Gospel Pioneering in Virginia

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Gospel Pioneering in Virginia by W.R. Simpson & J.T. Dickson, as included in Letters of Interest starting in Nov. & Dec. 1946 as a series.

General History

Virginia was settled in 1607, and became a British Colony. In 1609, 500 immigrants were sent out from England, each receiving a grant of 100 acres. These were planters and soon much land was cleared and cotton and tobacco growing were the chief industries. When the colonies gained their independence, Virginia became a very important southern state. The capital was Richmond and it grew rapidly into a center of commercial activity. The state flourished, taking a lead in the affairs of the south, but about 1860 political strife was tearing apart the northern and southern states, and the next year it flared into a war.

The five years following witnessed the dark and terrible days of civil strife, and on the soil of Virginia many bitter battles were fought. Wealth and prosperity gave way to poverty and desolation; schools were closed and there was distress all over the land. When hostilities ceased, one thus described the home-coming of soldiers, "Their houses were in ruins, farms devastated, slaves free, barns empty and money worthless." Reconstruction was very slow and the people in general suffered much.

Slaves and Masters as Brethren

Under such circumstances in the past, the glorious gospel has found a place in many hearts, and this became true also in parts of Virginia. There had been faithful witnesses for Christ among some of the denominations who were used of the Lord; also God wrought among the Negro slaves on the plantations, and the converts were very bright, so that in some cases their masters were won to the Saviour.

One slave who rose to wonderful renown, "John Jasper, the Negro preacher of Richmond," was born in slavery and owned by Mr. Sam Hargrove. John was awakened about his soul in 1839. For six weeks he was in distress and he says, "My sins piled up like mountains, my feet were sinking down to the regions of despair, and I felt that of all sinners I was the worst." But that morning in July as he worked in the tobacco factory in Richmond, the light of the glorious gospel shone into his dark heart, and John gave a shout, "Glory to my Saviour," and then went to a fellow-slave who had often prayed for him and said, "Hallelujah, my soul is redeemed."

The change was so marked John became the center of interest, and one day his master questioned him and then said, "I believe that way myself! I love the Saviour you have found!" He then walked over, gave the slave his hand, saying, "John, we are brothers in the Lord!" He gave Jasper many privileges to carry the gospel to his race, which he did with earnestness and zeal. For twenty-five years after the emancipation John Jasper was a preacher of great fame. Multitudes, among them city officials, as well as the colored people, flocked to hear his soul-stirring messages. One described this unique preacher as "The king of hearts who could sway throngs as the wind shakes the trees."

Staunton

However, little was done to reach the people of Virginia by our assemblies until more than twenty years after the war. Henry Catts, from an assembly in Chicago, opened a business in Staunton and became instrumental in bringing two well-known gospel pioneers, Messrs. James Campbell and William Matthews to the city. These brethren pitched a tent there in 1887, resulting in an awakening and many were saved of both white and colored people. The joy of these newborn souls abounded over all racial feelings and all were baptized together. The planting of an assembly with white and colored mixed was evidently a mistake, but it was the beginning of a good work in Virginia.

Alexander Lamb, a young carpenter, was saved in Philadelphia through these evangelists a few years before and he and William Beveridge, both from Scotland, became busy workers for the Lord in that city. Mr. Campbell encouraged these brethren to spend their vacation preaching Christ in Virginia. They went down together the following summer and God used them as a number were born again. They did not return until time for the Philadelphia Conference at the New Year, and an interest was aroused among the Christians as to the need of the gospel in Virginia.

Fulton

In 1890 Mr. Campbell shipped his tent to Richmond and brethren Lamb and Beveridge pitched it in Fulton, a suburb. This was something entirely new and nightly the tent was packed, while crowds of colored people stood outside and all listened with rapt attention to the story of the Cross, told out in earnestness and simplicity. The work continued into the fall and a rich harvest of souls was reaped. When the tent was taken down, these brethren secured an old building and made it ready for meetings. They continued there until the end of the year.

Meanwhile on October 8th, they had their first baptism on the James River. The whole community had been stirred and all kinds of evil reports were in circulation about the preacher and the "new doctrine." Many said they were Mormons. The throngs came to witness the baptism that day and small boats were lined up the river as far as could be seen. Then, as Mr. Ben Bradford describes it, "The devil let loose in all his fury." However, among the converts was a man who had been a confirmed drunkard and he became a living monument of the grace of God. This was but one of the many cases which made people say, "We never saw it in this fashion".

