Religion played a central role in the lives of Williamsburg's residents of all colors. Nearly everyone belonged to one of the city's Protestant churches, which were largely segregated. Church services, prayer meetings, and Sunday school attendance were common activities. Summertime brought church picnics. Prominent men expected to serve as church officers, and their wives led the women's organizations.
Williamsburg's white citizens typically worshiped at the Greek Revival Baptist Church on Duke of Gloucester Street near the Powder Horn, the Victorian Methodist Church on the Courthouse (now Palace) Green, the frame Presbyterian Church on Palace Street, or at the colonial Bruton Parish Church., which underwent a major restoration in 1907, led by its then-young minister W.A.R. Goodwin. The churches engaged in friendly competition, as in the 1920s, when the Methodists and the Baptists engaged in a spirited contest to see who could improve men's Sunday school attendance the most.
Williamsburg's citizens of color typically worshipped at the elegant brick First Baptist Church on Nassau Street or to the clapboard Mount Ararat Baptist Church or Union Baptist Church, both on Duke of Gloucester Street. John Dawson, the minister of First Baptist Church, was a prominent citizen. A graduate of Oberlin College, he served in the state senate and as county treasurer in the late 1800s. First Baptist established a school for black children before Williamsburg opened free public schools.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- Williamsburg at Worship from the exhibit "A Most Thriving & Growing Place": Williamsburg Before the Restoration.