West Virginia Illustrated
The Old Greenbrier Church
by Emick R. Walls
The Old Greenbrier Church
by Emick R. Walls
In the town of Alderson, in Greenbrier County, stands one of the oldest and most attractive churches in West Virginia. Although the present building is of modern design, having been built in the early 1930's, the church itself was established November 24, 1781, and ranks as the third oldest in West Virginia. Neither of the two churches exceeding it in age was established more than six years earlier.
On a recent visit to this church I got three distinct impressions:
First, I was impressed by the architectural beauty of the building itself. Located on a gradually elevated site about fifty feet from the street on the north side of the town, the building presents a gorgeous exterior made entirely of Indiana limestone. Surrounded by a well-kept grassy lawn, the structure is enclosed by a beautiful stand of evergreens. The lawn itself is set off by virgin trees - one a huge black walnut and the others oaks - all estimated by tree experts to be from 300 to 500 years old. This beauty is further enclosed by an exquisite retaining wall of native stone.
Inside the building, I found the sanctuary to be one of breathtaking architectural splendor. Without doubt it is one of the most beautiful to be found in West Virginia. The pulpit is set off uniquely by an arrangement of dark oak paneling of the finest quality. On the near side of this paneling, the divided choir seats face each other from opposite sides, the arrangement separating the men of the choir from the women. Situated in the center of the pulpit, just beyond the white-robed choir, is a display of beautiful flowers.
The sanctuary is designed with gothic windows of stained glass, artistically decorated in more beautiful colors than a rainbow. The windows on one side contain the chronological Bible story of Christ from his birth to his ministry; and the windows on the opposite side illustrate his condemnation, death and ascension - all this being in impressive pictures of art. And central to this story in art is the figure of the Good Shepherd, engraved in the tallest window of all, immediately behind the pulpit and just above the baptistry. Flanking the figure of the Good Shepherd on each side, in two separate windows, is the story of Peter walking the waves to Jesus, and the story of the Good Samaritan.
The symbolism of the cross is carried throughout this beautiful sanctuary. Not only is it found in the design of the pulpit with its fine quality of dark oak, or in the tail gothic windows of stained glass, but it is also worked into the paneling of the doors and wainscoting.
My second impression of the Old Greenbrier Church was the warmhearted reception my wife and I got from the pastor, Rev. A. L. Holland, Jr. and his congregation. A stranger simply cannot walk unnoticed into this church. And after the benediction, dozens waited eagerly to shake our hands and to invite us back again.
My third, and most lasting impression, was of the cemetery just behind the building. With a feeling of veneration, I gazed at the headstone of Elder John Alderson, Jr., founder of this church, and read the time-scarred inscription on the simple granite slab. Buried only a few feet from the church he loved, he reposes quitely [sic] with several other members of his pioneer family, their graves being separated a considerable distance from all others in the cemetery.
The history of the Old Greenbrier Church is filled with events of striking interest. It contains stories of unusual hardships suffered on the part of the founder - hardships unknown to us of the present generation. For example, 20th century man doesn't know how it feels to serve God with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other; to till the soil with a rifle slung to his back, to listen constantly for the bloodthirsty war cries of attacking Indians, or to be thrown into jail and to be cruelly flogged for his religious beliefs. All these hardships - and more - were suffered by Pastor Alderson who received the measly sum of $50 a year for his preaching. And sometimes the man didn't possess a decent change of wearing apparel.
When Elder John Alderson moved with his family westward into the valley of the Greenbrier River in 1777, he bore the title of "elder" because use of the title "reverend" was forbidden by the recognized Church of England to anyone without a license to preach. At this time the American colonies were in full revolt against the motherland, England. These were dark days of uncertainty - fearful times when the pioneers and their families lived in peril of hostile Indians, many then wielding the tomahawk as allies of the British. Yet Elder John, then 39 years old, was not unfamiliar with either the hardships of the existing times or the new wild territory into which he migrated.
