Sunday, May 13, 2018

Oldest African American Church Celebrates its 200th Anniversary
May 11, 2018

All they have is five names, a pastor and a date—May 16, 1818—as the official record begun 200 years ago this month of Mount Olive Baptist Church, Stafford County’s oldest African–American congregation, which continues to thrive today.

Celebrating the courage of those who started the church and kept it going for two centuries, its current leaders have planned several commemoration events next weekend.

Events will include a memorial service Friday at the church at 395 Mount Olive Road, a black-tie gala on May 19 at the Fredericksburg Hospitality House and Conference Center and a special Sunday worship service at the church May 20 at 11 a.m.

“We’re all very excited about this anniversary and the impact the church has had on the community,” said the Rev. Dr. Eric Shaw, Mount Olive pastor, adding that planning for the event has been underway for more than a year and has included significant fundraising and coordination.

“It’s going to be a fantastic time to reflect on the past,” Shaw said. “But this milestone can also be a springboard for the future.”

One of the things that attracted Shaw to join Mount Olive as pastor in 2016 was the church’s deep awareness of its origins. “I feel very fortunate to be here at this particular time, looking back and appreciating the sacrifices made over the years to keep the church strong,” he said.

“Of course, the church was started back in the days of slavery in Virginia,” said Sheila Boatwright, chairwoman of the celebration’s organizing committee. “It was against the law at the time for black people to assemble without a white person present.”

Horace Crutcher was white and filled that role. Some evidence suggests Crutcher helped other area congregations assemble with his attendance, as well. The official records identify Crutcher as founder of Mount Olive Baptist Church.

“Being white, he was the only one allowed to have that kind of label,” Boatwright said. “Even if those early members were free black people, they were still not allowed to assemble or have that title.”

Listed as members of that 1818 founding congregation are the Rev. Peter Nelson, Calvin Crutcher, Ben Clark, Jim Hall and Susan Nelson.

“We haven’t yet had the chance to research whether they were free or slaves,” Boatwright said. “Now, thanks to the new African–American Museum in D.C. and the project making the Freedmen’s Bureau records available, it might be possible to find out more information about that, but as of today, there’s still a mystery around our founding.”

Historians say the earliest church members assembled at what was called a slab harbor, a roughly built, somewhat-exposed shelter near where today’s building stands.

After Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, laws became even stricter, requiring that only white men could lead a church as pastor.

“Also, of course, blacks in the state of Virginia were not allowed to read or write, although some did learn, unknown to white people,” Boatwright said. “So our history was never written down, it had to be mostly verbal.”

Part of the bicentennial includes a video documentary the church has commissioned that will include memories shared by some who have been members at Mount Olive the longest, as well as footage from the commemorative events scheduled May 18–20.

“Some of our members are in their late 80s or 90s and have had years of membership in our church nearly as long,” Boatwright said. “We’re gathering what we can, but there are holes. We have all of the pastors, but don’t know the exact years they served, for example.”

Shaw noted that families in the congregation can trace their history back to the church’s earliest days.

“This is very much a family church,” he said. “As is often the case, we don’t have written family trees we can put up, but many of the family names are the same—we still have Hills and Parkers and a lot of the original people are still there.”

Well-known gospel singers and radio personalities and a Christian comedian will be featured at the Saturday night gala. On Sunday the congregation will march into the church as the 12 tribes of Israel, and following a special sermon by Pastor Shaw, Congressman Rob Wittman and Del. Mark Cole will recognize Mount Olive with a proclamation. Representing the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, Gary Snellings will present a proclamation from the county, as well.

“The music will be fabulous. Music is an integral part of all of our 200-year anniversary events,” Shaw said. “We worship through song, and we have some wonderful gospel worship planned for that weekend.”

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