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  • Writer's pictureHolly Grove Christian Church

The Disciples of Louisa and Elder James Bagby.

The following are excerpts from several histories of the Disciples of Christ movement/denomination in Virginia. It is widely accepted that the first congregations in Virginia (excluding what is now West Virginia) were Bethany and Salem in Bumpass. One man, James Bagby, played a pivotal role in the foundation of the Disciples here and his legacy is worth honoring and remembering.

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM: The plea and the pioneers in Virginia; a history of the rise and early progress of the Disciples of Christ in Virginia, with biographical sketches of the pioneer preachers, by Frederick Arthur Hodge. Richmond, Va., Everett Waddey Company, 1905.


This devoted child of God was born in Louisa county, Virginia, March 27, 1800. His father, James Bagby, was in straitened circumstances, consequently he could not give his children the early educational advantages that he desired. But, though his father as well as himself had to labor day by day, his education was not neglected. His mother was a woman of strong mind and great determination of character, and she not only taught him to read and write, but in stilled into his character those principles of manly virtue and integrity which are only to be obtained in the college of a mother's love. The nursery where a sensible and loving mother presides is, after all, the school where the truly good and great are made. Impressions are made there which are never after erased, nor can they be. As imperishable as the mother love which prompted them are those gentle words which in the nursery fell from a mother's lips. Memories of latter events may perish, but they remain.

This boy, James, was the constant object of his mother's care. Thus, he grew up knowing nothing of the wiles of the evil one, nor of the power he exerted over the young and thoughtless. It is not to be wondered at that, naturally desiring youthful society, he formed unfortunate associations; and the consequences of such associations were marked with waywardness and, to some extent, dissipation. During this period of his life he was sent away to school, ac companied by the prayers of loved ones, from which school he usually returned at the close of each week. The Baptist brethren had a prayer-meeting at private houses in the neighborhood of the school every Friday afternoon. On one of these occasions he attended, but gave no attention to the exhortations nor to the exercises, but acted with wanton levity, and was more disposed to mock than attend to the religious

exercises. From the meeting he started for home, and the journey gave him an opportunity to think—to think of that of which he had just been guilty at the prayer-meeting— of his nursery training, and of a vow he had made during a recent illness; and being belated by engrossed thought he was obliged to stop at a neighbor's house for the night. That night his sense of sinfulness drove sleep from his eyes, and before he left there in the morning the truth of God, with its blessed promises and awful threats, impressed him with a consciousness of his guilty and accountable state. On his way home every step but increased his alarm and conviction. He determined to go and see an old negro, who was a Baptist and regarded as an earnest Christian, and un-bosom his state to him, but from him he could learn nothing. This rather increased his agony than removed it. On Tuesday morning following he returned to school, and on entering the room his teacher was so struck with his changed and melancholy appearance that he enquired concerning his health and that of his dear ones at home. James then related to him how he had scoffed at religion at the prayer-meeting; how he had broken a solemn vow made to God while upon a sick bed and trampled upon a mother's heart. His mental agony was intense. He had no pleasure in his studies that day, and in the afternoon his teacher accompanied him to the house of a very well-read Baptist family named Diggs. The object of the visit was explained, and they listened to his tale of sorrow and anguish, which he related with great minuteness. No sooner had he got through than Mrs. Diggs exclaimed: “Mr. Bagby, you must be converted.” He, knowing the lady well, and having great confidence in her intelligence and goodness of heart, received great comfort from this announcement, and was soon composed. His teacher had much conversation with him during the week, and on the Lord's Day following there was a meeting at Fork meeting-house, at which Elder B. Watkins preached. After preaching Mr. Bagby walked forward and related his experience. He was cordially received, and some time afterward was baptized by Elder Timothy Swift, and united with Hopeful Church, in Hanover county. Although his conversion was sudden and unexpected, and as some thought mysterious, there was nothing about it that was unaccountable from a perfectly natural standpoint. A more excitable temperament than Bro. Bagby's might have imagined heavenly voices and other wonderful accompaniments, such as were commonly supposed to be a part of conversion, in that day. His deep anxiety and depression arose from not knowing his own condition or understanding what God would have him do under the circumstances. His relief after leaving the home of Mrs. Diggs was occasioned by the assurance of that good woman that he was converted. Of the process of conversion, he was as ignorant as she was, and rejoiced that the supposed mysterious process had been working out in his being through the divine election and grace of God. Had he been acquainted with God's plan of salvation or had one to guide him aright, as he guided others in later years, he might have been saved much anxiety and deed despair. However,

