Iris Ellen Wright Taylor of Waynesboro, Va., visited the Virginia Baptist Historical Society on a recent Wednesday. She came to present a second installment of papers and books related to her grandfather, James Henry Wright, who was a Baptist minister in the late 1800s. The visit was perfect timing because as it turned out, four days later, on Sunday, I was to speak at one of Wright’s churches, New Bethesda in Hanover County, for the church’s 140th anniversary.
In examining the materials, I discovered that Wright briefly had been pastor of New Bethesda while a ministerial student at old Richmond College. It was the practice in years gone by for the “preacherboys” of the college to try their skills on various congregations within a reasonable distance of Richmond.
John Henry Wright would rent a horse and buggy to take him into the countryside, stay in the homes of his church members, visit the flock and preach twice on a Sunday and return to the college. He did this for a few years. Among the materials given to the Historical Society were the diaries during his ministry. One of them included notations about experiences at New Bethesda.
In September 1877 he recorded meetings with large congregations and noted that for some evening services “all could not get in” the meetinghouse. He wrote of the “good interest manifested” and noted “two wanderers restored.” During the times of “protracted meetings,” he held morning prayer services, participated in socials at members’ homes, and preached in the evenings. For a week’s worth of services he might be given $7.50.
In September 1880 he was completing his pastorate with the church in Hanover. He concluded a week’s meeting and on Sunday morning the congregation met at 10 for baptizing in a nearby pond. The service followed and it was Wright’s final service with the church. He wrote: “The ch. was crowded. Preached from Phil. 1, 27 … Extend the right hand of fellowship to ten persons. This ch., led by the young ladies, presented me with a handsome Students’ Bible, as a token of their esteem and love.
“At night a very large congregation assembled to hear my last sermon. Many could not so much as get into the house. Preached from Heb. 11, 16, ‘But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly ….’ With tears we bade each other good-bye. It seemed as though I am parting from my own family. My connection with this ch. and people has been a happy and affectionate one. In after life, it will be pleasant to remember New Bethesda Ch. God bless them, is my prayer. The results of the meeting were very gratifying. 12 additions to the ch. — 6 by Baptism ….”
James Henry Wright was 23 years of age when he finished his pastorate with New Bethesda. His poignant statement was that “it seemed as though parting from my own family.” Ahead would be marriage to Mary “Mollie” Rittenhouse of Nelson County and the establishment of his own immediate family. Other pastorates included the large West End Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va. While a seminary student in Louisville, Ky., he became assistant pastor with the prominent T. T. Eaton, “the most influential personality among Baptists of the South,” at Walnut Street Baptist Church. James Henry Wright was a rising star in the Baptist sky. But there were sad times ahead, too, with the deaths of two children. It was a short life as he died at age 34.
Iris Wright Taylor never knew her grandfather, but she claimed the same faith which he preached and has been a faithful member of Crozet (Va.) Baptist Church. She served a long career with the public schools in Virginia’s Augusta County and has an educator’s feel for the importance of historical items. She has been a faithful custodian of the materials he left behind. She decided to clear out the old bookcase and place the items in the good keeping of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. It was perfect timing!
I already had prepared my message for the looming Sunday, but I managed to weave into the message some gleanings from the materials which had come to rest in our archives. The old meeting house was gone. It had fallen victim to termites and was pulled down to make way for a grand new building which serves as a fellowship hall. It became a giant dining room for the indoor “dinner-on-the-grounds.” Adjoining is a modern church house in traditional colonial architecture. The sanctuary is different from anything James Wright would have known: carpet, cushioned pews, brass chandeliers. No longer do the converts have to be taken to the pond for baptizing.
No one under the sound of my voice on that anniversary Sunday would have remembered Wright or likely even known his name. Time has moved along. But it was apparent that the same family spirit still permeates the church.
The congregation has increased in size in recent history from the 30 or 40 of Wright’s day to over 450 members and the people have engaged in practical hands-on missions. They also have shown love and compassion to one another within the fellowship. For the last 11 years Todd Combee has been the pastoral successor to James Wright of olden times.
Fred Anderson ([email protected]) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.