2010 Theme: A Faith That Turns Vision Into Reality Tuesday, November 19, 2019

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A tiny Acorn, wafted by the summer breeze, found itself imbedded in the earth on the edge of the forest. Nourished by the sun and rain, kissed by the morning dew, and protected by the Father of all living things, it slowly but unfailingly grew to majestic greatness. This “monarch of the woods” as it is called, used its strength to protect the tender shoots that sprang up around it; and, when the strong winds of winter uprooted trees of lesser endurance, more firmly did the oak implant itself, more gloriously did it lift itself to the sun. Such has been the history of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

During the long years of slavery Negroes of the Baptist persuasion were admitted into the membership of the Court Street Baptist Church (white) of this city, and were granted certain worship periods under white supervision. Then came the Civil War in 1861, and because of the importance of this city from a naval standpoint (the Navy Yard being located here) it at once became the object of control by both sides, resulting in the city changing hands several times during the conflict. Most of the churches were converted into hospitals, and religious worship was suspended. Heartened by the apparent turn of events in their favor through the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a few of the freedmen became desirous of securing a place wherein they could worship and sing praises at definite periods without restraint. Their opportunity came near the close of this bloody conflict in 1864, when the city was taken by the Union forces under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler. The Court Street Baptist pastor, Reverend C.E.W. Dobbs, was imprisoned by the order of the general, and the church shortly after was occupied as a hospital by the Federal forces. It was during the upheaval in the church with its membership scattered that Brother John W. Godwin, who was one of the “deacons” of the colored congregation of the Court Street Baptist Church, gathered a few worshippers together and held prayer meetings through December 1864. With the coming of the New Year, new hopes and new aspirations attended their plans, and on the first Sunday in January, 1865, John W. Godwin, Dennis Morris with his wife and son, Phillip Ackins, John Williams, and Susan King (seven in all) secured the use of Temperance Hall, located at the corner of South and Middle Streets, held services and organized themselves as the First Colored Baptist Church of Portsmouth, and worshipped there during the closing days of the Civil War.

This moment struck a responsive note in the hearts of many Baptists, but more largely among great groups of refugees from neighboring Virginia counties and from North Carolina communities who had made their way to Portsmouth for Federal protection, and like the acorn, the congregation grew and flourished, necessitating larger quarters. The leaders of the congregation succeeded in securing the hall over Sneed’s Blacksmith Shop, on South Street, near Effingham Street, for services; and recognizing the value of the spiritual leadership of Reverend John W. Godwin, the congregation was successful in having him ordained to the work of the gospel ministry.

The congregation at once set themselves to the task of providing for a permanent seat of worship, and on the 30th day of December 1867, paid five hundred dollars ($500.00) in cash for on a lot on the southeast corner of Washington and Bart Streets. (See Deed Book 4, page 89, Hustings Court of Portsmouth; Brady et ux to Godwin et als, Trustees of the First Colored Baptist Church). The names of the first Trustees were John W. Godwin, William Colin, Jacob Gaskins, Lewis Sirors, Wyatt Vaughan, John Williams and Edward Mingo. These men with the exception of Reverend Godwin were also deacons.

So enthusiastic and optimistic was the congregation that they purchased the lot next to their first purchase on the 9th day of June, 1868, paying five hundred dollars ($500.00) for it also. All of this was done while they worshipped in Sneed’s Blacksmith Shop. So conscious were they of the Lord’s help that the majority of the congregation thought they should have a “Bible” name, one that would express more strikingly God’s marvelous providence in their behalf. When the proposal was presented to the church, they unanimously voted to change the name of the congregation to Ebenezer, which means stone of help; and the theme“Hitherto hath the Lord helped us,” found in I Samuel 7-12.

In 1854 the Wesley Chapel Methodist Church built a new edifice on the corner of Effingham and Crabb Street (now Columbia Street) - just one city block from Sneed’s Blacksmith Shop - and worshipped there until the war and the yellow fever epidemic so depleted their Congregation that they were forced to abandon the property. With the foresight of a wise leader, Reverend Godwin seized the opportunity and purchased the property fronting 113 feet on Effingham Street and running back 90 feet on Crabb Street (now Columbia) for one thousand seven hundred fifty ($1750.00) dollars cash.

The deed for the sale of this property was made on the 10th day of April, 1871, between the Trustees of the Wesley Chapel Methodist Church, South, and J. W. Godwin, W. Colin, Jacob Gaskins, Lewis Sears, William White, John Williams and Edwin Mingo, Trustees of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Note the identity between the Trustees of the First Colored Baptist Church and the Trustees of the Ebenezer Baptist Church). The property was renovated and improved, and the congregation went into their new place of worship with greater zeal and stronger determination to do more for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. After seventeen years of pioneering and untiring, unselfish service, Reverend Godwin retired, much to the regret of his people. He was succeeded by the Reverend Ashley Lewis, who entered upon his duties with enthusiasm and great spiritual power. His major objective, in addition to the saving of souls, was to build a better and larger edifice on the beautiful corner lot. To this end he instituted a Building Fund, and one thousand dollars ($1000.00) was on deposit in the bank at the time of his demise. He died after having served efficiently for five years.

