Chaplain George Franklin Bagby
40th Virginia Regiment
by Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg
“The work of grace commenced and continued more than a month without abatement. No undue excitement, and nothing extraordinary connected with meeting except that the hardest cases seemed to be reached, and one professed infidel, a sprightly young man, professed conversion. The number who professed conversion at this meeting, including the number who professed subsequently—the revival influence continued several months—probably reached 200.” Chaplain George F. Bagby
Now to look into the life of George F. Bagby who was a pastor, a soldier, a chaplain, a colporter and an army evangelist! He was in Confederate military service in some form throughout the war. After the war of 1861-1865 he became pastor of a number of Baptist churches serving the Lord unto the end of his life.
In the Beginning
John and Elizabeth Courtney Bagby were the parents of their eleventh child, George Franklin Bagby, born February 22, 1836. He was born at “Bunker Hill” the old Bagby home in King and Queen County, Virginia. On his mother’s side he was of English-Scots descent. His paternal grandfather, Richard Bagby, was born in Virginia of Welsh descent. George’s siblings were: Emmaline Courtney Bagby, Priscilla Courtney Bagby, Elder Richard Hugh Bagby, Hannah Elizabeth Bagby, Cornelius Bagby, John Robert Bagby, Elder Alfred Paul Bagby, Thomas Franklin Bagby, Martha Hill Bagby and Mary Ellen Bagby. These all preceded George in birth. He was less than a year old when his mother died. Thus, as a child George F. Bagby had to grow up without his mother.
The Beginning of Learning
George F. Bagby’s education began early as does most learning in a home. He had many siblings to give him instruction and guidance though his mother was deceased. His father and others of the household were natural instructors and daily examples. “Bunker Hill” was a self-sustaining and prosperous place. It was a little village of its own and a center of activity where George came to know a great deal about life. Here he would receive a good work ethic in example and practice.
The formal education of George began most likely at Stevensville Academy. This academy was founded by his father and Colonel John Pollard to educate their many sons. Here the classics were emphasized along with math and English. This institution was merged into the public system in 1871. He also received instruction in Richmond, Virginia which was about thirty-five miles from home. Here he prepared for his ultimate training. From Richmond he attended Columbian College in Washington, D.C. George graduated from Columbian with an A.B. Degree in 1855. He returned for the year 1856 and received an A.M. Degree. George F. Bagby then returned to Virginia and taught school in Hanover County.
Bruington Baptist Meetinghouse
Bruington Baptist Meetinghouse was a bastion of Biblical Christianity. Early Baptists in Virginia suffered for the faith and this was certainly true in King and Queen County. Here in August of 1772 two ministers, James Greenwood and John Lovall, conducted a meeting under a tree near where Bruington Meetinghouse now stands. They were arrested and imprisoned. They were involved in what some called “civil disobedience.” These early Baptists suffered greatly for preaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such men had the fire of God in them and it was not quenched by telling them they were committing illegal acts by preaching God’s Word. This was the stock from which the leaders of Bruington Meetinghouse sprang.
Dr. Charles H. Ryland has appropriately written:
The church at Bruington, King and Queen County, Va., was constituted in 1790. While they were anxiously seeking a leader, it was revealed to them that there was a young man, one of their own number, before God crying: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” That man was Robert Baylor Semple, a young lawyer, twenty years old, who, the year before, had been baptized by Elder Theodorick Noel and joined Upper King and Queen church. He was born at “Rosemount,” near Bruington, was a widow’s son, of respectable family and well educated. The church laid their hands upon him in ordination and made him their pastor. His first efforts at preaching were so stammering that a distinguished lawyer and statesman, hearing him, “predicted that young Semple would never in the character of a minister gain the attention of the community.” But this was the man who led the flock for more than forty years. His first text was the index of his long and able ministry: “That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” It is no exaggeration to say that the Baptists of Virginia have never had another figure so influential and commanding, nor one more useful in their ministry. His labors in the pastorate, his work for education and missions, his great and wise leadership upon all questions of denominational polity, and last, though not least, his invaluable services as the historian of his people’s principles, sufferings and work, were such as to entitle him to the encomium, “He was a father in Israel.
The life of George F. Bagby was greatly impacted by this center of gospel integrity. It was here that he heard in public discourse the gospel of Christ’s redemption by grace alone. The Lord was pleased to open George’s eyes to his lost condition and to open his heart to embrace Christ as Lord and Saviour through the gift of faith. He made a public profession of faith in Christ upon being baptized into the membership of the Bruington Baptist Church.
George heard the distinguishing call to preach and this was verified by the local church setting him apart for the ministry. This verification was not shared by everyone. George F. Bagby had such a fiery temper in his youth that Dr. Andrew Broaddus, Jr. advised him against going into the ministry. However, on a Lord’s Day in January of 1858 George F. Bagby was ordained into the gospel ministry.
Bagby tried to keep his temper under control and this was likely one of the prime aims in his praying and one of the purposes in his daily sanctification. On one occasion a man made the mistake of threatening him. The man threatened to come over the fence and whip him. George replied, “If you were to come over the fence to whip me, it might be my Christian duty to stand here and allow you to do it. But I am so much afraid that I might not be able to do my duty that I advise you to stay on your side of the fence.”
What God hath Joined Together
George, when but a teenager, came to love his cousin Mary Courtney who lived at “Spring Garden” located near the little community of Cumnor in the center of King and Queen County. Not long after graduating from college in June of 1857 George F. Bagby married Mary Thomas Courtney, a first cousin, in December 1857. Mary was the daughter of W. P. and Martha Campbell Courtney. This union was blessed by the Lord with nine children: Frederick Hugh Bagby, Theodore Gresham Bagby, Leslie Hartwell Bagby, Elder Harry Ashby Bagby, Thomas Bagby, Martius T. Bagby, Dr. George “Franklin” Bagby, Jr. (M.D.), Virginia “May” Bagby and Elder Alfred Paul Bagby.
