Vienna residents generally recognize the First Baptist Church of Vienna as their town’s first traditionally black church, but many of them are surprised when they learn that it was actually Vienna’s first church overall.
In fact, the First Baptist Church of Vienna was born a full two decades before Vienna even became incorporated as an official town in 1890.
“The church has a very rich and long history here, and we’re very proud of that history and legacy,” First Baptist Church senior pastor Rev. Vernon C. Walton said. “There are many members that are connected to some of the founding fathers and mothers still around, so we’re thankful for the gift we’ve been given.”
Walton believes that people’s surprise at this particular piece of trivia stems not from malice, but rather, from a lack of awareness regarding the church’s historical significance.
As they prepare to celebrate its 150th anniversary in December, the First Baptist Church’s staff seeks to commemorate the institution’s long history while finding ways to build off that legacy in the future.
A trio of African American workers founded the First Baptist Church of Vienna in 1867 after purchasing its original plot of land on Lawyers Road from former Union Army Major Orrin T. Hine.
According to the Town of Vienna’s website, Hine settled in Vienna in 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. He worked as an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal government agency established to assist freed slaves in the South during Reconstruction.
Hine was also a realtor and owned a significant amount of land in the Vienna area, including a farm that he oversaw.
First Baptist Church founders George McBrown, Daniel West, and Edmund Harris worked on Hine’s farm and sought a place where they could hold religious services.
“African Americans here in the Town of Vienna wanted a place to worship, a place to come together as a family of faith,” Walton said. “That group of believers ultimately became known as the First Baptist Church.”
Hine sold a plot of land to the trio for a single dollar on Sept. 1, 1867, and they built a structure out of lumber acquired through the Freedmen’s Bureau from a Civil War army barrack on 315 Lawyers Road later that year.
The original First Baptist Church building served both as a place of worship and as a public school for black students, a dual purpose that reflects the strong connection between faith and education in African American communities.
In the wake of emancipation, black churches became one of the few places of refuge for many African American communities, particularly in the south, according to the educational nonprofit African American Registry. They served a civic and social function as well as a religious one.
Similarly, many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established right after the Civil War.
The First Baptist Church of Vienna maintains that link between religion and education even now, offering tutorial services to students from local schools.
“We want to ensure that persons, particularly students, who are in need of academic enrichment have a place to come and receive that,” Walton said. “There is a responsibility for the educational system to train our young people. I believe that the church also has a role to play in that.”
The First Baptist Church has grown in tandem with the Town of Vienna, expanding from its original seven or so families to a congregation that now exceeds 1,100 members and 500 families.
About halfway through the 20th century, the church outgrew its location on Lawyers Road and moved to a new spot at 450 Orchard Street, where it currently sits, though an expansion was added in 1996.
In addition to offering religious and educational services, the First Baptist Church of Vienna has a history of getting involved in philanthropic and social justice works.
Since they served as a focal point for African American communities, black churches often held meetings or spread information for organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League.
As Walton notes, many civil rights leaders first got involved in activism through working with their churches. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was a pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
The First Baptist Church aims to continue that legacy of assisting the less fortunate and advocating for civil rights.
“Particularly as we look at what’s happening in our nation and our world, as programs are being cut and pulled back, we still have to be a voice to make sure that the lost and the least are not forgotten about,” Walton said.
In addition to providing educational services for local students, the church has raised money for international relief efforts for disasters such as tsunamis in Asia and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Charity will figure prominently in the First Baptist Church of Vienna’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
Along with hosting musical concerts and other community activities, the church has tasked each of its ministries with performing 150 acts of kindness by the end of 2017.
“Celebrations can become very insular, and the only reason we are really celebrating is because God has sustained us,” Walton explained. “The challenge for us is to make sure we’re touching the lives of other people…not just applauding our being here for 150 years.”
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SOURCE: Fairfax County Times, by Angela Woolsey