First Baptist Church builds upon storied past

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg continues making history with the return of its “Let Freedom Ring” challenge. It began in February 2016 as a month-long celebration of the church’s 240th anniversary, centering around the restoration of its Freedom Bell, which fell silent during the 1950s due to structural issues.

The challenge, which returned Feb. 1 and runs through the end of the month, encourages people to visit the church and ring the bell as a symbol of the belief in freedom and equality. It serves as one part of the church’s larger, ongoing mission.

“You can refer to it as one of the defining moments in the history of this church,” said Donald Hill, chairman of the church’s Men’s Fellowship and a guide on church tours for those interested in ringing the bell themselves and learning about the church’s history. “It was just very, very special.”

The inaugural 2016 festivities drew the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, soul singer Dionne Warwick and R&B performer Valerie Simpson in celebration of Black History Month and the progress made since the church was founded — the same year as the United States — making it one of the oldest African-American congregations in the country.

In September 2016, the restored bell traveled to Washington, D.C., where President Obama rang it as part of the dedication of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“The church hasn’t been the same since,” Hill said. “This is more or less a gift from God.”

First Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Reginald Davis, said the journey generated ample excitement within the church’s membership, garnered a few new members and helped increase revenue more than 10 percent. But its reach extended well beyond Scotland Street.

“It was a wonderful experience, but I think also it helped invigorate the hopes of people that democracy could work for all people,” Davis said.

The church welcomed more than 4,000 visitors throughout February 2016 and saw roughly 7 million people participate virtually through its website. Since then, the bell sits in the church’s steeple, regularly ringing as a reminder of the value of freedom and justice for all and continuing to bring attention to First Baptist.

Renee Kingan, a student and Ph.D candidate at the College of William and Mary, turned in her graduation form Thursday and capped the momentous day with a visit to the bell and tour of the church.

“It’s been a long process,” she said. “I have wanted to ring the bell since I heard about it last year.”

The dissertation she is working on centers around the interplay between poetry and freedom, a natural complement to the bell and its symbolism.

“We have not reached equality,” Kingan said. “We have not reached a truly free place, and we need to keep doing the work.”

Liz Montgomery, a member of the church’s History Ministry, said the bell’s message still rings true.

“I think it’s still relevant because the country is, at this point, somewhat divided,” she said.

Now, as much as ever

Davis said the church is focusing on the second phase of “Let Freedom Ring.” The church’s staff and congregation are rallying to add the site to the National Registry of Historic Places, which could lead to grants and tax incentives. The new chapter emphasizes what Davis calls “the three R’s”: reconciliation, redemption and remembrance.

“Now we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get to work so we can hopefully hand this nation over to the next generation in a better spot,” he said. “People love what we’re doing. So we just want to continue that because the healing of our nation is our major objective.”

Davis said the ideals for which the church advocates are even more pressing now than they were two years.

“With the new president, whether or not he is what they say he is, it has emboldened a lot of negative things in the country that should have been gone by now,” he said. “Clandestine groups feel emboldened to come out to reclaim something that should be for all of us.”

In a divided nation, Davis hopes for healing and celebrating — not simply tolerating — diversity.

“I think our world would be very boring if all of the flowers looked the same,” he said. “I think we could not appreciate creation.”

Davis said he sees hope as more people are inspired to participate in the nation’s democratic process. The church’s members expressed support for the pastor’s ideals.

“What the pastor’s teaching to the community, it becomes a ripple effect,” said Harris James, a member of two years, prior to the church’s Ash Wednesday service. “It spreads so much love to everyone.”

Linda Howard, who was born in Williamsburg and grew up at First Baptist, said the history of the church and the nation can provide motivation to overcome contemporary challenges.

“History is what makes life better. If you don’t understand your history, how can you improve?” she said, adding the attention generated by the church helps on the spiritual side as well. “Since the bell has come alive, there are more people coming back to church.”

First Baptist also regularly sees visitors from across the country, and some have traveled from the United Kingdom. For Thursday’s tours, the church saw visitors from Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, alongside several Williamsburg residents.

Janet Bird and her husband, Paul, hail from Lebanon County, Penn. Since stumbling upon the “Let Freedom Ring” festivities during a visit in 2016, the former elementary school teachers have made an annual tradition of visiting the church.

She lauded the church’s efforts in fostering freedom and unity for all alongside the information provided by the tour, which includes artifacts from the church’s old Nassau Street location and a 7-minute video chronicling the church’s founding through its momentous 2016 event.

“It definitely gives a good background,” she said. “I think that puts it all together for us.”

Although the latest rendition of the “Let Freedom Ring” challenge runs through the end of February, Hill said guests are welcome to ring the bell and experience the church throughout the year as its story continues to unfold.

“The bell never stops ringing,” he said. “All you have to do is come by and pull the rope.”

Want to go?

First Baptist Church of Williamsburg is located at 727 Scotland St. For information on tours, services and programs, visit fbcwilliamsburg1776.org or call 229-1952.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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