Living History at Virginia’s Mattaponi Church

View of the entrance to Mattaponi Church. Note the Flemish bond glazed headers, still prominent after almost 300 years.

KING AND QUEEN COUNTY – Mattaponi Church hardly looks like the typical rural historic Southern Baptist church. The cruciform-shaped church, with a glazed-blue Flemish bond brickwork pattern, is instead a high-style relic of the time when church was state, and George II, the last non-British British monarch, was Defender of the Faith. More stylish and polished than even Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, it sits in the almost disappeared unincorporated village of Cumnor in the depopulated (and in some eras impoverished) Middle Peninsula county of King & Queen.

Mattaponi, which began life as part of the English church, dates from 1730-34, a period when landowners were fabulously wealthy with tobacco; churches expressed those aspirations. It is one of a handful of former Church of England colonial churches that are now Baptist. It is the church that my family, then Baptists, attended throughout the tumultuous 19th century, and a place that holds many untold family stories, and graves. Continue reading

Anglican Devotionals in Ralph Wormeley’s Colonial Virginia Library

Here, Rosegill Plantation in Middlesex, in Frances Benjamin Johnston’s famous survey of colonial architecture.

There is an unfortunate notion that the elite leaders of colonial Virginia were somehow deists or agnostics, and that they operated in a sort of less-religious universe than Puritans up north. And it is true, of course, that Mayflower folk were leaving Europe for religious freedom, and the Virginia settlers came more for a better life, and often led a life of excess.

But I came across a fascinating anecdote while re-reading David Hackett Fisher’s  Albion’s Seed, the 1989 survey of American folkways that explain how settlers from different areas of Britain created patterns of living in the U.S. that are prevalent today. In the book, author Fisher cites Philip Bruce’s 1907 history Social Life in Virginia to describe some of the 391 books in Ralph Wormeley’s library at Virginia’s Rosegill plantation in Middlesex County. Of those books, 123 volumes were religious in nature, indicating that the elite figures of Virginia society were in some cases, striving deeply to be better men. Continue reading

Jeremiah & Wacky Stuff God Tells You To Do

In 2013, my group at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the walls were torn down by the Romans.

In Jeremiah 13, the Lord tells Jeremiah to do something odd. “Go and get yourself a linen sash, and put it around your waist, but do not put it in the water.”

So he did it.

And then the Lord told him to take it all the way to modern day Iraq, the Euphrates River, and hide it under a rock. He did it. And then he had to dig the sash, which was a priestly garment, and then put it again under a rock in the water. Later the Lord told him to dig it up.

This was odd in so many ways. It “accomplished” nothing except for the lesson that the Lord told him that as the sash clings to man, so does the whole house of Judah cling to Me. Continue reading

Trump: Make Sunday Church Fashionable Again

BEDMINISTER, N.J. – Whatever your opinion of the recent election, let’s agree on one thing. Yesterday, Donald Trump went to church on Sunday, and that is a good thing. The church was The Lamington Presbyterian Church, a stunningly simple, beautiful neoclassical white church in New Jersey.

It is traditional for presidents to attend a public Sunday church service occasionally, and for Donald Trump, we are guessing that it is something Trump doesn’t do every Sunday. Often, presidents go to St. John’s, an Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., which functions as a sort of unofficial chaplaincy to presidents. George W. Bush, however, attended church at Camp David, and the Clintons regularly attended Foundry Methodist Church, according to Time. The challenge is that regular attendance is difficult for church regulars, who must go through security each Sunday. Continue reading

A Christian, Practical Solution to Discouragement

Discouragement can be completely destructive for the Christian. It not only hurts us, but it hurts others; when we show our discouragement as a way of life, who else wants to be like us? Who wants to be around a discouraged person?

While it’s a real feeling, and true for Christians (and not), it’s a bad feeling. When we wallow in it, it shows us and others that God is not in control. It is a sin.

One of the best meditations on controlling discouragement is an online sermon I found from The Rev. Daniel Davey of Colonial Baptist Church of Virginia Beach. I heard it a couple of years ago, and listened to it again this month. It still resonates.

Davey’s sermon uses Acts 18, and Corinth, as the discussion point. Davey says discouragement is sinful because it is “assuming that God cannot control the circumstances around you.”

Written by Luke, Acts 18 is the story of Paul going to Corinth, and he is struggling in his ministry. In Acts 18, Paul goes there to work in the tent business, and meets up with a Jewish couple named Acquila and Priscilla, who also work in tents. While in Corinth, Paul reasons in the synagogue to win converts, even when he is working in the tent business.

Paul does not get discouraged. Writes Luke in Acts 18:

One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”

Davey’s sermon on the topic gives hope, and is done in a especially powerful way. I particularly liked this remark of Davey’s:

Never doubt in the dark what you know to be true in the light, says Davey. “Wherever there is a shadow, there is light.”

 Take a listen HERE.

How an Anglican Church Bootstrapped Virgin Records

LONDON, U.K. – The life story of Richard Branson hinges on many small events, his decision to go into publishing, into launching a record label, his decision to go into the airline business and many others, large and small.

One critical moment is often forgotten, about how he got an early, free office from the Church of England.

The innovative moved happened at the behest of  the Rev. Cuthbert Le Messurier Scott, a naval officer and priest, born in 1913 and Vicar of  St John’s, Hyde Park Crescent and St Michael and All Angels, Paddington from 1964-72.

