Among the 28 antebellum houses of worship in Loudoun County are two pairs of Baptist churches with shared graveyards, the Ebenezer and North Fork churches. The unusual situation of having two buildings on each church property -- unique to the Virginia Piedmont -- stems from a doctrinal split in 1831.
Both churches date from a period of spiritual revival in the mid-1700s known as the Great Awakening after the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a New England Congregational minister, used the word "awakening" during a 1734 revival.
In Virginia at the time, the Baptist and Methodist faiths were increasing in number. These denominations relied on the Bible for inspiration and believed that one could be baptized only when one understood the message of Jesus. The colonies' official Anglican Church sanctioned infant baptism, and the complex Anglican services did not appeal to most farmers on the frontier. Anglican ministers, whose salaries were paid by taxpayers, also lived on plantations paid for with public funds.
Baptist preachers were typically farmers or tradesmen, as were their congregants. Some preachers were itinerants who attracted great crowds. They lived on the offerings of the throng and on the hospitality of locals. Other than to baptize or convert, the expounders' goal was to found churches.
Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman living in Loudoun County, alluded to their style, so different from that of an Anglican minister, in a 1775 diary entry, when he wrote that a Baptist preacher uttered "Bombast, Noise and Nonsense" during a service.
Ebenezer Cemetery Churches
It is not known when Ebenezer was founded, but local tradition says between 1755 and 1769. Its existence was first recorded in a September 1769 will in which Samuel Butcher Sr. left "two acres of land to the Baptist Meeting House and School House, the same that the Meeting House is now built upon, to be for that use forever."
Except for Anglican churches, houses of worship in Colonial America and through the 1850s were usually referred to as meetinghouses. The word is still used today by the Quakers. Many early meetinghouses in the Virginia Piedmont had adjacent schools, and one stood by the Ebenezer churches until about 1900. There were no public schools in Loudoun until 1866.
In "The Signs of the Times," an 1834 Baptist publication, an article written by Ebenezer clerk Barton Richards said, "A new meetinghouse was built on this lot in the year 1802, and enlarged in the year 1822."
Although the 1802 date does not agree with 1755-69 dates noted on a Daughters of the American Revolution plaque in front of the Ebenezer churches, hundreds of years ago the term "built" often referred to a remodeling. When you look at the church today, you can see numerous changes in stonework and the placement of doors and windows.
The name Ebenezer does not appear in print until 1804. Samuel Butcher Sr.'s eldest son, John, stated in his will that when his wife died, his plantation was to be rented out for "use of the Church, formerly called Butcher's Meeting House, but now called Ebenezer."
One hundred pounds (equivalent to about $6,500 today) of the rental money was to be used "toward walling the graveyard, and the balance to go to the use of said church poor."
Ebenezer was not a common name for churches at that time. Perhaps coincidentally, the elder Butcher was named Samuel, and it was the biblical Samuel who set up the memorial stone "Eben-ezer" -- a Hebrew word meaning "stone of help" -- to celebrate the Israelites' victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:12).
In the early 1800s, four main issues began to divide the Baptists in America.
A new group wanted paid ministers; the old Baptists said lay preachers were fine.
The new group wanted some music accompanied by an instrument; the old Baptists held to a cappella singing. The new group believed in missionaries; the older group felt that proselytizing was not in order.
The new group did not feel that children should have to sit through two- or three-hour services but should attend a special school -- today's Sunday school. The old Baptists said children should remain with their parents during services.
These differences led to an 1831 split. In 1834, congregants Edwin B. Grady, a doctor, and John Butcher, probably a grandson of Samuel Butcher, reconciled the two groups in Loudoun by suggesting that each group worship on different Sundays.
This arrangement apparently worked for a decade, but in late 1855, the upstart "New School" Baptists bought land "for a new church," according to the deed.
The new church probably arose the following year. Local carpenter John Meeks built it in the then-popular Greek Revival style. Gradually, the neighborhood began to refer to the old stone church as "Old Ebenezer" and the new one as "New Ebenezer," designations in use today.
The old Baptists began to be called "Old School Baptists" or "Hard Shell Baptists" or, as they are known today, "Primitive Baptists."
According to old-timers, Old Ebenezer was where John Singleton Mosby's Confederate raiders divided up $173,000 in U.S. currency stolen during an October 1863 raid on a Union army payroll train that was stopped at Duffield's in Jefferson County.
Each raider received $21,000, equivalent to a lifetime's wages. Mosby refused to accept his share, so the raiders chipped in and, for $2,000, bought him Croquette, an Oatlands thoroughbred that he had admired.
As the Confederate dollar was then worth about 10 cents compared with the U.S. dollar, old-timers contend that after the raid, U.S. money became the expected currency of exchange in southwest Loudoun.
The decline of Primitive Baptists in the Virginia Piedmont led to the closing of Old Ebenezer in 1902. Improved roads and automobiles led most of New Ebenezer's congregants to attend churches in Middleburg, Upperville and Round Hill in the 1920s, and the severe drought of 1930 closed New Ebenezer for what many expected to be the last time.
James "Jim" Walsh, a farmer and then-chairman of the Loudoun County School Board, saw to it that both New and Old Ebenezer would open again. His son, Alec, with whom I spoke recently, told me that a main reason for his father's interest in restoring the vacant churches and their grounds stemmed from his family having lived on the old Butcher plantation for about 100 years starting in the 1750s.
In 1971, Jim Walsh and others began a 10-year effort. I remember him talking about it to one of my history classes for Loudoun teachers. We were at the churchyard. The restorations had begun, but the graveyard hadn't been cleared of brush and small trees.
It was dusk, this time of year, when out of a break in the stone wall crept Delaplane filmmaker Tom Davenport, wearing a ghoulish costume.
He had been making a children's film. Jim Walsh was livid. His mother's family was interred there. Davenport was contrite.
The cost for a decade of work was about $30,000, every bit raised by locals and Purcellville's Robey Foundation. Melvin "Buddy" Allder, Truman Hawes Jr. and Louis Underwood were the main carpenters. Jim Walsh laid the new floor of Old Ebenezer. John Virgil Santmyer electrified the old church, and his son, John Santmyer Jr., put electric heat in the new church. All the workers volunteered their time or labored for pennies.
As no architect had assisted the restorers, when the work was completed I asked Jim Walsh whether he would have done anything differently. "Well," he said, "I think we might have left the old chimney flues in the old church. But the stoves are still there, and we could put the flues back any time."
Old Ebenezer has electricity and heat, so the building can be used as a community center. Except for a half-bath, and electric heat to keep the old floors from warping, the restorers retained New Ebenezer's 19th-century look. They did not add electric lights. The church is now used for such occasions as weddings and funerals, and there are two services a year to raise funds for upkeep.
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?"
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.