VBHS Focuses on Religious Liberty at 2024 Annual Meeting in Culpeper
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VBHS Focuses on Religious Liberty at 2024 Annual Meeting in Culpeper

Virginia Baptist Historical Society holds annual meeting at historic church

May 16, 2024
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The Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS) held its annual meeting on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at the historic Culpeper Baptist Church, hosted by a congregation that is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

“What brings us here to this place tonight?” posed Rev. Dr. Nathan Taylor, VBHS executive director, as he welcomed attendees. He recalled the connections to James Ireland and John Leland and stated that Culpeper Baptist Church, originally founded as Mount Poney Baptist in 1774, stood for many years at its former location on the site where early Baptist ministers were imprisoned. “Religious freedom for some did not mean religious freedom for all,” he said, noting how that is still an issue today as “we reflect on all aspects of our complex story.” He continued, “The remembering is so very important,” in upholding VBHS’ goal “that we might know who we are, so it might inform where we’re going.”

In recognition of the church’s 250th anniversary, Taylor and Rev. Dr. Joe Lewis, VBHS president, presented to the congregation a framed certificate on behalf of the Society. Roger Clatterbuck, the church’s historian, accepted the honor with appreciation.

Nathan Taylor (right) and Joe Lewis (center) present Culpeper Baptist Church historian Roger Clatterbuck (left) with a certificate recognizing the church's 250th anniversary.

In an unusual act of moving artifacts outside their permanent homes in Richmond, Taylor brought attention to the lock and key from the Culpeper jail, which rested near the lectern during the meeting—displayed prominently to highlight its significance as what Taylor described as “a symbol of our dissenter identity and commitment to freedom of conscience on so many levels.”

Taylor gave a report of VBHS activities over the past year, focusing on the support they provided to the celebration of BGAV’s 200th anniversary as an organization, which culminated at their annual meeting in November 2023. He recognized and praised the work of VBHS’ executive committee and noted their recent action to create a new full-time archivist position on the staff, a much-needed role relating to the conservation and preservation of critical resources for Virginia Baptists.

Keynoter John Ragosta addresses
questions from attendees.

Taylor introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, Dr. John Ragosta, as “a scholar outside our direct circle of Baptists who often validates the way we see things in terms of the remarkable contribution of those courageous, early Baptist dissenters to the creation of our American tradition of a religiously plural democracy.” VBHS regularly recommends Ragosta’s books and invited him to speak from his research, specifically on how Baptists and Presbyterians influenced the development of religious freedom during the American Revolution. Ragosta holds a PhD and JD from the University of Virginia and is a noted historian, professor, lawyer, author, and speaker.

In his address, Ragosta explained that his fascination with the topic at hand began when he was studying the Culpeper Minutemen, one of whom was Rev. William McClanahan, a Baptist minister who was jailed in 1773 for preaching without a license. He knew the Anglican Church was the established Church in Virginia at that time, but he was unaware of the extent to which other ministers were jailed and persecuted. He said he simply had to find out why this man, who’d been jailed in Virginia for preaching, would then be willing to fight for Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

He went on to describe his findings as he researched, recounting several stories of how Virginia Baptists and Presbyterians grew in their numbers, becoming a perceived and real threat to state officials. Their influence and skills became necessary assets as time went on and as revolutionists sought independence, and religious freedom became the key element they sought—a sort of bargaining chip in return for their support as fighters in the Revolutionary War. Ragosta entertained questions after he spoke, several of which related to Baptist history regarding the separation of church and state and the implications of tax-exempt status for churches as charitable organizations.

Ragosta’s message resonated greatly with attendees. “Religious liberty is the story for the Baptists of Virginia and Dr. Ragosta tells our story well,” commented Dr. Dan Carlton, pastor of Culpeper Baptist Church. “It was a timely challenge for us to live out that legacy today.”

Dr. Mike Hatfield, pastor of Chatham Heights Baptist Church in Martinsville, reflected on how Ragosta brought attention to the inclusive nature of religious liberty. “Many don’t recognize that Baptists and Presbyterians were fighting for religious liberty for all; James Madison recognized that it had to include people of all faith backgrounds—for the Jew, the Muslim, for all.”

Other business occurring earlier in the meeting included a nominating committee report, given by Rev. Nancy Stanton McDaniel. With Mrs. Helen Wood, of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, declining a second term on the 23-person executive committee, Dr. Mike Hatfield, of Chatham Heights Baptist Church, Martinsville, was nominated and approved to serve. All current officers of the committee agreed to continue serving in their roles and were approved to do so again for 2024-2025: Dr. Joe Lewis, Second Baptist Church of Petersburg, president; Mr. Dennis Sacrey, Fredericksburg Baptist Church, first vice president; Mrs. Vivian Clingenpeel, River Road Church, Baptist, second vice president; and Dr. Herbert “Bert” Browning, River Road Church, Baptist, third vice president.

Reflecting on the event overall, Rev. Dr. Herbert Ponder, pastor of Mount Tabor Baptist Church in Richmond, concluded, “It is important to learn and celebrate the history of Baptists in Virginia and the impact to the broader community that was won because of their insistence on religious freedom.”

BGAV Treasurer David Washburn (left) brought greetings on behalf of BGAV to the VBHS annual meeting hosted by Pastor Dan Carlton's (right) church, Culpeper Baptist Church.

Joe Lewis drew a similar conclusion, saying, “This year’s annual gathering was as much an inspiration as it was a challenge to do the work needed to preserve, promote, and protect religious liberty for all.”

The VBHS looks forward to celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2026.

Watch the VBHS 2024 Annual Meeting recording

Last Updated:    
May 23, 2024