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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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