Baptists in the Charlottesville area worshipped in the County Courthouse (1820-1831) before a brick building was constructed around 1864, First Baptist on the corner of 2nd and East Jefferson streets. In this church, although never regarded as equals in faith, the African American contingent of the Baptists worshipped with their white counterparts.
In 1832, Virginia passed a law that prohibited blacks to worship without a white minister present. They were not allowed to worship with the rest of the white community. The African American community, who were already suffering under slavery, had more injustices to endure. While blacks were discontent, it would take thirty years before they acted.
In 1863, the 800 African American members of the Charlottesville Baptist Church petitioned for, and were granted, approval to separate from the church and form their own congregations. From this group, two congregations were formed: The Delevan (First) Baptist Church in 1864 (that lot was the front eastern portion of the present church lot) and the Mt. Zion Baptist Church 1867.
Since some African American members were still disgruntled about the mandate for a white minister to be present, the Mt. Zion congregation had contracted to purchase before buying the old Delevan Hotel. Thus, Mt. Zion First African Baptist church was organized.
Our first pastor was nicknamed the "horseback preacher" - the Reverend Spottswood Jones. He was the first African American preacher to shepherd his congregation in Charlottesville! He served until approximately 1871. It is evident that he did his job well because we are still building upon the foundation laid by him.
The second pastor was Reverend S.W. Smith. He served the church for four years. Reverend Smith resigned to accept the pastorate of another church.
Reverend Jesse Herndon was called. He was a great preacher and the congregation grew under his leadership. While pasturing at Mt. Zion, a gallery was added in the frame building. He served for fifteen years, until his death.
Reverend J. Francis Robinson was called to Mt. Zion. He served us for two years. Little is know about our 4th pastor.
In 1875, after the purchase price had been paid, the deed stated that the lot was "now occupied and enjoyed by the Mt. Zion Church." The first building was reported to have been of frame construction. Three years later the congregation contracted to purchase the home of one of its members, Samuel White, just west of the church. Tradition says that the present church was built in 1878, but newspaper accounts at the time dispute that. While the deed states that the church did take possession of the White property immediately, the deed was not recorded until 1894 because Mr. White had died leaving minor children. The Jeffersonian chronicled the demolition of the old church building in the summer of 1883, the laying of the cornerstone in mid-September, and plans to have the roof on in December and to occupy the basement in the Spring of 1884. George W. Spooner was the architect and builder, and G.A. Sinclair did the brick work. The steeple was completed in the 1890's and stained glass windows and pipe organ were installed about the same time.
1892 was an epoch year in the history of Mt. Zion. This was the year that Reverend Royal Brown Hardy came to us. He came to us at a very difficult period in the life of our church. He took the helm and steered us safely though the crisis. The church was almost up for sale! With is amazing insight and unflinching loyalty, he gathered around him many good and dependable workers. Under his wise counsel and hard work the indebtedness was paid. The mortgage was burned on Easter Monday in 1905. This ceremony was witnessed by an overflow crowd!!
During the struggle to pay the indebtedness, the church had run down and needed much improvement. After having paid the debt, Reverend Hardy directed attention toward improving the church. His leadership in this area will be witnessed by generations yet unborn!
The following was accomplished: the basement was completed, the steeple was built, stained glass windows ere added, pipe organ was installed and many other things were done to make the church comfortable and beautiful. Reverend Hardy has the longest record in years of service of any pastor during the history of the church. He served Mt. Zion for twenty-five years and six months. He died in October, 1917.
We can truly say that Reverend Hardy was God's man of the hour. Hardy Drive in the Westhaven housing development is named in honor of him.
Reverend S.A. Thurston came to us. He was a man with a child-like spirit and magnetic personality. Under his leadership, the church erected a monument grave of Reverend Hardy and a bronze plaque of Rev. Hardy was placed in the church. A parsonage was purchased, the church beautified, and the pulpit and choir stand were changed. The membership bulletin board was given to the church by Mrs. Sallie Truehart. Reverend Thurston served us for nine years until being called to pastor Rodman Street Baptist Church, Pittsburg Pennsylvania.
