Author Compiles 235 Years Of College Church History

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Her Walls Before Thee Stand, by William E. Thompson, is an appropriate title for a book that chronicles the 235-year history of the Presbyterian Congregation at Hampden-Sydney.

Thompson's title is from a line in one of the oldest American hymns still in common use today, I love Thy kingdom Lord, The house of Thine abode, The church our blest Redeemer saved, With His own precious blood. I love Thy church, O God, Her walls before Thee stand.

The hymn writer, Timothy Dwight, was the grandson of the noted preacher Jonathan Edwards, and for a short time during the American Revolution was military chaplain for George Washington. Dwight was also a friend of William Maxwell, a president of Hampden-Sydney College.

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The stanza continues: I love Thy church, O God, Her walls before Thee stand, Dear as the apple of Thine eye, And graven on Thy hand. For her my tears shall fall, For her my prayers attend. To her my cares and toils be given. Till toils and cares shall end.

“The words in the third stanza completely describe my own feeling for this church,” stated the author. Rev. Thompson served as College Church pastor for 14 years from 1988 to 2000. Before coming to Hampden-Sydney, Thompson had served as a Presbyterian minister for almost 30 years in rural North Carolina, the Northern Virginia suburbs, and downtown Washington, DC. A North Carolina native, he was an honor graduate of both Davidson College and Union Seminary

In 2004, shortly after the Rev. Dr. Mary Cathryn Orr began her tenure as College Church pastor, Thompson began the prodigious task of compiling the history of a Presbyterian congregation that held its first service during the opening months of the American Revolution.

“I knew a lot of the history, but I wanted to document it,” Thompson said. “The church officers asked me to write it – they had never had a church history.”

In the course of his research, Thompson went through 22 books of church records.

“It wasn't until 1920 or 1922 that they were using typewriters,” he stated. “That was a lot of looking at very nice handwriting, but in fading brown ink.”

Thompson's research took him to a variety of sources.

“I went to the Hampden-Sydney College Library, to the Presbyterian Seminary Archives in Richmond,” he noted. “I went to Princeton, the Virginia Historical Society and the Library of Virginia.”

The result was a 613-page hardback book with 26 chapters starting with “Presbyterian Pioneers in Virginia” and continuing up to the present year.

In the foreword Thompson explains, Part of the reason that it has taken this long has been because – as our interim pastor, Dr. Edgar Mayse, has aptly observed – this could not simply be a chronicle of this single congregation, since it should also encompass the religious history of the adjacent college, as well as the religious and educational developments in other parts of Prince Edward County.

In a previous Herald article (Oct. 22, 1993) when Thompson was pastor at Hampden-Sydney he explained the origins of the church, “College Church was originally part of the Cumberland Church north of town,” he noted. “After the Cumberland Church established this outpost preaching point for the students, their congregation that lived in this area started coming here. Eventually this spun off into a separate congregation – they wouldn't have to go across the river to go to church.”

“When the College started classes in November, 1775, they wanted to have a worship service as a pastoral outreach to the students,” the author added.

Starting his book with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, Thompson explained that religious freedom was not exactly what we might perceive it to be.

Even if these earliest Virginians had been seeking the free and unfettered practice of their faith, there would be no true religious freedom anywhere in Virginia for nearly two centuries . . . and therefore surviving with one's non-Anglican Christian faith intact became the defining struggle for most of the Presbyterians who immigrated to this colony during the 17th and 18th centuries.

All but the Anglicans were considered “dissenters,” a fact of life that did not change until Thomas Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom was passed in the 1780s.

In spite of this “dissenter” status, the author was impressed by the fact that the church at Hampden-Sydney began putting down roots as early as 1815.

“It was around 1815 to 1820 when the first church building was constructed,” he stated. “They were putting down a permanent presence.”

The church was built, Thompson noted, mainly with free Black labor.

Laying and making bricks was a job often done by slaves or freed slaves.

“Another thing that interested me was that there was an active chapter of the American Colonization Society there,” he added. “The ACS was a group who was trying to figure out how to deal with the release of slaves. They wanted to send them back to Africa, but it was like the story about riding on the back of a tiger. How do you release people who aren't self-sufficient?”

One of the early church pastors, John Paxton, did free his slaves.

“He and his wife took the slaves to Norfolk and shipped them to Liberia,” Thompson noted. “This same pastor didn't like it that his salary was paid by renting out slaves.”

Apparently it was only after Pastor Paxton had arrived that he realized the source for most of his $600 annual salary. At its founding in 1755 the Cumberland Church fathers and brethren had invested in slave purchases.

The Cumberland Church used the proceeds from slave rentals to pay the salary of their minister as well as that of a separate minister for the Farmville and Hampen-Sydney chapels.

Thompson agreed that it was a difficult issue for churches of that time.

“It was an agrarian society,” Thompson reflected. “They couldn't live with slavery, but they couldn't live without it.”

Following the Civil War and the end of slavery the former slaves who attended College Church started their own congregation nearby known as the “Mercy Seat Community.”

Moving on to another century, Thompson related the popularity of another College president, Dr. Edgar Gammon who began his tenure at Hampden-Sydney as church and college pastor in 1917. (He later served as president from 1939 to 1955.)

“In the fall of 1918 he was writing letters of sympathy to the families of college boys who were killed in World War I,” Thompson said. “That was also the year of the flu epidemic. In about two months time he had seven or eight funerals in the congregation from flu deaths.”

Page after page, Thompson's book follows the course of history through war and peace, good times and bad as seen from the perspective of the community at Hampden-Sydney. The title of the final chapter, “Old Church, New Ideas, Unknown Future,” makes room for events still to come.

“As I complete this work, I am reminded of the faith statement which J. S. Bach added as an affirmation at the end of many of his religious compositions,” Thompson wrote. “Soli Deo Gloria!”

Glory to God alone!

Her Walls Before Thee Stand is available at College Church or at the Hampden-Sydney College bookstore.