FROM FALMOUTH TO ‘FREEDOM’
LOCKED WITHIN what remains of Falmouth’s oldest church is a bit of Stafford County heritage that will, before long, be shared with the rest of the world.
A humble, pine bench from Union Church is being acquired by the new kid on the block at the Smithsonian Institution—the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Dating from about 1868, when the church was put back in working order after the ravages of the Civil War, the pew will become part of the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition in the museum now being built on Washington’s National Mall.
The 9-foot-long, straight-backed bench is prized for its association with two Virginians who became famous in anti-slavery circles just before the Civil War broke out.
Anthony Burns, a Falmouth slave, escaped to freedom in the North. Found by a slave-catcher and put on federal trial in 1854, his return to bondage inflamed Boston, involved President Franklin Pierce and made national headlines.
Moncure Conway, the son of a prominent slaveholding Stafford family, personally lobbied President Lincoln to emancipate the South’s enslaved people and became the South’s most radical abolitionist.
“The pew, made locally, is from the church where Anthony Burns was an exhorter and a slave preacher and where Moncure Conway gave his first ... sermon,” said T. Logan Metesh, a trustee of the Union Church Historic Site. “This object ties that all together.”
Given its age, the relic will be used in the Reconstruction part of the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit, Metesh said.
The exhibition will tell a story that sweeps from the African slave trade to African–American freedom in the 19th century to black people’s fleeting political freedoms in the immediate postwar era.
“The pew is significant,” said Mary N. Elliott, a NMAAHC research assistant working on the exhibit. “It will help bring to life the story of the role of the church during the Reconstruction period.”
‘A HUGE HONOR’
Union Church is no longer a place of worship, but the historic site retains its court-appointed board of trustees, created in 1868.
When Metesh, who works as a curatorial technician at the museum, got the green light from its Collections Committee, he asked his fellow trustees if the board would donate the pew. The vote was unanimous.
“It is a huge honor to facilitate placing a piece of Falmouth history in the Smithsonian,” Metesh said. “The impact and visibility is enormous. NMAAHC has 40,000 members, 10 times as many people as live in Greater Falmouth.”
Before it heads to the museum, the pew will be blessed during an April 14 service at Falmouth Baptist Church. Many members of Union Church joined that congregation when their church closed after a 1950 storm damaged its roof.
All that remains of Union Church today are its steeple and narthex, where members entered for services.
‘THE ONLY CHURCH HERE’
The brick-and-wood structure, on Carter Road beside Falmouth Cemetery, is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
The circa-1824 church wasn’t named for the Northern army that occupied eastern Stafford, as some guess, but for its role as Falmouth’s lone, multi-denominational house of worship in the antebellum years.
After the Civil War, its congregation regrouped and repaired and re-outfitted the church, which had been used as a wartime hospital and barracks, Metesh said. About the same time as the pews were made, a bell was installed in the steeple; it was put on display this winter in the George L. Gordon Jr. Government Center at Stafford Courthouse.
Metesh is president of the Union Church Preservation Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit group that has made recent strides toward halting the structure’s decay.
During a visit to the site, it was plain that the convergence of Burns and Conway’s stories in this one spot fascinates Metesh.
Burns “considered himself a church member in good standing for many years,” he said.
Remarkably, the church’s congregation gave permission for Burns to deliver the Lord’s word to its African–American worshippers, Metesh said: “It was illegal for an African–American to be a preacher, a big no–no, at that time.” After Nat Turner’s Virginia slave rebellion in 1831, whites’ fear of slave insurrections were rampant, and they did all they could to tightly control blacks’ public gatherings.
“This is where African–Americans went to church in Falmouth,” Metesh said. “It was the only church here. They came in through the left door, went up the staircase, and sat in the balcony.”
But Burns’ escape and subsequent trial and notoriety made him persona non grata to the church’s white members.
After being shipped back to Virginia and imprisoned under conditions that ruined his health, Burns regained his freedom thanks to fundraising by members of Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston.
He moved to Ohio, enrolled in Oberlin College and wrote in July 1885 to his old congregation, prompting its members to act during a church meeting on Oct. 20, 1855.
“He’s asking for a polite transfer from one congregation to another,” Metesh said. “But because Anthony was the subject of that huge trial in Boston, back in Falmouth they considered him still a fugitive of the law—and a fugitive of God. They refused to grant him decent passage from one church to another, and felt had no choice but to excommunicate him.
“The real kick in the teeth is that they wrote this letter responding to Anthony, but they didn’t mail it to him. They published it in the Front Royal Gazette.”
Burns learned of the action when he received a copy of the paper, with the public letter signed by pastor John Clark. He wrote back to the Gazette, defending himself in words that still ring with indignation. He fervently denied disobeying either the laws of God or man.
Burns’ letter, which references the Bible’s books of Corinthians, Deuteronomy and Exodus, reads in part:
God made me a man—not a slave; and gave me the same right to myself that he gave the man who stole me to himself. The great wrongs he has done me, in stealing me and making me a slave, in compelling me to work for him many years without wages, and in holding me as merchandize—these wrongs could never put me under obligation to stay with him, or to return voluntarily, when once escaped.
“You charge me that, in escaping, I disobeyed God’s law. No, indeed! That law which God wrote on the table of my heart, inspiring the love of freedom, and impelling me to seek it at every hazard, I obeyed; and, by the good hand of my God upon me, I walked out of the house of bondage.”
“I exhort you to study carefully the golden rule, which reads, ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.’ Would you like to be stolen, and then sold? And then worked without wages? and forbidden to read the Bible? and be torn from your wife and children? and then, if you were able to make yourself free would you think it quite right to be cast out of the church for this?”
Today, various books and sources state that Burns was part of a church in Fauquier County.
Not so, according to Stafford historians Al Conner and Norman Schools, the latter writing in “Virginia Shade,” a new book on the Falmouth area’s African–American history.
The Gazette said Burns’ old church was “The Church Of Jesus Christ, At Union, Fauquier Co., Virginia.”
But there was no such congregation.
“Well, the problem is the papers were picking this up from afar,” Metesh said. “They don’t know what county it was. Falmouth, Fauquier, whatever, they went with it.”
TAKING A STAND
Conway, who grew up just down the hill from Union Church, also became unwelcome in his hometown.
Seized by the nonconformist ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conway joined the ministry, spoke out against slavery, and split with his father and brothers over the red-hot issue.
As for his free-thinking sermon in Union Church?
“I don’t think it went over very well,” Metesh said. “Three years later, he was run out of town.”
In a coincidence that delights the museum technician, Conway was one of 22 speakers who gave anti-slavery lectures in 1861–62 at the Smithsonian Castle. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a friend of the Smithsonian’s first secretary, had been a regent of the institution before the war.
“It all comes full circle,” Metesh said. “It’s all tied together, you know?”
Burns’ letter: bit.ly/BurnsLetter
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029 firstname.lastname@example.org