Reverend William R. Strassner accepted the pastorate on the second Sunday in June 1929. After having remained with us for one year, he was given a scholarship to do advanced studies at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. The church granted him a leave of absence for two years; Reverend W. J. Kerr served the church while Reverend Strassner was on leave. Reverend Kerr was loyal to the church and the Pastor Strassner.
Reverend Strassner returned to us full of energy and inspiration. Much work was done under his leadership. The following was done under his administration: installed storm doors, steam heat,
"Decision Day" in Sunday School, organized the Daughters of Ruth, Brotherhood Club College, Marshall, Texas to become the dean for the School of Religion.
Reverend R.M. McKinney, Professor at Virginia University served in a most acceptable manner as the supply Pastor. Reverend McKinney served until God called Reverend Lloyd E. Jemison to become our 9th pastor.
One of Reverend Jemison's chief interests was the youth of the church. He organized a large youth choir. Under his administration the debt of the parsonage and church was paid, the basement was re-decorated, new lighting system installed a pastor's study and kitchen was built and paid for upon completion. Under his leadership, for the first time in history of the church a young man was licensed to the gospel ministry, brother Eugene Watts. Reverend Jemison served us for about ten years. He was called a pastor a church in Des Moines, Iowa in January 1949.
Reverend Herman A. Watts began his ministry with us on the first Sunday in July 1949. During his brief pastorate, he organized the Deaconess ministry, the Young Men's Ushers, the Social Club and designated the first Sunday in each month as Young People's Day. Reverend Carter Wicks, another son of the church, was licensed and ordained for the ministry.
Reverend Emmett L. Green began his ministry with us on the second Sunday in June 1952. Under his leadership, the church grew spiritually, numerically and financially. Many vital needs were met because of his vision, patient planning and effective use of many resources. There is evidence of this in the improvements that have been made, such as, the church was covered with a new roof, the basement was removed at a cost of $12,000, which included a central office. A new system was developed whereby every member of the church as accounted for and statistics kept.
Reverend Green ended his pastorate with us on May 24, 1959 to become the pastor of the first Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia. He served Mt. Zion for seven years.
Reverend James B. Hamilton was called by God to pastor Mt. Zion on January 20, 1960. Under his guidance many things wee accomplished. Our church reached new dimensions in the areas of Christian Education, membership, finance and social outreach. A major contribution of Reverend Hamilton's was the first established church Credit Union in Charlottesville. Reverend Hamilton pastored our church for twenty years.
During our search to find the Psalm 1 Pastor. Reverend Warren Dawkins served as interim. His willingness, teaching style, commitment and leadership helped to continue the legacy of Mt. Zion Reverend Dawkins served as interim pastor for one year.
Reverend Alvin Edwards began his pastorate at Mt. Zion on July 1, 1981. He is a native of Joliet Illinois. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, his Master of Divinity degree from Virginia Union School of Theology and on May 21, 2000, he received his Ph.D. in Education from George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia.
Reverend Edwards was instrumental in working with a committee to name Mt. Zion Baptist Church to the Virginia Landmark Register in 1991 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. It was at this time that our attention was directed to the white marble stone located above the transom which reads, “Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church.” Many of us had entered this edifice for many years and failed to look up to see this historical sign engraved in stone. On Sunday, May 5, 2002, groundbreaking services for the new edifice were held on the lot on Lankford Avenue.
On Saturday, October 4, 2002, the Masonic Lodge #20, Free and Accepted Masons of Virginia, presided over the ceremony in which the Corner Stone for the new edifice at 105 Lankford Avenue was placed. This stone contains a cavity in which a time capsule containing relics of our church have been deposited. Sunday, May 25, 2003, was an eventful day in the life of Mt. Zion. In the last Worship Service at 105 Ridge Street, the 12 pastors of Mt. Zion were recognized with a candlelight service. The illuminated cross and communion service contributed by the Daughters of Ruth were used. At the close of the service the cross was gently cradle in the arms of Mr. David Simmons. As the members of the choir continued to sing, Reverend and Mrs. Edwards headed the procession out of the church, followed by the Diaconate, Trustees, Leadership Council, Church School, Building Fund Committee, Church Ministries and the remaining church members.
