History of Second Baptist Church

Richmond’s Second Baptist congregation became Second Baptist Church in 1820. Sixteen members of First Baptist Church withdrew to form a new church which conducted a Sunday School and supported other Christian concerns. Famed Luther Rice was among those who led in the formation of the church on July 12, 1820.

Second Baptist Church has been a seedbed for Virginia Baptist Work. The First meeting of what is now the Baptist General Association of Virginia was held in the church in 1823. The state Baptist paper, the Religious Herald, was established by a Second Church member, William Crane, in 1828. During the meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia in 1820, held in Second Church, an Education Committee was formed which led to the opening of what became the University of Richmond.

At its beginning the church had both white and African American members. The black members withdrew in 1846 to constitute the Second African Baptist Church with the support of the mother church. Second Church contributed to the establishment of Third (now Grace), Leigh Street, Pine Street, Bainbridge Street and Walnut Grove Baptist churches.

Second Church has had a high missions interest since its beginning. Luther Rice, Adoniram and Ann Judson went to India as missionaries in 1812. The congregation contributed to Rice, who returned to America in 1813 to raise funds to support the Judsons. The church’s first woman’s missionary group was organized in 1823 as the “Richmond Female Judson Society of Second Baptist Church.” In 1815 two members volunteered for overseas missionary service: William Mylne to Africa and Mary Frances Davenport to Siam (Thailand). James B. Taylor, second pastor of the church, was the first Corresponding Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, SBC.

Across the years Second Church has ministered from five different locations:

A spirit of harmony pervades the congregation in all areas of the church’s life. It was described over a century ago by Henry K. Ellyson in an address on January 17, 1883. Mr. Ellyson aptly said: “I have yet to name the crowning grace of this church, that which endears it more to me than its fair record of public service for Christ, or than all in us the outside world would most commend. That grace is brotherly love whose sacred ties have so bound heart to heart that from the beginning until now we have ever had this unmistakeable evidence that we are the sons of God. Out of it have grown that oneness of purpose and harmony of action which made us strong to will and to do for God. Into the presence of this spirit of fraternal affection, no demon of discord ever dared to enter. So that through all these years we have known how good and pleasant it is for the brethren to dwell together in unity, and have had within the sacred circle of our inner church life a beautiful counterpart of the Psalmist’s bright vision of the communion of saints.”

That spirit is still present and alive in Second Baptist Church.

Eleventh and Main Streets

In 1816, William Crane and David Roper began a Sunday school [the first in Richmond] for children, which met in the second story of Dabney’s Shoe Shore on the north side of Broad Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.

Others joined in and after a time the Sunday school was moved to the balcony of First Baptist. This caused some dissension and the congregation voted to remove the school from the church building. The Sunday school proponents met and agreed to ask for permission to form another church.

First Baptist voted to declare non-fellowship with the new church, but the group continued on and held its first church service on June 25, 1820, in a schoolroom. The next week the rental of Mr. Brown’s house at Eleventh and Main Streets was transacted. This location housed the congregation for about two years.

The church met there for formal constitution on July 11, 1820, with three ministers present: Robert B. Semple, Luther Rice and Peter Ainslie, but the beginning was postponed to the next day. The following day, First Church agreed to acknowledge fellowship with the new body and it was officially organized.

David Roper led the new congregation, but repeatedly refused to be elected as pastor. At the time he had a full time job working for Judge Boulding. In 1822 he went to work at two banks. He felt he had insufficient time to pastor the flock, although he was willing to do what he could free of charge and continued to do so for 4 1/2 years.

From the beginning of the church until the Civil War, they held Friday night prayer meetings in addition to the Wednesday night meetings.

On May 25, 1821, the church voted to obtain a permanent house of worship and began raising funds. By November 1821, they had purchased a lot 60 feet wide and 107 feet deep on the east side of Eleventh Street, between Main and Cary. Because the group had no collateral, William Crane and his wife Lydia took title and gave a deed of trust to secure the purchase. It was later transferred to the church.