“God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform,”

and it is indeed a mystery how that sometimes, when the blind lead the blind, God keeps them both from falling into the ditch. In Bro. Bagby’s case the results were apparent, hence we will say nothing further as to the means. Bro. Bagby was an exceedingly conscientious man, and in after years, when his mind was much better informed as to God's will, he looked back upon those ill-informed days of seeking after God and became dissatisfied with his baptism. He had based his hope of pardon upon his feelings rather than upon his faith and obedience. He had been baptized as a sign of the remission of his sins, having already felt the burden lifted from his heart, rather than for the remission of his sins. Bro. Bagby was not one to give to baptism an undue prominence, neither was he one to wrest it from its scriptural place as the culminating act of regeneration; but had he been scripturally baptized? To be right before God was his highest aspiration, and if he could be right, he was determined to be so at. any cost. Hence, after much reading, thought, prayer and conversation with his friends, he was rebaptized. Had Bro. Bagby lived in the age in which we live he would no doubt have spared himself this repetition. As it was, sectarianism had clouded nearly all the teachings and practices of the Bible, and to conform to the Word of God was a praiseworthy motive. As to the validity of the former action, he had believed with all his heart, had become deeply penitent, and in baptism he had been buried with Christ, and had arisen to walk in newness of life. Because he thought his sins were forgiven before he was baptized, in no wise changed or invalidated his act of obedience. Bro. Bagby never insisted that others under similar circumstances should be rebaptized. With him it was purely a personal matter, not a doctrine. In 1850 Dr. Du Val refused to admit, without rebaptism, a lady who had been immersed by a preacher who had himself simply been sprinkled. Bro. Bagby wrote an article on this point, which was published in the Christian Intelligencer and copied in the Harbinger. He closes this article as follows:

“But regarding this question still as one of opinion and not of faith, I conclude, as at present advised, that by assuming a positive answer to the question with which we set out, and acting accordingly, we might keep out of the Church of Christ some of his saved ones. For himself hath said—and blessed be his name— “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.’” In the summer of 1827 Bro. Bagby immersed into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit several persons residing in the vicinity of Fork Church. These desired to be received into the above mentioned (Baptist) church. It became a question with the church as to whether they should be received into fellowship or not. The formula used by Bro. Bagby in their baptism was, “I immerse thee into the name,” etc., instead of, “I baptize thee in,” etc. At this rate the name Baptist would soon be a thing of the past, and the dignity of the church could not overlook, much less accept, such a change. There was one old negro who was very anxious to be taken into fellowship with these brethren and thus become a full-fledged Baptist; so, they finally agreed to hear his experience, and if acceptable they would rebaptize him. On the first Lord's Day in June 1829, he related his experience, and was accordingly rebaptized by Timothy T. Swift. The poor negro had been dis appointed so often that when he finally felt the opprobrious epithets of his fellowmen washed away, he could no longer contain himself, but, as he came up out of the water, joyfully shouted, “I ain’t no Campbellite now!”

