Tale of Two Churches Reflects Split Over Slavery

By Eugene Scheel
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Middleburg United Methodist Church, a classic high-steepled brick church on Washington Street whose founding was rooted in the denomination's bitter split over slavery, is celebrating its 150th anniversary today.

Methodism in the Virginia Piedmont dates to 1780, when horseback-riding evangelist Francis Asbury first preached at Rectortown, six miles southwest of Middleburg and at the time the largest village in the area.

Asbury, whose assistant minister was black, believed in a country where all people should be free. In 1783, he wrote that he and other ministers "all agreed in the spirit of African liberty."

He did not live to see the Protestant churches enmeshed in pro- and anti-slavery arguments. Nationally, pro-slavery Methodists broke from the fold in 1845, and churches in Hillsboro, Leesburg and Middleburg cleaved into Northern and Southern Methodist congregations, with the latter condoning slavery.

The few white Methodists in Middleburg who were anti-slavery stayed at the town's first Methodist church, Asbury, built in 1829 on Jay Street. The pro-slavery majority left to worship at the Free Church (free to all Protestants, now the Baptist Church). But they had designs on Asbury, and bad blood reigned.

Two breakaway members of the Free Church and sometime farmers, Edwin Conway Broun and William Rawlings, had seen a neighbor build what was termed a "spite fence," as farms were then usually not fenced. The best legacy they could provide their children, Broun and Rawlings reasoned, was to start a new church rather than argue about an old one. So in 1857, they donated land for Middleburg Methodist Church, and the building was completed the following year.

I spoke recently with the Rev. M. Douglas Newman, who was Middleburg's pastor from 1947 to 1950. Although his tenure was relatively short, he played an important role in improving relations between Middleburg and Asbury Methodist, which by then was an all-black congregation.

Newman, who now lives in Newport News, has spent 67 of his 85 years in the ministry. He was licensed to preach at 16, while a student at Ferrum Junior College in Ferrum, Va., and he was 23 when he became Middleburg's pastor.

His three-year pastorate was the norm for a Methodist minister until the 1980s, the rule being that a congregation should not become attached to one preacher. Thus an old Piedmont saying: "The only person to move in and out of town was the Methodist minister."

Newman remembers well the distinctions of class and race that prevailed in the hunt country of upper Fauquier and lower Loudoun counties. "Middleburg was divided between the landowner class and the merchant-teacher-tradesman class," he said. "There were also those who worked on the estates in sort of a master-serf relationship in their way of living."

He remembered a father and son who went to see him, "both with an intended bride."

"Their dress, speech and manner indicated they were quite poor. I married them in the church, and in the end they gave me $2," he said, which was equivalent to about $22 today. "I gave it back. They certainly needed it more than I did."

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