The First Baptist Church is the oldest Baptist church founded by Black Americans. Free and enslaved residents secretly created the congregation in 1776. They initially prayed and sang at Green Spring Plantation, outside of Williamsburg, Virginia.
It was not until the early nineteenth century that they secured an undesirable, swampy patch of land to build their church at the intersection of Nassau and Francis streets. In 1834, a tornado destroyed that church. More than two decades later, they built a second church on the site. Colonial Williamsburg purchased and tore down this church a century later.
Beginning in 2020, Colonial Williamsburg and the Let Freedom Ring Foundation have worked together to excavate the site and reconstruct the original church. We spoke with Jack Gary, Executive Director of Archaeology, and Matthew Webster, Executive Director of Architectural Preservation and Research, about the excavation’s findings, what we have learned about the congregation from this research, and what’s next for the First Baptist site.
Tell us about the land that the First Baptist church was built on.
Jack Gary: In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, there was an anecdote that a carriage going down Duke of Gloucester Street would disappear three times between the college and the Capitol. That’s because the city was full of ravines, and the carriage would dip down out of sight into these ravines.
On the Frenchman’s Map of 1782, you can see the finger of one of those ravines coming up to Nassau Street. And it stops right on Nassau Street, in front of the First Baptist site. As we excavated the First Baptist site, we realized that the ravine didn’t stop at Nassau Street. It cut all the way up into the property.
It had originally been a steep ditch that allowed water to quickly flow through it. But we found a layer of soil dating from the 1770s that had filled in the ravine at one time. And looking grain-by-grain at this soil, we saw that it came from a storm event. A big pulse of soil got washed into this ravine in the 1770s, which was when a major hurricane hit Williamsburg.
After the hurricane, water couldn’t flow through this ravine very well. Water just sat there, and it became swampy. By the time this congregation moved into this property, it wasn’t even a ravine anymore—it was a low-lying, swampy area full of silty, muddy soil. It was only the very northern end of the lot that was useable for a building.
We now know that the congregation built their first church. What do we know about that process?
Matthew Webster: It was a very quick, simple construction using recycled materials. They didn’t fully excavate a foundation. To level everything, they laid brick directly on the ground in all kinds of directions. The congregation overcame site conditions that weren’t optimal for construction. They adapted to their environment.
But soon after that initial building, they created an addition, which has a formal, dug out foundation. That little bit of foundation tells that story. They established themselves on that land. They took nothing and made something. They built in a swamp, on a site that nobody wanted, and created a church. For me, it’s amazing to get such a powerful story from such a small piece of a building.
JG: You can imagine the original congregants saw this as an opportunity. They had a piece of land. They had been worshipping in a swampy area in Raccoon Chase. Now they had a chance to move into town. They seized it and started building right away.
What do we know about the original congregants at First Baptist Church?
JG: Church life in the past is pretty similar to church life today. There are some core things—fellowship, celebration, and worship—that don’t really change. But for the congregants of the first church, much of their worship happened outside. So the space around the building was just as important as the building itself.
The congregation almost immediately began burying people after establishing the church. They were not only coming to worship, but also to see their ancestors and loved ones buried there. That’s probably a powerful reason why they came back to that piece of property in 1856, when they built the second church twenty years after the first one was destroyed. This congregation obviously had a connection with that property.
“It was the people who were the church, not the building.”
Matthew Webster, Executive Director of Architectural Preservation and Research
We also now know more about the three individuals whose burials were excavated. Unsurprisingly, at least one of them was involved in very heavy labor. We can see how the work they were doing changed their bones and their muscular attachments. We also did a recent pollen analysis on the gut areas of these individuals, and we have some idea of their diet. One person had quite a varied diet: fresh fruits, vegetables, mustard greens, even cloves.
MW: We know that, as a group, they overcame a very tough piece of land. They built on every inch of stable land on that lot, and a few inches that weren’t. And so they built a fairly simple structure. But it was the people who were the church, not the building.