Eleventh Street between Main and Cary

On the left is Sharon Baptist Church, at Central Garage, VA, said to have been rebuilt in the same style from the bricks of this structure.

On the right is a portion of Bank of America Plaza. The 11th Street location would have been in the vicinity of the grass plot in the center. The east side of 11th Street would have been approximately where the right side of the grass plot is.

Having purchased a lot on Eleventh Street, which was bounded on the north and south by two alleys, the church then decided in January 1822 to erect a brick building 50 by 60 feet, based on plans of a church in New Jersey where William Crane had been a member.

On October 26, 1822, the building was dedicated with a sermon by Robert B. Semple.

Slaves and freed blacks were admitted to membership from 1824 until most of the black members formed their own church in 1846.

The first meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia was held in the new church building on June 7, 1823. The newly formed Richmond Female Judson Society provided hostesses for the event.

In 1826, the body called James B. Taylor to serve as pastor. He continued to serve until 1840. After he began, attendance increased dramatically and by 1829, William and Lydia Crane donated the funds to install balconies on three sides of the building.

Next was added a building at the east end of the lot for the Sunday school. It was occupied in 1832.

In June of 1830, a meeting of some of the delegates to the General Association took place at Second Church. They agreed to raise funds for an institution for Christian education. This led to the formation in 1832 of Virginia Baptist Seminary, later called Richmond College, now the University of Richmond.

In 1834, William Sands, a member of Second Church, took over the publishing of the Religious Herald and continued to do so for 22 years.

In 1835, the church sent two of its members as missionaries to Liberia, and William Crane moved to Baltimore and began another Baptist church there.

By 1839, the body needed a more desirable location with a larger building. A lot was found at the southwest corner of Sixth and E (now Main) streets.

Also in 1839, Rev. Taylor left to serve a one year term as chaplain at the University of Virginia. He had done much for Second Baptist and was greatly respected around the state. He resigned after learning that the members had become attached to the interim pastor. E. L. Magoon

Construction began on the new church with plans almost identical to the new structure being erected almost simultaneously by First Baptist. The new building was occupied in May, 1841.

Corner of Main and Sixth Streets

On the left is First Baptist’s second location built at the same time and with the same plans as our 6th and Main location.

On the right is a photo of our church when it was on the southwest corner of 6th and Main Streets

After meeting in the basement of the new building for 8 months, the congregation occupied the whole facility in January 1842. Much of the cost was raised by “selling” pews and collecting annual taxes on those pews. Those who could not “buy” pews could rent them. Free pews were available in the balcony.

The previous property was sold and the building was dismantled and rebuilt on the original plan in King William County, where it still stands as Sharon Baptist Church. (See article on 11th Street location.)

Attendance increased and the activities of the membership blossomed. Of 559 members in 1841, 219 were blacks. They sat apart from whites and had their own deacons. In 1842 an African Baptist church had been organized. After several disagreements between the black and white members, many of the black members indicated a desire for a church of their own, and such was approved in April 1845.

So was formed the Second African Church. This congregation is now called Second Baptist Church and is located on Idlewood Avenue. Until the end of the war, the church at Sixth and Main continued to supervise the black congregation in keeping with the legal requirements of the time.

Though the church continued to grow, finances were a constant problem, and monthly membership contributions were begun. In 1850, R.B.C. Howell was called as pastor and a year later he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which position he held for a number of years.

After the call of another pastor, Lyman Seeley, the Young Men’s Society was formed in 1859, with Dr. Albert H. Robins as the first president. This group had a significant effect on the congregation and even beyond the church.

During the Civil War the church assisted the Confederacy in many ways, from preparing bedding and bandages, to donating the steeple bell and selling the pew cushions, to furnishing some members to defend the city. Dr. Seeley resigned in 1864 during the height of the war. With the end of the war, finances in the area were limited at best and the members did what they could to assist the needy and the disabled soldiers.