Cuthbert is best known for the founding of Horseman’s Sunday, a day of London parish activism where one Sunday in September the Vicar of St. John’s, Hyde Park mounts on horseback outside his church and blesses a cavalcade of up to 100 horses and riders in a celebration of London’s equestrian community. The show began because the stables of f Hyde Park were threatened with closure, and Captain the Rev. Scott came to the rescue.

The Rev. Cuthbert Scott also came to the rescue when a young entrepreneur named Richard Branson came knocking in the late 60s to find a home for his magazine Student.

Branson describes it thus in his book, Losing My Virginity.

We scoured the neighborhood looking for somewhere to rent. The best deal, no rent at all, was offered by the Reverend Cuthbert Scott. He offered us the use of the crypt at Saint John’s Church, just off Bayswater Road, for no rent. I put an old slab of marble across two tombs to make my desk, and everyone found somewhere to sit. We even charmed the local post office engineer to connect our phone without having to wait the normal three months. After a while none of us noticed that we were working in the dim light of the crypt surrounded by marble effigies and tombs.”

The interesting thing is that came because he was not supposed to run a business out of his house, which was rented from the church.

We started in a basement in Connaught Square with Student magazine then moved to Albion Street. We then got kicked out by the church commissioners for running a business in a private house. The local vicar, the Reverend Cuthbert Scott, came to our rescue and offered us the crypt of the church at the end of the street. Ironic to be rescued by the vicar.

Some take a so called “pure£ version of the church, 0ne that is shut down during the week and opens up on Sunday for services and coffee hour. But the historic parish church of antiquity is a bit of an incubator and encourager of the local business community. Perhaps the most famous of these types of models is The Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg who spurred on the redevelopent of the town through his churchly office.

The Rev. Scott and his wife Peggie did all sorts of tricks to energize their parish, including inviting George Martin to survey the acoustics, and launching a luxury magazine to promote it. It worked, not only energizing the parish itself, but the community around it.

Today, churches have many empty rooms, and many empty pews. What can you do with your empty church?

Questions to think on:

  • What are we willing to do, as a church, for our youth as they attempt to pursue their dreams?
  • What can we give up or loan from the church that might assist her people?
  • How is church leadership connected to the local community, especially the creative community?
  • Is your church active during the week, and not just with church meetings, but God’s people doing the work of their daily lives?
  • Is all of the real estate in the parish being used for the glory of God and the community?

Today, St. John’s is still a parish. They advertise themselves as the “most fun you can have on a Sunday morning.”


Essay: Reflections on Luke 2 1:14

Published December 22, 2004 in St. Andrew’s Church, Richmond, Advent Bulletin

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke 2:1-14

Thus starts one of my favorite passages from the New Testament. I love the second chapter of Luke for all the reasons that I love a good History Channel documentary; it’s about facts and history. For all the legend and lore of Christianity and the reality of parting of seas and Noah’s ark, the central part of Christianity for me is the story of the New Testament, and those truths therein. For if it didn’t happen, it all becomes like some story of the Norse gods — a great tale with a useful message, but not something that you can bet your soul on. Perhaps there was some fellow who cleaned the Aegean stables? Myth makes good advice for living, but world-changing events like the birth of Christ are much more than that.

I am not a Biblical scholar, but what I can, as layman, understand is that this story, told over and over again, is recorded and witnessed. I think it important to think of Luke as a historian, and in that context, this all becomes real. It gives it so much more power than just some vague stories in the deserts of Palestine. Frankly, we sometimes turn all these disciples into mythological cartoon figures. But looking at Luke, and this famous passage, it is clear that there were witnesses and he is talking to me, with no atheist in the middle to tell me what I should think about it.

Right around Christmastime, there are always documentaries on television and magazines analyzing the facts regarding Christ and the New Testament. And what is always so satisfying is that it all makes some sort of logical sense. This season, there is fellow Episcopalian Jon Meacham, who wrote in Newsweek about the facts of Christ’s birth. But however these reports end, there are always unanswered questions about documents, versions, translations and archaeology. Of course, it is impossible to disprove a negative, and perhaps that is what we always require of skeptics — that they disprove our beliefs.

What I love about Luke and the New Testament is that there are many versions of a story by folks who lived in that time or close to that time, and they all say different nuanced versions of the same thing. Look in discussions of the Bible and there are all sorts of debates over when Quinirus lived, who he was, and whether the dates corresponded with Roman calendars. Were there two Quinirus rulers? I think those sorts of discussions all interesting and amusing, but what is often overlooked is that the New Testament is not seen as history, but everything else written in that time is. Certainly, facts are wrong in major history texts, but that does not make us doubt the birth of George Washington? Somehow, we must, as Christians, keep proving that this happened, over and over, in order to accept it.

History is always full of nuances and half-truths. Do we hold the rest of history to the same standards we hold the Bible? I think not — with the rest of history, there are many different accounts and many different witnesses. We know from our own lives how people lie and distort for their own ends, but we still accept a lot, as we should. But with the Bible, we seem to hold it to a far higher standard of truth.

And perhaps that’s all well and good. For no matter how many times the story is told, and as unlikely as it seems, it all seems to make so much sense, especially thinking about the different versions of it all. I borrow a thought from the noted Egyptologist John Romer — you can play all you want with the facts, archeological record and manuscripts, and he does. But the evidence of the church and the lives of the disciples and saints that followed is a sort of evidence in itself. And that makes it real.