Rapp Facts: Old church comes to life — again

Photo by Gary Anthes.

A religious revival generally refers to a meeting or meetings for the purpose of reawakening faith. The recent revival at the Mt. Salem Baptist Church took on a special, added meaning: it also commemorated the reawakening of the church itself.

The 160-year-old church on Long Mountain Road has seen hard times. Built stone-by-stone by volunteers over a seven-year period beginning in 1848, the church augmented the nearby Mt. Salem Academy, a school that had also served as a Baptist meeting house on Sundays.

But the church’s congregation, which reached 225 parishioners, couldn’t be sustained. The wagon road to the old church forded the Rush River nine times and was impassable much of the year. A much more convenient place of worship, Washington Baptist Church, was established by the Mt. Salem congregation in Washington, the county seat, in the 1880s. The Mt. Salem church closed its doors in 1942.

It opened very briefly in 1959 but closed again almost at once. In 1979, the building was named to the Virginia Landmarks Register and to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1982, after extensive renovations and repairs of vandalism and theft, the church had another revival. It remained in use four years before going silent once again.

Now, when hardly anybody fords the Rush River by wagon, the Mt. Salem Baptist Church is back in operation yet again. Pastor Jim Williams of Chester Gap holds a service there every Sunday at 11 a.m. for some 15 to 20 people, and he’s looking for more worshipers. “The church is open to the public, to anyone who wishes to come,” he says.

Indeed, the old place is well worth a visit, regardless of one’s religious leanings. It is spartan, primitive even, in a way reminiscent of the New England Quaker meeting house. No stained glass here, elaborate brass candlesticks, fancy pipe organ or elaborately carved pews and pulpit. But it’s a warm and friendly place, its interior bathed in the light that finds its way through the surrounding woods and into the building’s 10-foot windows. “I love old-fashioned churches,” Williams says. “It was too nice to be sitting empty.”

Williams says he’s a bit in awe of the long history of the church. “If these walls could only talk,” he says. “Imagine the people who were saved inside these walls. That’s what a church is all about. It’s an honor for me to preach here.”

Preaching isn’t all Williams does at the historic church. He mows the grass, bags leaves and clears brush. He notes there is still some painting to be done. “I come by here every week,” he says. “It’s a wonderful little place.”

And so is that little red building on Gay Street in Washington, home of the Rappahannock Historical Society. Stop by and learn more about the old churches in our county, and do become a member of the Society.

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