RICHMOND, Va. -- Arriving at Sixth Mount Zion in Richmond on Sunday mornings, churchgoers can depend on two things: salvation and a little salutation from Rawland Pryor.
The church trustee welcomes members to a place that he considers his foundation.
“I’ve done everything here," Pryor said. "The community needs this. I was a kid. I went to this church. I grew up in this church."
The Baptist Church on Duval Street is a pillar in the heart of Pryor’s historic Jackson Ward neighborhood. It’s a building with roots as strong as its founder, John Jasper.
Jasper’s legacy still inspires more than 200 years after his birth. The former slave founded Sixth Mount Zion in a former Confederate horse stable in 1867 after the Civil War.
Church historian Benjamin Ross said Jasper’s flock quickly swelled.
“Jasper developed a preaching style that was very dramatic. This is where it all began,” Ross said. “He could put you in heaven.”
The charismatic preacher delivered fiery sermons from his pulpit, but one in particular catapulted Jasper into the spotlight.
“And then of course in 1878 the 'Sun Do Move' sermon came out. That took Richmond by storm,” Ross said. "It was extremely popular it has been printed over and over and over again.”
Jasper’s controversial message, using Bible scriptures arguing that the sun revolved around the earth, echoed across the nation.
“If the Lord can do things that seem unnatural, make the sun move in the sky, make the earth square. Then the lord can move the hearts of men and change them,” Ross said.
Converts, critics and the curious both black and white clamored to hear Jasper preach.
“The General Assembly closed one day and came to Sixth Mount Zion to hear the 'Sun Do Move' sermon,” Ross said.
The sermon made Jasper one of the most popular clergymen in the country.
“And the media covered it after it was preached. We have over 300 articles that speaks of Jasper preaching this sermon,” Ross said.
While the reverend preached about moving, Sixth Mount Zion’s faithful has made sure their church has always stayed put.
A half century after Jasper’s death in 1901, wrecking balls crashed through Jackson Ward. The new Interstate 95 came barreling through in the 1950s.
“I remember leaning over the fence and looking down in the hole,” Pryor recalled. “Half the neighborhood disappeared.”
“Hundreds of homes were torn down. We were going to be torn down, too, because we were in the path design of the highway,” Ross explained.
But church leaders stood their ground and fought the federal government.
“In the mid 1950s, that was not an easy battle to win,” Ross said.
But win they did. Engineers were forced to redesign a long stretch of I-95 sparing Sixth Mount Zion.
“So many people that travel up and down the highway will text me and say, ‘I saw your church today,’” Ross said.
Ross credited perseverance and maybe help from above.
“Yes, we’d like to think that that it was a little divine intervention,” Ross said.
Historian Selden Richardson and author of "Built by Blacks" said the church remains a symbol.
“Jackson Ward was cut in two. This church was largely cut off from its own congregation,” Selden said. “I like to think of it as the Gibraltar of Jackson Ward.”
Endless ribbons of traffic snake around the church day and night.
“Many people realize that there must be a story there for a church to be sitting so close to the highway,” Ross said. “We’re like a landmark.”
Church Historian Benjamin Ross said the constant hum of cars remains part of the church’s lore just like the rattling old radiators.
“Some people think that John Jasper is walking around the church you know,” Ross revealed.
On Sundays the din of roaring engines is drowned out by soaring voices inside.
“It makes me feel great that it is still standing. Like I said it was the only church I had ever belonged to,” Pryor said.
The church’s founder may have preached the Sun Do Move high above, but in its 150th year Sixth Mount Zion remains an immovable beacon for members and drivers below.
“In many ways this is a monument -- a monument to John Jasper and his legacy,” Ross said. “I am reminded of the old spiritual about the tree planted by the water I shall not be moved.”
There is a capital campaign underway at Sixth Mount Zion Church and the money raised will help make repairs to the historic church.
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