Late in October the preachers and the converts sat down to remember the Lord in breaking of bread, and soon about sixty were in assembly fellowship at the Lord's table. One of the very few still living who was saved in those stirring times says, "The people stormed on us, calling us many unfit names, and plots were made against us, but we did not care, we were all so happy."

Mr. Benjamin Bradford was a mere youth at that time. He had come to New York from Ireland, and was saved about the age of sixteen while attending a gospel meeting in that city, held by the noted evangelist of that day, Mr. Alexander Marshall. Ben had gone down to Nova Scotia and labored with Mr. D.R. Scott in a tent at Spring Hill where he got a taste of pioneer life and what it means to endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

At the Philadelphia Conference brother Bradford met the preachers from Virginia and they encouraged him to go down to Richmond and contininue in the hall while they went on a visit to Canada. When the preachers returned in the spring, Mr. Bradford was still holding forth with a full hall, and more souls had been saved. To quote Mr. Bradford, "The devil was raging."

West Point

Brethren Lamb and Beveridge went to West Point to begin meetings. A secret order called the "White Caps" had become very bold in their opposition and threatening letters were sent to some of the Christians, with a rope, a pistol and cross bones pictured on them. One morning all over Fulton placards were seen and on these a time limit was set for the "Mormons" to get out.

The following Sunday night, the hall was crowded and as brother Bradford came along, two policemen were stationed in the side door. Evidently the time limit had expired and this was the night for the eviction, but God stood by His servant that night and the hush of eternity was very manifest. God gave utterance in the Holy Ghost. The devil was defeated in his purpose, for the leader of the "White Caps" was saved, and the saints were left unmolested.

During the early summer of 1891, brethren Lamb, Beveridge, and Bradford labored in a tent at Chapel Hill. They moved later to South Richmond where a few souls were saved. In the fall, Mr. Beveridge remained in Richmond while brethren Lamb and Bradford went to Staunton but the prejudice had become so strong it was difficult to get a hearing. However, in a place outside the city the Lord opened a door and a number of souls were born again.

Gayton

Mr. Beveridge found a new fishing ground in a coal mining village called Gayton, noted for ungodliness. "The Company" gave him the use of an empty house for meetings. He and Mr. Stephens from Cleveland began to proclaim the gospel message and crowds filled the place nightly. It became the birthplace of many souls, among them real trophies of grace whose lives after adorned the doctrine of God our Saviour.

The next summer the tent was again pitched in Richmond, but the preachers took turns in going out to Gayton to help the young believers. In the fall, brethren Beveridge and Bradford baptized a number of the converts.

Mrs. Claiborne and the Methodist preacher

Mrs. Claiborne had a remarkable conversion and became a helper in the Lord. Her husband was also saved and was one with her in showing hospitality in the years that followed. The preachers often walked the twenty-five miles from Richmond, having no money to pay their fare. One Saturday they came along and Mrs. Claiborne came out to greet them. "Where are you going?" she saked. "To the boarding house," was the reply. "Would you not rather stay with us? We have a room," she said. They gladly accepted this invitation and the next morning (Lord's day) they gathered in this home to remember the Lord for the first time in Gayton, and to quote Mr. Bradford, "It was a never-to-be-forgotten meeting; the tears flowed and thanksgiving in all simplicity ascended as incense to God."

While they were thus engaged, the Methodist preacher came to the village to hold a service. He generally preached under the pine trees, but that morning he took possession of the house where the brethren were having their gospel meetings. At 7:30 p.m. the place was packed and crowds stood outside who were unable to get in. The preachers were sitting in the corner awaiting the time to start when an elder of the Methodist church made his way inside the door and behind him the minister who, without any question said, "We will begin this service."

He took for his text 1 Cor. 12:4-6. He then proceeded to speak of the "gifts" and how God uses them. "Some will say," said the speaker, "that unconverted people are not used of God. Who prints our Bibles? Who runs our trains? Who carries our mail? Are not many of them unconverted?" Then he continued, "I have a friend who has a large jewelry store. There are all sizes of clocks in that store; one stands on the floor and reaches almost to the ceiling. It keeps good time and I liken that to the Methodists.

Another one, not so large but equally good, is like the Baptists. Another I liken to the Presbyterians. All these have kept the faith and are faithful. But in the last year I notice my friend has a new one. It is about the size of my fist and when he winds it up, all at once it goes off with a terrific buzz. This is a new invention!" Then with great emphasis he said, "I compare this to the new preachers who have come into our midst!" pointing to the preachers still sitting in the corner. A great laugh was heard from the people outside, but the gospel continued to be proclaimed and much fruit was gathered in.

