#1254. Rockbridge Churches, Part II

By Lad Sessions | Travel Photography

Dec 29

Part I portrayed some of the numerous Presbyterian churches in Rockbridge County, Virginia,
which make up one third of the whole. Part II takes up the other two-thirds: churches from
other denominations. This is a collaborative effort, with narrative by my good friend Ed Craun,
paired with my images. Once again this is a sampling, not a catalog; but we do hope it conveys
what churches look like in this part of the world—and hence what this part of the world looks


From the 1790s Methodist circuit riders began meeting in houses with disciples; they served a host of small congregations, riding from one to the other. These groups, made up of farmers and artisans accustomed to building houses and barns, built small frame churches in hamlets or among farms throughout the nineteenth century.

Some of these survive:

Elliott’s Hill United Methodist Church
Mt. Horeb United Methodist Church

In Lexington, a much larger Methodist congregation formed, largely of merchants and artisans.

In 1890-94, it built, on Main Street, this substantial brick church in the Romanesque style, with rounded arches and windows, its façade flanked by two unequal towers.

Trinity United Methodist Church, Lexington

Almost the same Romanesque design as that found at Ebenezer ARP Church was used for Ebenezer Methodist Church in the hamlet of Rockbridge Baths. Like the ARP church and many other buildings in the county, it is roofed in sheets of tin, painted green.

Ebenezer United Methodist, Rockbridge Baths

Rural Baptist congregations were formed at much the same time as Methodist ones, often gathered around uneducated charismatic preachers. In the second decade, John Jordan, a bricklayer and preacher, designed and built Neriah Church, an unadorned brick preaching box at a crossroads.

Neriah Baptist Church

Often they were built of timber by congregants themselves, as at Kerr’s Creek in a simple Gothic style.

Kerrs Creek Baptist

In the county seat, however, Baptists built a grand Greek revival church on Main Street, outdoing the Presbyterians with an elaborate Ionic portico, ornamented entablature, larger pediment, and dome.

Manley Memorial Baptist Church, Lexington

Although the Church of England was the state church of the Virginia colony and its successor in the new republic, the Episcopal Church, was a dominant Christian group in eastern Virginia, no congregation formed in Rockbridge County until 1840, when the Superintendent of Virginia Military Institute founded Grace Church. The congregation was transformed after the Civil War when Robert E. Lee became a member of the vestry. After his death in 1870, money was raised in his name for this new stone vernacular Gothic church, with a rose window, a steep lead roof, and a tall steeple clad in ornamented lead. Early in the twentieth century, at the height of segregation, the vestry renamed the church Robert E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, a name returned to Grace in 2017.

Grace Episcopal

In the late nineteenth century, when the new industrial towns of Glasgow and Buena Vista grew up along the Maury River and the railroad, small Episcopal congregations built modest Gothic churches, each with an ornamented bell tower topped with a cross.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Glasgow
Christ Episcopal Church Buena Vista

German immigrants trickled slowly into Rockbridge in the nineteenth century, founding this simple rural brick Lutheran church, Bethany, in a grove amidst prosperous farms at Alone Mill.

Bethany Evangelical Lutheran ‘church, Rockbridge Baths

An earlier group of Germans settled just north of Rockbridge County, founding in 1760 St. John’s Reformed Church, rebuilt in the twentieth century in a German Romanesque style with rounded windows and arches, plus a striking tower.

St John’s Reformed Church

Some Germans who settled in the late-nineteenth-century industrial town of Buena Vista were pacifist Anabaptists; they formed three Brethren congregations, one of which built this strong-lined stone church.

Stone Church of the Brethern Buena Vista

Roman Catholics, a small minority still in the late nineteenth century, built a Gothic church with a prominent tower on a side street in the county seat; in the mid-twentieth century, when large-scale regional mixing began to affect the Upper South, a larger stone building, ornamented with buttresses on the front as well as the sides, replaced it.

Gospel Way Church of God in Christ (old Catholic Church)
St. Patrick’s Catholic

In the late nineteenth century, charismatic or Pentecostal churches formed in Rockbridge County; all stressed speaking in tongues, but they fractured along racial lines and local leaders. As a result, their small congregations could afford only modest houses of worship, like these.

