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A Brief History of Dr. John O. Turpin, 19th century Baptist minister

by Tom Hobbs

The long years go; the old stars rise and set;
Dreams perish, and we falter in the night.
But still there is Bethlehem;
Could heart forget that loveliness, that light?

—excerpt from the anthem “Still There is Bethlehem”
lyrics by Nancy Byrd Turner and music by Clarence Dickinson (1873 – 1969)

John O. Turpin was born in 1810, the second son of Rev. Miles and Fanny Turpin of “Dovetail” in Henrico County, eight miles east of Richmond.

Before the age of twenty, John apprenticed to a silversmith in Richmond, but he quickly decided to enter the ministry. In 1832, he enrolled in the Virginia Baptist Seminary, the forerunner of Richmond College and then the University of Richmond. John was ordained in 1833 and became the pastor of Four Mile Baptist Church in Varina, where his father had served in a similar capacity for ten years.

After a brief hiatus teaching in a seminary for young women, Dr. Turpin devoted his life entirely to the ministry. In 1836, he married Miss Martha Brown of King William County, northeast of Richmond. Soon, Dr. Turpin had a preaching circuit that consisted of Four Mile Church and three others in King William – Old Beulah Meeting House, Aquinton and Cattail Churches, both old colonial buildings. In 1841, Dr. Turpin moved to King William with his wife and two sons, and shortly took on the pastorship of yet another congregation, Sharon Church. He was pastor of this church for thirty-eight years.

In 1853, Sharon Church had 596 members, 444 of whom were free blacks from this area of King William. Also in 1853, Old Beulah Church, of which Dr. Turpin was pastor for forty-eight years, boasted a membership of 130 whites and 164 blacks. Hebron Church, where Dr. Turpin was pastor for only eight years, had a congregation of 301 in 1855, most of whom were “persons of color.”

The history of King William County is rich with tales of the “baptizing preacher” or the “marrying preacher.” Dr. Turpin apparently was stern and did not tolerate profanity or questionable jokes from his congregation. Once, when attending a meeting of Virginia Baptists, a prominent lawyer used an oath, but immediately turned to Dr. Turpin and said, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Turpin, I did not know you were in the crowd.” Dr. Turpin, pointing with his finger upwards, replied, “Ask pardon up yonder!”

Dr. and Mrs. Turpin eventually had nine children, only one of which was a daughter. They were both strong advocates of temperance and worked hard to impress this attitude on their large family. (It is interesting to note that in the excavation of Dr. Turpin’s quarter kitchen we did not find a single fragment of whiskey bottle, patent medicine, or any other alcoholic substance.)

When the Civil War broke out, three of their sons enlisted as privates in the Confederate Army. The oldest of these was captured and became a prisoner for two years near Elmira, New York. The daughter and three of the younger sons lived well into the 20th century.

Following a brief illness, Dr. John Turpin died on March 3, 1884, having served as an ordained Baptist minister for 51 years.

(It is interesting to note the coincidence of two dates and a “discovery” during the 1997 excavations on Dr. Turpin’s long-buried quarter kitchen. In the robbed out trench that was once the brick walls to the kitchen, excavators discovered an almost new 1883 Indian Head Cent. This penny was unquestionably dropped during the recovery of whole bricks from the ruins of the burned kitchen, probably in 1884 or 1885. Had the widow Mrs. Turpin or her sons sold the bricks shortly after Dr. Turpin’s death or perhaps recovered them for a project around the farm? Older folks in King William, who have visited Dr. Turpin’s for many years, cannot remember another brick structure near the main house during much of this century. So the great Turpin Brick Robbery remains a mystery.)

His death left a void for several years in several churches in King William.

The physician who attended him at his deathbed described the scene as ‘one surpassingly pathetic and impressive.’ Dr. Turpin’s body was laid to rest at Beulah Church in the presence of a large crowd of white and black people and “beneath the shade of the tree to which he had tied his horse every other Sunday for almost half a century.” The Rev. Dr. J.R. Garlick preached the sermon “A Workman that Needeth Not Be Ashamed.”

Date posted: 1.01.05