We cite this to show the difference between a re baptism which, as in the case of Bro. Bagby, however unnecessary, was the result of a conscientious mind, and that of one which was required simply to build up and sustain sectarian interests. The former was unnecessary but no mockery, the latter was both unnecessary and a mockery. Bro. Bagby never required it in others as a term of admission into the kingdom. We will now return to Bro. Bagby’s career after first uniting with Hopeful Church. He was considered quite an acquisition. He was zealous and determined in his religious positions, and a good speaker, being possessed of a natural eloquence, and an easy, graceful manner that gave a polish to all his talks. He had a very sharp, piercing eye, that made opponents shrink before him. It is not surprising that with these attainments, combined with a good English education, he was soon regarded as one destined to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. His brethren, who loved him and clustered about him their best hopes, manifested their confidence in him by having him ordained to the ministry in Hopeful Church. Up to this time he had accepted most of the Calvinistic extravagances of Baptist theology. Dreams, visions, sounds and other fanatical experiences related by zealous converts soon made his thoughtful mind turn to the Bible for their counterpart, but there he found none. About this time the Christian Baptist fell into his hands, and he became a regular reader of it. This stimulated him to a more complete study of God's Word, and soon he began to plead for a return to the Christianity of the New Testament. Few now living can appreciate the cost of such a course. His brethren of yesterday became his avowed enemies. As they could bring no charge against his moral character they were forced, against their will, and much to their chagrin, to give him an honorable dismission from the Church. In order to cover his pathway with thorns, at a church meeting a committee of two were appointed to demand his license to preach. This he refused to surrender upon a demand, though he was willing to listen to the committee if they were bearers of a re quest. This was too humiliating for a powerful denomination to be held in abeyance by a young man standing virtually alone in the midst of his enemies. Soon after this he applied for license to solemnize the rite of marriage. One of his former brethren was a member of the court and saw that if he retired from the bench the court could not proceed. This was done, but the spectators saw through the move and soon had another magistrate in place, and the application was granted. The meeting-houses were now closed against him and every effort resorted to prevent him from having a hearing; but so much the more did his congregation increase, and his popularity extend. Another of his former brethren, who was very active in throwing every difficulty in his pathway, in a year or two aspired to political promotion; and as Bro. Bagby had become a power in the county, wishing to secure his influence, he wrote him an apology for his religious intolerance. This was too much for Bro. Bagby. He could see how a religionist could be blinded by prejudice so as to resort to intolerance and act very unworthily. With this view he bore with patience the many hard things that were said and done against him; but when a man could set aside for political promotion, that which he had already told him was the conscientious religious conviction of his heart, his confidence in him was gone. -The author has often heard it related by the friends and descendants of Bro. Bagby that at one time religious intolerance rose to such a height that his opponents threatened to burn him at the stake. Whether or not this threat was actually made, it is certain that only the laws of the land ever kept many of our forefathers from personal violence, so deep seated was the religious intolerance of that day. Soon after his separation from the Baptists, he, with others from several churches, and some who had been recently baptized upon a confession of their faith in Christ, built a meeting-house in the lower end of Louisa county, which they named Bethany. This, we understand, was the first meeting-house built by our brethren in Eastern Virginia. Mention of this has already been made in the first chapter of this work. Bro. Bagby was chosen their regular evangelist, which position he faithfully occupied until the day of his death. Much has already been said of the conscientiousness of this earnest man. He owned several slaves but would not permit his children to have a piano, for which his slaves would have to toil, bearing the burden and heat of many days. Although he often preached showing the utter abrogation of the Law, yet he always refused to have his picture taken because of the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything in heaven or earth.” These little incidents show how truly he sought to serve God. While we regard them as vagaries, we cannot but admire the motive that prompted him to forsake all that was vain and worldly in order fully to serve Christ. He was married to Miss Catherine Turner Cocke in 1826, and in her found a true partner in all his sorrows and joys. They had four children, three daughters and one son. Bro. Bagby died in 1856, surrounded by his family. His work will ever live. Bro. Peter Ainslie (Second), in writing a sketch of him in the Christian Examiner, in 1871, said: “He was a good and laborious man, in fact he worked beyond his strength. He was a self-sacrificing man. He would work all the week, in winter's cold and summer's heat, and preach on Lord's Day for churches which never considered properly that the laborer was worthy of his hire. Many a night, after working hard from early morn until late dewy eve, tired and worn by fatigue, he would have to sit up studying, in order to preach the coming day to those who at that very moment were reposing in their downy beds. Brethren, these things ought not to have been, nor ought they now to exist. Sometime last year, I visited the late home of our departed brother, and enjoyed the hospitality of our widowed sister and two of her children; but my enjoyment was to some extent blighted, as I could see from where I sat the waving boughs that overshadowed the resting place of the sainted dead. And when at night we were about to retire, the very same New Testament, well worn, and bearing the evidences upon its pages that it had been closely read, was put into my hands, I felt not only that I was handling the word of God, but also a sacred memento of my brother’s fidelity. Faithful man of God—

“'Tossed no more on life's rough billow,

All the storms of sorrow fled

Death hath found a quiet pillow

For the aged Christian's head.

Peaceful slumbers

guarding now his lowly bed.’”

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM: Ante-bellum Virginia Disciples; an account of the emergence and early development of the Disciples of Christ in Virginia. Darst, Henry Jackson. Richmond, Virginia Christian Missionary Society, 1959.

James M. Bagby, a member of Hopeful Church in Hanover near the Louisa line, became a reader of The Christian Baptist and began preaching the Reformation in the surrounding area as early as 1827, the year in which he was ordained. Tension developed in Hopeful as a result of the growing sentiment in favor of reform. This was aggravated by Rev. Timothy Swift, Hopeful's pastor, who defiantly emphasized in his sermons that the Bible was virtually ineffective in leading an individual to salvation except as the Holy Spirit operated in conjunction with it, a Baptist doctrine with which the Reformers were in marked opposition. Finally, on July 12, 1828, Hopeful met to consider whether it should receive into fellowship persons baptized by Bagby in the "new way"--that is, without the candidate first telling a "Christian experience" and with the administrator saying, "I immerse thee into the name," rather than "I baptize thee in the name", and contrary to the practice of the church and its view of the Word of God. It considered whether to reprove Bagby for administering this "new form" without first consulting the church. ". . . after a considerable discussion of the subject James M. Bagby positively asserted that he would not be governed by the church in any way whatever." A motion was made and defeated "that there should be a mutual separation between the church and this party." A second proposal was made, "whether this church would hold in their fellowship any person or persons who refuse to be governed by the general faith and practice of the Baptists and this church in particular." Seventeen out of twenty-three voted in favor of this and "James M. Bagby, Nathaniel H. Turner, Lewis Turner and William Mallory were excommunicated from the fellowship of this church." At the same meeting, the wife of William Mallory requested that her name be removed from the church roll, and Lewis Turner directed that his wife's name be removed. Apparently, this little band immediately organized itself into a New Testament church and began to commune regularly. Others of Hopeful were not averse to meeting with the New Testament brethren. On November 2, 1828, Hopeful appointed a committee to admonish members who had communed with the dis-fellowshipped. Finally, on February 15, 1829, it was resolved that such persons communing with the Reformers would be excluded without further admonition. Other initial members of this new congregation were those who had been baptized by Bagby and had been refused admittance to Hopeful and Fork Baptist Church. James M. Bagby, Nathaniel H. Turner and William T. Mallory were the first elders at Bethany. N. W. Anthony and William C. Thomas first served as deacons. Eventually a meeting house was erected near Bumpass in Louisa.