JG: When the building was destroyed by a tornado in 1834, the newspaper specifically mentions it. It wasn’t a monumental work of architecture, so we probably wouldn’t expect the newspaper to call it out like that. But the worship happening in that congregation had become ingrained in the community. Everyone knew that was where that church met.
MW: Jack’s right. For this building to show up in the newspaper after the tornado is pretty remarkable. There were bigger, better buildings hit that were not mentioned. This church was a well-known, important part of the larger community.
The Bray School, the Peyton Randolph site, the Palace, First Baptist—they didn’t operate in isolation. Everyone was interacting. They were part of a community. This project is about filling in the gaps in the story of that community.
What did you find during the excavation?
JG: We weren’t really sure what we would find, because not many churches have been excavated. But what do you do at church?
You get dressed up. We found more than 160 straight pins around the front door of the first church. They fell off peoples’ clothing. When the church was cleaned, those pins were swept out the front door. And so that really speaks to how much the congregants cared about their appearance at church. When we talked with members of the modern congregation, they latched onto that. That hasn’t changed.
Another thing that people associate with church is eating. We found numerous animal bones, from both the first and second church, that people consumed at church. Baptist worship services could be long! People might have brought food to sustain themselves during a service, or during fellowship afterward, or at celebrations.
And another important part of church is people taking care of each other. When excavating, we kept finding what seemed like the knobs of a teapot. It wasn’t just one or two. It was quite a few. We thought “Wow, this is a lot of teapots to be finding around a church.” Once we started to piece the fragments back together, we realized they were little piggy banks, or money boxes, with a slot for coins. And the only way to get the coins out was to bust them open. We see them scattered all around the cemetery and behind the 1856 church. There are at least twelve that we can piece together. They were most likely used to raise funds, either for the church or for impoverished congregants.
“Wow, this is a lot of teapots to be finding around a church.”
JACK GARY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF ARCHAEOLOGY
MW: In a way, the absence of some artifacts also tells us a lot. The lack of plaster tells us that the church had an unfinished interior. The fact that the archaeologists only found a minimal amount of window glass tells us that there aren’t really big windows around this building. So the lack of some artifacts gives us information about what this building looked like.
You worked closely with the descendants of First Baptist church to guide the initial excavation of the site. How is that collaboration developing as the project enters a new stage?
JG: It’s becoming stronger, more collaborative, and more widespread. Initially, we had focused on working with the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and the actual First Baptist Church in Williamsburg. But now we are starting to get involved with members of other churches that spawned from the original First Baptist congregation.
“When the First Baptist project is done, as with the Bray School, this relationship needs to continue.”
Jack Gary, Executive Director of Archaeology
That’s exactly how this is supposed to work. We’re going to continue to work with the descendants to make sure their vision is realized, particularly relating to the commemoration of the burials. It's important that this isn’t just a project-based relationship. When the First Baptist project is done, as with the Bray School, this relationship needs to continue.
What does the future hold for the First Baptist site?
MW: We are now working on returning the lot to the shape it should be. Then we will move to building a foundation for the reconstructed church. Because we want to protect the original foundations, we will be doing what’s called a grade beam. The new foundations will bridge over the original foundations, and we will build our reconstruction on that, to keep everything intact.
Based on what we know about this kind of construction, we have a frame design for the building. Jack and his team found some great little bricks down the center of the building. At first, we couldn’t figure out what they were. But once we mapped out our plans for the foundations, we realized that these bricks were perfectly positioned to keep the floor joists out of the dirt. That told us our design was on track.
“That’s the best way of representing their story—to show, as close as possible, the world they saw. That’s their story.”
Matthew Webster, Executive Director of Architectural Preservation and Research
At the Bray School, we’re preserving an existing structure, which requires some modern construction to preserve the original elements. But at First Baptist, we will be relying more on our Historic Trades. The materials and construction techniques will be very similar to those seen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This will provide similar finishes, tool marks, and the overall look that what would have been there originally. We want people to see what they would have seen. That’s the best way of representing their story—to show, as close as possible, the world they saw. That’s their story.