove Avenue. The congregation voted to change its name and became the Grove Avenue Baptist Church. In less than ten years the church was destroyed by fire. The congregation rebuilt the church, and in 1921 they remodeled the building and added a new wing. Less than five years later the church was again ravaged by fire and was rebuilt once again. The congregation moved into its final home at the intersection of Parham and Ridge Roads, the highest hill in the greater Richmond area, in 1977. The new church’s sanctuary featured a 60 x 17 ft, 3-section stained glass window containing symbols from the life of Christ. The window remains one of the largest in the United States. The new church also included a library for spiritual growth or research and a media room for coordinating the church’s televised service. In 1998, the church began construction of an addition housing a 3- story educational wing for the Grove Avenue Baptist Christian School, a 2- story office and classroom complex, restoration of the gymnasium, an indoor play room containing a massive jungle gym purchased from Kings Dominion and a youth room designed to look like a 1950s style soda fountain
.There are two Sunday services performed by Grove Avenue, a Contemporary Service and a Traditional Service. The Contemporary Service is the first service of the morning and is structured for greater congregation involvement in the service. The Traditional Service is televised and involves three ministers and a choir of about fifty participants. The televised service follows a stricter schedule with the first 20 minutes for the choir and 30 minutes for the sermon. There is Sunday school for 2 year olds through fifth grade children during the Contemporary Service and a nursery for children under two years of age.
Grove Avenue Baptist Church is perhaps best known for its televised church service, the Victory Hour. By the 1950s the church was already broadcasting its service over the radio; televised services began in 1952. The history of the televised service began with Bryon Wilkinson and George Watkins. They revealed their ambitions to Wilbur Havens, the South’s first owner and operator of WTVR Channel 6. Havens had never worked with such a large choir and his crew didn’t want to work on Sundays, but when he was approached by NBC to air a live church program from New York, the first of its kind in the nation, he reconsidered the idea. He decided that he, not NBC, would choose the church program to be the first ever aired. His network considered building a church and bringing in a studio audience, but with NBC soon to air the program from New York, time was running out. On Thursday, January 10, 1952 Grove was asked to perform the following Sunday. Because the television station’s equipment could not be moved, the station built a church set inside the studio to be used for the broadcast. They settled on an abbreviated format of the one presented in church, allowing eighteen minutes for the choir and ten minutes for the pastor. The choir members and pastor would have to finish the traditional service at the church and then immediately go to the studio to record the televised version.
After fourteen years of this pattern, the pastor began to look into a better way to produce the program. WRVA Channel 12 had been building a reputation for recording and producing programming outside the studio, and because of the staff experience and mobility of their equipment, Channel 12 was selected. Along with the convenience of recording at the church, the pastor and Channel 12 eliminated the abbreviated service, allowing the televised portion to follow the regular one hour service. This new hour of religious television programming was named the Victory Hour. Many local TV stations began changing from black-and-white to color television in the early 1970s, and Grove Avenue Baptist Church was given a choice. Though the cost was significantly greater for color cameras and Grove would have to buy their own equipment, the pastor was adamant about keeping pace with the technology. After raising $70,000 dollars in thirty days from five donors, Grove now had a financial stake in its programming and production.
When the church moved from Grove Avenue to Ridge Road in 1976, camera space was incorporated into the new building. The Agape Tower was built to house the microwave transmitter, and audio and video systems were purchased and placed in the onsite TV control room. During this period the production management was changing as well. Most of the camera staff was replaced by volunteers from the church, but the station was still providing a director and engineer. In 1980, the church created a new position, a media minister, with the responsibility of organizing and managing the TV ministry. During the mid-1980s Channel 12 decided to only broadcast the Victory Hour and left the church solely in charge of production.
In 1992, the preacher who had led the church for twenty-six years announced his retirement, which raised concerns about the future of the Victory Hour. Questions arose regarding the television station’s and viewers’ willingness to support a change and how to handle the church’s aging studio equipment. Many believed the televised service was coming to its end. Within a year these problems had been resolved. In 2000, there was a complete overhaul of the church’s sound systems and relocation and rebuilding of the media room. The Victory Hour remains the church’s best modality for outreach, linking the church to individuals in homes, hospitals, and prisons. The program is broadcast on more than fifty television channels and is the longest running program of its kind in America.
8701 Ridge RoadRichmond, VA23229
Profile prepared by Whitney Shank