The final scripture spoken by Reverend Edwards within old Mt. Zion was taken from Psalm 125:1 - “They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion which cannot be removed but abideth forever.”
The vision of Reverend James B. Hamilton of building a new church was completed under Reverend Alvin Edwards.
July 27, 2003 was an extremely exciting and hot day. With a police escort, and a large banner leading the way, many members marched (in remembrance of deceased members), others rode buses, from our old edifice at 105 Ridge Street to our new edifice at 105 Lankford Avenue. As we entered the new edifice singing our theme, “We’re Marching to Zion,” both young and old gave thanks to God for his continued blessings. Some had fond memories of the groundbreaking ceremonies, some remembered the finding of a penny on the lot, some remembered several delays with construction and worshiping at Johnson Elementary School.
A Pre-Dedication program was held on Saturday, October 11, 2003 featuring Grammy Award Winner Mrs. Ann Nesby. Appearing on the program were Mt. Zion’s Sanctuary Choir, New Green Mountain Baptist Church Choir, the Karar Dance Ministry of First Baptist Church, and Mr. James Brown’s ensemble from Joliet, Illinois.
On Sunday, October 12, 2003 the official Dedication Service was held with an overflow crowd of church and community members and friends. Dr. Isaac Singleton from Joliet, Illinois, who preached at 105 ridge Street, when Reverend Edwards was installed, was guest Preacher for this momentous occasion.
During Reverend Edwards’ tenure at Mt. Zion several brothers and sisters received their call from God into the ministry and preached their initial sermons. Several of them have also been ordained and two are pastoring churches. Mt. Zion also ordained its first Minister of Music as well as ordained its first Deaconesses; combined the Deacon and Deaconess Boards to form the Diaconate; organized and Consecrated Junior Diaconate; reactivated the Children’s Choir and the Children’s Hour during the 11:00 a.m. Worship Service; introduced Children’s Church; and designated May as Family Month. Each Wednesday, during the month, activities designed to inform, educate, guide, and strengthen the family were held, along with a family meal.
New ministries added to the church include: Audio Visual, Beautification, College, Communication, Drama, Fearless Praise, Health, Liturgical Dance, Ministers, Nutrition, Otis and Rosa Lee Scholarship, Recovery, Senior, and Women’s. A Director of Christian Education was appointed. The Brotherhood/Crusaders became the Men’s Ministry. The Worker’s Council was reactivated as the Leadership Council. Mt. Zion sponsored a basketball team known as Mt. Zion Lady Cavaliers. These young ladies, under the coaching of late Edward Brooks and assistant coach, late Linda Felton, became an outstanding team with many triumphs to their credit. Mt. Zion also sponsored a softball team.
Mt. Zion members as well as people from areas churches were given the opportunity to study God’s word in morning and evening Bible study classes held each week. During this time, both classes experienced tremendous grown numerically as well as spiritually, as people increased their knowledge and understanding of God’s word. Several ministries were discontinued for various reasons: Nursery, Primary and Middler classes in the Church School; Social; Industrial Club; Hospitality, Daughters of Ruth; Missionary Circles (3); Junior Missionaries (2); Learning Center; Rite of Passage (boys); Diamonds and Pearls (girls); Boy Scout and Girl Scout Troops; Youth Sunday; Missionary Ushers; and the Federal Credit Union (with over 40 years of service).
In 2004, Mt. Zion published its first Pictorial Directory featuring color photographs of the members of the church.
Reverend Edwards is the Psalm 1 man. He is truly a man of God. He has the desire to be like Christ. We have been blessed since 1981. Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church and the community will never be the same!
From a small 2-story clapboard home to our current magnificent edifice - we truly give God all honor and praise!!
For many years, the church has been centrally located between the City's principal black neighborhoods. However, as times changed and integration came into play, Mt. Zion's location at the entrance to Ridge Street became symbolic of the integrated nature of that most prestigious residential street. "Let Mt. Zion Rejoice!"