The Rev. Adrian Sledge’s approach as he leads Antioch Baptist Church in Culpeper is noteworthy in its contemporary focus, especially considering the church’s roots as the oldest African-American church in the region, celebrating 160 years this month.
“We’re open-minded. We don’t change the central message—we change our methods,” Sledge said in an interview last week.
He outlined a few examples, noting the church’s embrace of TV screens and cellphones in worship services and Scripture study, a loosening of the dress code to include jeans and sweatpants on Sundays, if desired, and a general acceptance of the different ways people view their relationship with God.
“We try to teach a respect for perspectives that may not be familiar, and let everyone worship God in their own way,” Sledge said.
Antioch’s membership is robust and vibrant in response to this approach, while at the same time drawing strength from a history that began before the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people.
“I love the fact that we’re multicultural,” Sledge said. “We have some lighter members, and some Hispanic and Asian in the congregation. We’re very community-minded, always aiming to support initiatives and provide help that will build a stronger foundation for everyone.”
Originally part of Mount Poney Baptist Church, the forerunner of today’s Culpeper Baptist, Antioch’s first name was the African Church, as documented in the summer of 1859 in the Shiloh Association minutes. That’s according to a 1987 history written by Virginia Dudley and Rosa W. Taylor.
The new church’s members were instructed to meet in their own homes, which they continued to do during the Civil War.
Before that, the history notes, blacks attended church with their white masters, seated in “galleries or balconies built for blacks, whether slave or free.”
Virginia law prohibited blacks from learning to read—including the Bible—after the slave rebellion in 1831 led by Nat Turner.
But after the war, the Freedmen’s Bureau provided members of the African Church with Bibles and hymnals, which were used to establish a school and a place of worship in a former Confederate barracks near Culpeper’s railway depot.
The church reorganized in May 1867, shedding the name bestowed by whites, and donning the Biblical name Antioch, after a city in ancient Greece where the earliest Christians first gathered.
Worship services continued to be held in the barracks until 1870, when a new church was built on a Locust Street lot.
The Aug. 6 deed “was the first issued to a black organization in Culpeper, and the price was dear—$250 for 35 by 127 feet of land,” the history states.
This new church was destroyed by fire in 1873, after which the congregation met in a brick warehouse near the depot.
“In 1886 a white couple, Thomas S. and Josephine Alcocke, donated a lot to Antioch trustees Moses Long, Thomas Hill, and Clarborne Barrett,” Dudley and Taylor’s history states. “The same year, the present church at 201 S. West Street was built under the guidance of Pastor Samuel W. Taliaferro.”
Culpeper historian Zann Nelson has researched and written extensively about the region’s African-American history. She stressed in an interview that black churches, starting with Antioch, provided a community structure for members, fulfilling a need historically that white institutions failed to provide.
“It wasn’t just a place of worship,” Nelson said. “It was a center that supported its membership in housing, business and economic support, education, counseling, entertainment—to name just a few. They built their lives around their church.”
This sense of community has become ingrained in Antioch’s tradition, and remains strongly evident today.
“Back in the days when schools were segregated, our schools didn’t have a multipurpose room, so we would have concerts there at the church, and graduations,” said Vernia Overby, 74, who was born and raised in Culpeper and baptized a member of Antioch when she was 5 years old.
“The church was like a community center, it’s always been that way,” Overby said. “Antioch has always had its doors open for public use, for public meetings or charity groups. I guess that’s part of Christianity, to be of service to the community.”
Pastor Sledge said everything the church does is community-minded.
“We’re right here in the middle of town, we’ve birthed many churches in Culpeper and we take on the community responsibility very seriously,” Sledge said.
Pastor Dan Carlton of Culpeper Baptist said he and Sledge are making efforts within their membership to build a stronger community, particularly in light of the two churches’ historic connection, and the strains caused by racial prejudice.
“We’re making an effort to be more engaged and outward-oriented, and looking at what we can do together to help overcome the challenges of race relations,” Carlton said. “With our joint presence here for so long, we have unique opportunities to model a path forward on some of these tough issues.”
Sledge invited Carlton to speak at Antioch, and the Culpeper Baptist membership to join Antioch in worship, in January of this year. It was the first time the two churches had held a joint worship service to Sledge’s knowledge.
“I had people tell me who had been members 50, 60 years, that that had never happened before,” Sledge said. “It was a historic event.”
Carlton invited Sledge to lead the Good Friday service at Culpeper Baptist, and the Antioch membership to worship with them that day, in April.
“I think we’re both committed and recognize a need to work together more closely and really make an effort to bridge gaps in order to build a stronger joint community,” Carlton said.
Sledge said the two pastors work in tandem on countless committees behind the scenes in Culpeper, making tangible changes happen that he hopes will build a better future for all.
“I love this work,” Sledge said. “What I love most is watching people grow over time. Seeing their healing, watching that progression—ups and downs, struggles and challenges—yes, but seeing them mature, get better, move forward. It’s a great thing to be a part of.”
Following the theme “Honoring Our Past and Equipping Our Future,” Antioch Baptist Church will observe its 160th anniversary with a public celebration of friends and family on Saturday, July 20.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Mountain Run Lake Park, the general public is welcome to join Antioch’s member for socializing, games and activities.
On Sunday, July 21, special worship services marking the anniversary will be held at the church.
At 11 a.m. that day, guest pastor Edward McNair of Portsmouth will give the sermon. At 3 p.m., the Rev. Harrison Williams of Culpeper will be the preacher, with his choir and congregation also guests. Lunch will be provided between services.
“It’s a very exciting time, and a great thing to be part of,” Sledge said. “We hope everyone in the community will join us in recognizing this incredible milestone.”