First African Baptist Church

Composite of images of congregants standing in front of church building.
In the Enslavement Era (1841-1865)

This page examines the pre-Civil War history of First African Baptist Church due to its early connections with the history of the University of Richmond. The church’s complete story far exceeds the 23 years represented here. Now located in the Barton Heights neighborhood in Northside Richmond, it remains a powerful force in the Richmond community. Members have generously provided the public with microfilm access to the church’s historical minutes at the Library of Virginia, and those records have been crucial to research contained on this website and in “A Season of Discipline”: Enslavement, Education, and Faith in the Life of Robert Ryland, the 2021 UR Inclusive History report by Shelby M. Driskill detailing the life and influence of Richmond College’s first President, Robert Ryland (1805-1899)


Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, for a time known as the “African Church,” grew out of the 1841 racial division of the city’s First Baptist Church. The large cross-shaped building overlooked the Shockoe Valley and the Church Hill neighborhood and was within a brief walk of the state capitol, the commercial and factory districts, and the regional center of slave trading operations. First Baptist was formed in 1780 and grew steadily over the next decades, eventually occupying one of the largest structures in the city. Between 1824 and 1841, its congregation grew from 820 to more than 2,000; 1,708 of these members were enslaved or free Black people.1 

First African Baptist Church with several congregants standing and sitting in front of church posing for photo, 1865.
First African Baptist Church, 1865, Matthew Brady, photographer (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Black congregants had petitioned to worship separately in the early 1820s, but those efforts failed.2 Following Nat Turner’s revolt a decade later, a separate church was made more unlikely due to resulting constraints on Black assembly and ministry. Only when white congregants sought a new site for the church did racial separation occur. According to a description of the period by Robert Ryland (1805-1899), white church members believed that the old building was “behind the times” and resented having to worship “where so many colored people congregated.” The “colored element,” he continued, “was so large that only a small part of it could be furnished with sittings.”3 The division into two churches was facilitated by leaders of three city churches and led by First Baptist’s pastor, Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880), a Richmond College founding trustee. Jeter had found ministry to Black congregants difficult, and he and white church members were frustrated by the nuances of their faith. As historian Midori Takagi writes, “Much to white congregants’ horror, black members maintained a strong belief in spirits and witchcraft in addition to their unshakable faith in God and saw no conflict or contradiction between the two.” Jeter believed that “elements of the African cosmology” should not keep people out of the congregation, but he “struggled hard to eliminate what he referred to as the ‘dread of imaginary beings or evils.’”4 

The old church building was not simply given to the Black congregants. White First Baptist Church members expected payment for the structure, despite its then being held by a group of white trustees. The largest portion of funding for the transfer came from enslaved and free Black congregants, who contributed $3,500 in 1841. Their payments toward principal and the interest charged by First Baptist Church eventually totaled at least $5,000.19. James Thomas, Jr. (1830-1882)—a prominent Baptist, tobacco magnate, Richmond College trustee, and extensive enslaver—supported the split by raising an additional $3,000 among white donors.5 

Because state law required that a religious assembly of Black people be led by a white man, none of the talented and experienced Black ministers affiliated with the church could assume the role of pastor at First African. Instead, Jeter recruited Richmond College President Robert Ryland to lead the congregation. Ryland had often spent his Sundays traveling to temporary posts at area churches and had sought a permanent ministerial position since at least 1838.6 Jeter believed Ryland’s work at Richmond College was “not onerous” and the additional labor at First African Baptist Church would be “no great draft on his intellectual powers.”7 Ryland continued to visit other churches as a guest minister and as part of planned preaching tours, and his absences from First African Baptist Church were later criticized by Henry Brown, then an enslaved congregant.8 In addition to Ryland’s desire for a more convenient post, he felt that by aiding the separation of the churches, he was also aiding the “prosperity” of the soon-to-be all white First Baptist Church, where he and his family attended services. He also believed that “all the ministers of Christ, and especially [Baptists], were called” to ensure Black people’s access to the “divine things” that Black ministers were forbidden to share from the pulpit.9 

Color drawing of interior of a church with a man preaching from a pulpit with his arm raised and many people sitting and standing on the main level and a balcony.
"First African Church, Richmond, Virginia—Interior of the Church from the Western Wing,” 1874, drawn by William Ludwell Sheppard (VCU Libraries Digital Collection)


