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 Gravel Hill Baptist Church 
 Historical Highlights of The Gravel Hill Baptist Church 1866-2010

When we reflect on our history we must remember that it goes back farther than 1866. It goes back 2,000 years to that moment when Christ said, "Upon this rock I shall build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."  The history of the Church flows from the time of the Apostles, through the patristic period (the time of the early church Fathers) and from there to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. The reformation, and the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church is where we can pick up on the latter years of our origins. The  roots of the Gravel Hill church and community were established during the colonial period of Virginia's history.  In that colonial period everyone residing in Virginia was by law a member of a parish in the Church of England.  This was true whether one was Black, White or Indian.  However, even during that period groups that were separating themselves from the Church of  England were beginning to have increasing influence in the Colony.  People like the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Baptist had differences with the established church and met separately. One of the largest of these groups in 17th Century Virginia (especially in the mid to late 1600's) was the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).


            By the mid 1700's one group of Quakers at Curles Neck, moved by the Holy Spirit, came to believe that slavery was wrong.  One member of the Curles Neck Meeting, John Pleasants came under the conviction that he should free his slaves.  He left a provision in his will (of 1771) that all of his slaves above the age of 30 and others when they reached the age of 30 should be freed.  His son, Robert, in executing his father's will, met with some family opposition. But as a leader in Virginia's anti slavery society, he persevered. Litigation continued in the courts for several years, but the case was finally settled when two lawyers, John Wordman, and John Marshall (who later became the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court) successfully argued the case on behalf of Robert Pleasants and the Pleasant slaves, before the High Court of Appeals. In 1789 our ancestors were legally freed. Once our ancestors were established at Gravelly Hill (as it was then called), Robert and the Quakers of Curles Neck established a school where the children of the freedmen were taught reading, writing, ciphering, mechanical arts, and farming. In 1809 Henry Crews and later other men in the Crews family taught the students.


            The faith of the people in this community continued to grow, and during the great revival of the early 19th century, many became devoted Baptists.  Before the civil war, some of our ancestors worshipped at the Baptist Church of Christ at Four Mile Creek (organized by Elijah Baker in 1773).  At the end of the Civil war, our ancestors came out of Four Mile Creek and began worshipping in a bush harbor in this very place where the Gravel Hill Baptist Church is located today.  This one acre parcel of land was donated to the Gravel Hill Baptist Church by Deacon Richard Sykes and his wife Mary Sykes.  The deed was recorded in the Circuit Court of Henrico County on October 5th, 1866.  The first pastor was a white man whose name remains unknown to us. The next minister was a Black man, the Rev. Scott Gwathmey.  During his pastorate, the congregation built a log meeting house.  The first clerk of the church was Deacon Richard A. Adkins.  He served from 1867 to August, 1904 (a total of 37 years).                      

Gravel Hill's deacons during that period included Richard Sykes, Cornelius Adkins, Franklin Crump, Junius Crump, Archie Harris, Leo Haskins, Scott Haskins, Isaiah Pleasants, William H. Pleasants, Wyatt Price, James Rooks, and Harry Scott. The organization and strong conviction of the congregation can be seen in a list of 13 "Church Rules" recorded on May 24, 1873.  For example, Rule one said that if a brother was not present to answer when he name was called from the role at the monthly business meeting (that took place on the Saturday before the 4th Sunday),  "he shall on the next meeting tell the cause of it."  The 2nd rule  stated  that those addressing the moderator, must do so "standing on their feet, and they shall be allowed to speak as long as they are speaking directly to the question under debate." The 3rd rule stipulated that "Everything that is brought before the church must come in Gospel order, and every thing that is done must be by a majority, and no one member shall have the power to keep any person out of the church through prejudice."   Etc. The enforcement of church rules was strict.  For example, Rule 7 said that "If a member gets upon the floor to speak and the moderator should call him to order, and he fail to obey him, they shall be excluded from the fellowship of the church.  Rule 12 said that ".if any member of this church is known to walk disorderly, they shall come before the church and be dealt with.  It appears that Rule 12  makes reference to   2nd Thessalonians 3:6 and 1st Corinthians 5:11 and Ephesians 5:5-7 to justify the practice of excluding "disorderly" members.

            The Rev. Scott Gwathmey was succeeded by the Rev. Daniel James (1886-1889). Later, under the pastorate of the Rev. Robert Jones (1889-1904) a handsome frame church building was erected in 1890.  That building stood until 1961.   Pastors that preached in that building included The Rev. Tunstall Banks, followed by the Rev. Thomas Green (these two served from 1904-1922).  During the tenure of the Rev. W.L. Tuck (1923-1933) an addition was added to the frame church, and candle and oil lamps were replaced by a dynamo lighting system. The church purchased a pump organ.  It was also during this period that Deacon Charlie Brown, Sr. constructed a concrete baptistery out in the church yard.  Before that, baptisms used to take place in the creek that runs through the  land belonging to the Price family.  Those who remembered those earlier times recalled how the congregation would process down through the woods to the creek, singing all the way, with baptismal candidates dressed completely in white.

            The Rev. Obadiah Simms came to the church in 1935 and served until 1939. He was followed by the much loved Rev. Isaac Pearly who served from 1940-1947. During his tenure new flooring and carpeting were installed, and the very pews that are still in use  today were purchased. Then in 1947 a new oil furnace was installed and the church was wired for electricity.  The Rev. Isaac Pearly's death in 1947 was deeply mourned by the congregation.  The Rev. A. Sumpter who followed him, served as pastor for less than a year in 1948.  The Rev. Charles James Washington came to fill in the absence of a regular pastor in 1949, and was installed as the regular pastor in 1950. His 35 year tenure from 1949-1984 is the longest of any Gravel Hill pastor to date. It was during the Pastorate of the Rev. Washington that the present building was constructed on a pay as you go plan.  On the day of our first service in the present building, the congregation ceremoniously processed from the old building into the new led by vested clergy and choir.

