The oldest African-American Baptist church in the nation, First Baptist Church had a very humble beginning in Prince George County when a group of Blacks known as the New Lights gathered for worship. In 1756 Elders William Murphy, Phillips, and Mackey preached to the scattered members of New Lights. However, in 1774, the Rev. John Michaels united them and formed a regular Baptist Church known as the First African Baptist Church. Later this organization moved to Petersburg, VA and a house of worship was built on Harrison Street near the present location; Elder John Benn was pastor. This house was a victim of fire and the congregation moved to Oak Street.
During the pastorate of Elder Daniel Jackson, a lot on Harrison Street facing Maple Lane was purchased. Elder Jackson served as pastor until after Nat Turner’s insurrection (August 21, 1831) when the law was changed and a white person had to be present at all church meetings. Pastors serving from 1842 through 1858 were: Rev. Gwaltney and Elder R. N. Lee. Rev. John Butler took charge in 1860 and when he left in 1865, the church had a membership of 1,700. A lot where the present church stands was secured and a sanctuary was, built at a cost of $11,000. It was dedicated in 1863.
Rev. Harrison Scott and Elder John H. Gaines followed as pastors. In 1866 the house was burned, sums were subscribed for construction, and by 1870 work had advanced to the point that it was useable for worship. Rev. P. T. Smith was pastor for 18 months.
Rev. Leonard A. Black was pastor from 1873 to 1883. During his pastorate, approximately 1,700 persons joined the church, giving it a total membership of around 3,600. The steeple to the present church was erected, the building and lot where the parsonage once stood (north side of the church) were purchased.
To date, many renovations have been made, including the addition of the education building in 1980 during the pastorate of Rev. Clyde Johnson. Renovations have been made to the sanctuary and roof, as well as the purchase of additional lots.
First Baptist Church continues to be a vital part of the outreach programs of the city–membership in Downtown Churches United, donations to educational/scholarship programs, several food service programs, benevolence program, clothes distribution, and assistance to recent flood victims.
First Baptist has been blessed by the service of other ministers: Rev. C. B. W. Gordon, Dr. E. M. Brawley, Rev. Ellis Watts, Rev. Eli Tartte, Rev. S. T. Eldridge, Rev. W. E. Sanderlin, Rev. W. W. Roberts, Rev. Milton A. Reid, Rev. Clyde Johnson, Rev. Robert Jemerson (interim), Rev. Harold A. Carter, and Rev. G. G. Campbell (interim). The present pastor, The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Tillman was called in July of 1999.
|Liberty and Harrison Streets|
|236 Harrison Street|
|Petersburg, VA 23803|
|click here for map/directions|