Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church - History
Special Collections and Archives
James Branch Cabell Library
Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church
History of the Church
Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Richmond, VirginiaThis text was written for a church brochure in 2005 and was approved by Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church historian, Benjamin Ross.
Sixth Mount Zion enjoys a heritage of dynamic fellowship and extraordinary leadership that dates to 1867, when the renowned Reverend John Jasper founded the church. Typical of the desperate conditions for many African-Americans in Richmond immediately after the Civil War, Sixth Mount Zion was originally organized in an abandoned confederate horse stable on Brown's Island along the shores of the James River.
Large numbers of African Americans were drawn to Jasper's charismatic ministry. The rapidly growing congregation moved to its present location in 1869, and is credited with being the first church in the city of Richmond that was organized by an African-American preacher. As an old-styled orator, Jasper was unsurpassed. Promoted by the local newspapers, Richmonders (black and white) flocked to the church to hear his celebrated sermons. He reached the zenith of his career, when he delivered his sermon "De Sun Do Move," from the pulpit of Sixth Mount Zion Church. A powerful statement of faith that became famous all over the United States and abroad.
The Sixth Mount Zion church building remains one of the few nineteenth-century structures that can conclusively be attributed to an African-American builder, and continues to serve as a major expression of African American ecclesiastical architecture. George W. Boyd designed and built the current church structure in 1887 and the noted African American architect, Charles T. Russell, remodeled it in 1925. Boyd is particularly significant because he was one of only a handful of African-American builders who were licensed to build in 19th-century Richmond. Charles T. Russell is also an important figure as the first professional African-American architect in Richmond in the twentieth century. Both gentlemen are also credited with the construction and renovation of the Maggie L. Walker House also located within Richmond's Jackson Ward District.
Sixth Mount Zion's proximity to downtown Richmond has placed it among the prominent features of the city's skyline, and is a superb example of Gothic revival "high-style" architecture using wire-cut brick and limestone. A series of original stained glass windows adorn the main sanctuary. Each window is composed of tan and cream colored "Art Glass" with a scallop motif at the crown of each window. One special window, dedicated in John Jasper's memory, offers a garden scene lined with lilies and roses with a sundial as its centerpiece commemorating Jasper's famous sermon. These impressive windows now light a sanctuary seating more than a thousand people, making Sixth Mount Zion one of Richmond's largest African-American churches.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has recognized the church with two historical highway markers--one at the church site in downtown Richmond, and another in Fluvanna County near the birthplace of John Jasper. Residing within the historic Jackson Ward District, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. In 2004, the Richmond City Council honored the church with a special designation as a local "historic district," encompassing the 3 acres of land on which it stands. The only black church in Richmond to receive this distinction.
Regarded as one of the nation's pioneering churches in the field of historic preservation, the church opened its John Jasper Memorial Room and Museum in January 1926. Tourists, researchers, students, genealogists, theologians, historians, families, and visitors from around the globe journey to the church to hear the story of the legendary John Jasper and view the church's collection of 19th century artifacts. Bibles, books, paintings, clothing, ceremonial artifacts, and furniture make up the unique memorabilia that visitors see when they visit the church's repository of the African-American religious experience. The church is regularly called upon by museums across the country to borrow items for their exhibits when interpreting the African-American religious experience. Chief among these items is a golden bust of John Jasper sculptured in 1904, and a rare stone taken from Mount Zion, Jerusalem presented to the church in 1924.
Sixth Mount Zion actively participates in heritage tourism and partners with other historic sites including the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. Historical highway signs and street markers in and around the city direct the visitor to West Duval Street and the doors of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church.
The "Mother Church" of two thriving Richmond congregations--Trinity Baptist Church (1906) and Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church (1924) -- Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church is a dynamic and thriving entity in the life of modern Richmond as well, building on its rich traditions and preparing for its exciting future. Always mindful of its primary mission to serve God and mankind, the church actively participates in annual services with neighboring churches and offers programs and activities for children, youth, adults and senior citizens. Being one of the largest church sanctuaries in downtown Richmond, the Sixth Mount Zion family enjoys sharing their facilities with the public for many outside activities, including concerts, forums, and other special ceremonies. Today, Sixth Mount Zion towers over Jackson Ward as it has for over 135 years.
In 1997 the church unveiled its historical quilt to mark its 130th anniversary. The quilt, 10 feet wide and 15 feet in length, is composed of 40 panels displaying the many organizations which make up church life. The quilt has been on display throughout Virginia and Washington, DC.
Seven illustrious and capable pastors have led Sixth Mount Zion during its long history. Among them was Dr. Augustus Walter (A.W.) Brown, who served for over forty-three years until his death in 1967. Greatly admired for his leadership and faithful dedication to missionary work, Dr. Brown traveled throughout Europe and the Caribbean spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. Brown was very instrumental in defending the church from being demolished when Interstate 95 was built in downtown Richmond, Virginia in 1957.
Over 700 homes of African Americans were demolished and hundreds of residents in the neighborhood - including members of the congregation - were forced to move away, resulting in the destruction of the central portion of the Jackson Ward community. The church congregation stood firm in its determination not to be destroyed, and was given three alternatives by the highway authorities to consider -- (1) have the church demolished and reconstructed elsewhere, (2) move the church away from the path of the highway, and (3) have the highway swing north around the back of the church. The third alternative prevailed due in part to the church's association with John Jasper, and today the church stands triumphant high above the Interstate below making it a prominent landmark along the east coast's major north-south thoroughfare and visible to thousands of travelers everyday. It is a silent testament written in stone and concrete of the faith and perseverance of the congregation. The surviving Jackson Ward neighborhood is recognized as a National Historic Landmark Historic District for its history as a center of African-American business and cultural life.
For over a century, Sixth Mount Zion has served as a center of spiritual and community life, addressing the social concerns of the city's residents. As long ago as 1918, the church led in the creation of one of the first senior citizens homes in Richmond, known at that time, as the Negro Baptist Old Folks Home. Sixth Mount Zion was one of the first black churches to have an organized charity with a staff social worker to administer to the indigent of the community and city. This tradition has continued up to the present time through the work of the Gilpin-Jackson Ward Family Life Skills Center, organized in 1994 as a powerful tool to assist individuals and families with the resources necessary to overcome obstacles that prevent them from achieving personal, social and economic goals. Today, over 25 organizations and ministries work together to enrich the lives of individuals from children to young adults and senior citizens.
In April 2005, Reverend Tyrone E. Nelson was elected as pastor of the church, and under his administration the church has undergone a total transformation in its worship services, daily administrative activities and spiritual focus. With his leadership, Sixth Mount Zion has reinvigorated itself and stands ready to meet the many challenges of an urban 21st-century church with renewed faith and service. "A church where every member matures and is involved in ministry" is our motto, reflecting this new energy.
This drive and spirit is symbolic of a congregation who is building on the confident foundation of its long illustrious history and traditions. Our church family invites you to visit us as we eagerly look to the future. Come and experience the beautiful Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church at 14 West Duval Street, a powerful and growing bastion of faith and service, heritage and praise, located in downtown Richmond, Virginia.