Elsewhere, individuals baptized by Bagby were being called into question. Such was the case in the vicinity of Fork Baptist Church, where in the summer of 1827 Bagby had baptized a number of converts who desired to unite with the congregation. About the time Bethany was organized it became a matter of question by Fork Church as to whether or not these persons should be received into fellow ship since they had been baptized in the "new way.” The experience of one of these candidates--a colored man--the regulars determined to hear and baptize him in the old way. Thus, on the last Saturday in July 1829, he was re-baptized by the Rev. Timothy Swift. The Negro exclaimed as he came out of the water, "I ain't no Campbellite now!" Alexander Campbell wryly observed, "He should have said, I, having been baptized into my own experience, and agreeable to the commandment of Mr. Swift, I am a Swiftite now.”

At Southanna Church separation did not occur until 1829, when Uriah Higgason, and other Reformers were excluded. Higgason rallied these brethren and some of those who had been disfellowshipped by Fork Church and constituted a Disciples' congregation known as Southanna. After an uncertain struggle during which the little band met in a residence, a plot of land was obtained in 1839 and a meeting house, eventually named Salem, was erected.

Higgason was also active in the neighborhood of Cuckoo and initiated the work which grew into the Gilboa congregation. He preached in a brush arbor and in the imposing mansion of Colonel Edmund Pendleton (1786–1838), "Cuckoo House." W. K. Pendleton (1817–99), a son of this home, recalled, "the tall and eloquent man of God, as he stood up in a door-way between two large rooms, in my father's house, and plead with that people in behalf of his once crucified but now risen and glorified Lord! " Gilboa, or Mt. Gilboa, as it was originally called, was organized in 1834. Its members came principally from the "world"--that is, they had not previously been affiliated with a church--and the Laurel Spring Baptist Church. A frame building was erected which was replaced by a brick meeting house in 1857.

By 1838 Temperance Church had been organized in Louisa. It went over to the "Thomasites" in the early 1840's and later erected Octagon meeting house. In July 1840, James M. Bagby seems to have organized, with ten Disciples, Garrett's Church, which eventually changed its name to Bethpage.

During 1849 considerable antagonism to the good cause was encountered at Louisa C. H. in the person of the Presbyterian clergyman, who proposed a debate between himself and any competent Disciple. This bitter spirit must have reflected the realization on the part of the denominationalists that the Disciples intended to organize a church in the county seat. On June 26, 1849 a lot was secured for the purpose of building a meeting house. On January 26, 1851, James W. Goss organized a congregation, consisting of fifteen members from Gilboa, which for a short time met in the courthouse and then in the same year erected a brick house of worship.

Enon Church was probably organized in the middle 1850's. About 1858 a frame meeting house was erected approximately seven miles east of Louisa C. H.94 on land given by William Balker, who seems also to have furnished most of the lumber and labor. Enon prospered until the latter part of the century when the congregation became inactive and the building was abandoned. About 1900, through the influence of Dr. J. W. Baker, Enon was reorganized and the building was repaired.

The following reference comes from a letter written at Woodstock, September 26th,1873, to the State Missionary board by George W. Abell (A traveling evangelist and Church planter) and is found in Peter Ainslie’s Life and Writings of George W. Abell.

“From Bethany I went to Salem, and commenced the meeting there the third Sunday in August… From Salem we went to Holly Grove and commenced our meeting on the fourth Sunday. This is a new point, where the cause has been recently established by the labors of brethren Richardson, Barrett, Bagby, Lipscomb, Dabney, and others. A few years since I came to this vicinity to baptize the eldest daughter of Brother Meredith (living close by). And delivered one discourse in a small Methodist chapel (West Chapel). Then there were, perhaps, some five or six Disciples around here all told. During this meeting, a congregation was organized of seventy-seven members, comprising the best people of the community, with an excellent Board of Elders and Deacons. Such are the triumphs of the truth, when brought to bear upon clear heads and honest hearts. May it continue to achieve such glorious results. After the organization there were three confessions, and one united who had been previously baptized.”

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