John M. Armistead

John M. Armistead (1852–1929)

John M. Armistead was an influential Baptist minister in Portsmouth. Born enslaved, Armistead began his religious studies in 1868. He was a successful minister in Tennessee before taking over Portsmouth's Zion Baptist Church in 1882. During his forty-three years at the congregation's helm its membership nearly tripled and helped create five other churches. One of the most inspiring pulpit orators of his time, Armistead presided over the Virginia Baptist State Convention for six years, and he helped broker a deal that led to the establishment of Lynchburg Baptist Seminary (later Virginia University of Lynchburg). He retired in 1925 and died in Portsmouth four years later. MORE...

 

Early Years

John Maurice Armistead was born on March 1, 1852, in Lynchburg, the only son and one of two children of Frank B. Armistead and Eliza Maxey Armistead, mulatto slaves. His father was a shoemaker, and after emancipation Armistead was working in that trade when, during services at Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, he was so deeply moved as the congregation sang "Come Holy Spirit Heavenly Dove" that he joined the church and devoted his life to Christianity.

Armistead enrolled at Richmond Theological School for Freedmen (later Virginia Union University) in 1868. He studied for the ministry there until 1873 and then at Roger Williams College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he completed his course work in 1879. In the latter year the General Association of East Tennessee ordained him and he accepted a call from the First Baptist Church of Knoxville. During his several years there the congregation flourished. While in Knoxville he also founded and edited the Baptist Companion, the major news organ for the black Baptists of Tennessee.

On November 6, 1880, Armistead married Emma J. Niles, with whom he had two daughters. Soon after, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend a convention of more than 150 black Baptists gathered from at least ten states to promote the establishment of foreign missions in Africa. At the initial meeting on November 24, 1880, he was elected one of two secretaries of what was known first as the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention and evolved into the National Baptist Convention, one of the largest black organizations in the world. Armistead, a member of the new group of African American leaders who were born slaves but grew to maturity in freedom, played an important role in the organization for many years.

Leadership

In 1882 Armistead returned to Virginia to become the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Portsmouth. He continued to publish the Baptist Companion, which he renamed the Virginia Baptist, and he built Zion into one of the state's leading black Baptist congregations. During his forty-three-year pastorate there, his congregation's membership grew from 900 to more than 2,600. To accommodate this growth an impressive new house of worship was erected under his leadership and dedicated in 1895. Five new congregations, Olive Branch Baptist Church, Little Zion Baptist Church, New Hope Baptist Church of Saint Julian Creek, First Baptist Church of Sherwood Place, and First Baptist Church, Truxton, grew out of Armistead's ministry at Zion Baptist. His natural drive and intelligence complemented his mastery of the spoken word. With a voice of tremendous power and range, Armistead became one of the most inspiring pulpit orators of his time, lauded as a "powerful and persuasive" speaker possessed of "originality, apt in illustration, [and] logical and systematic."

Armistead was chairman of the State Mission Board for a number of years, and he served the Virginia Baptist State Convention as second vice president from 1882 to 1884 and president from 1884 to 1890. Founded May 9, 1867 in Portsmouth, the Baptist State Convention grew out of an effort by black churchmen to establish institutions independent of the paternalistic support of white Baptist churches in the North. The needs of African Americans for autonomy, or at least greater participation in church organizations, was evident in the controversy surrounding the American Baptist Publication Society, when white leaders refused to permit blacks to contribute written articles to Sunday school publications. Such behavior drew a rebuke from Armistead at the 1890 Virginia Baptist State Convention, and his comments helped persuade whites to grant concessions to black Baptists.

Armistead also helped establish what would become the Virginia University of Lynchburg. He was named a trustee in its original acts of incorporation as the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary on February 24, 1888, and as the Virginia Seminary on February 4, 1890, and March 20, 1895. The school opened early in 1890 but later that year construction came to a halt for lack of money. Despite the urging of black Baptist leaders, their average parishioner was not sufficiently committed to the idea of a school owned and controlled by African Americans. Faced with a crisis, Armistead and two other black churchmen persuaded the American Baptist Home Mission Society to accept the school as an affiliate in an agreement reached before the Virginia Baptist State Convention's annual session in May 1891. Some thought that this arrangement undercut black independence, but the alternative was an early death for the institution. Armistead later served as president of the school's board of trustees.

