Historians: Oldest Baptist church in NC is older yet
By Cindy Beamon
Albemarle Life Editor
Friday, October 7, 2016
Shiloh Baptist Church in Camden is built over a graveyard with markers in its crawl space dating back to when the nation was still young.
The church's history goes back even further.
A new highway marker proclaims it is the oldest Baptist church in North Carolina. Its congregation was formed before the United States of America came into existence.
The marker's offical dedication is next week, but local historian Brian Forehand was not sure if those buried at the grave site would be entirely pleased with the happy occasion. Because of weather, the ceremony originally set for this week has been rescheduled to Saturday, Oct. 15, along with the church’s fall festival.
The marker states the church was organized by Sept. 5, 1729, but members have long asserted that the congregation was formed two years earlier. They just don't have documented proof.
"Local tradition says they were meeting before then, but the powers that be said we better go with 1729," Forehand said last week.
Twice before now, once in the 1930s and another time in the 1950s, the church rejected proposals by the N.C. State Highway Historical Marker Program because of the dispute.
Proof of the church's age dates back to when England still ruled the proprietary colonies it established in the New World.
The church petitioned British King George II in 1729 asking permission to meet as a place of worship. Church members believe the church formed during the rule of George II's predecessor Charles II. When George II came to the throne, he began requiring churches, other than The Church of England, to file the petitions, possibly because of unrest spreading among the American colonies. The king had reason to be suspicious of the Baptists, who were active in dissent against England's rule, noted current pastor the Rev. Billy Royal in an interview last week.
George II's command had one unforeseen effect. The petition pinned Shiloh Baptist Church to that place in history.
Church records indicate the congregation first met in the home of William Burgess, two or three miles from its current location on N.C. Highway 343 South. A building, initially called Camden Meeting House, was erected in 1736 along the Portohonk Creek. The existing church was built nearby in 1849. Two tombstones on the outside of the church mark the graves of Dempsey Burgess (1811-1867) and his wife, who donated the land.
Forehand said he's happy about the new highway marker in front of the church despite the dispute over the founding date. Like his father Billy Forehand, who was church historian before him, he still believes the correct date was 1727 -- not 1729. The younger Forehand was willing to concede the point with wording that the church was formed "by" Sept. 5, 1729.
"It's more important for people to know this is the oldest Baptist church in North Carolina," said Forehand, a retired history teacher.
Forehand is among several church members whose family histories date back to the church's beginnings.
His family's presence in Camden goes back 300 years.
Church member Anne Burgess Jennings is related to the Burgess family who founded the church. Her ancestors settled in Old Trap in 1690s when Camden was part of Pasquotank County. One of her ancestors was a Native American named Claypia Kite, born June 25, 1766, based on research by family historian Dewey Burgess, now 83.
Other families in the congregation also have lengthy ties to the church.
"We have three generations easily on any given Sunday morning," noted Royal.
Forehand and Jennings said family ties and the church's isolated location have helped the church survive for more than two and a half centuries.
Jennings also attributes the church's longevity to divine direction.
"The simple and only reason our church has survived is that God willed it. Not so long ago the church may not have been described as friendly and welcoming as it is today...it is my personal belief that God's Holy Spirit has guided the church as it has worked to adapt to changing times," she said in an email.
Different historical eras have posed challenges and distinctions:
- During the Civil War, when Camden was split over Union and Confederate sympathies, the church did not officially meet, noted Forehand. African-Americans, most likely slaves who sat in the balcony, left to form their own churches at the end of the war. An existing church called New Shiloh Baptist Church is a descendant of those African-American churches.
- The church built in 1849 had two front doors, one for men and one for women, and two separate seating areas. The church was remodeled in 1947 to have only one front door.
- Shiloh Baptist Church was the mother church of many others that followed, including 20-some Freewill Baptist Churches and First Baptist Church in Elizabeth City, which recently celebrated its 230th anniversary. Even London Bridge Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Va., where Royal previously pastored, is a descendant. "We kept it in the family, so to speak," said Royal.
The church building itself reflects how the church has adapted to the times. Forehand recited dates for some of those modifications: sanctuary built in 1849; new windows 1913; new hallway 1924; new baptismal 1949; new pews 1960; new fellowship hall 1992. The church's age is disguised well, except for the massive, rough-cut beams in the attic.
Jennings said the church's survival depended on making changes.
"Our founders and all the many people who have been members of the congregation and contributed to the growth and evolution of the church through these many years could not have survived as a place of worship without God's blessing," she said.
Go to www.ncmarkers.com to see the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources official description of the marker.