A small group of Christians gathered amid a stand of tall pine trees near a dirt road in southern Wake County in October 1867.
Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had used the same road, originally built on the orders of Royal Gov. William Tryon around 1771, to move part of his 89,000-man army toward Raleigh in April 1865 at the close of the Civil War.
At least one of the worshippers, Allen Haywood, was born into slavery. Sherman likely brought freedom to many of the others who gathered for preaching and prayer, and occasionally to bury their dead.
Some of the descendants of those early worshippers marched three-quarters of a mile this month from the site of those services to their home church as Wake Baptist Grove Missionary in Garner celebrated its 150th anniversary.
“We thought it was important to march from the place of our beginnings to our home,” said the Rev. James Clanton Jr., pastor at Wake Baptist Grove. “We wanted to celebrate our 150 years and remember our past while looking to the future.
“Our church theme is, ‘Going where God leads us.’ We believe he led us here and he will continue to lead us.”
Wake Baptist Grove had a weeklong celebration in mid-October with speakers, a concert, special prayer services and a banquet, plus the walk.
Clanton said it is hard to imagine what those first services were like. Many churches in the area had racially mixed congregations before the Civil War. Most moved to separate services soon after the war ended.
“Obviously, there had to be challenges,” Clanton said. “There were huge changes in the country, particularly for the African-American culture. Our church was founded only two years after the Civil War and the end of slavery.”
Allen Haywood’s mother was a slave and his father was white, according to William “Billy” Rogers, Haywood’s great-great-grandson and a Wake Grove Baptist trustee. Haywood was sent North to school during his teenage years, according to family history, and came back to Garner to teach black children in the home he built on Main Street.
“The family history is that he was allowed to have that house downtown despite the segregationists because of who his father was,” said Dr. Bertron Haywood, another great-grandson. “We don’t know who his father was now, but I’ve always heard it was a person with clout.”
Allen Haywood, Elias Allen, Tom Haywood, and Ransom Jones were selected as the first deacons at the open-air church called Wake Piney Grove Church. Some of the early members had worshipped at Johnson Piney Grove in Clayton before forming their own church.
Clayton, about 10 miles away, was a journey by foot or by horse and buggy, and Clanton said geography had to have had a role in the church’s establishment.
The Rev. Essex Blake of Raleigh was chosen as pastor in 1868. He rotated among the local churches, including Springfield Baptist near Auburn, Zebulon First Baptist, Popular Springs, Rand Road and Piney Grove. He preached on the third Sundays at Wake Piney Grove, which eventually built a small frame wood building with vertical boards.
Blake was known for his revivals. There would be three meetings a day from Saturday to Saturday. The meetings sometimes broke up at 10 p.m.
People flocked to the revivals, and the church grew.
A storm destroyed the wood building, but a stone church was built in 1917 that still stands near the site on the road, now known as Old U.S. 70 or Old Garner Road.
The stone church was modernized in 1945, right after World War II and about the same time a small drive-in restaurant called Toot-N-Tell-It opened next door.
Thirty years later, in January 1975, the Rev. Dr. Charles P. Briley led the church membership as it marched from the small stone church to its new home on Main Street. Their new church home had been built in 1892 as a Methodist church for whites.
That was the march Clanton and his flock recreated on the 150th anniversary. It was symbolic in many ways and reflected the effort to keep the faith amid hardship.
Wake Baptist Grove has known pain.
In September 1992, many members joined the Rev. Leonard Farrar in leaving to form a new church. Stanley Davis, the current chairman of the Wake Baptist Grove deacons, said church administration was one of several issues.
“It was painful and it was disappointing,” Davis said. “It literally split families and broke up friendships. But we survived.”
William “Billy” Rogers, the double name distinguishing from his father, William “Chili” Rogers, said he grew up at Wake Grove.
“I’ve been there all my life,” he said. “And it is not just my family there. There are several people who are still associated with the church who can trace their families back to the very beginning of the church.”
Davis said one of the things that he is most proud of is the number of children who grew up in Wake Grove and went on to become pastors, deacons, trustees and other church leaders. At least 11 former members have become licensed ministers, and that number doesn’t include former Springfield pastor Daniel Sanders, who attended Wake Grove as a child but was licensed by nearby Juniper Level after he moved his membership after marriage.
“I think the number of pastors reflects well on the teaching and the worshipping that we do here,” Davis said.
Wake Grove Baptist is part of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, which has 500,000 members and 1,400 churches. The organization was founded in 1867 and is not to be confused with the Southern Baptist-affiliated Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Dr. Nilous M. Avery, II, president of the General Baptist convention, has a special tie to Wake Grove. His father is among the men who grew up in the church and became pastors.
“The Wake Baptist Grove family has stood tall and remained faithful in service and dedication,” Avery writes in his letter of congratulations to the church. “Time will not erase and ages will not destroy the legacy, history, challenges and victories thought faith and hope of past members who are among the cloud of witnesses and the present disciples of the Lord.”
Erica Rogers, a seventh grader a Dillard Middle School and the granddaughter of William Billy Rogers, didn’t know her great-great-great grandfather was a church founder when she made the walk with many of the other church members.
“I did the walk mostly because my friends were doing it,” she said. “I knew people made that walk a long time ago, and I wanted to do it too. The church is like a home to me.”
Her father, Gary Rogers, said Wake Baptist Grove has been like a home to a lot of people for a long time.
“That church is pretty much the center of my life,” he said. “I think of all the changes from when the church was founded until today. But one thing that has been constant is this church.”
Tim Stevens writes stories about southeastern Wake County for The News & Observer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.