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‘Let Freedom Ring’: Church founded by slaves rings bell for first time

by Alicia Hadley HADLEY,
This year, the United States will celebrate 240 years of Independence. Yet, the continual outcry for racial and religious equality proves the fight for freedom is long from over. While many search for an authoritative voice in the midst of the country’s current civil mayhem, the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg is sounding off with one simple act that could speak volumes—the ringing of its bell.

Secretly founded by slaves in 1776, the church’s history is rooted in the struggle for freedom and justice. Gowan Pamphlet, the first pastor of First Baptist, and an early minister known as “Moses” were vehemently persecuted.

In an effort to eradicate the church, the leaders were repeatedly whipped and threatened. Despite being faced with malicious opposition, the all-black congregation proved resilient and the doors of the church remained open.

“Virginia law forbade groups of slaves to meet without owner’s permission, and officials were especially wary of the dangers posed by religious gatherings among slaves. So at its founding, the church met in secret. Sadly, its original ‘church book,’ a record of membership and sacraments kept by literate members and likely required for its eventual admission into the Dover Baptist Association, is lost,” says Colonial Williamsburg historian Linda Rowe.

Much of the church’s early records were lost. However, its involvement in civil rights advocacy is without controversy. In 1793, Pastor Pamphlet helped to organize a slave revolt comprised of 6,000 slaves from Richmond, Va to Charleston, SC. That year, the church grew to 500 members and acquired church membership into the Dover Baptist Association which openly opposed slavery.

In 1862, First Baptist Church served as a hospital for the wounded during the civil war’s Peninsula Campaign and Battle of Williamsburg. A year after the confederate defeat, John M. Dawson became pastor and lead the congregation for 46 years.

Dr. Tommy L. Bogger, founder of the Harrison B. Wilson Archives and African Art Gallery at Norfolk State University, cites Dawson as a “voice of conciliation and reason.” Following in the footsteps of the early founders, he served on the Virginia General Assembly and as the city treasurer making him an influential dignitary for the black community.

By the 1960s, First Baptist was well known as an establishment of social change. In 1962, the sanctuary was graced by the presence of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led the congregation in prayer. Later, the church was visited by Rosa Parks. Early after the civil rights movement, the church began integrating women into leadership roles.

By 1982, Rev. Mary Ellis was ordained as its first female associate minister. “First Baptist Church’s significance extends far beyond its walls and its community,” Bogger says. “…It has always played a significant part in the history of the state and the nation.”

Though the church has proven monumental in the pursuit for equality, its bell, installed in the 1880s, has been silent throughout much of the civil rights era. In 2015, the church’s twenty-first pastor, Rev. Reginald F. Davis, representatives from First Baptist and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) began talks to reconstruct the bell. What started as a conversation to restore a historical artifact transformed into one of restoring the nation.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who prayed in our church, also said that freedom rings. A silent bell represents unfinished work of freedom and equality,” says Pastor Davis.

“This is first and foremost about the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, our community, and a larger message we hope to share with the nation,” says Mitchell Reiss, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Colonial Williamsburg was built by enslaved African Americans and it was rebuilt in the 1920s and ’30s largely by African American workers. We believe that this is a moment in time where we can provide some of our assistance to the church to make a statement that we think will be heard across the country.”

2015 was a year plagued by racial tension, violence and injustice in America. However, 2016 marks the 240th anniversary of both the Declaration of Independence and the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. For this cause, The church and the CWF have revived the bell and initiated the “Let Freedom Ring” campaign.

In an effort to ring the bell throughout the entire month of February, the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg is inviting Americans of all races and creeds to ring the restored bell in the name of racial equality and religious freedom.

“The thought behind ringing the bell is to continue the work of justice and equality. To get us to go back to our fundamental values in America. We see that the train has run off the track and we’re trying to get it back on track so that people of all races and creeds can be a part of our country,” says Pastor Davis.

“It is our sincere hope that with this simple act, we may channel the courage and the foresight of America’s founders, and of the church’s founders, so that we may further the national conversation and bring to it a renewed sense of hope,” says Reiss.

Today celebrities, politicians and dignitaries gather to spearhead the initiative. During the month, the CWF will also initiate open dialogue on racial and religious equality officiated by national and community leaders.

Visit for more information and to reserve your spot to ring the bell.


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