Pittsylvania County, Virginia was first settled by the English government, meaning that the official religion was the Church of England. After the Revolutionary War, because the Church of England and the English government were so entwined, many turned to new faiths such as Baptist or Methodist churches. Many Scottish immigrants had settled in the county so Presbyterianism was well-represented also.
The spread of the Baptist faith is said to have emanated from Pittsylvania County and spread to the rest of Virginia. The first Separate Baptist Church was established in 1760. The Baptist faith in America had first begun in New England in 1639 and spread to other colonies. When revival came to Virginia, several zealous Baptist preachers were called to preach the Gospel. One such preacher was named Samuel Harris.
Samuel Harris was born in Hanover County in 1724 and he later moved to Pittsylvania County. He was known to be a trustworthy man, serving as a vestryman in the Established Church, justice of the peace, sheriff of the county, member of the House of Burgesses, colonel in the militia and served in the French and Indian War. As was the custom of the day, every colonist in Virginia was required to swear an oath to the King of England (and subsequently to the Church of England, the state church). One day while on a military mission, dressed in full uniform and sword, Samuel stopped to hear an itinerant Baptist minister preach. The message made a deep impression on Samuel and he was baptized the next year.
According to John S. Moore and William L. Lumpkin, authors of Meaningful Moments in Virginia Baptist Life 1715-1972:
Soon after his conversion Harris returned to Fort Mayo with provisions for the garrison. He preached to the officers who were surprised and began to taunt him. One said, “Colonel! you have sucked much eloquence from the rum cask today! Pray let us taste that we may declaim as well when it comes our turn!” “I am not drunk,” Harris replied and continued preaching. Soon another interrupted, “Sam! you say you are not drunk! Pray, are you not mad then? What the devil ails you?” Harris said, “I am not mad, most noble gentleman,” and was so convincing the officer listened attentively and later became a Christian.
In 1759 Samuel resigned all public offices and began to serve God in full-time ministry, first in his own county and then throughout Virginia and parts of North Carolina. It was said of Harris “[T]here is hardly any place in Virginia in which he did not sow the Gospel seed.” Even though he spoke with forcefulness and conviction, his compassion was the most compelling aspect of his message.
Harris was ordained in 1769 and the first ordinance of baptism he administered was the baptism of James Ireland, another fiery Baptist preacher who spent time in prison along with thirty other Baptist ministers between 1768 and 1770. Ireland described Harris as “another Paul among the churches. As the sun in his strength he passed through the state, displaying the glory of his Master to the consolation of thousands”.
Samuel Harris, a wealthy man (4,000 acres and ten slaves), lived on Strawberry Creek in Whitmell. Harris was also a fearless man, fearing neither legal nor religious persecution. At the time of his conversion he had been building a home on his property, but instead the building was used for worship and became known as the Strawberry Meeting House (Strawberry Primitive Baptist Church).
While other Baptist congregations and ministers suffered persecution and faced imprisonment, the Strawberry church experienced little opposition to its ministry. In 1791, other counties surrounding Pittsylvania – Henry, Bedford and Patrick – formed an association which was named in honor of Harris’ home on Strawberry Creek – the Strawberry District (or Strawberry Baptist Association). In 1792 the group began to address the need for a constitution and rules of decorum – here are a few of the rules:
- The association shall open and close with prayer.
- Only one person shall speak at a time … the person thus speaking shall not be interrupted in his speech by anyone, except the moderator, until he is done.
- He shall strictly address to the subject and in nowise reflect on the person who spoke before.
- No person may rise and speak more than twice on the same subject, without obtaining liberty to do so from the association.
- No member of the association shall address another in other terms of appellations but the title of brother.
- That any member who shall willingly and knowingly break any of these rules shall be reproved by the association as they shall think proper.
One of the purposes of the General Committee under which the various associations operated was to bring about the complete separation of church and state. In 1779 Virginia became the “first government in the world to completely divorce church and state”. Baptists, and in particular the Strawberry Baptist Association, had played a significant role in bringing about the change. At some point, the Association pulled away and concentrated more on the local congregation after having a disagreement over the “Missionary Movement”.
Samuel Harris was greatly revered and honored by Virginia Baptists, and at one point he was elected to the office of apostle (stepping down from that position after a short time). According to Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopedia, he made a great mistake early in his ministry by insisting that ministers should not receive compensation for preaching the Word of God. He later admitted his error and renounced it. In 1799 Samuel Harris died and was buried on his Strawberry plantation.
Referencing Tuesday’s Tombstone article, Shadrach Boaz’s father Thomas was licensed (1806) and ordained (1808) at Strawberry Primitive Baptist Church. In 1814 the Triennial Convention was formed to unite the various Baptist associations, a precursor to the Southern Baptist Convention which was formed in 1845 when tensions arose over the issues of slavery and missions. There is evidently still an association of several churches which refer to themselves as the Strawberry Baptist Association, headquartered in Bedford, Virginia.
The last surviving member of the Strawberry Primitive Baptist Church died in 2005, and thereafter a special meeting was called to formally dissolve the church. In 2006, the Pittsylvania Historical Society had plans to preserve the building and grounds as an historical landmark.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!