The desire for a larger and more beautiful church was so deeply instilled in the minds of the people that when Reverend John W. Kirby came in 1891, he set to work at once to build the present imposing brick edifice, which was completed and dedicated in June 1894. The whole community felt the importance of a new life; educational institutions fostered; missionary society founded. After four years of service, Dr. Kirby was recognized by Virginia Union University as a great financier and was elected as its field agent. He resigned to accept this position.

Reverend A. Chisholm, D. D., was called as successor to Dr. Kirby, and was installed as pastor on the second Sunday in November, 1896. From the very beginning of his pastorate it was noted that he was an organizer of unusual ability. Instituting a financial system, completing the payment on the heating system and pews, reducing the bonded debt to less than one thousand dollars, adding two hundred twenty five (225) members he strengthened and edified the church greatly. Almost at the height of his ministerial success he was stricken suddenly with acute indigestion and died.

Ebenezer marched on and continued to grow and make herself felt as a community force. Sunday, June 23, 1901, Reverend M.W.D. Norman, A.M., D.D., was installed as Ebenezer’s 5th pastor. The “Silver Tongued” orator from North Carolina was both brilliant and eloquent. The church enjoyed great prosperity under his leadership. After serving the congregation for three years and ten months he resigned to accept the pastorate of the Metropolitan Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.

Reverend C.C. Sommerville, A.B., D.D., was called from North Carolina and installed on July 15, 1905. He was an editor, lecturer and preacher of great and outstanding ability, being forensic, optimistic and forceful. During his administration the chapel was razed, the main edifice was added to on the rear, including the rear roof; a new heating system installed, a new ceiling was installed in the main church building, and the whole edifice modernized and re-dedicated. The foreign mission vision of the church was broadened during his leadership, and great crowds attended during his ministry. He resigned in 1922, after having served the congregation for seventeen years, and founded the New Mount Olivet Baptist Church of this city, leaving the church free from bonded debt.

On January 7, 1923, Reverend M.N. Newsome, D.D., was called from Hertford, N.C., and installed as pastor. A man of large build, compelling personality, and great oratorical ability, he at once electrified his audiences and commanded a large following. Coming in on the heels of internal strife he was confronted with the task of continuing the progress of the church. During his administration the church property was mortgaged for $15,000.00 to repaint the church building, to install a new pipe organ and to purchase the beautiful parsonage on Effingham Street, corner of Scott Street. The reaction after the great World War brought financial reverses that caught the congregation in great debt which the congregation addressed itself to in a way that was truly heroic. The spirit of loyalty to a cause and personal sacrifice was never more evident in the church’s history. After serving the church only seven and one-half years, Dr. Newsome was overtaken by ill health and resigned in the fall of 1930.

For a brief period following the resignation of Doctor Newsome, Ebenezer was without a pastor. Financially, the church was at its lowest ebb. A pastor was needed badly. Dark days were the lot of the congregation, which had heard faint whispers of their financial ruin and dissolution. The church went to God in prayer for a leader, and in 1931 extended a call to the Reverend Harvey N. Johnson, Sr., of Norfolk, VA, a man young in years, young in the ministry, but old in the service of the Lord. During his installation services over one thousand dollars was raised, which served to quiet many of the financial fears of creditors.

New hope and confidence once more came to the force, and being the youngest pastor ever to hold leadership of the church he was affectionately called “Ebenezer’s Baby.” The congregation grew and once more the pews were being filled with worshippers and new members added by the score. The first revival under his leadership resulted in 110 additions to the church. The church by this time knew that they were headed for better days and adopted a slogan “A Bigger and Better Ebenezer.“ The depression came with its attending miseries, but the church moved on, reducing its bonded indebtedness and improving the facilities.

As we look back over the years of his leadership we note that the $17,500.00 debt against the church was reduced to around $4,000.00. The task of reducing the debt was not the only obstacle that confronted the new leader; the building was in dire need of repairs, the heating system had to be repaired immediately and minor repairs to the roof. These challenges were met by renovating the interior of the edifice and changing the lighting fixtures, installing new boilers of the oil burning type. On Christmas Day, 1935, fire threatened to destroy the historic building, but quick work on the part of the city fire department saved it from serious damage. All necessary repairs were made. Reverend Johnson was an untiring worker. His keen mind was ever awake to grasp any situation or opportunity that arose for the benefit or advancement of his church and community.

