An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Nine: Church Development

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.

Church of England

Virginia was settled by the English government, therefore the Church of England became the established form of worship for the people of the colony. The Reverend Robert Hunt came with the first settlers, and today you can see the ruin of the early church at Jamestown.

The Parish

As counties were organized the church parish was also established, of like size with the county. A group of leading citizens were selected to form a vestry, which not only governed the church but had certain civic duties such as keeping marked all boundary lines and the care of the poor.

The life of the English church began in this section with the formation of Lunenburg County and Cumberland Parish in 1746. In the first two years seven churches were built, one being on Stewart's Creek, and another Peter's Creek Chapel (which today is a Methodist church).

When Halifax County and Antrim Parish were organized in 1752, six new churches were ordered to be built, one of which was on Pigg River. Chapels were built on Snow Creek, Potter's Creek and Leatherwood Creek. It is very probable that the Pigg River church and the chapels on Snow Creek and Potter's Creek were all served by the early Pigg River Road. Antrim is the northeast county of Ireland, and some one must have thought longingly of that far off land and named this new Virginia parish for his old home.

Camden Parish

Pittsylvania County and Camden Parish were organized together in 1767. Shortly afterwards young James Stevenson of Williamsburg offered himself as minister for the new parish. Since he was just entering the ministry it was necessary for him to go to London to be ordained by the Bishop there. He entered upon his duties as rector of the parish in 1769, and the vestry at once ordered four new churches and two chapels to be built. The churches appear in the Vestry Book as the Stinking River Church, and Sandy River Church, the Snow Creek Church and the Leatherwood Church, the chapels as Mayo and Stoney Creek. The churches were built at once, sextons were employed, and books purchased.

Lay Readers

In addition to the six churches, nine other points were designated where the church service was to be read every Sunday. On those Sundays when the minister was to be elsewhere, the service was read at churches, chapels, and in private homes when no church was near, by men of the congregation. These men were called lay readers and received a hundred pounds of tobacco a year for their work. It was a part of England's plan of Empire that religion should be carried to the people.

After serving the parish for a year Mr. Stevenson resigned. He is remembered today as being the father of the Honorable Andrew Stevenson, a political leader in Virginia, who was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives and minister to England.

The Glebe

Lewis Guilliam became minister of Camden Parish in 1771. The vestry now purchased 588 acres near the Sandy River Church for the minister's home, called the glebe.

Overseers of the Poor

The Church of England was so closely associated in the minds of the people with the government of England, that after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War they turned from the church and embraced the new faiths of the Baptist and Methodist Churches. After 1778 the Vestry Book no longer had any entries concerning the churches, only those dealing with the poor. Overseers of the poor were now appointed by the court to take over the duties formerly performed by the Vestry, and they kept the records of their meetings in the old Vestry Book until its pages were filled in 1850. And they continued to name themselves the overseers of the poor of Camden Parish. The glebe was sold in 1779 to Epaphraditus White of Halifax County for 5150 pounds, who later sold it to Samuel Calland. It was long known as the Glebe farm. The site is marked today by the Calland-Moorman graveyard.

Episcopal Church

Dr. George W. Dame came to Danville in 1840 to take charge of a girl's school, the Danville Female Academy. In addition to his school work, within four years he established two churches, the Church of the Epiphany in Danville and Emmanuel Church in Chatham. The faith was now known as the Episcopal Church. Dr. C. O. Pruden became the rector of Emmanuel Church in 1884, and through his efforts churches were established at Gretna, Mount Airy, Peytonsburg, Museville, and Piggs Mill. He also founded the school Chatham Hall, in 1894.

Presbyterian Church

Many of Pittsylvania's first settlers were of the Presbyterian faith, being Scotch-Irish emigrants from Pennsylvania. The Synod of Pennsylvania kept in mind the brethren who had moved to the south, and from time to time sent ministers to visit them. In the year 1753 two young ministers came, making the long trip on horseback; the following year four more were sent out. They visited from house to house, preaching to the elder people and examining the children in their knowledge of the catechism. However, no churches were organized during these early days.

Wet Sleeve Church

The first Presbyterian church established in the county was named Wet Sleeve for a nearby stream, and stood near Callands. When Samuel Calland opened his store at the courthouse, he became a strong influence for the church, being a Scotchman. In 1784 a congregation was organized and the Wet Sleeve Church built. The Reverend David Barr was called to be the first minister, and marrying a young lady of the neighborhood, Mary Fulton, established his home on Sandy River. After a few years Mr. Barr moved to North Carolina and sold his properties here. With no resident pastor the church languished.

Chatham Church

In 1846 a congregation was organized and a church built at Chatham. The Reverend William H. Matthews was called to the church in 1858, and throughout his long and saintly life he served the people of Pittsylvania. He founded a church in the western part of the county, and today it bears his name, Matthews Memorial. In 1890 the Reverend George W. Belk of North Carolina became pastor of the Chatham Church and during the ten years of his ministry he established three new churches, at Spring Garden, Weal, and Harpers Creek. Today there are six Presbyterian churches in the county.

