It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.
Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.
Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”
On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”
The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”
And then it was up to the church.
The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.
Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”
It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.
The word spread like wildfire.
The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.
It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.
But we do know this:
Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”
It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.
It was truly a night to remember.
Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).