At the end of the week the preachers asked Mrs. Claiborne how much they owed her for board, and this modern Lydia said, "I am in your debt and will never be able to pay for it. While there is a bed and a loaf in the house, it will be yours." Her husband earned nine dollars a week and she did some work for a factory nearby. She was learning at the feet of Jesus, yet many today with a good education, modern homes and goodly incomes, have not attained to this high standard of being "lovers of hospitality." For twenty years that home was a real Bethany, and all preachers who came along, including the writer, shared their hospitality.

Petersburg & Matoaca

Mr. Hugh Campbell, who was saved in tent meetings held by Mr. Matthews and Mr. McGill in Westerly, R.I., came to Petersburg and opened up a stone yard. This was another open door and the brethren pitched their tent in that city and again the work took hold. The preachers went to Matoaca, a town about five miles away, so brethren Lamb and Beveridge secured a hall there with only planks for seats, but the place was crowded and when the meeting ended, another crowd just as large filed in and they had to begin all over again. A tent season followed and the power of God was at work until there were very few homes in that village that did not witness the grace of God in the salvation of some of the members of their families.

Mr. W.R. McEwen had a tailoring business in Petersburg in those days and a number of his daughters and his son, Sam, were saved in those seasons of blessing. Sam became a well-known servant of the Lord and was much used of God in leading souls to the Saviour in Virginia. The youngest son, Hugh, was also born in Virginia and saved early in life. He, too, became a fervent soul-winner and minister of the Word of God. He also has finished his course.

In Matoaca the preachers built a new hall. Mr. Lamb was a carpenter, Mr. Bradford a plasterer, and Mr. James Hamilton from Scotland, who labored fervently in the gospel with them, made and carried the mortar and a good hall was built for the young assembly. The home of Mr. Brockwell was opened then for the Lord's servants. (Editor's note: this assembly is known in 2020 as Matoaca Gospel Hall and is located in the same structure.)

In those pioneer days trials of various kinds abounded, yet through evil report and good report, "as poor, yet making many rich," these heralds of the Cross kept on their way, laying a good foundation in clear-cut gospel preaching, planting assemblies and teaching after the pattern of the New Testament. They had but "one purse," in the form of a little box and all funds were put in there, but often it was from door to door with tracts and preached in the tent. There was an ingathering of souls and many were baptized and an assembly planted.

Provision

Two young men who worked with Mr. Campbell invited him to bring the preach-empty. They had many long walks in the broiling sun, lived in their tent and were content with any kind of accommodation. One day as Mr. Bradford walked along the highway and like his Master on one occasion was hungry, he saw a large ripe apple on the top branch of an apple tree near by. As he passed, the apple fell to the ground and he went to pick it up. However, a sow in the pasture also saw it fall and ran to get it, but it seemed God's provision for His servant that day and He reached it first.

It was a life of faith, and often the Lord's servants were severely tested. As Mr. Bradford puts it, "money was a scarce commodity." Brethren Beveridge and Bradford had a tent in Richmond. They were living under canvas, had no money and little food. Mr. Bradford, being the younger, did the errands and went to the market in the afternoon to get some withered vegetables, sometimes for nothing, again for a cent or two.

One day after they had spent some time in visiting from door to door, Mr. Bradford went to the market but found he was too late to get any left-overs, so returned to the tent tired and discouraged. When he pulled the curtain aside, a welcome sight met his eyes. Instead of a bare table, there it was laden with a ham, a roast duck, bread, and all kinds of good things. Seated with Mr. Beveridge was Mr. Campbell who had brought the well-filled basket and they were enjoying a hearty meal. Mr. Bradford looked on a moment, then lifting up his hand exclaimed, "Boys, you are living high today."

Mr. Bradford also reports, "Many were the like experiences in those days, as assemblies were not accustomed to send gifts to young preachers. The Lord knew we had need of these things and supplied most of our need through sisters who worked hard in service up north, and to them belongs a big share of the pioneering work in the south."

These brethren toiled on for years. Mr. Bradford is the only surviving of these early preachers and most of those who opened their doors to show them hospitality are gone to be with the Lord. There are still a few aged saints there who remember these early days. Many shall arise in that day and will praise God for the work accomplished by these servants of the Lord.

J.T. Dickson

Sources

  • Letters of Interest Nov & Dec 1946