Sacred Places Winter 2021 - Page 4

The Sound of a Bell And the Whisper of History by Gianfranco Grande

Executive Vice President Partners for Sacred Places
The Story of the First Baptist Church

The history of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg , Va . took me by surprise . As often happens in our lives , you get up in the morning , unaware that a call on that particular day , at that particular time , will stir your passion , interest , curiosity . You end up discovering a story that will make you a better person — a richer one . You could call it synchronicity .

In 1776 , a group of enslaved and free Blacks , led by a free Black itinerant preacher , the Rev . Moses , built a brush arbor to provide some shelter for their worship together . However , this site was not convenient for everyone , so they decided to move a couple of miles away to a better site . As Dr . Tommy L . Bogger reports in his Since 1776 : The History of First Baptist Church , “ Shortly afterward , Mr . Jesse F . Cole heard the fervent prayers and soul stirring songs of these people and was so moved that he decided to give them a better meeting place . Thus , he gave them the use of his carriage house in Williamsburg , just fifty yards from his home .” Jesse F . Cole was a slaveholder .
Later , moved by the devotion and commitment of the church ’ s early adherents , Cole gave land and a building to them , “ to have and to hold as long as it was used for a church by the congregation .” After the death of the Reverend Moses in 1791 , Gowan Pamphlet ( 1748-1809 ), an enslaved man , was called to guide the congregation , and under his leadership the congregation gained admission to the Dover Baptist Association in 1793 .
The call on that day was from Ms . Connie Matthews Harshaw , President of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation , a nonprofit group whose mission is , I learned that day , “ to preserve and protect the First Baptist Church historic building , landscape , freedom bell and other artifacts of historical significance .” The call was the first one of several which told me an amazing story .
ABOVE : The bell , manufactured by Blymyer Norton & Co . in the 1880s . Photo : Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
RIGHT : The new church on Scotland Street built in 1956 . Photo : Let Freedom Ring Foundation