North Fork Baptist Church

The North Fork Baptist Meeting House, a small log church, was built near the stream after which it was named in 1802.

Church minutes record several members being kicked out for drunkenness, infidelity and unbecoming conduct. One, Mahlon Combs, was in 1807 "repeatedly charged with drinking spiritous liquors to an excessive degree." The church did not play favorites; three years before his expulsion, Combs and his wife, Sarah, had donated land for a graveyard.

Despite being asked to leave, Combs was not adverse to providing the church with more land in 1810. This time, he charged $77.59 for a parcel of unrecorded size where the congregation set about to replace the 1802 church with the present brick Primitive Baptist Church. The congregation was small and funds were limited, so work progressed slowly, and the new building was not completed until late 1831 or early 1832.

Church minutes record a split between the established congregation of Primitive Baptists and the "North Fork Mission Baptists" in January 1835, but unlike at Ebenezer, where the two groups held services on alternate Sundays, the established North Fork Baptists did not allow the Mission Baptists to use their sanctuary.

But on Sunday, Aug. 15, 1846, when the Primitive Baptists -- now fewer in number than the Mission Baptists -- met for their service, they found themselves locked out of the church.

Their minutes read: "The New School Party [the Mission Baptists], having got into our house of worship before us, they excluded us from the use of our house for this day."

The New School minister that day was the Rev. Thaddeus Herndon, a noted Virginia Piedmont clergyman, and for decades afterward, the Old School Baptists would refer to their break-off brethren as the Herndon Party.

The Old Schoolers filed a lawsuit, and in the meantime, they tentatively agreed to alternate Sunday services at the church.

But the Primitive Baptists wanted to worship somewhere every Sunday, so they often trekked to a schoolhouse on Mount Gilead, two miles away. A swinging bridge, usable to this day, carried the families across North Fork, and then it was a mile uphill hike to the school.

Nine years after the Old Schoolers were locked out, they won a judgment and ejected the Herndon Party, which built its own church in 1856, across the graveyard from Primitive Baptist Church. That church looks just the same as when it was built, except that a tornado in May 1929 demolished its second story.

Both churchyards are notable for their stone stiles that allowed women riding sidesaddle to dismount easily. The stile in front of the new church is a long stone berm parallel to the building's facade. Among the Virginia gentry, riding astride a horse was considered to be indecent through the early 1920s.

Neighbor Mary Van Sickler Kephart, who kept the churches' shared graveyard mowed and tidy for more than a half-century, told me many years ago that she was brought up to ride astride a horse in the early 1900s. She said that the first time she rode in that fashion to Lincoln High School, the principal wrote her parents a note, requesting that their daughter stop. She couldn't adjust to sidesaddle, so her father built her a cart, and thereafter she was pulled to school by a pony.

As with the Ebenezer churches, memberships at the North Fork churches waned during the 20th century. Here the decline was slower, for rutted roads to the nearest Baptist churches in Hamilton, Middleburg and Purcellville kept the faithful closer to home.

In 1986, there were seven members of North Fork Primitive Baptist, no pastor and no elders. Donna Minor and her husband, Bill, who a decade earlier had cut his local remodeling teeth on Snickersville Store in Bluemont and who had been chief of exhibit design at the Smithsonian Institution, offered to purchase the 1832 church and grounds.

The seven congregants accepted the offer, and the Minors converted Primitive Baptist Church into their home. My history class for Loudoun teachers had visited the old church many times, and when we first saw the remodeling we noticed that Bill Minor had put up interior walls that did not touch the ceiling. Thus, the partitions could be removed at an instance's notice, and the building could be reconverted into a church. The building remains a home today.

Under the Rev. Parker Thompson, North Fork Baptist's pastor since 1993, the church has more than doubled its congregation -- to about 80, Thompson told me recently. The church has also offered courses in Greek and Hebrew and American and European church history.

After taking the course in beginning Hebrew, my diploma read, "Western Loudoun Institute for Biblical Studies." Thompson surmised that I might have thought the title a bit pretentious and countered my raised eyebrows with:

"Remember, Oxford [University] started by an ox ford, so why not at North Fork?"

The second North Fork church building was constructed in 1856.