Music staff with notes and printed words of congregation’s chanted blessing of the pastor.
Chanted blessing of the pastor performed at each First African Baptist Church service, from G.F. Root’s “Congregational Singing Among the Negroes” (Southern Musical Advocate and Singer’s Friend, April 1, 1860)

During Ryland’s pastorate, before each service, congregational singing filled the church, which seated at least 1,500 people. Black congregants seem to have played a prominent role in services while adhering to legal limitations on their ability to lead worship. Before his own sermon, Ryland would gesture to certain men, such as John Kinney, the leader of the choir, and Lewis Allen, a free Black deacon of the church, to rise and lead prayers or exhort listeners with addresses that were long, elaborate, and sermon-like. 

One visitor, an anonymous Boston writer, carefully recorded the hymn sung by Joshua Thompson, who was enslaved by “Mr. Taliafero of Gloucester County.” Thompson had risen to lead the congregation in “a spiritual.” The song had never been printed, Thompson explained to the writer following the service, and he spoke the lyrics for her so she could share the spiritual with her readers. It began:

Once more I have come to visit you here – / The cause of my coming – your souls are so dear: / I’m afraid some be lost without balm supplied, / There’s balsam in Jesus that flows from his side.10

As part of each service, the congregation chanted its support of Ryland, “O Lord, bless our Pastor. Stand by him and preserve him.”11 Choir concerts, along with the weekday leasing of the building, helped to build the church treasury that funded Ryland’s salary, maintained the building, and donated to the poor. 

Ryland’s ministerial attention often focused on congregants’ behavior, including “fleshly lusts that war against the soul” and what he saw as the correction of their spiritual beliefs.12 He sought to “preach out of their minds their dreams and fancies, their visions and revelations, and all their long cherished superstitions.”13

Typed excerpt from Ryland’s “Origin and History of the First African Church,” 1880.
Excerpt from Ryland’s “Origin and History of the First African Church,” published in The First Century of the First Baptist Church of Virginia, 1880

Recollections of Ryland

Old engraved portrait of Henry "Box" Brown and old black and white photo of Walter Brooks in profile.
At left, Henry "Box" Brown, frontispiece, Narrative of Henry Box Brown..., 1849 (Internet Archive); at right, Walter Henderson Brooks, in Pastor Henry N. Jeter's Twenty-five Years Experience With Shiloh Baptist Church, 1901 (Documenting the American South)

Congregants’ available personal recollections of Ryland vary. Some remembered him fondly. In 1871, Anna Kinney, a formerly enslaved woman who had been a congregant at the church, praised Ryland’s ministry and requested that he take her into his household after his move to Kentucky.14 Pastor and poet Walter Henderson Brooks (1851-1945) also reflected on Ryland's ministry. While a child, Brooks and his parents were enslaved congregants at First African Baptist Church. After his ordination as a Baptist minister in 1876 and service to the American Baptist Publication Society, Brooks became the pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., a position he held until his death in 1945. He remembered Ryland’s ministry and his supervision of the Sunday school as “faithful, fatherly instruction” at “one of the dearest institutions I have ever known.” He further recalled, “Whatever may have been Dr. Ryland’s intentions, he certainly inspired hope, for all that is best in this life, as well as for the life to come.”15

Others recalled Ryland with anger. Henry Brown (c.1815-1897), an enslaved man who became famous for having himself shipped in a box from Richmond to the free state of Pennsylvania after his children and his wife were sold away, was a First African Baptist Church congregant who remembered Ryland’s focus on obedience to enslavers: 

He used to preach from such texts as that in the epistle to the Ephesians, where St. Paul says, ‘servants be obedient to them that are your masters and mistresses according to the flesh, and submit to them with fear and trembling’; he was not ashamed to invoke the authority of heaven in support of the slave degrading laws under which masters could with impunity abuse their fellow creatures.16

Brown’s recollection of Ryland’s use of Ephesians 6:5 aligns with Ryland’s inclusion of the verse in his Scripture Catechism for Coloured People (1848) under the query, “Do the scriptures enjoin obedience on servants?”17 

