Pastor Robert Anthony of Blue Run Baptist Church, Barboursville, has history on his mind. The church he has led for the past year will celebrate its 250th anniversary on Sunday, June 23, and Anthony wants people to know how rich and complex its history is.
The complexities begin with a stone crypt on the church’s front lawn. A white woman named Jane Webb is buried inside it, and the epigraph inscribed in the stone reveals she was thrown from a horse in her 43th year on that very spot in February of 1783.
Anthony said Webb’s family was instrumental in acquiring the land for the church, and enslaved people built her tomb. Those long-ago laborers may well have included the two men whom Webb herself owned.
Tracing its roots back to 1769, the church counted both white and black parishioners among its members for more than 100 years. Until the abolition of slavery, the black members were mostly, if not all, slaves whose masters allowed them to go to church.
Drawing on a history of the church published by Garland Tyree, Anthony said, “The church allowed slaves to become members, but they had no voice. They were able to come and be baptized and become members of the church.”
Anthony notes that no enslaved people held offices in the church during its first century.
“Blacks had no say, no voice at all,” he said. But as the local enslaved population increased in the years leading up to the Civil War, the number of black members at Blue Run also grew.
During the antebellum period, Anthony said, “There were more blacks in the church down through the years than white, because there were so many slaves and [the white masters] were allowing them to become a part [of the church].”
If all of this conjures up a picture of benevolent white folks sharing the pews with their enslaved brethren, the minister hastens to explain that enslaved men and women only got to attend church if their masters gave them permission: “If you’re a slave, they’ll let you come when they want you to come”—but not if there was work to do on the plantation or if a slave was being punished.
But Anthony’s point is not to excoriate long-ago slave masters. He is equally interested in Blue Run’s white ministers of the 1700s and 1800s who welcomed black parishioners into the church.
He said, “There some folk who knew the Lord and knew that they were no better than the slave. The slave had a spirit just as well as they did. The slave’s spirit had to be saved as well as theirs. So there was somebody that had that much influence, and I think it was the word of God himself speaking. And these preachers were really serious back in that day to incorporate that into their preaching.”
The “black” Blue Run and the “white” one
Anthony said that at one point there were about 100 black members of the congregation. After the Civil War, the white membership gradually dropped to zero. Meanwhile, another Blue Run Baptist Church had taken root in Somerset.
So there are two churches with the same name in the same county, only a couple of miles apart, but the one on Route 20 is the de facto “black” church and the one on Route 231 is the “white” one. Anthony, who grew up in Barboursville attending the church he now pastors, finds the whole thing fascinating, and he has no intention of erasing any of the history that binds the two churches.
“When our history is celebrated,” he said, “I want it to be celebrated for all who attended, black and white.”
Wearing black glasses and a short-sleeved clerical shirt, Anthony sat in his church office on a recent morning and talked race and religion with blunt good humor. He wants the two Blue Runs to acknowledge their shared past and avoid presenting a “partial history” as the whole story.
“Of course, you can’t change history,” he said, a smile flickering across his face. “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. We’re family, whether some like it or not.”
A Barboursville childhood, a career in Charlottesville
Anthony’s personal history also is compelling and complicated. Born in New Jersey, where his father was from, he moved to Barboursville as a young child after his parents split up. There, on his mother’s home turf, he grew up working on a horse and beef farm in Albemarle County.
He and his mother, a short-order cook at the old People’s drugstore in Charlottesville, would catch a ride to their respective jobs. At 13, he painted fences and mucked out stalls. In time, he was driving tractors and exercising the horses.
He attended segregated schools, including the old George Washington Carver School in Culpeper County, but graduated from the integrated Orange County High School in 1968. He was drafted into the military, but bad knees prevented him from serving in the Navy, as he had planned.
Back home after a brief stint in basic training, he worked for Webster Brick and rose to the rank of supervisor. The job paid well, but after he was laid off, Anthony had to scramble. When he was offered a minimum-wage job at Martha Jefferson Hospital, he snapped it up, happy to have a regular paycheck, no matter how small it was.
Again he rose through the ranks and became a supervisor in charge of purchasing and receiving in the food service department. He retired in 2013 after 31 years.
A “great big cross” in the sky
He gradually began to sense a call to the ministry.
“It dawned on me,” he said, that “the Word, the spirit of the Lord, was really working on me, that I could, I should, be doing more.”
Then, while reading in the Bible about the Apostle Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus, he said, “I caught on fire with that scripture. … I need to go and tell the Word; I need to go and speak and teach the word of God.”
He bided his time for a couple of years because he wasn’t yet ready. He thought of how Paul had received holy inspiration from a bright light on the road and asked God to show him a sign.
When the sign came, it was impossible to ignore. As Anthony drove home from Charlottesville one day, he spotted “a great big cross” in the sky. He looked to see whether other drivers were slowing down to look at it, but he soon realized he was the only one who had slowed to a crawl.
As he approached Ruckersville, crying as he drove, he took a turn on the road. With that, the cross suddenly vanished from his view.
“I got home and I kept thinking about that. I said, ‘What more do I need him to show me?’”
Still Anthony waited, keeping his astonishing experience to himself, unsure whether he could do what God wanted him to do. Finally, late one night, sequestered in a back room at home, he got down on his knees and crawled, crying, into the living room.
He had made his decision and he spoke it aloud: “‘Lord, I’ll go, I’ll do whatever you say.’”
The next step was to wake up his wife, Sarah, and tell her his news. Then he told his pastor at Chestnut Grove. In 2005, he shared his revelation with Chestnut Grove’s congregation and began taking classes to prepare for a career in the ministry.
Before coming home to Blue Run, he served as pastor for a church in Dyke. These days, he is delighted to be back in the church of his childhood. As he looks to the future, he hopes to increase the membership and provide more activities for the youth in the church. He said around 25 to 30 people come every Sunday, and there are often visitors who swell the ranks.
“Until we come together …”
As the big 250th anniversary celebration approaches, however, Anthony is thinking about the past as much as the future.
In helping to write up a history of the church to share on the celebration day, he is determined to keep both Blue Run Baptist churches firmly in mind.
“We’re not going to figure out when the first black preacher took over, because the church came up through slavery. We’re going to go as far back as anybody else went back. So the church down the road—their history is our history.
“They’ve got a partial history. They’ve got part of it and we’ve got part of it, and until we come together and be one big Blue Run Church where we all live under the same roof, we’ll always have a partial history. But once we bring it all together, we’ll start having one history together, and we can say we have the history of Blue Run.”
Anthony said emphatically he would like to see the two Blue Run congregations combine someday: “And not just that. I would like to see the majority of the [small] churches combine,” and pool their resources to pay burdensome bills.
“If you can put it together,” he said, “you can have a greater ministry.”