William L. Lumpkin is the author of a book titled “The History of the Middle District Baptist Association of Virginia 1784-1984”. The information on the history of Middle District found on our website is excerpts from his book.
He was the long time pastor of Freeman Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia. Having taught in college and seminary, participated in Virginia Baptist denominational life, and written extensively about the larger Baptist fellowship, he brings experience, competence, and sound judgment to this assignment.
Middle District’s present life is the cumulative total of thousands of individual experiences in the past. Dr. Lumpkin unveils for us the courageous contributions of Middle District leaders. The labors of such people as Eleazer Clay, Edward Baptist (founding father of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the University of Richmond), Luther Moore, William E. Hatcher, Nannie Bland David, J.G. Loving, and others offer instructions and challenges to us today.
The Middle District Baptist Association began as a geographical division of the General Association of the Separate Baptist in Virginia. The Separate Baptist movement in the South established itself first in north-central North Carolina as a result of the coming to that area in 1755 of a small colony of Baptist from Connecticut who themselves had been awakened spiritually in connection with the revivalism of English evangelist George Whitfield. From their center, established in 1755 at Sandy Creek, Randolph County, North Carolina, their evangelical movement spread into south-central Virginia by 1757. Coming out of a background in the Established (Congregational) Churches of New England, these Baptists had been denominated “Separates” when they separated from their former connection.
Twelve Virginia Separate churches, standing apart from other kinds of Baptists, organized their “General Association of the Separate Baptists in Virginia” in 1771. By 1776, seventy-four churches correspond with the General Association. Preoccupation with political issues surrounding the American Revolution hindered numerical and organizational growth between 1776 and 1782. Tentative steps toward administrative division were taken in 1776, when the General Association agreed to divide its territory into four districts, two south and two north of the James River.
At length, in 1783, the General Association resolved anew to proceed with the formation of “Upper “ and “Lower” Districts on the north side of the James River. At its organization the Upper District chose the name “Orange Association,” while the Lower District took the name “Dover Association.” This development left only the Lower District south of the James to organize, and this was done in 1784. When the churches of the Lower District came to think of the boundaries of their projected association, they had respect for the territory of the Kehukee Association. Thus, they chose “Middle District” as the name of their association, noting its area lay between the Henry District (Strawberry Association) on the west and the Kehukee on the east.
The area claimed by the Middle District included sixteen Virginia counties. Within this widespread territory were to be found some 36 Baptist churches in 1784, having an aggregate membership of around 3000 members. It is not certain that all of the churches affiliated with the Middle District in 1784. Several appear to have continued for a time with the Kehukee or the Henry District Associations. Five churches were to be found in Pittsylvania county, five in Lunenburg, three in Mecklenburg, seven in Halifax, three in Chesterfield, two in Buckingham, two in Charlotte, two in Powhatan, two in Prince Edward, and one each in Nottoway, Appomattox, Dinwiddie, Amelia and Campbell. The associational territory extended southward to the North Carolina line and westward to include Pittsylvania County.
Records of the first meeting of the Middle District Association have not been preserved. Even the precise timing of the meeting is unknown. However it is known that from its beginning the Association met semi-annually and that the second meeting was held at Rice’s Meeting-house, Prince Edward County, in May, 1785. Thus the initial meeting must have been held in the summer or autumn of 1784. Business of that meeting, beyond organizing the body, must have included the appointment of representatives to the meeting of the Baptist General Committee of Virginia. When the General Committee met in October 1784, representatives of the Middle District were in attendance.
Association and Division, 1784-1804
“A cold and wintry state” characterized the religious condition or Virginia at the origin of the Middle District, and that state persisted until 1787, when several churches reported revivals underway or beginning. There was also a minor quickening of spirit in a church or two reported in 1785.
The Baptist General Association of Virginia was dissolved and replaced in 1784 by a General Committee made up of delegates from the district associations. The Middle District did not stand-alone when it exhibited little interest in the General Committee, once implementation of laws guaranteeing religious liberty appeared assured. Many regarded the securing of this liberty as the single legitimate function of the General Committee.
Only fifteen delegates attended the May 1785, meeting of the Middle District Association. The business of that gathering related chiefly to state grievances. The subject under consideration in that connection was the interpretation of the dangerous Assessment Act, which then threatened to be written into the law of the State. This Act provided for a tax to be levied upon all “titheables” in Virginia for the support of the Christian religion. There was no question of where the Baptist of the Middle District stood, in view of their positive support of every action involving separation of church and state. In December 1785, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty was adopted by the General Assembly, and Virginia became the first state to establish by statute the separation of church and state.