While serving as pastor of the Linville Baptist Church in Virginia, Elder John and his father, John Alderson, Sr., had been imprisoned for disturbing the peace. They had preached without a license and had baptized; they had been arrested and prosecuted upon orders from the Established Church of England. The highly cherished right of today to worship God and exercise religious faith in accordance with dictates of conscience had not yet been incorporated into the law of the land.
With his mind made up to settle in this new wild section of wilderness on the Greenbrier River (the section then part of Virginia), Elder John found his precarious move delayed several weeks when he arrived with his family at Jackson's River. He learned that the home of Colonel James Graham, in Greenbrier, had been attacked by Indians, one member being killed and another taken prisoner, But after the delay, Elder John moved on with his family to Jarrett's Fort on Wolf Creek, now in Monroe County. Later, however, he obtained a tract of 1,750 acres on the south side of the Greenbrier River, adjacent to and just west of the present Alderson Hotel. Making this his permanent residence, he founded the town of Alderson which today bears his name.
As a preacher and a farmer, Elder John knew what it was like to plough all day with a rifle strapped to his back. In his many missionary journeys to surrounding forts, he knew how it felt to carry a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. Sometimes on these short missionary journeys he was escorted by armed friends. On some occasions the forts in which he preached threatened to bar him outside to the mercy of Indians - obviously, to censure his doctrine which was contrary to the Church of England, to which many were loyal. Yet, with dogged determination and true to his God, Elder John marched on in the face of perils and discouragement, continuing to preach and to baptize.
Regarding Elder John's initial hardships at his new home on the Greenbrier, one of his biographers wrote the following:
"In fact, the greater part of Paul's list of perils must be applicable to this Apostle to the Greenbrier, 'his journeys often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness ...in perils from false brethren, in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.'
"But how successful under God were his labors! For nearly (now more than) a century he has quietly slept in a humble grave just a few feet back of the church that was for so many years the scene of his labors and the object of his love; but his work has continued to move on until it has reached dimensions in which he, perhaps, never dreamed. He established a numerous family whose members have ever been staunch defenders of the faith, and a number of whom have been zealous and efficient heralds of the Cross in this and other states; from the bosom of the church which he founded there have come, directly or indirectly, at least a score of other churches; while through the instrumentality of agencies which he set in motion, thousands of men and women have been born into the Kingdom of God...In connection with the life of Elder John Alderson, the beautiful words inscribed upon Moody's tomb are strikingly appropriate: 'The world passeth away and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of Cod abideth forever.'"
Perhaps the most trying task of Elder John's day was to find twelve courageous, dedicated people to organize the first Baptist church in Alderson. In defiance of the law of England, these first charter members risked all the hazards of the then persecuted Baptists. Yet a faithful dozen was found by this zealous minister, and Old Greenbrier was born on November 24, 1781.
The first house of worship - a mere 25 feet long and 17 feet wide - was built of logs. Containing a chimney with an open fireplace, it was the setting for perhaps one of the longest revivals in church history, lasting from 1785 until 1791. However, this building was torn down in 1812 and replaced by a larger 40 x 50 foot frame building.
This frame building was used by the church for almost 70 years, or until about 1890 when it was again torn down and replaced by a more modern structure. But by 1915, the church membership had outgrown the third building and the church began an intensive study with a view toward financing and building a new sanctuary to meet current needs. This plan to build, however, was not begun until the year 1930. Because of the Depression, the plan languished for lack of funds and the new building was not completed until 1935.
A first-time visitor to this church cannot help but be impressed by the size of the building, the quality of the material and the expensive art involved in its construction. According to Rev. A. L. Holland, Jr., the present pastor, each gothic window in the sanctuary was installed at an average cost of $3,000. In 1956 the appraised value of the entire church, including its equipment, was $250,000. Imagine what it is worth today - at inflated prices! It is amazing to find this expensive building in a town having a population of less than 2,000 and a church membership of only 300. Surely, it required great faith on the part of the membership to undertake such a costly building program.
The present membership of Old Greenbrier is proud of their church heritage because it is as old and time-tested as free America itself. The church was organized and founded only a month after that supreme historic event marking the actual beginning of the United States as a free and independent nation - the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781. The membership also has a deep and sacred respect for the founder, Elder John Alderson, whose grave shows no signs of neglect.
