First Baptist celebrates milestone

By Josette Keelor

FRONT ROYAL — During its long history, First Baptist Church of Front Royal has witnessed a lot of change — from Americans’ mindset on slavery to the impact of the Civil Rights Act. It’s even changed its home and its name.

On Sunday, at the kick-off to its 175th year, the church will invite the community to help celebrate what has kept the church going all these years and what members say they hope will make it thrive in an ever-changing community.

“Love,” said Rev. R. Mark Jordon, “is what characterizes us as the church.”

“In some ways,” he said, “this church was born by taking a radical posture on racial harmony and equality and love.”

The church’s founders, Thaddeus and Traverse Herndon, had slaves until their father died, Jordon said.

“Out of conviction at a time when this was dangerous and unpopular, they freed all of their slaves,” he said. “I think they gave them $100 each and maybe a cow, I’m not sure, and paid for their way to Liberia.”

Jordon related the story as an example of how it’s always been difficult for people to determine how to love and what it means to love.

When the states began shipping former slaves back to Africa, he said, “It seemed like the loving, caring, sensitive thing to do, although now, as we look back on that… it was in effect just trying to get rid of them.”

The Republic of Liberia was founded by the United States in 1820 and colonized by blacks, most of them freed American slaves.

Monday is the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, and Jordon expects Sunday’s guest speaker, U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, to speak on love and acceptance with a tie in to racial unity.

“Our meaning is in our mission, and our mission is to embrace the world with God’s grace and love,” said Jordon, who has been pastor at First Baptist for 26 years.

Formed as the Missionary Baptist Church in 1839, First Baptist changed its name under the leadership of the Rev. Paul Leonard Stagg, pastor from 1947 to 1959. Previously on Crescent Street, the church moved in 1909 to its current location at 14. W. First St.

But with Stagg, the church didn’t change in name alone. As church member George W. Shanks explained, Stagg affected the future with his vision of love.

When area schools in Front Royal closed as a result of the government’s command for schools to segregate, churches opened their doors to teach students. White students, that is.

“And Paul Stagg said, ‘This is wrong. If you’re going to use the churches for schools, you’re going to allow everyone to come,’ which is a very unpopular stand,” Shanks said. “… Unpopular to the extent of death threats, unpopular to the extent of being shunned in the community, unpopular to the extent of having, you know, many of the members of this church basically say, ‘We can’t tolerate this,’ and they left.”

Church membership dropped by almost half, but Stagg stayed his course, and eventually schools reopened.

“The fact is we are living in a dramatically different world now than we lived in then,” Shanks said, “and we are there now because of men and women of great moral conviction and courage like Paul Stagg who were willing to take a stand, to take a public stand, and suffer whatever short term consequences, including affecting his professional career as a pastor, it would take to achieve those ends.”

Jordon agreed: “Our challenge today is how do we embrace one another across racial lines.”

The church intends to reach out to the community when presenting its series of anniversary events. At least 11 are intended, such as a Valentine’s event in February, a movie night in March, a concert and barbecue in June, an ice cream social in late summer, and a wrap-up in November with a grand review of the year — “what it has meant and where it’s all going,” Shanks said. There also are plans to honor active and retired military.

As Jordon put it, the church’s concern this year is finding ways to embrace the community.

“How can we get that word out,” he asked, “that this church is here to create life in the community?”

The kick-off to First Baptist Church of Front Royal’s 175th year anniversary celebration will begin at 10:45 a.m. Sunday at 14 W. 1st St., following a 9:45 a.m. continental breakfast in the Fellowship Hall. The guest speaker will be Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria. The public is invited. For more information, call 540-635-2122.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com