By Jeff Faggart
Bethabara Baptist Church was founded in 1794 by Elders John Waller, Richard Shackleford and David Lilly. I. M. Allen, writing in the Triennial Baptist Register of 1836, related the events leading to the formation of this church:
“Previously to its constitution, there were a number of Baptists who had removed from other states and settled in this neighborhood. Others had been baptized by John Waller, before any church had been constituted. It was his practice to go from house to house, exhorting the people and preaching the doctrine of repentance and baptism. Those who believed and gave satisfactory evidence of a change, were immersed by him, wherever there was water convenient. Thus were the materials of the Bethabara church prepared…”
The identity of the forty-four charter members is unknown, but the pages of church records do reveal the names of early labourers. Babb, Ball, Boazman, Gaines, George, Griffin, Hatter, Hitt, Marsh, O’Neal, Overby, Owens, Pinson, Puckett, Sadler, Sims, Smith, Weathers and Williams are listed among the saints.
The words with which Craig defended himself were used by God to arrest the heart of Waller. So effectual was this work of conviction for seven or eight months that “He ate no pleasant bread and drank no pleasant water”. He determined in his soul never to rest from seeking until it pleased God to show mercy. Waller testified of his conversion, “Under these impressions, I was at a certain place, sitting under preaching and, leaving the meeting, I hasted into a neighbouring wood, and dropped on my knees before God, to beg for mercy. In an instant, I felt my heart melt and a sweet application of the Redeemer’s love to my poor soul”.
John Waller was baptized by James Read in Orange County, Virginia in 1767 and soon afterwards, like the apostle of old, Waller began to preach the faith which once he destroyed. He was ordained to the ministry by Lewis Craig and Samuel Harris, June 20, 1770 and for nearly twenty-four years was the pastor of the Lower Spotsylvania Baptist Church in the Old Dominion.
In his History Of The Baptists In Virginia, R. B. Semple described the preaching of Waller: “He conferred not with flesh and blood; but began to preach, that men ought every where to repent. … Wherever he went, he was attended by a divine power; turning many to righteousness. His name sounded far and wide. … The baptists and their adherents looked upon him as set for the defence of their cause; and with much confidence rallied around him, as their leader”.
John Waller did contend for the faith as a preacher and as a sufferer for conscience sake. The following record of his imprisonments has been preserved:
Caroline County, Virginia—jailed ten days for preaching
Essex County, Virginia—jailed fourteen days for preaching
Middlesex County, Virginia—jailed forty-six days for preaching
Spotsylvania County, Virginia—jailed forty-three days for preaching
Morgan Edwards, in his Materials Towards A History Of The Baptists In Virginia, chronicled another severe persecution endured by Waller: “In the spring of 1771, as he was holding divine worship in Caroline County, the minister of the parish and his clerk, with the sheriff, came to the place. The minister rode up to the stage and, as Mr. Waller began to pray, ran the end of his whip into Waller’s mouth and silenced him. The clerk pulled Waller down and dragged him to the sheriff who stood at a distance. The sheriff received him and whipped him in so violent a manner (without the ceremony of a trial) that poor Waller was presently in a gore of blood and will carry the scars to his grave. Waller, sore and bloody as he was, remounted the stage and preached a most extraordinary sermon, thereby showing that beaten oil is best for the sanctuary”.
Waller, in a letter from the Middlesex County Jail in 1771, wrote: “Yesterday we had a large number of people to hear us preach; and, among others, many of the great ones of the land, who behaved well, while one of us discoursed on the new birth”. It is evident that what men thought for evil, God meant for good. Manifold were his trials, yet multiplied were his triumphs. His work as a pastor and itinerant was crowned with success and seasons of revival were common. For thirty-five years he laboured to increase the kingdom of God, during which time he baptized over two thousand converts. He organized more than twenty churches and ordained over thirty men to the ministry. His willingness to suffer as the Lord’s adjutant helped secure the religious liberty enjoyed today by every citizen of the united states. To God be the glory!
John Waller moved to South Carolina in 1793 and faithfully served the lord as pastor of this church until removed by death, July 4, 1802. He is buried in the family cemetery near Greenwood, South Carolina.
“But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions;” Hebrews 10:32