Armistead was also active in Portsmouth's political and civic life. A member of the city council, he attended its meetings from February 1890 into 1891 and participated in community organizations such as the Masons, the Good Samaritans, and the Pythians. Armistead was a widower by June 1895 and later married Martha Bridson, who also predeceased him. Despite a heavy workload and personal losses, he remained committed to his ministry, and his work was recognized in 1906 when he received an honorary DD from Virginia Union University.

After serving Zion Baptist Church faithfully for forty-three years, Armistead retired on March 22, 1925, and was unanimously named pastor emeritus by the congregation. Armistead died at his house in Portsmouth on December 3, 1929.

Time Line

  • March 1, 1852 - John M. Armistead is born enslaved in Lynchburg, the only son and one of two children of Frank B. Armistead and Eliza Maxey Armistead.
  • After 1865 - John M. Armistead works as a shoemaker. During services at Court Street Baptist Church, he is so moved by the congregation singing "Come Holy Spirit Heavenly Dove" that he joins the church and devotes his life to Christianity.
  • 1868 - John M. Armistead enrolls at Richmond Theological School for Freedmen. He will study here until 1873.
  • 1873-1879 - John M. Armistead studies at Roger Williams College in Nashville, Tennessee.
  • 1879 - John M. Armistead is ordained by the General Association of East Tennessee and he accepts a call from the First Baptist Church of Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Late 1880 - John M. Armistead attends a convention of more than 150 black Baptists who have gathered from at least ten states to promote the establishment of foreign missions in Africa.
  • November 6, 1880 - John M. Armistead and Emma J. Niles marry. They will have two daughters.
  • November 24, 1880 - John M. Armistead is elected one of two secretaries of what is known first as the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention and will evolve into the National Baptist Convention, one of the largest black organizations in the world.
  • 1882 - John M. Armistead returns to Virginia from Tennessee and becomes the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Portsmouth. During his forty-three-year pastorate there, his congregation’s membership will grow from 900 to more than 2,600.
  • 1882-1884 - John M. Armistead serves the Virginia Baptist State Convention as second vice president, helping to establish institutions independent of the paternalistic support of white Baptist churches in the North.
  • 1884-1890 - John M. Armistead serves the Virginia Baptist State Convention as president, helping to establish institutions independent of the paternalistic support of white Baptist churches in the North.
  • 1885 - Under the leadership of Pastor John M. Armistead, Zion Baptist Church in Portsmouth builds a new house of worship.
  • 1890 - At the Virginia Baptist State Convention, John M. Armistead rebukes the behavior of white leaders who refuse to permit blacks to contribute written articles to Sunday school publications. His comment will help persuade whites to grant concessions to black Baptists.
  • 1890-1891 - John M. Armistead serves on the city council of Portsmouth and participates in community organizations such as the Masons, the Good Samaritans, and the Pythians.
  • February 4, 1890 - John M. Armistead is named a trustee in the original acts of incorporation of the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary (later Virginia University of Lynchburg).
  • By 1895 - Emma J. Niles, the wife of John M. Armistead, dies.
  • After 1895 - John M. Armistead and Martha Bridson marry.
  • 1906 - John M. Armistead receives an honorary DD degree from Virginia Union University.
  • March 22, 1925 - John M. Armistead retires from Zion Baptist Church in Portsmouth after serving as pastor for forty-three years. The congregation unanimously names him pastor emeritus.
  • September 3, 1929 - John M. Armistead dies at his home in Portsmouth.

References

Further Reading
Bogger, Tommy L. "Armistead, John Maurice." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 202–204. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
Reavis, Ralph. Virginia Seminary: A Journey of Black Independence. Bedford, Virginia: The Print Shop, 1989.
Washington, James Melvin. Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Bogger, T. L., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John M. Armistead (1852–1929). (2015, January 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Armistead_John_M_1852-1929.

  • MLA Citation:

    Bogger, Tommy L. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John M. Armistead (1852–1929)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 7, 2015 | Last modified: January 15, 2015