Presbyterians grow – part one

By Frances Stebbins


This is a memory from the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly, and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.

Presbyterians, among the earliest settlers of the Roanoke Valley, were a people on the move 50 years ago.

The national reunion of southern and northern branches of the denomination, the growth of young families from this group, tending to the educated white collar and professional, and expansion into the suburbs all contributed to success in both worldly and spiritual ways.

In the current outpouring of angry reaction to an act of police brutality and calls for drastic changes in the treatment of “people of color,” it was revealing to look back at my yellowed news clippings. They showed that even nearly 40 years ago, major steps were being taken by the old Southern Presbyterian Church to eliminate any separation of the races.

A bit of history. In the 20 years or so before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the issue of enslaved people was troubling to many active in their churches. In the South the basic agricultural economy –wealth for some was reckoned by the amount of land they owned—made the use of African-Americans to work in the fields seem essential. The northern states had developed in a different way, and 75 years after the official founding of the nation, many there were actively trying to abolish the practice.

In Methodism a division occurred over a bishop’s owning slaves, and in time there were Methodist Episcopal Churches –South to which most in Western Virginia belonged. Presbyterians also divided over the issue with the predominantly black Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke being aligned with a different national body until relatively recent years. Some of its ministers like the Rev. William James Simmons, mentioned in a recent news story about how racial integration came to Roanoke were activists; I remember him from the 1950s.

Baptists—of which there are many varieties serving both black and white believers—also divided. They remained apart. The familiar Southern group tends to be more conservative biblically and culturally. I learned early of the several congregations, especially Calvary of Roanoke, which were more akin to the American Baptists in the North.

For Lutherans who came from several Northern European nations, slavery was less an issue than national identities. Nor did either Roman Catholics or Episcopalians divide though in time colonization of America resulted in marked differences in the makeup of parishes and in worship styles. The “peace churches” like Brethren, Mennonite and Quakers left their own mark, as did liberal rationalist Unitarians in the North.

Disciples of Christ, the first truly American group, came from Presbyterians on the frontier. They believed in more frequent Holy Communion as well as churches working closely together.

Back to Presbyterians. As the 20th Century left Great Depression and World War II behind, the international move to “one world” —unlike the renewed nationalism of today—inspired a need for unity.

Methodists –the northern and southern groups as well as a third known as Methodist Protestant –came together just before World War II. This represented the first of several joinings of familiar denominations in Western Virginia. “United” was added to the official name in 1968 when the Evangelical United Brethren Church (“EUB”) affiliated.

The oldest Presbyterian congregations in the Roanoke area were all associated with the southern branch of the church with the Botetourt County fellowships and those in the older towns like Salem and Christiansburg having been established before the emotional issue of slave ownership split the nation apart nearly 160 years ago.

The Presbyterian form of government is different from that of Roman Catholics, Episcopal and United Methodist where bishops serve as both spiritual and administrative leaders in a specific area known as a diocese or conference.

Presbyteries, sometimes described as church courts, offer something of a middle ground between bishop-led and congregation –governed. Meetings to decide policies are held several times yearly. When, on the national level in the 1970s, the machinery of uniting the northern and southern divisions was being decided, the change could not go into effect until a certain number of the “courts” had voted affirmatively.

In the winter of 1983, at a meeting of the presbytery covering most congregations in the Roanoke and New River Valleys, a small bit of history was made. I was present at downtown Roanoke’s Second Presbyterian Church when lay and clergy commissioners voted Yes to the national union. It was the deciding vote needed, and cheers were heard.

Rewarding as that vote was, six years later one of my columns revealed the frustrations the re-allignment of boundaries throughout Western and Central Virginia caused. A headquarters office in Roanoke closed; it’s long been in Lynchburg. Quarterly regional meetings required longer drives, and the familiar leaders changed with a few black members joining their white neighbors on committees.

It’s now more than 30 years into national union. The little Fifth Avenue Church in black Gainsboro, where Confederate general “Stonewall’ Jackson was once honored because a slave he had taught in Lexington had been its founder, is rejecting that legacy now. History moves on.

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