There remained other grievances having to do with religious liberty. These were discussed in the 1785 Baptist General Committee meetings.
By 1791, some 20 churches were affiliated with the Middle District. Member churches increased to at least 22 by 1803. The Association’s principal preoccupation is indicated in words recorded by the clerk in 1801: “We have had several days comfortable preaching, and hope we have not been without the divine presence of God amongst us.” The character and function of the association was understood in the Circular Letter of 1796 as “nothing more than an advisory counsel (sic.), nor do we ever think to assume to ourselves any other power.”
Associational meetings in the early period were designed primarily for fellowship and mutual encouragement. The brethren would gather on Saturday, not more than four being representative of any single church. After opening devotional exercises, letters from the churches were read as a means of informing the Association regarding the state of affairs in the churches. Afterward, a moderator and a clerk were chosen by ballot. Visiting brethren were recognized and invited to participate in the discussions. It was usual to appoint four committees to serve the Association. One was to report on the order of business to be followed; another to prepare the Circular Letter which, after being presented to and approved by the association, would be sent to the churches; the third committee would make arrangements for the worship service of the Lord’s Day; and the fourth would collect from the messengers funds sent by their churches and pay such bills as the association authorized.
No associational business was transacted on the Lord’s Day. Sunday was the great occasion, when crowds gathered to hear the outstanding preachers of the area. There would be preaching during the day not only in the meeting-house but also in arbors or nearby buildings if they were suited to the purpose. On Monday morning business was resumed. Queries from the churches were entertained and discussed. Both doctrinal and practical problems were thus investigated. Results of the investigations were reported as advice to the churches. The discipline and care of the churches was always studiously regarded, and an effort was made to minister to situations of special need by means of committees appointed for that purpose.
The personality of Elder Eleazar Clay appears to have been a primary influence in affairs of the Middle District during the first half century of the Association’s life. His wealth and social status set him apart among his would-be persecutors when colonial Chesterfield courts were punishing Baptist preachers. Moreover, as he grew older, his reputation for spirituality grew steadily. He delighted in prayer, and he read the New Testament through monthly. Elder Clay was chosen moderator of the Middle District more frequently than any other in the years 1791 to 1821. Associations with which the Middle District maintained correspondence in the early period of its life included the Dover, Kehukee, Neuse, and Flat River.
From the outset of its life, it was apparent that the Middle District Association was geographically too extensive for efficiency of operation. Not only were the distances to be traveled quite long, but also the means of communication connecting its widespread communities were lacking. The Dover Association was even more extensive than the Middle District, but its parts were connected by the great rivers, which indent Virginia’s coastline and flow west to east. These were arteries of travel and trade long before good roads were built. South-central Virginia lacked such rivers as lay in the Dover territory, and the result was isolation of the remoter parts of the area. The Association therefore faced the issue of dividing its territory for the sake of convenience.
In May 1788, it was agreed that the territory should be divided and that the boundaries of the new association should be fixed according to the following lines: “Beginning where the Kehukee Association line crosses the Meherrin River; from thence upward by Lunenburg Courthouse to the Double Bridges; from thence to Charlotte Courthouse; thence to the Lawyers Road to New London by the upper line dividing Strawberry District.” Churches located near the borderline were advised to associate in “either district as might suit their convenience.” This division resulted in the constitution, on May 16, 1789, of the Roanoke Association (since 1926 called the Pittsylvania). Seventeen churches formerly associated with the Middle District joined with three North Carolina churches in organizing the new association.
Attendance at associational meetings was never truly representative, the reason given being the distance to be traveled. In October 1803, Chesterfield Church renewed a previous request for further division. The Association then responded by calling a convention to meet at Nottoway Meeting house on the second Sunday in May 1804. “For the purpose of considering the propriety or impropriety of a division in our district.” The Kehukee and the Portsmouth (formed in 1791) Associations were notified of this meeting and its purpose, so that they might send messengers if they wished “to consult together whether it will be agreeable to them to annex a part of their districts with ours so to make each of our districts more compact.”
The Nottoway convention was held and resulted in the constitution of two new associations. Twelve churches participated in the organization of the Meherrin Association in October 1803. Plans for a further organization also were laid at that time, and eleven churches sent letters and delegates to Walker’s Meeting-house in Prince Edward County to form the Appomattox Association in May 1805.
