For nearly 243 years, congregation members at the First Baptist Church on Scotland Street in Williamsburg have worshiped and prayed, celebrating their collective faith as one of the oldest black congregations in the United States.
With the official 243rd anniversary of its establishment Oct. 13, the church plans to both honor its rich history and train its attention on its future.
“We try to be a progressive-thinking and forward-moving church,” Johnette Gordon-Weaver, a church member and director of anniversary communications, said about the theme of “Fortified by our past and Focused on our future.”
“We just wanted to make sure that everybody knows we know what our past is, and we’re stronger because of it,” Gordon-Weaver said.
Although the 243rd year is not a landmark anniversary, this particular anniversary does carry a particular significance in America’s African American history: In 1619, 400 years ago, the first Africans were forcibly brought to the New World as slaves.
“As we continue the commemoration of the first Africans in America 400 years ago this year, the faith of the first Africans was evidenced by many events documented along the way, including the baptism of the first person of African ancestry born in the colonies, William Tucker, at the Old Church at Jamestown in 1624,” according to a news release about the 243rd anniversary events.
Sunday’s events include an 11 a.m. worship service delivered by church pastor, the Rev. Reginald Davis; a 3 p.m. service with the Rev. Christopher Carter, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Hampton, and his choir and church family; and a dinner following the 11 a.m. service.
The church has invited politicians from across the state and even outside the state to attend the ceremony, including those in the governor’s office and local officials, Gordon-Weaver said.
The First Baptist Church in Williamsburg was organized in 1776, the same year the United States gained independence as a country. Over the years, it has been visited and celebrated by many well-known Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
President Barack Obama also celebrated the church in 2016, when he and his wife Michelle rang the church’s newly-restored “Freedom Bell” while it was temporarily at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Gordon-Weaver said the anniversary theme changes each year. The church holds a small contest annually where members submit their ideas for the theme.
This year, “Fortified by our past and Focused on our future” was the winner.
Because of 2019’s historical significance for African American history, Gordon-Weaver said she anticipated a larger-than-average anniversary crowd.
And, in keeping with the theme of the church’s history, the congregation plans to emphasize record keeping this year. The pastor’s son, Isaac F. Davis, owns Identity Production Studios and will visually document the church’s anniversary celebration, she said.
“African Americans tend to have to look at other people’s records to find out what happened in their own history,” Gordon-Weaver said. “Because there was almost no record keeping in the 17th and 18th centuries by them. We want to make sure we’re better.”
The Let Freedom Ring Foundation, a separate nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the First Baptist Church’s building, landscape, freedom bell and other historic items, is helping to ensure the anniversary goes on without a hitch and is well-documented.
The First Baptist Church is located at 727 Scotland St. in Williamsburg.
Those with questions can get more information by calling the church office at 757-229-1952 or by visiting the Let Freedom Ring Foundation website.