The Baptist Church

Pittsylvania has played a distinguished part in the founding and spread of the Baptist faith in Virginia. Upon its soil was established in 1760 the first Separate Baptist Church in Virginia, "which," said the historian Semple, "was in some sense the mother of all the rest."

The Baptist church took its rise in New England in 1639. The spread of its teachings began in the South when Shubal Stearns and Danile Marshall moved down to Guilford County, North Carolina, and established the Sandy River Church. From this point the preached throu the surrounding country, and on their first trip into Virginia made many converts, one of whom was Dutton Lane of Pittsylvania.

Dan River Church

Shortly after Lane's conversion he began to preach, a revival followed, and at one time forty-two persons were baptized. In 1760 these converts were organized into the Dan River church, the first Baptist church in Virginia. When a Baptist Association was held in the same year at the Sandy River church in North Carolina, Dan River sent as its representative Samuel Harris of Pittsylvania.

Samuel Harris

The zeal and earnestness of the early preachers won a host of converts to the new faith. Among them was Samuel Harris, who became the foremost man in Virginia in establishing the Baptist church. Harris was born in Hanover County in 1724, and when a young man moved to Pittsylvania. He showed qualities of leadership and was elected to many positions of trust. He was appointed a vestryman of the Established Church, a justice of the peace, sheriff of the county, a member of the House of Burgesses, colonel of the militia, captain of Fort Mayo, and commissary of the Fort and the army during the French and Indian War. While on some military mission, wearing his uniform and sword, Harris stopped where a crowd had gathered to hear a preacher. He was deeply impressed and the following year was baptized by David Marshall.

In 1759 he began to preach and devoted his full time to the ministry, resigning from all his public positions. At first he labored in his own part of the state, but later traveled throughout Virginia. It was said, "There is hardly any place in Virginia in which he did not sow the Gospel seed."

Harris spoke with power and conviction, yet "his manners were of the most winning sort, touching the feelings." He was described as being "another Paul among the churches. As the sun in his strength he passed through the state, displaying the glory of his Master to the consolation of thousands" (Ireland).


The house of Samuel Harris was situated on Strawberry Creek of Banister River near Whitmell. He was a man of wealth, and in 1777 paid taxes on 4,000 acres of land and on ten slaves. He built a large new frame building for worship which became known as the Strawberry Meeting House. When the counties of Patrick, Henry, Bedford and Pittsylvania were formed into an Association, it was given the name of Strawberry in honor of Harris' home.

Harris was held in the highest esteem by the church. From the time of the organization of the Virginia Association in 1771 until overcome with age, about 1790, he served as moderator of the meetings of the Association. When in 1774 it was decided that the church should have a head, he was chosen as the Apostle of Virginia. The office was abolished at his request. He died in 1799 and is buried on his Strawberry plantation.

Early Churches

Two early churches were established in the county by Harris, County Line in 1771 and Old Banister in 1773. County Line is situated on the dividing line between Pittsylvania and Halifax, near Peytonsburg. Old Banister is located three miles [south] of Chatham on the present Danville and Chatham highway, overlooking Banister River. In 1774 the church numbered 200 members, being the largest congregation in the state. Many years later that division in the church body which resulted in the Missionary Baptist and the Old or Primitive Baptist Churches took place at Banister. In 1927 the Old Baptists erected a new church building at the site of the early church.

The oldest Baptist church in this county which has continued an active congregation is the Kentuck or Mill church as it was first known. This church was organized in 1770 by John Creel.

John Jenkins, born in Loudoun County in 1758, was said to be the best educated man in the Roanoke Association. He founded the Riceville church in 1795, and Shockoe soon after.

Griffith Dickenson, another early preacher, was born in Hanover County in 1757. When the Greenfield Baptist Church was organized near Chalk Level in 1800 he became the pastor, and labored there for forty years.

Pittsylvania lies within the bounds of the Roanoke Association and the historian Semple wrote of it in 1810: "It may with safety be said that within her limits the Baptist church has flourished more than in any section of the state of Virginia, not to say of the United States."

1857 Chatham Baptist Church

The 1857 Chatham Baptist Church, as represented in 1966 by architect John F. McLaughlin, based on visual memories of Page Tredway, Maud Carter Clement, and others.

In 1857 a congregation was organized at the courthouse, and a massive brick church was built in the northern part of the village. It was modeled after a Greek temple, with a deep recessed front porch and two large round brick pillars plastered white. It was similar in appearance to the Lee home of Arlington, near Washington.

Today there are 43 Baptist churches in the county with a membership of more than 14,000. There are also eight churches in Danville.

Methodist Church

Methodism was first introduced into Virginia in 1772 by Robert Williams who preached at Norfolk. At the first American Conference, held in Philadelphia in 1773, of the ten preachers stationed, two were in Virginia.

