Henry Williams was a prominent church and civic figure in the post-Civil War period of Virginia and even entered the field of politics on the local level. He created his own Baptist newspaper and its masthead read The Shiloh Herald. The readership was Virginia Baptists who, in the vernacular of the times, were known as colored people or Negroes. Henry Williams was “a colored preacher.”
Williams was born a child of free parents in Spotsylvania County, Va., on Oct. 13, 1831. Just two months earlier Nat Turner, a slave preacher, led an insurrection in Virginia’s Southampton County in which about 60 whites were killed. The short-lived rebellion created widespread fear among white Virginians. Severe laws were passed which restricted activities of blacks. No longer could they gather for worship unless there were white men present. No longer could they be taught to read and write. Henry Williams’ parents decided to flee to Ohio and there Henry spent his youth.
The story was handed down that as a youth he ran away from home to visit Africa. He soon became homesick and boarded the first ship back to America. He pictured the scene for his hearers: “On reaching the ship, my manner of getting aboard was to be by climbing a rope. There I was, dangling between the sky and the sea with hungry sharks awaiting my fall. I finally succeeded in getting aboard.” It was after reaching home that he was converted to Christianity and soon began preparation to enter the ministry.
Without benefit of formal education, he was self-taught and self-made. He became an itinerant missionary and traveled on foot, including a missionary journey of 40 miles. He joined the secretive Underground Railroad and “personally led and transported on his back and shoulders many of his race from one station to another on the way to Canada, traveling day and night, through rain and snow.”
In 1865, with the Civil War over, he made a missionary journey as far as Petersburg, Va. He happened to meet someone from Gilfield Baptist Church, an independent black Baptist church which dates to perhaps 1797, who invited him to preach. It seems that the church was “waiting for a pastor to whom a call had been extended and whose arrival was long overdue.” The expected new pastor never arrived and Henry Williams suddenly found himself called as the pastor. It was November 1865. His wife, Madeline Carter Williams, joined him and a new era began in the life of Gilfield and for black Baptists in Virginia.
Annie Williams, a contemporary of the pastor and a teacher in the Sunday school, once recalled that upon his arrival in Petersburg, “in a speech on the Poplar Lawn, now Central Park, he advised us as a people just liberated, to devote ourselves, our time, our all, to material progress, the acquisition of prosperity, trades and education, and above all to make friends of our neighbors among whom we live, rather than seek political advancement.” She continued: “In fact [pastor urged us] to leave politics alone. From this he made enemies. But did he not see the end from the beginning?”
“His strong points were a wealth of common sense, an incompatible honesty, steadfast in honorable purpose, an untiring industry, all supplemented by the highest order of physical, moral and Christian courage,” she said. “He was of the stuff martyrs are made.”
A newspaper in his time also admitted that the Baptist pastor had his enemies but added, “They were enemies because he told them the truth.”
In 1870 he was elected to the Petersburg City Council. And in the same year he launched The Shiloh Herald, which declared on its masthead that it was “devoted to vital godliness and sound morality.” The editor explained that the Baptist paper was begun “with malice to none but charity to all, not as a rival, but as an aider.” He continued: “Though issued for the interests of colored Baptists of Virginia — and we may say elsewhere — yet we do not ignore the righteous, just interests of others, nor open warfare with those who differ with the polity of the Baptists.”
Gilfield members revered him. Through personal appeals and hard work, he led the church which had about 1,200 people when he arrived to receive 5,781 new members with 4,455 by baptism at his hands. He not only was the pastor but also the superintendent of the church’s large and vital Sunday school which enrolled about 700. At one point the church members took up a special collection to furnish the pastor with a horse and buggy to be used in visiting the flock.
Williams was a recognizable figure on the streets of Petersburg. He was a physically big man, slightly stooped, and possessed a commanding voice. In his long pastorate he kept the church and school “free from broils, factions and dismemberment and free from debt.” In the 1870s he led the church to build a large new building which was debt-free within a year. He even suggested that the church make its own bricks to save costs. During his pastorate, the church established four branches in the countryside beyond Petersburg. He was considered the father of the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the organizer of two district associations of black churches.
Within his community, he led a movement to hire black teachers for black schools. He took a particular interest in the poor of Petersburg and found ways to help them.
He served Gilfield Baptist Church for 34 years until his death in February 1900 at age 68. He witnessed tremendous changes within his own lifetime as slavery vanished and freedom offered new challenges.
Last year Gilfield celebrated its 215th anniversary. The church maintains a history room filled with memorabilia. Pastor George W.C. Lyons encouraged the church’s history committee to make contact with a paper conservator through the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and numerous early documents have been restored.
The story of Henry Williams is told in the book and exhibit entitled “free indeed!” at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. It is a story of a man who should be remembered.
Fred Anderson ([email protected]) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies, both at the University of Richmond.