At the war’s end, Second Baptist became the first congregation in the City to employ offering envelopes. Gradually, membership and finances revived. Henry K. Ellyson, a member of Second Church was the first Secretary of the State Mission Board and a 20-year member of the Foreign Mission Board, in addition to being Sunday school superintendent for almost 50 years.

Second began a day school for educating children of indigent members and others who were connected with the Sunday school and congregation. After a brief period of operation, the City of Richmond began free schools and the church’s school closed.

Second Church was known for having an outstanding choir and a new and excellent organ was installed in 1872.

The church was called on to assist Richmond College by raising funds and the pastor, Dr. Bitting took a three-month leave of absence to that cause. Several laymen contributed much effort, also, and Second contributed a great deal to that cause.

Several women’s groups were formed at Second in the latter part of the 19th century, and Second Baptist women contributed greatly to the Woman’s Missionary Union.

In 1895, Rev. W. W. Landrum, in a conversation with R. H. Pitt, publisher of the Religious Herald, suggested a world-wide group of Baptists be formed for communication among the disparate groups of Baptists. Pitt published articles calling for such a group and a few years later the Baptist World Alliance was born. See two Articles by Fred Anderson from the Religious Herald in February 2004 telling the story.

In September 1896, a terrific windstorm hit the City, demolished the church steeple, and did much damage to the front of the building. This resulted in much renovation of the church, including replacing the pews.

In 1898, the church purchased a house and lot at the southeast corner of Franklin and Adams streets to provide a new location for a sanctuary. In January 1900, funds were pledged to begin a campaign for a new building. Work began in 1904 and was finished in 1905.

On October 15, 1905, the Sunday school conducted its last service in the old building.

Corner of Franklin and Adams Streets

On the left is the sanctuary building, which occupies the first parcel purchased at this location.

On the right is the name plate which is located high above the front steps..

While Second Church’s building at Sixth and Main was patterned from the design of a Greek temple, the building at Franklin and Adams was based on a second century Roman temple, the Maison Carree, in Nimes France.

The first worship service in the new building was held on Sunday, October 22, 1905, in the basement, since the sanctuary had not been fully completed and equipped, with about 700 people in attendance. A night service the same day drew 500. Dedication services were held in the new sanctuary on Sunday, February 11, 1906.

With this new presence, the congregation was called on for many services to the community and state. New organizations were formed and changes were made to the makeup of committees. The Ideal began in 1909. Significant visitation programs were held.

Sunday school attendance increased greatly and caused space problems, so additional property was purchased adjoining the church on the east. Sunday school excursions to Buckroe Beach were started. Many new groups were formed within the church.

In 1918, women were allowed to attend business meetings of the church. Also, an influenza epidemic caused cancellation of all services for a month.

A large fundraising was conducted among Southern Baptist churches in 1919 and Second raised more than $200,000. This was a very large sum for the time. Second Church celebrated its centennial in 1920.

Dr. Solon B. Cousins, Jr. began his service in September 1921, commencing one of the greatest eras of the church in downtown Richmond. Additional property was purchased and an Educational Building was built with architecture that complimented the sanctuary. The new building was dedicated in September 1927. The following Mother’s Day, the Sunday school recorded an attendance of about 1,000.

By 1930, it was clear that the population of the church was aging as the City populace began to move away from the center of town. Fewer children were attending. Also, the Depression created a significant financial impact on the church. Then Dr. Cousins left to take a full time position at the University of Richmond. The church then had its highest membership downtown, but attendance had decreased somewhat.

During World War II, the church had many activities, including the Soldier’s Service Center. However, partly due to gasoline rationing, attendance declined further. Visitation drives were reinvigorated. The church still was paying for the Educational Building. An endowment fund was begun in 1951 to provide income for the improvement of the physical properties and support of mission activities .

Second Baptist became a member of the new Richmond Baptist Association after being a member of the Dover Association since its founding. In 1953, the pastor, Dr. Ivey died of a heart attack just before the morning worship service.

