By Frances Stebbins


First of Two Parts: Botetourt Changes


ªThis is a chapter in a Memoir, “Give Light…” of the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.)


So what’s new? Baptists are always breaking ground, and in the center of growing “Beautiful Botetourt” as land developers like to call the area immediately to the northeast of Roanoke, the large Southern Baptist congregation is always building something.

It was not always so. In mid-20th Century, when my late husband and I drove from Petersburg to Roanoke on a late January day to take reporting jobs with the daily afternoon newspaper, we scarcely noticed the village clinging to the Norfolk & Western Railway tracks. It sat in rolling apple orchard country.

There were two main churches in the village, I learned in coming years as I checked out information sent in for the afternoon newspaper’s Church Page. They were the Baptist and the Methodist and they faced US 460 as it came into the city from the east.

Not far away was Glade Creek Lutheran, an old congregation with a cemetery. In fact, the area was dotted with small, rural Protestant congregations for both races.

Ten miles to the northwest in the quaint Botetourt County seat town at Fincastle, three picturesque churches with their steeples beautified the rolling hills. Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal, they predated the Civil War. While Bonsack Baptist opened its doors to the street, the Fincastle Baptists – I visited them, too, way back —had an unimpressive little building on a back street in the historic town.

Things began to change around 1970, especially for the Baptists. A new pastor led the Fincastle congregation south out of the cramped streets to open space south of the town.

Soon Fincastle Baptist had taken on the identify of other growing congregations with an extensive child care program, a ministry to the deaf, recreation to attract family units and plenty of space for parking.

In its new site, the Bonsack congregation, soon to be under the pastorate of a moderately inclined Rev. Robert Moore, also began adding to its original plans. Over the decades that Moore steered it away from the Fundamentalist leadership which changed the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention 40 years ago, the Bonsack folk expanded staff to nearly a dozen ordained men and women. The monthly newsletter reveals that new members are added nearly every week.

I have been there several times, the most recently being to see its huge athletic center for the community. (Bethel Baptist in Salem also built one for its South Salem neighborhood, though somewhat smaller.)

After a pastorate of more than 30 years, Moore was looking to retirement. He and his deacons moved to further creativity. They were well aware that such a long time with one minister often leads to a breakdown in the church for a newcomer.

They entered into a new arrangement, that of calling “a succession pastor,” the Rev. Dr. Chris Cadenhead from Texas. Under a contract, he and his family agreed to a two-year trial period, which, if mutually satisfactory, would lead to his permanent call following Moore’s retirement. Apparently, it’s worked.

So now, with Moore still around but the former Texan fully in charge, Cadenhead in the monthly publication announced in January an adaptation to the digital age. The printed publication will be issued in alternate months, and its contents reflective and personal from both pastor and members about such topics as living the God-centered life. Necessary but routine announcements will be made electronically and through the many more specific groups.

That’s the real meaning of breaking new ground.

The Bonsack Methodists – “United” was added to the name in a national merger of 50 years ago— remained closer to the old village. However, that group long since outgrew the chapel. With the widening of US 460, a new building came about, and the parish grew accordingly. Today its folk work actively in hunger relief and join ecumenically with other congregations in Roanoke’s eastern suburbs leading to the Smith Mountain Lake retirement community.

Directly to the north in Botetourt the churches around Buchanan have grown less rapidly. One of the oldest, Mill Creek Baptist, has undergone countless changes in the more than 200 years it has dominated a rise on US 11; I’ve been there for celebrations related to its history, for it’s the mother congregation of the dozens bearing the title of Baptist.

As Daleville homes and businesses sprawled across US 220, tiny Methodist fellowships joined to make a new and vibrant St. Mark’s United Methodist. Like the Baptists with their facilities for younger families, Methodists in both Daleville and Fincastle have built separate structures for fellowship and education and as community gathering places.

Last, but hardly least, are Churches of the Brethren. Eighteenth-century pioneers from Germany by way of Pennsylvania, they came as simple pacifists along with Lutherans and Presbyterians.  Establishing a conference center, Camp Bethel, in Botetourt 90 years ago, they have made their mark as orchardists, farmers and peace activists.

In a day when conference centers have become a liability for many denominations, Camp Bethel continues to carry past into present.