SHILOH — “I wish my father could be here. He left me the greatest legacy that could be left – the love of this church.” Brian Forehand’s father, Billie, spent nearly 40 years collecting documents and artifacts that tell the story of the oldest Baptist church in North Carolina — Shiloh Baptist in Camden County. When Billie Forehand died he left his son a historical collection including photos; years worth of bulletins with personal notes indicating Sunday attendance and special occasions such as weddings; hymn books; church records; and the will of Shiloh’s first pastor, William Burgess.
Shiloh Baptist Church in the Chowan Association celebrated its 281-year anniversary Sunday, Oct. 5, with special services and events. Forehand could not contain his excitement as he moved from one photo, one document to another, walking church members and visitors through Shiloh’s history — or rather, through his family history. Holding a photo of the congregation from the early 1930s, Forehand pointed out relative after relative: uncles, aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents. At age 94, Forehand’s aunt is the oldest church member at Shiloh. Forehand is like most of the Shiloh congregation in that he can look back to generations of family members who were members of Shiloh, and he now looks out into the congregation every Sunday and rejoices, knowing he is worshipping with family.
The first worship service in the Shiloh area was held in 1717 and at the time, the population in what would become North Carolina totaled about 30,000. According to Forehand and historical documents, Baptist missionary Paul Palmer organized the Shiloh church and William Burgess was its first pastor. The church began meeting monthly on a Saturday at Burgess’ home. In 1736 a meetinghouse was built on Burgess’ land and about 30 people attended the church. Though additions and renovations have been made, such as a fellowship hall in 1992, the sanctuary that stands today is the same one built back in the mid-1800s. After four name changes the church settled on “Shiloh” in 1812.
Throughout the late 1700s and 1800s, Shiloh organized nine churches in areas such as Elizabeth City, Camden and Shady Grove in North Carolina and Princess Anne County in Virginia. Notable Shiloh pastors include Henry Abbott, who is credited with the authorship of Article 19 of the Bill of Rights, and Charles Bray Williams, who served as dean of Southwestern Seminary and president of Howard College.
Remembering the past
The anniversary celebration included a morning and afternoon worship service Sunday, Oct. 5, and a colonial festival Oct. 4. The festival featured exhibits with artifacts about life during colonial times, such as weapons and tools, children’s toys and everyday life; a display outlining the church history and a quilt display. Festival goers also enjoyed games, a puppet show, pony rides and a contest for the best colonial costume, as church members dressed in colonial attire for both the festival and the Sunday services. A church member carrying a “tithing pole” roamed throughout the congregation during the Sunday services. During colonial times a feather was tied to the end of the tithing pole and was used to tickle the noses of members nodding off to sleep.
Milton A. Hollifield Jr., Baptist State Convention of North Carolina executive director-treasurer, preached at the morning worship service. Hollifield used 2 Tim. 2:2 as his text and reminded Shiloh members that while they have a rich history, “you also have a bright future,” he said. Hollifield said the voices of the past, virtues of the present and future victories promised by the Lord Jesus Christ should motivate Shiloh members to continue telling the story of Jesus.
A Christian’s words and behavior tell a story to the world, Hollifield said, and he asked those present to consider if their lifestyle is such that those around them are imitating their words and behavior. Referring to research by the Barna Group, Hollifield said that 80 percent of Christians see no need to share their faith and tell the story of Jesus. “Someone shared that story with you,” he said. “Are you sharing it with others?”
The afternoon service featured special music, a historical skit and testimonies from church members about what the church has meant to them throughout the years. One after another they stood, eager to share how the Lord Jesus Christ changed their life at Shiloh and unashamed to tell of His grace and mercy. The first member to stand said she grew up in Shiloh Baptist, participating in youth group, and thanked the church for the “solid foundation” she now has in Christ, as well as a Christian marriage. One member shared that he was baptized at Shiloh, his three sisters were all married at Shiloh and “the gospel was preached every week.” Another member thanked all the saints — the grandparents and great-grandparents who still serve faithfully at Shiloh and who will see that “their legacy will last forever in other people.”
Mike Perry grew up about 20 miles from Shiloh, in South Mills, and for the last 20 years has called Shiloh his home. As much as Perry enjoys history and telling of Shiloh’s beginning, when asked about the church’s past he is quick to say the church must “not dwell on it” but “look to the future.” Perry wants the church to continue moving in a direction that will afford the present congregation opportunity to leave its own legacy.
Tommy Roach, 78, first sat in the Shiloh pews nearly 35 years ago. His wife of 47 years was raised in the area, and they live less than a mile from where she grew up. What Roach loves most about the church are the people. “A lot of love comes from this church,” he said. “You can feel the Spirit.” Roach spoke to every person who came by his lunch table and said, “I missed seeing you yesterday” to a friend who had to work during the festival.
Roach said the love of his church family has never wavered and in the future, that is what is needed to carry on with the proclaiming of the gospel and the discipling of church members.
Whatever the future holds for Shiloh Baptist Church, pastor Dave Combs said the church must “stand on the fundamentals of the gospel.”