Membership began a significant decrease as more and more people moved away from the City. In 1960, the congregation began broadcasting weekly on WRNL radio.

In November 1962, Raymond L. Spence, Jr. began his ministry at Second Baptist at the age of 26. By the end of 1963, the membership was down to 608. Some redecorating of the sanctuary was done in 1963, but declining attendance brought on much discussion about the future of the church at that location. In 1964, the church voted to appoint a committee to study relocating the church to another location in the metropolitan area.

This resulted in the congregation agreeing to purchase 7 acres on the northeast corner of River and Gaskins roads in Henrico County, with an option for another 3 acres. In 1964, a group began meeting at Collegiate School not far away from the church site in order to begin a Sunday school. Ground breaking was held in July, 1966, and in August, 1967, the church held its last service at Franklin and Adams.

The land and buildings were sold to the University of Richmond, raising more than half of the money needed to move and begin new buildings.

River and Gaskins Roads

The congregation occcupied the cluster of four Sunday school buildings and the multi-purpose building at the new location on August 27, 1967 with 195 in Sunday school and a large number at worship, including many visitors.

Family night dinners began on Wednesdays, followed by chilren’s choirs and children’s missions groups. The Ideal was printed again for the first time since 1935. Visitation was begun, and more visitors came and more people joined the congregation.

An office building/library was built, with dedication in October 1969. In 1970, the 150th anniversary of the church was celebrated with many services and a new history of the church was written by Mrs. Belle G. Ellyson.

A chapel building was built in 1975 and named for the Powell family, who contributed a substantial portion of the cost. However, it was finished temporarily with rooms installed for Sunday school use.As church attendance increased, the time had come to build a sanctuary.

The sanctuary was dedicated on November 23, 1980, with a listed capacity of 732. Later a pipe organ was installed and dedicated in 1988.

Attendance continued to increase. Children came in ever greater numbers and the youth experienced much growth. This increase needed more educational space, so a new Education Building was begun in 1990 and dedicated in September 1991. In November 1991, the renovated Powell chapel was dedicated.

Many programs have begun for all ages. The Senior Adults have a group called Second Cousins. Many members participate in ESL (English as a Second Language), assisting immigrants to learn English. The CLC operates for preschool children five days a week and has a waiting list.

The 175th anniversary of the church was celebrated in April, 1995 and a new history of the church was begun by John S. Moore, and finished two years later.

WMU has been transformed into a newer version of itself and is very active, as are children’s missions and choir groups. A men’s missions group has reconstituted with active participation. Young adults in and just beyond college are increasing in attendance. Vacation Bible School attracts about 400 children from the congregation and the community. The Youth program continues to grow. Music and Missions groups boast well over 100 children actively involved.

The congregation embarked on a building program in 2000, and a new Family Life Center has been built behind the sanctuary, followed by a renovation of the sanctuary to increase seating capacity. The sanctuary was occupied in November 2003.

The Family Life Center has sparked numerous new programs and ministries since its opening in September, 2002. Basketball leagues, youth sleepovers, family night dinners, and gatherings for many groups are a small portion of the uses of this building. As membership approaches 2000, the challenge is to have as many members as possible active in some way in the ministries of the congregation.

The pastor, Dr. Spence, celebrated the 40th anniversary of his pastorate in November 2002, and has played an important role in continuing the church’s loving and friendly spirit. The future of Second Baptist Church is indeed encouraging with his leadership and the continued hard work of the church staff, church leaders, and faithful members.

At the Deacons’ Retreat in September 2006, Dr. Spence announced that he was planning to retire and that a committee needed to be formed to secure a new pastor. Mike Ligon, chairman of the Deacons, became chairman of the committee and 12 others were selected to work with him. An outside consultant was used from time to time to work with the committee.