Baptisms, Marriages & Related Records

The church was the site of thousands of baptisms, although Robert Ryland placed additional impediments before the Black candidates. In an 1855 essay, he noted that while some ministers encouraged the confession of sins and then baptism, “I have deemed it my duty to throw obstacles in the way of mine, by holding up the dangers of premature confession” believing this would foster less “superstition, less reliance on dreams and visions . . . and less talk of the palpable guidings of the Spirit as independent from or opposed to the word of God.”18 Enslaved people were only allowed to be baptized if their enslaver gave direct permission. A woman named Sally Palmer, who arranged to be baptized “clandestinely,” was expelled from the church. Ryland described her actions as “bad behavior,” and she was reported to her enslaver.19 

Color drawing of women being baptized by immersion in front of a church full of people.
“First African Church, Richmond, Virginia – Baptizing,” 1874, drawn by William Ludwell Sheppard based on pre-Civil War photograph (VCU Libraries Digital Collection)
Handwritten minutes listing names of individuals “received for baptism” in August, September, and October 1850.
Example of Ryland’s First African Baptist Church minutes including a typical list of those he baptized, providing their full name, noting those who were free and naming the enslavers of those who were not, August and September 1850 (Library of Virginia, provided by First African Baptist Church)

The lists that Ryland maintained of members’ baptisms—recording their full names and those of their enslavers if they were not free—provide an extraordinary resource for present day genealogists and historians. The material also contributes to the available sources demonstrating that the absence of enslaved people’s last names in most enslavers’ records did not mean they lacked surnames. Among the thousands of enslaved men and women baptized at First African Baptist Church (3,153 by July 1859), nearly all had last names recorded, and very few matched those of their enslavers. Two people held by Ryland himself were referred to by first name only in his own records—Matilda and Walker—but their last names appear in the records of their baptisms: Matilda Banks, baptized June 28, 1846, and Walker Lee, baptized July 30, 1859. In both baptism records, Ryland recorded himself as their enslaver.20 The numbers of baptisms conducted at the church and the expanding membership were promoted widely, at times as a means of using the church’s success to justify slavery.21 

While marriages between enslaved people were not legally recognized in Virginia until after the Civil War, many held in bondage, including members of First African Baptist Church, were married. Two sources indicate that Ryland performed congregants’ marriages in his own home. In 1858, four people were arrested for riding in a wagon “without consent of their owners” after two of them were married at the Ryland house.22 Ryland’s daughter Roberta Ryland Atkins, recalling his work at First African Baptist Church, wrote, “Sometimes wedding parties would come to be married by him and the big parlor at Columbian Hall [on the campus of Richmond College] would be lighted up, the people came in hacks [rented wagons] and filed in and we children would greatly enjoy the beautiful ceremony.”23 


While the Black members of First African Baptist Church, according to one historian, “enjoyed less autonomy than was customary among Baptists,” and had to concede to the oversight of a white pastor, the church’s Black deacons were generally the governing body that made its day-to-day decisions.24 Ryland kept their minutes, but his direct influence on their proceedings is rarely recorded. The deacons were almost all free men, while this was not a reflection of the largely enslaved membership, who attempted to seek more representation among the deacons between 1848 and 1850.25 

The subjects discussed and decisions made by deacons such as Archibald Gwathmy, John Taylor, Simon Bailey, and Joseph Abrams provide rare glimpses into the lives of enslaved men and women. Those many individuals include Sarah Royall, who was removed from church membership on the charge that she had an “illegitimate” child with a member of Second African Church. She protested, arguing that while she had been punished, the child’s father had been allowed to remain at his own church.26 In 1843, a young and popular enslaved deacon named Thomas U. Allen (c.1815-1849) sought his fellow deacons’ assistance to purchase his freedom and pursue his ambitions of ministry and education. His initial plan was to offer himself as a colonist in Liberia. At that time, Ryland was Allen’s enslaver, having purchased Allen for the purpose of eventually freeing him. Allen raised money for his freedom, became a minister in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and attended college in New Hampshire.27 Further details of Allen’s life can be found in Driskill, 127-130 and 183: “Thomas U. Allen & Robert Ryland” and the transcribed article, “Death of Thomas U. Allen.” 