A very interesting aspect of the history of Old Greenbrier is the church minutes, recorded in the simple language and expressions of the 18th Century. Although the words were in common usage at that time, some of them, as well as some expressions, are downright humorous to us today. It is a veritable inspiration to the present-day reader to turn the yellow pages of these old documents written in the quaint diction of a century ago and feel the pulse of a people whom we know only from the pages of history. Quoting another writer who has aptly said, "These are chronicles that touch the heart, that appeal to the noble in man's nature because they so simply, so modestly, and with such directness, tell a tale of courage as indomitable as that which dwelt in the bosom of 'the knight of derynge dede.' They are the short and simple annuals of the brave. The pages of narrative, too, are replete with a humor that is delightful because gentle and unconscious."
Let us examine a few of these statements contained in the church minutes, listed under the dates recorded:
May 28, 1785. "Query proposed to the church. Whether it was consistent with a Christian character to encourage frolicking in their houses or not. Answered unanimously. Not right. The church has suspended Br. John Viney from communion for the above crime until he gives satisfaction to the church by repentence."
Church attendance was a matter taken seriously....
July 26, 1788. "Those that are nigh are required to attend church once a month; the second division those within 15 miles once a quarter, and those at further distance once a year."
April 26, 1786. "The association having requested an answer or advice respecting slavery from the churches they personate, we believe it to be an evil in keeping them in bondage for life. Our church having but few in their possession, we hope our brethren will not think it hard if we lie neuter in this matter."
April 26, 1793. "A motion was made for assisting Br. Alderson in providing him with wearing apparel. Br. Skaggs and Br. Haylare was to advance ten shillings apiece for that purpose."
Following the death of a pastor, we find the following recorded in the minutes of May 26, 1832:
"It is ordered that steps be taken to collect the amount due James O. Alderson for his services which is five month's pay the same to be paid to his widow."
And we find certain developments in the church under the pastorate of L. A. Alderson:
May 21, 1842. "L. A. Alderson offered the following resolution which was unanimously adopted.
'1. Resolved that in compliance with the scriptures we deem it our duty in the administration of the Lord's Supper to use the 'fruit of the vine' and not the admixture usually sold under the 'name of wine.'"
Also we find in the year of 1845 that the church did not tolerate hypocrites:
June 21, 1845. "Bro. S-E- having been charged with killing hogs not his own, a Com. was appointed to notify him to appear at the next church meeting."
The succeeding church minutes are silent regarding the verdict of the church in this hog killing affair. And, although there are many other interesting items found in these church minutes, time and space will not permit reference to them.
In summarizing the first years of Old Greenbrier's history, it is very appropriate to quote the words of Randolph Johnson, pastor of the church from 1943 to 1956, who wrote:
"The church as it stands today is a monument to the people whose fidelity and devotion to God in an earlier day were rewarded by God's favor and grace. God truly established the work of their hands ...crossing the mountains westward with Bible and rifle and simple household possessions, they served their day and generation and fell asleep, to rest close by the church they established and to which they turned for strength and fortitude in the struggle with wilderness, savage, winter's cold and summers heat, in hardships unknown to people of today."
Today, 190 years since the date of its founding, Old Greenbrier Church has seen 31 pastors come and go. Elder John Alderson, the first pastor, served 40 years of this time.
Serving as the pastor of the church today is the very capable Rev. A. L. Holland, Jr„ the 32nd Baptist minister to enter the portals of this beautiful church. A former resident of Lynchburg, Virginia, he attended schools in his native state, excepting his seminary training at Wake Forest, North Carolina. Now living in a cozy parsonage beside the church, the pastor and his wife
are very happy with their work here. A senior member of the church made the following remark to this writer regarding the pastor: "We are very fortunate to have this capable young man as our pastor."
My wife and I were still admiring Old Greenbrier on the church grounds even after all the Sunday crowd had gone home. The pastor himself was the last to leave; he was locking up the building when we said goodbye to him.
After I'd started the motor of my car, I looked back at the majestic building and said, "What a church!" Then I thought, What would America do in these troubled times without its churches?