First Circuit

The first circuit formed in Virginia was the Brunswick, including Petersburg with 218 members. In 1775 six preachers were appointed to Virginia. These men traveled through the state preaching day and night, and one of the greatest religious revivals known in Virginia followed their work.

Pittsylvania Circuit

Some of these six preachers must have traveled up to Pittsylvania at this time, for at the Fourth Annual Conference held at Baptimore in 1776, Pittsylvania was one of the four new circuits added. Isaac Rawlins was assigned to the circuit for the first year; John Sigman and Isham Tatum for the second year; and William Gill, John Major and Henry Willis for 1778. A very early church was built at this time in the southern part of the county known as the Watson Meeting House, but nothing is known of the Watson from whom it took its name.

Bishop Asbury

Bishop Francis Asbury, one of the early bishops of the church, spent 45 years traveling back and forth through the Atlantic States, visiting the people and preaching. He preached from house to house, for in the early days there were few church buildings. In his journal there is mention of Pittsylvania homes which he visited. The journal reads: "Sunday August 13, 1780. I rode to Watson's preaching house, a round log building after the plan of this part of the country. There were about 500 people. There was a moving. Mon. 14th I preached at Col. Wilson's (John) to about 200 people. Wed. 16th I preached at Dowdy's Store to about 200 people, very attentive. Have been very unwell travelling down Dan River and among the creeks, am in danger of ague and fever. Obliged to swim the horses over Birches Creek."

Again in 1791 Bishop Asbury visited the county. "April 1791. We rode seven miles to the banks of the Dan River. At length we came to the Fishery, crossed in a canoe and walked to T. Harrison's. Sun. 10th Dr. Coke and I both preached at Watson's church. I spent the evening with George Adams, a true son of the worthy father, Sylvester Adams, for kindness to preachers."

In 1799 the now aging preacher again visited the county. "Sept. 25, 1799. We rode Armistead Shelton's in Pittsylvania 20 miles; we stopped to dine, pray and feed our horses at Clement McDaniel's. Reached Shelton's by Sunset. Sept. 26. A congregation of from three to four hundred attended Divine Worship. On Friday we rode 12 miles to Carter's where a large company attended. Sat. 28th. Travelled 20 miles up Sandy River to George Adams. Sun. 29th I attended at Watson's meeting House. Visited brethren Trahern and Church from Maryland. Crossed Dan River at Perkin's Ferry to North Carolina."

Early Churches

Though Methodism found many followers in the county it was not until 1823 that deeds were recorded for the building of churches. In that year Nicholas Wray gave one acre for a church. In 1827 Rawley Carter and wife gave a lot for a church, and Robert Wilson and wife gave a lot on the road from the Courthouse to Crafts. In 1830 Robert Devin and wife gave a lot for a church and in 1832 deeds for five more churches were made. These five were located at Bachelor's Hall, Danville, Sandy Creek, on the road to Leaksville, and near Berger's Store, probably Siloam. A church was built at the courthouse in 1845. The handsomest of these earch churches was Old Trinity, built about 1855, on the turnpike between Callands and Museville. Today there are 43 Methodist Churches in Pittsylvania County including those in the city of Danville.

Church of Christ

The first congregation of the Church of Christ was organized at Chatham in 1847. From this point the faith has spread through the county, and today there are eight congregations and churches.

Barton Stone, Founder

One of the founders of this branch of Christianity was Barton Stone, who was reared in the Dan Valley section of Pittsylvania County. He was born in Maryland in 1772, the son of John Stone of Port Tobacco, Charles County, who was a brother of Thomas Stone, one of Maryland's signers of the Declaration of Independence.

John Stone died in 1774, and a few years later in 1779, his widow and her large family and servants moved down to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, where so many Maryland families had already settled. With her also came her son by a former marriage, John Briscoe, man of means, and his family. Here in a Dan Valley home the youngest son Barton grew up and received his early training, surrounded by his family.

In 1790 Barton entered the Caldwell Academy, Guilford, North Carolina, and while there embraced the Presbyterian faith. Being of a serious mind, in 1796 he was ordained a minister, and for two years was an itinerant preacher. His wandering led him to Kentucky, and in 1798 he became pastor of the Cone Ridge Meeting House. In 1801 he married the daughter of Colonel William Campbell of Virginia.

Barton Stone could not accept all the teachings of the Presbyterian faith, and in 1804 he withdrew from the church and took the simple name of Christian.

In 1811 Thomas Campbell of Pennsylvania and his eloquent and gifted son Alexander Campbell also withdrew from the church, making fresh interpretations of Christian teachings. These devout men, Stone and the Campbells, were the leaders of this body of Christians.

Pentecostal Holiness Church

One of the later religions to be introduced into Pittsylvania County is the Pentecostal Holiness Church. It has already gained many followers. A large congregation has been organized at Dry Fork, and a handsome brick church erected.

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Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)