At times the church was the target of proslavery and anti-Black efforts. A police investigation resulted in the discovery that Ryland’s regular distribution of mail sent to congregants in care of the church was facilitating escapes. This led to a period of additional pressure from white opponents to Black congregations. The 1852 murders of members of an enslaving family by a church member named Jane Williams resulted in another period of high white hostility toward the congregation and prompted Ryland to deliver a sermon to his Black congregation expressing his fear for the church and urging their deference: “God has given this country to the white people. They are the law-makers—the masters—the superiors. The people of color are the subjects—the servants—and even when not in bondage, the inferiors.” He contrasted his ministry to Black adults and children with the work of pastors who preached to enslavers:

While, therefore, it is the duty of other ministers to inculcate kindness and forbearance on the masters, it is my duty—charged as I am in the providence of God with your instruction—to urge you to know and to keep your own placethe place of submission. But you say, ‘Mr R is preaching now for the good of the white people.’ No. I am preaching to your especial benefit. It is very true that my counsel to you will if followed, prove beneficial to the whites, but this is collateral—an incidental benefit. My primary object is your temporal and eternal good.28

Further details on Jane Williams and Ryland’s sermon, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” can be found in Driskill, 135-140, “Jane & John Williams.”

First African Baptist Church with several congregants in front of church posing for photo and 3 men and a horse in the foreground, 1865.
Congregants of First African Baptist Church, 1865, Matthew Brady, photographer (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Post-Civil War Changes

Old newspaper clipping of report about Ryland's sermon and his being reported to the Provost Marshal.
Richmond Commercial Bulletin, May 6, 1865 (Virginia Chronicle)

The Confederacy’s surrender ending the Civil War set in motion the church’s progress toward greater autonomy. In 1865, the “first challenge to a white pastor came from black Union troops on April 9 who charged Robert Ryland of the First African Church with preaching a disloyal sermon and threatened to arrest him.” Ryland was defended by members of the church.29 On Sunday, April 30, 1865, Ryland preached to a now entirely free congregation. The Richmond Commercial Bulletin described him taking “strong rebel ground,” however, and “discouraging enlistments in the Union army.” Ryland went so far with his sectionalism that he was apparently reported to the Federal authorities and “was requested to report himself at the Provost Marshall’s office.”30 He attempted to resign as pastor in May 1865, but “the majority refused to accept his withdrawal” in light of his years of service to the church.31

In the months that followed, Black Richmonders continued to build on the existing structures of mutual aid societies and African churches. On June 10, for example, First African Baptist Church was the site of a mass meeting of more than 3,000 Black attendees seeking to communicate to U.S. President Andrew Johnson the “brutal enforcement by the police and army of pass and curfew laws which were designed to expel thousands of blacks from the city.”32 Later that month, in this period of increasing self-determination among church members, Ryland resigned as pastor. He later wrote that he had done so out of “a belief that they would naturally and justly prefer a minister of their own color.”33

Black and white headshot of James H. Holmes, 1901.
A late-life photograph of James H. Holmes, first Black pastor of the First African Baptist Church (The Colored American Magazine, January 1901)

The leadership position at First African Baptist Church did not immediately pass to a Black man, despite Ryland’s description of the preferences of the congregation. G.K. Stockwell, a white abolitionist, briefly served as pastor. In 1867, however, James H. Holmes (1826-1900) was named pastor and continued to lead its congregation until the beginning of the 20th century.34 Holmes had been born into enslavement in King and Queen County, Virginia, and at age 9, was hired out to a tobacco warehouse in Richmond.35 In 1842, at age 13, he was baptized at First African Baptist Church by Ryland.36 After Holmes’s marriage, his mother and father-in-law escaped enslavement through the Underground Railroad. When a letter they sent to Holmes and his wife was intercepted, Holmes was jailed on suspicion of planning an escape and was sold south to New Orleans away from his wife and two children.37 While his family eventually succeeded in making it to the north and freedom, Holmes never saw them again.38 After years laboring in New Orleans and surviving a catastrophic explosion, in 1851, Holmes returned to Richmond, still enslaved. Ryland recorded the day in 1853 that he was received back into membership at First African Baptist Church. Holmes became a deacon and served on at least one church committee.39 While he was able to save the $1,800 (Confederate) to purchase his freedom, because of a debt to a lawyer he was not legally free until after the Civil War.40 In his first year as pastor of First African Baptist Church, he baptized 200 people. The church continued to grow and to thrive over the following years, with membership reaching 4,000 in 1880.41 At Holmes’s death in 1900, the church’s congregation was the largest in the South.42

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