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The following article appeared in The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia on March 28, 2005 and contains much interesting history on Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock. Ms. Nancy Moore, Managing Editor of The Free Lance-Star graciously gave her permission for the article to be reprinted here on the Essex County VAGenWeb page.

Essex to buy 1728 courthouse

March 28, 2005

Sometimes, the sirens stop the sermons in the old church on the busy corner in Tappahannock.

"They're ambulances from the Northern Neck on their way to the hospital here in town. I just wait until they're gone and continue preaching," said Robert C. McKinley, pastor of Beale Memorial Baptist Church.

The thick brick walls of the church were once those of a Colonial courthouse.

Just a few feet from McKinley's pulpit, three Baptist ministers were convicted in 1774 of preaching illegally.

But soon, the church will move away from its home for the past 127 years and Essex County will retake possession of its former courthouse built in 1728.

County and church officials say they hope to close the $775,000 deal in May. The church bought the old courthouse in 1878 for $750.

Essex County Administrator Gary Allen said the county has no definite plans for the building, which has grown over the years to 10,000 square feet, but its old sanctuary might become community performance space and its meeting rooms might become offices.

O. Bryan Taliaferro Jr., chairman of the church's Property Conversion Committee, said the sale will help the congregation of the traffic-bound church build a new facility on a 20-acre lot it owns a mile away on U.S. 17 north of town.

The safety of its members was a major reason the church voted two years ago to sell the church, Taliaferro said. The church's 57-car parking lot, which also will be sold to the county, is across U.S. 360 from the building; the church sits on the busy corner of U.S. 360 and U.S. 17.

According to VDOT traffic counts, 27,000 vehicles a day pass in front of the church. About half of them make the turn to or from the nearby Downing Bridge that crosses the Rappahannock River to the Northern Neck.

"Many of our members tell close-call stories about trying to cross that street," Taliaferro said. "It used to be a quiet little corner, but it is not going to be that ever again."

Taliaferro hopes the new church will help attract new members, especially young families. Its present membership of around 250 people has remained "stagnant" in recent years, he said.

But Augusta Wilkerson says she is "bitterly opposed" to the change.

Wilkerson has been a church member for 74 of her 84 years. The church's founder baptized her father. Her sister was the first person to be baptized in a baptistery added when the sanctuary was enlarged in the 1920s.

"We've got a pew there in memory of my grandmother, my father and my uncle. I said to those newcomers who voted to move the church, 'When you all move, just leave my pew in there.' That sanctuary just has so much history." she said.

Carl R. Lounsbury agrees. Lounsbury is an architectural historian and the author of "Courthouses of Early Virginia," published in January by The University of Virginia Press.

The old Essex courthouse is the oldest documented courthouse in Virginia, Lounsbury said. "The King William County courthouse may be older, but it lacks the records that exist in Essex," he said.

"Most counties of that era chose to build wooden buildings for their courts, but in Essex they chose to build something out of the ordinary. That tells us a lot about the public aspirations of the people," Lounsbury said.

He cited two noteworthy architectural features of the original building--the "fine brickwork" of Flemish bond and salt-glazed headers, then a new masonry fashion; and the compass-headed windows that were used only in public buildings of the day.

The courthouse was built on a block "dedicated to publick use" when Tappahannock was laid out in 1706. For many years afterward, the busy, often-raucous tobacco port on the river was better known by its nickname, Hobbs Hole.

In the 1770s, Essex County's gentry became alarmed at the rising popularity of the Baptists, their soul-stirring services and their rejection of pleasures like dancing and music.

A Baptist church had been established in 1772 in the upper part of the county. In 1774, three Baptist preachers conducted a service to organize a new church near present-day Dunbrooke and were arrested for "preaching and expounding the Scriptures contrary to law."

They waited a week in a jail for their trial, praying constantly and preaching through the bars to other Baptists who gathered on the courthouse green to support them.

The preachers--John Waller, John Shackleford and Robert Ware--were convicted in the courthouse and order to post 20-pound bonds to ensure their future good behavior.

"It's hard not to preach in this room and not be conscious of this heritage of religious freedom," said Robert C. McKinley, who is retiring in June after pastoring Beale Memorial for 28 years.

In the War of 1812, British marines landed from eight ships in the river. They pillaged the town and torched the courthouse, two jails and a large warehouse at the end of the town wharf.

Repaired, the courthouse served until 1848, when the county's present courthouse was built between an 1808 clerk's office and a 1769 debtor's prison.

In the summer of 1875, Frank Brown Beale, a 23-year-old Baptist minister from Westmoreland County, took the ferry across the Rappahannock to hold services in Tappahannock.

As a result, Beale later wrote: "Seven young and attractive girls, just budding into womanhood, made a profession of faith in Jesus as their personal Saviour, and were buried with their Lord in baptism in the beautiful waters of the Rappahannock River."

Beale and the seven women decided to start a church. They named it Centennial Baptist Church after the soon-to-be-celebrated 100th anniversary of the founding of the United States.

By then, the county had sold the old courthouse. It was a warehouse when the new church bought it in 1875 and soon added a bell tower to its front.

Beale led Centennial for 25 years. When he died in 1908, the church was renamed after him.

A replica of the bell tower will adorn Beale Memorial's new church, which Taliaferro expects will cost close to $2 million when it is completed in a couple of years.

After the sale to the county, the congregation will rent its present building from the county for $2,500 a month until the new church is ready.

The old church bell will hang in the new tower. The church's pews, memorial plaques and eight stained-glass windows also will be moved from the old church on the corner to the new one outside of town.

Copyright 2005 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

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