But the history of Gravel Hill in the Early 20th  century  would be incomplete if we only listed the names of the pastors of that time.  Their leadership was supported by the hard work of the laity.  We must not forget the deacons who played a key role in ministering to the congregation.  Added to the 19th century deacons already named, we must remember the work of people like John Anderson, Sr., Charlie Brown, Sr. (already mentioned above), and his son, also named Charlie Brown.  We must remember Cyrus Brown. And who can forget Deacon George Brown who always prayed in thanksgiving for that rainy Thursday evening in Albemarle County when he stepped off the train of damnation, and climbed onto the train of salvation as blinding scales fell from his eyes and shackles were loosed from his feet. We must not forget the other deacons:  Johnny Brown, Norman Brown, James Arthur Harris, William Henry Johnson, W. Oscar Lewis, James Miffin, Phillip Price, Solomon Prentice, Edward Pleasants, Clarence Tyler..  We also remember the deaconesses: Florence Atkins, Katie Atkins, Josephine Anderson, Mabel Anderson, Mary Bigger, Celeste Battle, Ellen Brown, Ethel Brown, Roslyn Brown,  Edith Epps, Wilnette Flemming, Helen Gary,  Wilhelmina Greene, Edna Harris, Mary Haskins, Lottie Johnson, Pearl Johnson,  Clara B. Keel,  Mary Julia Lewis, Marie Pleasants, Nancy Pleasants,  Ida Price, Mable Tyler, Alleyne K. Thornton,  Estelle Waller, Pearl White, Linda Young.
 We remember those who have served as clerks of the church. Succeeding Richard Atkins (1969-1904) we have had William H. Pleasants (1904), Washington Truman (asst. clerk 1904), Wilson Price (1921-1922), Hezekiah Atkins (asst. clerk 1921), John Rooks (1922), Samuel Paine (asst. clerk, 1922), Catherine Brown (1924), C. Manning Price (1952- 2000), Pearl M. Johnson (asst clerk 1952-1969), Amanda Atkins (asst clerk 1969-1974),  and Linda Young (1994-2008), Teresa Powell (asst clerk 2002-2008) Gloria J. Bagby (2008 to present), Cassandra Atkins (asst clerk 2008 to 2011).

      We remember the church organists and choir directors of the past: Richard Byrd (org), John Irby (dir), Adelaide Daniel (org),  Isaiah Pleasants (dir), William H. Pleasants (dir),  Eva Pleasants (chorister), Mary Norman (org), Washington Truman (org & dir), Pearl M. Johnson (org), John Cary (dir), Maple Givens (org & dir), Burce Thorton (org), Jonathan Mitchum (org & dir), There have been many others that space will not permit us to name.
 A very important part of our history has been our Sunday School Program. We remember the significant contributions made by Issac Pleasants, Richard Sykes, John Rooks, Richard Atkins, Washington Truman, Cornelius Atkins, Amanda Young, Catherine Brown, Josephine Anderson, Pearl Johnson, Amanda Atkins, Alleyne K. Thorton, Barbara Brown Nelson, and Elaine B. Robinson.

      So many people have played a vital role in the work of this church. Many remain unnamed, some forgotten by us, but known to the Lord they loved and served. When the Rev Washington led us into this present building in 1961, lay people did the vital work of helping to install air conditioning, an indoor baptistery, a furnished kitchen and later additions to the building.  

      Rev. Washington's successor,  The Rev. Ronnie Flemming created the YCIA (Young Christians in Action).  He infused the church with a joyful spirit of enthusiasm as he got everyone engaged in numerous projects. Flemming's successor, the rev. Dr. Stephen Hewlett worked to help establish the Couples Ministry, the Singles' Ministry, and the Men's Ministry. Our current pastor, The Rev. Dr. Ray McKenzie, has made a number of innovations in the chruch's  educational system and has made attempts  to strengthen the ministry of the laity in the  church.  We also remember the help and guidance of the many associate pastors who have graced the pulpit of Gravel Hill.  The Rev. Robert S. Keel, The Rev. Alfred Keel, The Rev. Frank Ferrell, the Rev. Patrick Rooks, the Rev. E. Branch, the Rev. Moses Lightly, the Rev. Samuel Brown, the Rev. Sidney Henry, The Rev. Wendell Johnson, the Rev. David Young, The Rev. Holt, The Rev. Barbara Nelson, The Rev. Tyrone Nelson.  Some of these ministers are still with us. Many have passed on.
 But we also remember those who sing in the choir, those who sit in the pews, and those who stand as ushers at our doors.  We must all remember that there are those who work quietly and with little recognition.  These people are also making the history of this church by their words and even more by their  actions. The Communion of Saints includes those who have passed on (we call them the Church Triumphant), but that communion also includes those who are still fighting on the battle field for the Lord today (we are called the Church Militant).  As we continue to struggle, down here we are inspired by the deeds of the Saints who have gone on before, and we are strengthened by their prayers. We believe that  they are looking down on us from the balconies of Heaven, and that  they are cheering us on.  As the book of Hebrews says, ".seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.  Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." Hebrews 12:1-2.

      We know that Christ the King sets at the right hand of the throne of God. And we know that at the end of history He shall return, and that we shall be with Him and with those saints who have been such an important part of the history of this congregation.

                                                                                                                  William H. Anderson, Jr., Ph.D.

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    Gravel Hill Baptist Church
    5426 Longbridge Road
    Henrico, Virginia 23231

    Office (804) 795-5653 Fax (804) 795-2057


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