Celebrating the Heritage and Anticipating the Future
On April 16, 1803, just 27 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, five men and seven women of the pioneer Baptist Church in Fairfax County, Virginia asked that they be "dismissed agreeably… to be constituted into a regular Baptist Church in the town of Alexandria." Their request was approved.
Meeting on April 22, 1803 the twelve agreed that, "We, the underwritten subscribers… humbly desiring to be constituted into a regular church, hoping it may be for the glory of God… do hereby as in the presence of His Supreme Majesty, solemnly unite as a regular society to worship Him and promote His ordinances, maintain His truth and endeavor to promote His Glory in the world." Following the signing of this covenant, the twelve, with $1,988.87 borrowed from a charter member, Alexander Smith, erected a humble meeting house. Jeremiah Moore was called as their first pastor.
Jeremiah Moore was one of the most prominent traveling preachers of his day. In the late 1760's he was converted to the Baptist cause from the established Church of England. During the early years of his ministry he found that it was against the law to preach any doctrine that did not conform to the tenets of the Church of England. He was thrown in jail in Alexandria three times. On one occasion he was seized by a mob and sentenced to "lie in jail until you rot." Undeterred, Moore preached to huge crowds from the jail windows. When he was finally brought to trial he was defended by Patrick Henry, a vigorous exponent of religious liberty. Henry is reported to have said, "Great God gentlemen, a man in prison for preaching the gospel of the Son of God?" Jeremiah Moore was set free.
Moore was instrumental in the adoption of the First Amendment of the Constitution in 1790 establishing the doctrine of separation of church and state. A letter to Moore from Thomas Jefferson reflects their agreement on this vital issue.
Under Pastor Moore's leadership the membership grew to 54 by 1811. However, in 1812 under stern church discipline, four members were excommunicated.
John Paradise, a member of the congregation, followed Moore as pastor. In 1812 early church leaders were active in the founding of Columbia College, now George Washington University. Paradise was succeeded by Spencer Cone, a former actor who had renounced the stage for the ministry. When fire destroyed the church building in 1829, Pastor Samuel Cornelius toured the south on horseback to raise the money to help build a new church.
In the 1840's, a dispute over missionary activities split the church, with one group contending the Lord would carry out His work without interference from man. For a time the pro-missionary group and the pastor met across the street from the church at the Lyceum because the anti-missionary members had occupied the church building. A court decision settled the matter in favor of the pro-missionary group. Slowly spirits were healed and the church reunited.
In 1853, a new and larger church building was erected on Washington Street, but there were hard times ahead for the First Baptist congregation and Alexandria. The Civil War caused many protestant churches to halt regular services. The First Baptist Church continued regular worship services on Washington Street until June 1862 when, during Sunday worship a military guard seized the church building for use as a hospital. Until the war ended, the baptistery was used as a bathtub for sick and wounded soldiers.
The church met for a time in a building on Cameron Street. The pastor, Dr. C. C. Bitting, was arrested and jailed for a week because of his refusal to "publicly and approvingly pray for the President of the United States and for the Army and Navy." Dr. Bitting appealed forcefully to President Lincoln stating that Baptists with conscientious convictions throughout their history stood for complete separation of church and state. As a matter of conscience they "refrained from all complications of religious matters with civil, political, or military affairs." He asked that the church building be returned to the congregation. On May 21, 1865, Federal authorities returned the building to the church. Fifty years later the government settled with the church for rent and damages in the amount of $3,900.
The congregation used the building on Washington Street for 101 years, remodeling and improving it in 1887, 1892, and 1910. Following World War II, when the location allowed for no further expansion, a new site was purchased on King Street and the congregation moved to the new facility on May 9, 1954. Some members remained at the old site and formed Downtown Baptist Church. The church on King Street has continued to enlarge and improve facilities with the most recent renovation of our sanctuary coming in spring of 1989.
First Baptist Church's history is marked by the development of new congregations. The church helped form First Baptist Colored Church of Alexandria, Baptist Temple, Del Ray, Groveton, Glebe, Fair Park, Duke Street, and most recently New Hope Church, which held its first service on Easter Sunday, 1992. The growth of our own congregation has meant the addition of an early church service, and in October 1991, the beginning of two Sunday Schools.
First Baptist continues to be a growing and thriving family of Christians dedicated to the purpose of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the community and the world. Our church community includes a diverse membership and encompasses an active deaf congregation. In addition, the church building is used by a Vietnamese congregation and a Hispanic church. We look forward to the years ahead in God's service.