Culpeper County’s oldest black church is celebrating a history of faithfulness, even in times of bondage, for its 173rd anniversary this Sunday, June 7, 2020.
St. Stevens Baptist Church, located on York Road in Stevensburg, was initially part of Stevensburg Baptist Church, about half-mile north, said the Rev. Derrick J. Mathis.
“At one point, the church had more African Americans than Caucasians. So, Stevensburg Baptist decided to allow those who were enslaved to worship together at their own location. Out of it the St. Stevens Baptist Church was formed in 1847,” Mathis said, noting the church formed 16 years before President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863.
The white congregants at Stevensburg Baptist did not mix with the nearly 100 African-American churchgoers, still enslaved, when they gathered to worship, said the St. Stevens pastor. After establishing their own church as St. Stevens, by 1860 the congregation had nearly doubled, to 190 members.
The former church building survived three fires set during the Civil War by Confederate soldiers and individuals who wanted to discourage peaceful blacks from gathering together after the war, the pastor said.
Rebuilding began in 1874 and the church burned again thereafter. Without a building, church members met in an old schoolhouse on Batna Road. In 1886, Dr. Edwin Barbour gifted land to St. Stevens for a new church built with hand-cut lumber.
Another fire displaced congregants to the church building at Shiloh Baptist in Brandy Station until the current church was built in 1916. A new sanctuary was added in 1990, according to church history. Mathis attributed St. Stevens’ longevity to a long history of steadfastness among members.
“Faithful servants, while still during slavery, loved the Lord enough and desired to praise and worship him, despite their current circumstances,” Mathis said. “The members were living around people who hated them for no other reason than their skin color. Before people took the time to get to know them, they were targeted and attacked, because many of the people never took the time to discover the actual content of their hearts.”
Mathis, pastor at St. Stevens for the past nine years, said he is proud to serve there. He believes it is the oldest African-American church in Culpeper County.
“My wife, Sheila, and I are in love with our congregation and they are in love with us. We continuously thank God for bringing us together,” he said.
Culpeper native Helen Clanagan, who works in community services, is a lifelong member of St. Stevens. “This is my hometown church,” she said. “I have been a member all my life. I have been the church clerk for over 20 years.”
Mathis said he is in awe that the church is still standing and praising God 173 years later.
In today’s world, he said, it is more important than ever that people have something to hold onto and rely on.
“Something to trust in and something to help them make it through these storms of life that we often find ourselves dealing with,” he said. “What we as Christians believe with all of our hearts is Jesus is our risen Savior and our soon-coming King.”
He added, “No church is perfect, including St. Stevens, but what we as Christians understand and what helps us get through tough times is knowing that when we mess up—and we will—when we miss the mark—and we will—we have a savior to turn to for forgiveness.”
The St. Stevens family will not meet in person in its physical building to celebrate the notable anniversary this Sunday due to COVID-19, but the congregation is united nonetheless.
“Having a strong church family offers an additional support system of love, encouragement, and accountability,” Mathis said. It helps in times of despair, frustration, and loneliness, guiding believers back to the foundation in Christ, he said, calling the historic congregation kind, loving, sharing and faithful.
The church’s theme and commitment for 2019-2020 is to “Stay Focused, Stay Faithful and Stay Prayed Up!” For information, see ssbcculpeperva.org.
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