After more than a year of work, the committee announced in January 2008 that Dr. Craig Sherouse was its nominee and that he would visit so that the members could meet him and get to know him. In January, 2008, the congregation voted to call Dr. Sherouse and he accepted. His first Sunday in the pulpit was March 2.

The congregation has come to know, appreciate and love Dr. Sherouse and his well prepared sermons which he publishes and makes available to the congregation. The members have embraced him and the future looks bright.

Over the eleven years of Dr. Sherouse’s pastorate, 2008-2019, there were numerous missions and ministries undertaken by the staff and by the congregation of some 2,100 members. Language ministries included Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Nepalese as well as English. The longstanding English as a Second Language program brought many new residents to the church and some of them joined the several language ministry congregations. The church added a contemporary worship service in addition to its two traditional services. On occasion there were joint worship services for the entire congregation.

Partnership missions provided hands-on experiences for ministerial staff and laity and the congregation benefitted from relationships with Christians in Haiti, South Africa, Panama, and Italy. Numerous missions opportunities for children, youth, and adults also were provided in Virginia and West Virginia.

Dr. Sherouse initiated extensive visioning experiences culminating in the 2020 Vision which defined six Vision Priorities: 1) Next Generations, 2) Worship, 3) Life Transformation, 4) Mobilization, 5) Leadership, and 6) Diversity. There were strategic goals for each priority. Out of the Next Generations priority came a bold and successful campaign to design and construct a $10 million state-of-the-art Children’s Ministry Building which opened in January 2017.

The Children’s Ministry Building housed the Creative Learning Center preschool. The CLC was led by Susan Richardson Hill who began teaching in the preschool in 1988 and served as director from 1993 until her retirement in 2020. 

Educational opportunities evolved far beyond the conventional Sunday school with a wide and diverse offering of classes and groups. New classes developed as interest warranted. There were specialized learning opportunities and activities for children, youth, students, young adults, median adults, and senior adults. 

The music ministry remained a magnet to attract a wide variety of persons with its many offerings including the Sanctuary Choir, Children’s Choirs, Youth Choir, Young Musicians, ONE SPIRIT and BRETHREN. Worship services involved organ, piano, and a variety of instrumentalists. The church offered a Fine Arts Academy which provided instruction in various instruments. There also were occasional musical theaters with proceeds going to support missions projects. For 33 years, 1986-2019, the music ministry was led by the Rev. William “Bill” L. Miller, Jr. He retired in October 2019. 

Dr. Sherouse was active in the Baptist World Alliance and kept that organization’s mission before the congregation. He served as chair of the BWA’s Baptist Heritage & Identity Commission.

In September 2017, Dr. Sherouse announced his intention to retire and a search committee was appointed. In February 2019, the congregation recognized the senior pastor upon the conclusion of his pastorate. 

On June 16, 2019, the church welcomed Dr. Noel Schoonmaker and called him to serve as its 22nd pastor. He began his pastorate in August 2019. A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Dr. Schoonmaker graduated from Furman University. He received a Master’s of Divinity degree from the Divinity School of Wake Forest University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. His former pastorates were at Churchland Baptist Church, Lexington, North Carolina, First Baptist Church, Valdese, North Carolina, and First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. While a graduate student at Wake Forest, he met and married a fellow divinity school student, Dayna Thompson. The couple have two daughters, Maggie and Nora.

In March 2020, the church began to adjust to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pastor, staff, and congregation found creative ways to remain an active community of faith. At times, worship services were offered virtually; and as safety conditions allowed, at other times, the services were both virtual and in-person. One of the major events impacted by the pandemic was the church’s 200th anniversary celebration, originally planned for September 2020 and ultimately celebrated in a grand, memorable, and meaningful manner on Sunday, October 10, 2021. Among the creations of the anniversary were several professional videos on the past and present of the church as well as a new updated history, Our Time in History 1995-2020, by Baptist historian Fred Anderson.

(This was adapted from The History of Second Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, 1820-1995 by John S. Moore. Copies are available through the church office.)