Monticello’s enslaved community engaged in a vital spiritual life; men and women attended prayer meetings and were baptized. After the Civil War, founding their own churches became a priority for newly freed people and many freedmen from Monticello and their descendants became ministers and lay readers. The church was and remains a cornerstone in their lives, meeting spiritual and social needs in troubled times and circumstances. Descendants confirm the continued importance of the church and its role in defining 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 was deacon and treasurer of Eden Baptist Church.
Union Run Baptist Church, east of Charlottesville, Virginia, was founded after the Civil War by Lewis Hern and George Hughes, among other deacons. In 1867, they 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.
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.