Therefore, in 1935, when faced with the inadequacy of existing physical facilities, he lifted the curtain to vision and gave the followers a faint picture of a new Annex where upon a proposition was launched to erect a two story brick annex on the spacious lot adjoining the church. In the summer of 1936 the ground was broken and the work began. The building was erected on the “pay-as-you-go” plan. The completed edifice, valued at $18,000.00, was dedicated with appropriate services on Sunday, May 17, 1939.

Reverend Johnson possessed the art of an organizer and director, which was the keynote of successful church work. With quick tact and warm sympathy, he knew how to approach and win men. Having a rich social nature, a kindly disposition and the polish of a true gentleman, he was an ever-welcome visitor in the homes of his members and friends. In his pastoral relations, his people were made to feel that in him they had a true friend and brother. The city at large had felt his worth, for during the days when the depression was at its peak, he was instrumental in serving at the “Soup Kitchens” for the Negro group, and even used his church study for the distribution of clothing and food. He was responsible for the Boy Scout movement in Portsmouth among colored boys and for pre-Easter services among the churches in the city. He had successfully headed the drive among his people for the Community Chest Fund and the Tuberculosis Campaigns. Now after nine years of service with us we counted him a theologian of rare insight, an orator of exceptionally brilliant and commanding address, a preacher of unusual magnetism and spirituality, an inspired visionary and a matchless leader.

A great and nationally known architect, his many buildings still stand as monuments to his skill. He designed and supervised the construction of Mt. Herman Baptist Temple (Portsmouth), First Baptist South Portsmouth, and New Bethel (Cavalier Manor). He delighted in remodeling old structures. Our own Ebenezer and the beautiful St. John A.M.E. Church, First Baptist Bute Street, Queen Street Baptist, and Garrett’s Community Church all of Norfolk were either redesigned or have additions designed by Dr. Johnson. He was the architect and supervisor of the construction for the Attucks theatre in Norfolk, VA and the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond County in Suffolk, VA.

During World War I, the Navy heard of his accomplishments and summoned him to Washington to supervise the designing of ships. Upon his arrival, they noted that he was black and he was told they couldn’t accept him because their supervisors were white. He was then asked by the Navy to design some warehouses in Newport News, VA. They still stand near Jefferson Avenue. A Day Care Center in Baltimore, MD, which he designed also still stands and was named in his honor. A selfless giver of his time, he was the first Black on the Portsmouth School Board. A strong believer in education, he contributed significantly in the development of what is now Norfolk State University.

Dr. Johnson was a lover of music. He founded the Senior Choir as soon as he arrived at Ebenezer in 1931. He later founded the Male Chorus, the Number Two Choir and the Chancel Choir. Auxiliaries were also essential to the efficient operation of a church, therefore, in 1962 Dr. Johnson saw the need for more auxiliaries and he organized the Starlights, the Women’s Service League, the Crusaders and re-organized the Helping Hand Club.

During the fifties and sixties, Dr. Johnson continued to direct the growth of Ebenezer. In 1955, a new private bus was secured. The bus ran a regular route twice each Sunday for services and was also used for outings and other church activities. In 1956, he instituted the first 7:00 a. m. “Come As You Are” service in the area. He also secured additional land for parking, rebuilt the entire outer structure in granite, rebuilt the pipe organ, installed the air conditioning system, and added the fellowship hall and kitchen. The former “Colored Library” was purchased from the city and moved from South Street to its present location on Ebenezer’s parking lot. It replaced the former Boy Scout Hut. In 1969, under the direction of Dr. Johnson’s able leadership, a federally financed community project, Ebenezer Plaza, a fifty two unit housing development was opened. Many answered the Master’s call during Dr. Johnson’s pastorate. After 42 years of faithful and loyal service, the Death Angel came into our fold and took Dr. Johnson from us. On Monday, December 10, 1973, this warrior laid down his sword and shield.

During the absence of a pastor from December 1973 to November 1974, the Deacons of Ebenezer under the leadership of Deacon William Holloman, Sr., looked after the needs of the congregation. They ensured that the spiritual life of the church and the needs of the members were met in every way. Through their efforts and diligence, Ebenezer was blessed to have several capable preachers to come in and minister as well as preach the gospel at each worship service and whenever needed.

