First Baptist Church
Pastor: Rev. Ronnie Parker
309 East Clay Street
In the pre-Civil War era many slaves attended services with their masters. At first they were required to sit in the balconies while their masters sat in the pews below. As the Civil War neared they often had to worship in separate services, which by state law had to be under the authority of a white pastor. This was not a happy arrangement because, as documented in the book Slave Religion, the owners wanted sermons that emphasized the duty of servants to their masters while slaves preferred sermons about Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.
After the Civil War, the situation became more strained. As the following excerpt by Schaeffer shows, the white majority developed a feeling of revulsion towards the former slaves, and gradually the black members left the white churches. (This is pointed out both in the article by Donald and the book, What Mean These Stones?) The newly freed slaves, being both illiterate and ignorant of the larger world, usually held services in private homes but were not in a position to organize their own churches.
The early days of the First Baptist Church are not well documented. For example, we do not know the religious backgrounds of the early members. Since most of the white citizens of the area were Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian, we assume that the early members had attended those churches.
The founding of the church is definitely related to one man: Captain Charles Schaeffer, 1830 – 1899, a twice-wounded, deeply religious Union Army officer from Germantown, Pa. He had worked closely with local blacks doing mission work in Philadelphia prior to the war and recognized them as human beings who had been kept in ignorance by society. He enlisted in the Union Army as a private and rapidly rose to a commissioned rank. He fought in the battles of Antietam and the Wilderness as well as in a number of smaller battles. After the war, he became an officer in the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands and was sent to Christiansburg, Va., to work with the relief effort for those whose lives had been wrecked by the war, both white and black. As the following excerpt shows, he had no success working with the poor whites, so he turned his energies toward working with the blacks.
Schaeffer’s work was dangerous. There was at least one serious assassination attempt against him. After that failed attempt, he moved his office to the hotel where he was living but had to move again when a white mob threatened to burn down the hotel because of his presence.
TStained Glass Windowhe Freedmen Bureau ended in 1872, but Schaeffer remained in Christiansburg and worked with the freed slaves with support from northern churches. He was deeply interested in education and worked to develop schools for adults and children. His main success in education was the formation of Christiansburg Institute in 1866. In the 1890′s the institute was in serious financial trouble, and he gave control of the Institute to the main supporter, the Friends’ Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia. The Association insisted that all teachers be black, causing both Schaeffer and his wife to lose their jobs. Later, Booker T. Washington was asked to reorganize and supervise the Institute, which he did from a distance until his death in 1915.
Early in his career Schaeffer became a Baptist minister and founded the Christiansburg church now known as Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church. When other groups of former slaves wanted to organize churches, he helped them form Baptist churches. Eventually, he established twenty churches in the region from Smyth County to Roanoke County.
One of the churches formed by Schaeffer was the African BColored Baptist Checkaptist Church in Blacksburg, which later changed its name to the Colored First Baptist Church and finally to the First Baptist Church. When the Blacksburg church had financial difficulties, Schaeffer agreed to be responsible for the debt and came to the church as a supply pastor, preaching one Sunday each month. He insisted that his small salary be applied to the church debt instead of being paid to him. He worked to train the congregation in financial management and helped the church work its way out of debt.
The church was organized in 1874, and the current church property was deeded to the church in 1876. The first frame building was constructed in 1879. In 1943 a cinder block building was built over the foundation of the frame building. In 1986 the cinder block walls were covered with brick.
Donald, Christopher, “Growth and Independence of Methodist Congregations in Blacksburg, a Virginia Town,” Smithfield Review, Volume X, 2006.
Harrison, Charles H., The Story of a Consecrated Life, Commemorative of Rev. Charles S. Schaeffer, Brevet-Captain U. S. V., J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. 1900. Book can be read free at http://archive.org/details/storyofconsecrat00harr
Raboteau, Albert J., Slave Religion, Oxford University Press, New York. 1978.
Smith, James Wesley and Amanda Edwin DeHart, Christiansburg Institute, A Proud Heritage. Webster Publishing Company. Petersburg, Va.
Taylor, Charles Lewis, What Mean These Stones? A History of the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. Blacksburg, Virginia. 2013.
Conversation with Rev. Purcell Barrett, former pastor of First Baptist Church.