Lexington Pentecostal Holiness Church
New Hope Church of God of Prophecy, Lexington

Black Churches

Before the Civil War began in 1860, most enslaved blacks worshipped in the churches of their masters, often in segregated areas, like balconies. When the war ended five years later, blacks comprised one quarter of the population of the county. What happened at Lexington Baptist Church in 1867 was typical: the white and black members separated, and blacks began worshipping in other buildings, until they had enough money for materials to build a church using their own labor.

In the 1880s, Blacks built this little frame Gothic “African Church” (now Methodist) in the village of Brownsburg, where enslaved people had worked on large farms.

Asbury United Methodist Church

One black Baptist church, Rising Zion, stands amidst fields in the north of the county with its graveyard for Blacks nearby; another is nestled in wooded hills far down the county at Natural Bridge.

Rising Zion Baptist Church
First Baptist Church, Natural Bridge

In Lexington, increasingly prosperous Blacks slowly raised this handsome Gothic brick Baptist church in a Black neighborhood on Main Street from 1894-96; around 2000 it was reroofed with a gift by the famous painter Cy Twombly, in memory of his nanny.

First Baptist Church, Lexington

About the same time, in another black neighborhood, Methodists built a small brick Gothic church; the present bell tower replaced an earlier steeple destroyed in a fire.

Randolph Street United Methodist Church

New Religious Groups

The influx of people from outside the Upper South after World War II led to the formation of new religious groups in the county. Churches come and churches go as demographics shift.

Here’s the New Grace Church, a church of God of Prophecy Ministry, in Glasgow, founded in 1969.

New Grace Church, Glasgow, A Church of God ef Prophecy Ministry

Many other congregations took over abandoned rural churches, like this Friends Meeting House
(Quaker), in a former Adventist church that was in turn repurposed from a Presbyterian one.


Some built large houses of worship on the edge of town, like this Latter Day Saints church.

Lexington Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon)

There are also empty church buildings, like these two in Buena Vista, a town in decline to the East of Lexington.

Empty Church Buena Vista
Unmarked Church Buena Vista

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  • jean pierre guaron says:

    I guess the founding fathers – the Plymouth Brethren – came to America for religious reasons, and it should surprise no-one, really. But compared with other countries I’m familiar with, there seems to be quite an extraordinary focus on religion in the US. And and extraordinary variety of different sects.

    I’m left wondering whether all these churches are now facing a problem which has become commonplace elsewhere. Shrinking congregations, putting some of these places of worship at risk. Or seeing them closed down & sold off, to be converted into someone’s house, or some else.

    We’ve seen plenty of that here – the former synagogue a mile from here shut years ago, and has recently been turned into a two storey building, with restaurants on both floors and beer gardens outside – at ground level and on part of the roof space. Several other former churches around here are now houses.

    I love your photos,, by the way, Lad. Varied conditions, both in terms of light and in terms of the sky. It’s not always easy to get a decent sky in photos of this nature, under these conditions, and you’ve done a splendid job.

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Thanks Pete, glad you liked the photos. I spent odd hours for most of a year exploring the county’s churches, in varying lights. It was challenging.

      Yes, religion has always been unusually popular in this country, for whatever reasons, but it is in precipitous decline right now (at least in terms of organized church affiliation). “None” is the fastest-growing religious affiliation on census and poll tallies. Part of the reason for the decline is the disastrous alignment of conservative churches with far-right politics; young people are fleeing the pews because they want no part of Trump and his acolytes. I’m not sure there is a similar decline in this conservative county, as it seems there are new entepreneurial churches almost every month, not often aligned with traditional denominations. In my opinion people choose churches to conform with their antecedent beliefs; they aren’t so much molded by religion as comforted and confirmed in their politics.

  • Really beautiful work with this project, Lad. Are you doing this for a book project?

    • Lad Sessions says:

      Thanks Cliff. I was working for it most of a year, and Ed Craun half a year, off and on. No book in mind—though I could be persuaded otherwise by a publisher! 😉

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