The Middle District found grace to resolve in 1804, “That, although a division of our district hath taken place, we endeavor to keep, as far as possible, the unity of the spirit by visiting each other; and that we will at our respective associations appoint messengers to attend the other two sister associations.”
Growth Despite Dissent, 1805-1833
In American church history the first third of the nineteenth century is recorded as a period remarkable for the dissension and division, which occurred within and among Christian communities. The spirit of independence in the young American nation expressed itself in church life with varieties of opinion and vigor of explosive action. Nevertheless, the period was an era of considerable church growth.
In the period indicated, the Middle District Baptist Association had at least its share of internal tension and partisan division, occasioned in particular by contrasting views of ecclesiology. The difficulties were foreshadowed early in the life of the Association. Elder John Leland of Orange County introduced in 1790 a resolution condemning hereditary slavery at a session of the General Committee of Virginia Baptists. The resolution was approved. When, however, the resolution was made known to the Middle District Association, that body reacted strongly against it and called attention to its view that the General Committee’s province was only to deal with matters relating to religious liberty. Nevertheless, the Middle District referred the resolution to its member churches for consideration. In a word, the General Committee was held to have spoken out of turn when it had dealt with the subject.
An unhappy division of opinion came to the surface in the life of the Association. The division concerned church polity on a point, which had been in debate among Baptists since the middle of the seventeenth century; the issue of the relation between local congregations and general church bodies. The Association’s division of opinion over polity was unfortunately timed, and it resulted in slow growth of the churches in a day of rare opportunity.
By 1800, Baptists were the most numerous body of Christians in Virginia, and their influence was greatly increased. But, the Middle District was controlled by conservative, though admired, leaders, who opposed all real cooperation beyond the local church level. Rival factions of the Association spent much energy avoiding offending one another, at a time when they should have been preaching unitedly the Gospel to their generation. For over 25 years, some Middle District people would be aggrieved that their association was undertaking too little, others that the association wished to do too much.
Between 1804 and 1814 the Middle District made progress in several respects. Disunited and somewhat dispirited, the churches turned inward in search of spiritual strength. Testimony to this effect is provided by the Circular Letter of 1808, which was concerned with “Trials and Afflictions of the Church of God.” It said that letters from all the churches spoke of “the languid state in general and the prevalence of iniquity.” By 1814 there were still only seven churches represented in the body.
At this point, however, a promising step was taken in the scheduling of Union Meetings involving neighboring churches. A season of soul-searching was at hand. Earlier, annual days of fasting and prayer had been scheduled, but in 1814 the Association appears to have observed such a day with great earnestness. After 1814, the number of churches began slowly to climb until 1825, when the number was twelve.
The October 1823 meeting of the Association heard cheering news of revival in Sandy Creek Church, Amelia County. In 1825 the Powhatan Church reported “glorious news of a mighty work which the Lord is now carrying on in this part of his kingdom.” These were local awakenings, but they prepared the way for a more general awakening.
When the General Meeting of Correspondence failed to be effective in the service of Virginia Baptists, through indefiniteness of program assignment and lack of support from the churches, a decision was made in 1822 to form a new organization, which would attempt to elicit and combine gifts from churches for the purpose of a statewide missions program. The new organization was called the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and its organizing session was held in 1823 at the Second Baptist Church of Richmond. The Middle District had participated but feeble in the General Meeting; would it now agree to cooperate with the General Meeting? A formal appeal for support was heard in the 1822 Middle District meeting. The matter was referred to the churches.
In 1823 the Association was informed that “The committee having examined the letter sent from the respective churches respecting the General Association report that they find there is a majority that disapprobates the same.” The anti-organization faction still held the upper hand in the Association. The matter rested until 1825, when a request from Grubb Hill and Centerville Churches was received asking “this Association to reconsider the subject with respect to our uniting with the General Association.” The subject was debated and referred to the churches for their further consideration. Each church as asked “to certify in their letters for the next Association their approbation or their disapprobation.” The verdict of the majority was unchanged in 1826, when it was reported that “on the subject of the proposed union with the General Association, a majority of the churches is against it.” The Circular Letter of 1830 declared that “A state of coldness appears generally to prevail, and but little of the spirit of Christian enterprise is manifested, owing, perhaps, in some measure, to dissimilar views respecting the best plan of operations.”