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Story by Jeannie Dortch. Photos by Dean Hawthorne and Janet Chase.

God sent his messenger, a man named John, who came to tell people about the light, so that all should hear the message and believe. He himself was not the light; he came to tell about the light. This was the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all people (John 1:6-9, GNT).

Art has always been a beautiful means of storytelling, and stained glass windows remain a relevant way to engage and relate church history and faith’s meaning to those who view them. In the late 1940s First Baptist Church installed correlating stained glass windows around the sanctuary above and below the balcony. The upper windows depict the life of Christ; the lower windows tell stories of the life and work of the church as they relate to the panels directly above them.

One upper panel depicts John the Baptist, a nomadic Jewish preacher and a major religious figure in Christianity, Islam, Baha’i Faith, and Mandaeism. He is called a prophet by all of these traditions, and a saint by many Christians. Baptists remember him as Jesus’ cousin whose wilderness mission was to make followers ready for the coming of the Messiah through repentance of sins. At the end of his life, John was imprisoned for his beliefs.

Light the Way
The lower panel portrays the earliest Virginia Baptist preachers who were jailed for preaching the gospel without a license from the Church of England, a requirement unchanged until 1786. While incarcerated, pastors continued to spread the Good News to anyone who would gather around the jail windows to listen. Disgruntled jailers built high fences to keep the curious away, but one prisoner waved a handkerchief on a stick to draw crowds closer as he preached even louder to be heard. Many who disagreed with them cut and maimed the hands of pastors who held their hands or Bibles through the bars. Yet these men of God persisted fearlessly to instill Jesus’ words written on this window, “Know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

Light the Way
The imprisoned pastors in the stained glass portrait never stopped reaching out to change hearts. These pastors and John the Baptist suffered to make earth a little more heavenly. For me, catching their vision and risking loss to help others find this freedom is part of our mandate as Christians. Ann Carter reflected on her recent experience as a volunteer in Croatia, “We live in a world where religion is a source of conflict, division and hatred. The Croatian police and NGOs we worked with were surprised to learn that we were abroad without an agenda other than to love people. Baptists do not have a corner on this loving-people market. All people of faith need to stand up and shine a light of compassion, justice and generosity in our world.”

Editor’s note: These two windows are located on the Mulberry Street side of the Sanctuary, the first set from the front.
Copies of the fully illustrated Memorial Windows written by Theodore F. Adams and The Open Door, the church’s history from 1780-2005, are available for checkout or purchase in the church library.

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