Religion: The Vitality of the Spirit
Monticello records suggest a vital spiritual life in the African-American enslaved community. Men and women attended prayer meetings and were baptized. John Hemmings and his wife Priscilla, head nurse at Monticello, were evidently devout Christians. Priscilla Hemmings died the night of a prayer meeting at their house, after her husband had read to her from the Bible.
The founding of churches frequently became the first activities of newly freed persons after the Civil War. Many Monticello freedmen and their descendants became ministers and lay readers. In this regard, the church was and remains a cornerstone, meeting spiritual and social needs in troubled times and circumstances. Descendants confirm the continued importance of the church and its role in binding together their communities.
Three churches in Virginia and Ohio represent the many religious institutions in which members of Monticello's African-American community and their descendants played conspicuous parts. Eden Baptist Church in Pike County, Ohio, was founded in 1824 by African Americans from Virginia. Its congregation, which included Hemings and Gillette family members from Monticello, was active in the Underground Railroad and other antislavery endeavors. Israel Gillette Jefferson, who had driven Thomas Jefferson's carriage, was deacon and treasurer of Eden Baptist Church.
Union Run Baptist Church east of Charlottesville, Virginia, was founded after the Civil War by freedmen who had once been enslaved at Monticello. In 1867 the deacons acquired land for a church from Thomas Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Rev. Robert Hughes, great-grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, was the first minister. His sons Wormley Hughes and Philip Hughes also became Baptist ministers.
"... to the deacons of Union Branch Baptist Church, one acre at intersection Turnpike Gap Road and Richmond Road, in trust for the purpose of building a church and School House." -- Deed of land from Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 11, 1867
Twenty years after achieving his freedom, Peter Fossett became a Baptist minister, so well known in his state that one authority called him the "father of the black Baptist church of Ohio." In 1870 he founded First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, and he and his wife paid for the church building. Over 1,500 people attended Fossett's funeral in 1901. His church was demolished for highway construction in the 1970s, but the congregation still prospers nearby.