The Briery church has an interesting history that includes prominent Christian men, college presidents, and slavery to contend. Established around 1750, the church struggled to keep a preacher on the payroll. The church membership decided in 1766 to confront the financial problem and secure its financial future. The tradesmen and farmers that its membership consisted decided to use the slave market as a form of financial security so they could raise the necessary funds to secure its future. I would be the first to caution ones apparent shock reading that churches owned slaves. Looking from a modern standpoint, the practice seems abhorrent and certainly unchristian in nature. Yet it is this kind of thinking that gets most people into trouble when they apply faulty historic thinking to a historical problem. The fact is that many of the leaders of the church where themselves slave-owners who had been successful through the slave trade and were viewed by their pastors and neighbors as Godly men. Considering the political climate of the day, we can better see why these men would seek to use the slave trade to solidify the church’s future. So these leaders looked to raise money for an endowment fund that could be invested in slavery. The money made in the slave trade was more than needed to cover the costs associated with the building’s repair and salary for a preacher for years to come. Slavery was a staple at the church for almost 100 years as its financial backbone.
This particular church has an amazing history, there can be no doubt. The Briery Meeting House (Briery Church) is mentioned throughout the book, The Life of Archibald Alexander, as a staple of the community from its establishment in 1755 and on. Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies was the pioneer of the church during his mission work in the area. Davies was a promient clergyman and strong advocate of relgious freedom and served as one of the first missionaries to slaves in the area. The actual church was built in about 1760 and is located in Briery, Prince Edward County, Virginia.
The church has seen many other notable Christian leaders walk through its door including, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Drury Lacy, and John Blair Smith. These men were all prominent and involved in higher education as each served as president of the Hampden-Sydney College. Most notably was Samuel Smith as he was the president of Princeton.
Samuel Davies organized the church with the “permission to worship” by the Prince Edward County Court. The building that we see today was constructed in about 1855. The actual structure is a Gothic Revival styled church which was designed by Rev. Kobert Lewis Dabney, who was a noted professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary. Dabney went on to design other churches in the area notably different with a Greek Revival style instead of the Gothic Revival Style that we see with Breiry. Breiry has an active congregation today that can trace its roots all the way back to 1750, making it one of the most historic churches in the United States
It has an unusual architecture with its notable vertical white wall lines of the outer boards and the exaggerated roof line. The church is built tall, but is a single story structure made to signify the popular mid-19th Century romanticism being surrounded by towering pine trees. Every window and door is an arch-type structure with small easement overhangs on the doorways. One could call the exterior design simple, yet complex. The inside of the church is equally as interesting. The pews are plainly constructed with no middle isle. The ceiling appears to be pine.
This article is not meant to demonize the church, but rather demonstrate just how complicated history can be at times. The church had founders who sought to win slaves souls for God just to later see the church own slaves in the same manner as many other places in the South. This brings important questions of proper context and application to deal with such an issue. There are many questions that have gone unanswered in this article, such as how were slaves treated by the church and under what circumstances one could be granted freedom. However, it is likely that as a slave owning institution that these slaves were likely cared for better than on the mega-plantations. This topic is complicated and probably worth addressing in a far more in-depth approach in a future work.
In conclusion, the Briery Church has a unique history tying together both presidents of Princeton and slave-owners of the South. The church operated then as it still does today as a staple to its community. Keeping churches such as Briery as historical sites ensures that American history is preserved for future generations. Especially ones that deal with complicated issues such as slavery and Christianity being involved in a holy places.
Beeman, Richard R. The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia, 1746-1832. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhtzc.
Foote, William Henry. Sketches of Virginia : Historical and BiographicalPhiladelphia: William S. Martien, 1854.
Howe, Jeffery W. Houses of Worship: An Identification Guide to the History and Styles of American Religious Architecture. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2003.
Irons, Charles F. The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Oast, Jennifer. ““The Worst Kind of Slavery”: Slave-owning Presbyterian Churches.” In Institutional Slavery, 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781316225486.004.
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