November 17, 1974, the Reverend Ben A. Beamer, Sr., former pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Norfolk, VA was called and installed on January 19, 1975 as the ninth pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. He began his duties with great ambition, initiating the first printed budget and unified treasury for the church. He extended existing church programs which included the Tape Ministry for the sick and shut-ins; the purchase of a new bus and van; acquisition of additional property; appointment of a youth director; and organized a Sunday School Class for new members. Modern revitalization of the church began under Reverend Beamer as the parking lot was paved and repairs to the basement and tower were made. Internal improvements continued as the exterior of the church edifice was watered-proofed and the furnace rooms were fire proofed. Blueprints for the major renovation were finalized and sidewalks on Effingham Street were paved. The 2% Club was created.

The major renovation phase was begun on Sunday April 30, 1981 when the 11:00 a.m. Worship Service was moved to I.C. Norcom High School’s auditorium. Numerous other programs were revamped. The worship services while held at I.C. Norcom High School retained their normal splendor and the members continued to support Ebenezer. Twenty seven months later in July 1983 under God’s directions Ebenezer moved back to the sanctuary.

Renovations were made on the Ebenezer Plaza Housing Complex and the Fellowship Hall. In 1986 the Fellowship Hall was completed and named Godwin Hall in honor of one of our founders and first pastor, Rev. John W. Godwin. In 1988 the kitchen renovation began and was completed June 1989. In 1990 Ebenezer purchased disposition parcels 3 and 703 Thomas Circle. On November 13, 1992, Ebenezer Baptist Church adopted its first Constitution and By-Laws by which we are now governed.

Reverend Beamer, a former educator and school administrator, actively served the community. He served on the Salvation Army and Lott Carey Foreign Missions Convention Board of Directors, the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the Choir Guild Scholarship Committee for Hampton University, and on the boards for the YMCA and Portsmouth General Hospital. Reverend Beamer was a member of the Portsmouth School Board, served on the Portsmouth City Council, and served as Vice Mayor of the City of Portsmouth for four years. He was also a U. S. Presidential appointee to the Local Draft Board.

Under Dr. Beamer’s pastorate many answered the Master’s call to ministry and service, Ebenezer’s land holdings increased threefold, the church building was renovated, the two parking lots were enlarged and improved and the Victory Square Non-profit Corporation was formed with Mt. Olivet Church to build apartment units near the church for senior citizens in conjunction with the City of Portsmouth’s Vision 2005 program. Dr. Beamer resigned as pastor of Ebenezer on December 23, 1999.

Ebenezer was without a senior pastor. The Deacons under the leadership of incoming Deacon Board Chairman, Willie Levenston, Jr., sought to maintain continuity of spiritual leadership and to ensure that all church functions were retained and maintained. The Deacons organized to distribute and share the care and ministry to the membership with special emphasis placed on ministry to the sick and shut in members. The pulpit was supplied for all regular services and outings, and dynamic leadership and teaching were provided during Wednesday Night Bible Study and prayer meetings. Joint plans with Mt. Olivet Baptist Church to build the Victory Square housing complex were resumed with the acquiring of architectural plans, funding, contracting, and permits.

The Trustees, under the leadership of Chairman Carolyn A. Abron-McCadden, sought to secure and enhance Ebenezer’s physical plant and financial assets. An audit was conducted. Needed maintenance, repairs, and acquisitions were identified and prioritized with steps taken to systematically accomplish them. Measures were taken to ensure that all procurements, financial records, accounting practices and reporting adhered to the established standards and procedures and to the budget.

The leaders of all boards and ministries in Ebenezer came together in a series of workshops to determine the course and direction that the church should take in the future. Out of this series of meetings and work sessions a vision statement and a mission statement were developed. The ministries needed to achieve Ebenezer’s vision and to fulfill her mission were identified. The results and recommendations were presented to the congregation and were embraced, adopted and implemented giving birth to a Teaching and Training Ministry, an Intercessory Prayer ministry and an Evangelism Ministry.

We received a special blessing in 2001 when God, in his infinite wisdom, called one of His veteran pastors out of retirement to watch over His Ebenezer flock, and provide stability during this uncertain time. The Reverend James E, Wynn, Sr. assumed the duties of “Interim Pastor” and administered superbly to the spiritual needs of this congregation. We were extremely grateful for this blessing, and it is our fervent prayer that God will continue to bless “Our Precious Heart” as he continues his support.

We cherish with high regards the sons and daughters which Ebenezer has given to the church, and for the valuable contributions they have made to society. We felicitate the congregation that has been founded and helped by her kindly influence. “The Lord has done great things for us, whereof we are glad.”

Our history is still being written. After one hundred forty years of Ebenezer’s unbroken existence, the Book of Life is not sealed. The quality of the years to come depends on wisdom, skill, consecration and faith in God. Ebenezer looks onward and upward to even greater spiritual success and prays that our Heavenly Father, who has guided us through these one hundred forty years, will continue to bless and prosper us as we SING UNTO THE LORD - “HITHERTO HATH THE LORD HELPED US.”