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FBC Saints

by Virginia Darnell

Those attending Richmond’s First Baptist Church (FBC) enjoy the many programs, classes and facilities that the church offers, and it’s easy to assume it has always been the way it is today. But much of what can be enjoyed today is the result of the work and donations of long-gone saints. The Pusey House is a prime example.

FBC Saints

Pusey House

This facility is the beautiful three-story brick home with gardens and a small preschool playground surrounded by a stone wall, located across from the church on Park Avenue. Over the years, the house has been used as a place for Sunday morning classes to meet; FBC groups to host get-togethers and celebrations; and committee meetings to be held. Few people know that the Pusey House was the result of a donation from faithful members.

Paul Pusey was in the automobile business in Richmond, and his wife, Nell, was involved in Richmond politics, serving on City Council at one time. They were also long-time members of FBC. Paul was a deacon, and both he and Nell served on many committees over the years. In 1985 they notified the church that they were giving a gift of $275,000 to the church with the understanding that the church would purchase the Page House across the street. The house was built in the early part of the century by the well-known Page family and was owned for many years by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. The house was for sale and the Puseys had the idea that the house could be used for general church purposes such as small functions and receptions, for educational purposes, and as a private study for the pastor. The church graciously accepted the gift and bought the house. The cost of renovations at that time was $100,000. The name of the house was changed to the Pusey House in honor of Paul and Nell Pusey whose generous donation had made the purchase possible.

FBC Saints

Sanctuary chancel pre-1986

FBC Saints

Sanctuary chancel pre-1986

Another saint of the past was James (Jim) R. Shearon. Jim was a deacon and served on many committees during his lifetime. He left a legacy which all of us enjoy every time we enter the sanctuary. Jim chaired a committee in 1985 to renovate the chancel area. This is the area where the choir sits each Sunday during the worship service. Prior to renovation, the organ was in the middle of the choir loft and the entire area was enclosed with white paneling. (Larger pictures of the area before the renovation can be seen on pages 349 and 353 of The Open Door, which presents the church history.) Jim worked with the architectural firm of Marcellus, Wright, Cox and Smith, and with their suggested design changes, the entire chancel was changed. The organ was moved to the floor on the right of the pulpit and the piano to the left. A pediment was added over the baptistery which replicated the baptistery from the original First Baptist Church at Twelfth and Broad streets. All partitions were removed and the entire area was opened as we see it today. The construction was completed in 1986. The area that we now know as the choir loft is the result of the renovation efforts of Jim Shearon and the committee he chaired.

These are but two stories of the many saints that have provided a way for us to enjoy the FBC buildings we have today. The next time you’re at church, look around and say a prayer of thanks for those who made what we have today possible.

FBC Saints

Sanctuary chancel today

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By Jeannie Dortch.

Anyone who has ever seen Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC knows how engrossing it is to watch celebrities delve into their personal genealogy. They find lost loved ones, discover medical facts with personal relevance, and, in some cases, gain a sense of value about themselves based on those who preceded them.

"The Open Door" is available for purchase from the FBC library.

As First Baptist Church family members, we too have a genealogy, but one that has been preserved by our church historians in a two book volume entitled The Open Door. Our church heritage began in 1780 when Joshua Morris conducted a house prayer meeting at the home of John Franklin on Union Hill. That led to the organization of Richmond Baptist Church, the first Baptist church to have a constitution in a Virginia city, and the first church of any denomination in the capital of Virginia. Since then, we have met in six different locations and have been pastored by 16 senior ministers.

During those decades, FBC has been served by only three historians: Blanche Sydnor White (1891-1974), James (Jimmy) Barrett Walthall (1926-2005), and Virginia Darnell. Every Wednesday afternoon, you will find Virginia in one of two rooms adjacent to the Chapel foyer organizing boxes of historical materials left to her purview as the congregation’s current church historian. She works alone sorting through a myriad of published materials that collectively tell our distinctive story. When Virginia volunteered for this job in 2005, she didn’t realize that it would be such an extensive undertaking because the publication of The Open Door in 2006 had chronicled our history from 1780-2005. It quickly became apparent, however, that since history is a work in progress, each day was bringing more revelations to add to the richness that is uniquely ours.

Virginia Darnell. Photo by Jeannie Dortch.

“I don’t think we should live in our history, but some record of what we have accomplished is necessary and needs to be saved,” Virginia told me when I visited her at her home in Hanover County, a 1756 flour mill. She and her husband, Raymond, bought the mill with its 30 acres of land and meandering stream in 1963, and restoration became their hobby as well as labor of joy during the ensuing years. Virginia’s passion for preservation naturally extends to her beloved FBC as she unearths clues to our church lineage each week. “People want to be able to look up our church history and read about it,” she went on, “and I want to continue giving them that opportunity.”

FBC's location from 1841-1928 was at 12th and Broad Street. Photo by Mark Larson.

Recently, Virginia received an email from a professor at George Mason University. He was writing an article about the genesis of indoor baptisteries and wanted to know when our first baptistery had been installed. Virginia was aware that in 1835 Pastor Isaac Hinton had had quite a scare when he almost lost a new convert in a river baptism. As a result, construction and installation of a baptistery was begun that year at our College and Broad Street location and completed in 1836 under Pastor Jeremiah Bell Jeter’s watch. The professor told Virginia that this makes our baptistery the oldest in the United States; this is the kind of information that makes Virginia’s job extremely satisfying.

The current view inside the former FBC building, now used as a center for VCU medical students. Photo by Mark Larson.

In January, 2006, Virginia witnessed the dedication of the $6 million, newly renovated Hunton Student Center on the MCV campus of VCU. This facility at 12th and Broad Street was FBC’s location from 1841-1928. One of the other FBC members attending this celebration of our shared history included Oscar Pitts, who had been baptized in this building. Walking into this state-of- the-art, three-story landmark, one cannot mistake its former use. Original church pews, including those in the balcony where slaves sat, staircases, floorboards, and ceiling medallions have been retained. Students relax, eat and study in the sanctuary/lounge, the focal point of which is the original chancel and pulpit.

The contribution of a church historian is ongoing and invaluable. When asked, “What do you think your legacy will be?” Virginia responded that she couldn’t venture a guess. Her FBC family, I think, would answer that it will be appreciation for Virginia’s earnest and thorough efforts on our behalf. If you are still wondering what Virginia Darnell knows, the answer is Plenty!

Jeannie Dortch joined FBC in 1974 after being lovingly mentored by the members of Buddy Hamilton’s Sunday school class. A grandmother of four, Jeannie has served as a deacon, taught in our children’s, youth, international, and adult Sunday school departments, but attends the Journey class presently. Recently retired from 16 years of teaching at Rudlin Torah Academy, Jeannie enjoys exercising, cooking, reading, tutoring New American students at Maybeury Elementary, and writing articles for FTF.

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