Historic Black Church in Barboursville, Virginia, Looks Back on History as They Prepare to Celebrate Their 250th Anniversary on Sunday

Robert Anthony is the pastor of Blue Run Baptist Church-Barboursville, his childhood church. The church is celebrating its 250th anniversary on Sunday.
HILARY HOLLADAY/ORANGE COUNTY REVIEW

Pastor Robert Anthony of Blue Run Baptist Church-Barboursville has history on his mind. The church he has led for the past year will celebrate its 250th anniversary on Sunday, and Anthony wants people to know how rich and complex its history is.

The complexities begin with a stone crypt on the church’s front lawn. A white woman named Jane Webb is buried inside it, and the epigraph inscribed in the stone reveals she was thrown from a horse in her 43rd year on that very spot in February of 1783.

Anthony said Webb’s family was instrumental in acquiring the land for the church, and enslaved people built her tomb. Those long-ago laborers may well have included the two men whom Webb herself owned.

Tracing its roots to 1769, the church counted both white and black parishioners among its members for more than 100 years. Until the abolition of slavery, the black members were mostly, if not all, slaves whose masters allowed them to go to church.

Drawing on a history of the church published by Garland Tyree, Anthony said, “The church allowed slaves to become members, but they had no voice. They were able to come and be baptized and become members of the church.”

Anthony notes that no enslaved people held offices in the church during its first century.

“Blacks had no say, no voice at all,” he said. But as the local enslaved population increased in the years leading up to the Civil War, the number of black members at Blue Run also grew.

During the antebellum period, Anthony said, “There were more blacks in the church down through the years than white, because there were so many slaves and [the white masters] were allowing them to become a part [of the church].”

Anthony hastens to explain that enslaved men and women only got to attend church if their masters gave them permission: “If you’re a slave, they’ll let you come when they want you to come” — but not if there was work to do on the plantation or if a slave was being punished.

But Anthony’s point is not just to excoriate long-gone slave masters. He is equally interested in Blue Run’s white ministers of the 1700s and 1800s who welcomed black parishioners into the church.

He said, “There were some folk who knew the Lord and knew that they were no better than the slave. The slave had a spirit just as well as they did. The slave’s spirit had to be saved as well as theirs. So there was somebody that had that much influence, and I think it was the word of God himself speaking. And these preachers were really serious back in that day to incorporate that into their preaching.”

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Anthony said that at one point there were about 100 black members of the congregation. After the Civil War, the white membership gradually dropped to zero. Meanwhile, another Blue Run Baptist Church had taken root in Somerset.

So there are two churches with the same name in the same county, only a couple of miles apart, but the one on Route 20 is the de facto “black” church and the one on Route 231 is the “white” one. Anthony, who grew up in Barboursville attending the church he now pastors, finds the whole thing fascinating, and he has no intention of erasing any of the history that binds the two churches.

“When our history is celebrated,” he said, “I want it to be celebrated for all who attended, black and white.”

Wearing black glasses and a short-sleeved clerical shirt, Anthony sat in his church office on a recent morning and talked race and religion with blunt good humor. He wants the two Blue Runs to acknowledge their shared past and avoid presenting a “partial history” as the whole story.

“Of course, you can’t change history,” he said, a smile flickering across his face. “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. We’re family, whether some like it or not.”

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Source: The Daily Progress