A church divided over slavery, and Fredericksburg’s first house of worship for African Americans

From John Hennessy:

One of the great things about Fredericksburg’s history is that local stories often reflect vividly on the national experience.  More than most communities, our local history reverberates across a national landscape. The battles fought here are obvious examples, but so too are more subtle, obscure stories (all of which we’ll write about in the future): the activities in Fredericksburg of the American Colonization Society, the constant quest for the mainspring to economic success, the slave trade as practiced by Aler and Finnall, and the turmoil in the Methodist Church hereabouts. The experience of the Methodist Church here in the decades before the Civil War is a vivid reflection of a nation and community in upheaval.

The three Methodist Churches of Fredericksburg.

Two obscure facts about Methodists in Fredericksburg:

– At various times between 1841 and 1860, there were THREE Methodist congregations in Fredericksburg whose churches stood within a four-block area of town.

– The first exclusively black church in Fredericksburg (at least so far as I have been able to determine) was not the African Baptist Church on Sophia Street (today Shiloh Old Site), but a Methodist Church located at what is today 523 George Street.

Therein lies a story or two.As Bill Mann discusses in his recent article in the Journal of Fredericksburg History (a yearly publication full of interesting stuff on Fredericksburg, published by Historic Fredericksburg Foundation), the first Methodist Church in town was built in 1821 on George Street, in the neighborhood known then and now as Liberty Town. The building was apparently as flimsy as the congregation itself–a “low-roofed shanty built of planks” without an organ and populated by a congregation “mostly poor and ignorant” (so said Moncure Conway, a member) whose women wore “drab gowns and Quakerized bonnets.”

The church’s pastor, John Kobler, had greater aspirations, and by 1841 had managed to see to the construction of a new church on Hanover Street–on the site of the current church. In moving to their new digs, the church’s 141 white members turned over the old church to the congregation’s black membership, and thus Fredericksburg’s first all-black church was born.

The Liberty Town church for African-Americans would survive less than a decade (no image of it survives).  In February 1850 the place burned down, and Fredericksburg’s black Methodists were re-integrated into what had become two white congregations.

The Methodist Church South on George Street--torn down after 1888 and today the site of BB&T Bank.

That by 1850 there were two white Methodist congregations in Fredericksburg was a reflection of an important reality about ante-bellum Fredericksburg: townspeople’s views on slavery were anything but monolithic, and while the town was clearly intimately involved in slavery and the slave trade, there was much discomfort with that fact. Methodists had something of an anti-slavery tradition, and within the Fredericksburg church debate raged.  Historian S.J. Quinn wrote that “the difference became so marked and the feeling so bitter, that the parties could no longer worship together.”  The pro-slavery, or Southern Methodists, withdrew from the Hanover Street congregation in 1846. For several years they worshiped on the second story of Town Hall. But by 1852, they had built themselves a new, handsome church at the corner of George and Charles Streets.

The debate among the Methodists produced some telling rhetoric from local Southern Methodists that conveys vividly a dominant and determined view of slavery in Fredericksburg (and elsewhere in the South).

In 1860, local Southern Methodists, “living as we do in the midst of the Institution of Slavery–many of us being Slaveholders, and all of us to a greater or less extent involved in it, and being enabled by our position to observe its practical workings,”rejected arguments against the buying and selling of slaves. “We believe that circumstances may exist rendering it eminently right and merciful to buy or sell slaves,” and that keeping slaves “is imposed as an obligation and duty on the master by the Golden rule itself.” The members of the George Street church labeled emancipation a “sin against God” because, they said, it would place “our negroes…necessarily at the mercy of those–North or South–who would show them no favor.”  The local resolutions offered a familiar argument for the benevolence of slavery: “it brings [slaves] under the saving influence of the gospel.” The Fredericksburg church rejected those who called slaveholding “sinful under any and all circumstances” and opposed calls to make it a requirement for all members to be non-slaveholders.  [From the Fredericksburg Weekly Advertiser, July 21, 1860.]

War would not discriminate in weighing heavily on both of the Fredericksburg’s Methodist congregations. The Hanover Street church was severely damaged by bombardment and its use as a hospital. The George Street church likewise was used as a hospital–in fact is one of four buildings in Fredericksburg that can be definitively linked to Clara Barton. War also ultimately resolved the debate over slavery, and in the aftermath the Methodist Churches North and South reunited on the present site.  The George Street church survived until after 1888, when it was torn down to build a residence. Today the BB&T Bank is on the site.

The site of the original Methodist Church on George Street–the first Black church in Fredericksburg–is today occupied by a utility building.

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