The Pastoral Ministry
King and Queen County, where “he first saw the light and where he was reared, gave him that urbanity and courtesy which were such marked traits in his character. Yet it was the grace of God in his heart, as well, that helped to make him so genial a friend and charming companion,” explained George Braxton Taylor. These traits also helped make him a good pastor.
Elder George F. Bagby became the pastor of several Baptist churches in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Here he ministered the Word of God to the saints in order of feed the flock of God. The wellbeing of the souls which the Lord placed in his care was indeed his concern. This was not only his calling but also the joy of his heart. The words “feed my sheep” were not neglected. He also sought the lost sheep.
The winds of war began to blow in Westmoreland County as elsewhere. Clouds of fury began to form in the formerly serene sky of Pastor Bagby in the county where General R. E. Lee was born at “Stratford Hall.” The pastor began to contemplate the relationship he would have relative to the war when it came. He believed he needed to commit himself to the fight for family, freedom and the faith once delivered to the saints. This man of God was willing to be a common soldier and serve the Lord. His life was dedicated to the Lord’s will which he desired to follow.
War and the Confederate Service
Pastor George F. Bagby wrote his brother informing him of his position relative to the war: “I enlisted as a private soldier in Company A, Fortieth Virginia, May, 1861. Labored thus, preaching every Sunday, holding prayer-meetings every evening in different commands, and distributing tracts.” He also informed his brother that he soon began to see fruits for his labors in the Lord as several professed faith in Christ without any extra efforts by way of protracted meetings.
The 40th Virginia Infantry Regiment was finalized in its organization in May of 1861. The 40th Virginia served in the Aquia District in Stafford County before the unit was assigned to General Field’s, Heth’s and H. H. Walker’s Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia. The field officers were Col. John M. Brockenbrough, Lieut. Colonels Fleet W. Cox, Authur S. Cunningham and Henry H. Walker; and Majors Edward T. Stakes and William T. Taliaferro.
Elder Bagby, like many of the Baptist pastors, joined as a private soldier in order to fight and live a Christian life before others. Some of these preachers of the gospel remained as soldiers while others were commissioned as chaplains. Those who remained soldiers sought to minister the gospel as providence allowed. The case with Private Bagby went from soldier to a commissioning as chaplain of the 40th Virginia on July 19; and he remained in that position until March of 1862. Then having resigned his chaplaincy he accepted an appointment as colporter in Wise’s Brigade. This gave him the opportunity to be an Army Evangelist as well. Thus he began to hold protracted meetings in various commands. The Lord greatly used him in protracted meetings.
Friendships were made among the chaplains and other servants of the Lord in the army. Conditions seemed to act to cement such relationships. This was certainly true of Elder Bagby. He said of Chaplain W. E. Wiatt that he was “one of the most faithful men I ever knew.” In early October 1862 Chaplain Wiatt became ill. Wiatt wrote on Friday, October 3, 1862: “Had a good night’s rest till about 3 o’clock feel improving this morning; eat for breakfast a nice, tender, young partridge which my good brother Geo. F. Bagby brought me yesterday evening….” Wiatt wrote of his slow improvement on October 13 and that “Brother G. F. Bagby brought me 4 Testaments for the dollar I gave him Saturday; also gave me some tracts and 2 (Religious) Heralds….” The two friends tried to help each other out as much as possible with encouragement, literature, preaching services, etc. On January 14, 1863 Wiatt wrote, “last night found in my tent a large bundle of ‘Religious Heralds,’ left by Elder Geo. F. Bagby in my absence….”
On June 27, 1863 Chaplain Wiatt penned: “Prayer in my tent this morning; visited hospital; … Brother Broaddus preached in the morning from 2d Philemon 5th; Brother G. F. Bagby and I followed; a large and attentive crowd; went over to see Mr. Burton, having been sent for, but he was asleep and I did not see him; in evening Brother Bagby spoke from Luke 13 on the ‘Barren Fig Tree’ and on ‘Repentance’; … prayer in my tent at night by Brother Bagby.” The next day Chaplain Wiatt said Brother Bagby preached from Titus 3:7 an excellent sermon. Several of them knelt for prayer after an exhortation from Brother Broaddus. They were regularly preaching and helping with the work of the Lord. They spent much time in prayer. Also Brother Broaddus was with them often or they with him—“Brothers Bagby, Broaddus, myself exhorting,” penned Wiatt. They were having soldiers coming to talk about their souls as great concern was being shown among the men.
On Sunday, July 5, 1863, Wiatt recorded that Bagby preached three times that day: “Prayer in my tent by Brother Bagby; visited several officer’s tents; visited a sick negro (Lieutenant Roy’s) and talked a little on the subject of religion; carried a bundle of tracts to the guard house and distributed them among the guard and prisoners for Sabbath reading; read the first two parables in Luke 15 to the prisoners and commented on them and prayed with them; exercises as usual; Brother Bagby preached from Jeremiah 8:22; a large and attentive congregation, several ladies present; usual exercises in evening; Brother Bagby spoke on the parable of the sower; … at night Brother Bagby preached from Habakkuk 3:2….”
During 1863 Chaplain George F. Bagby described a gracious work of God. One constantly reads in Wiatt’s Diary the following kinds of comments, “Prayer in tent by Brother Bagby,” “preaching by Brother Bagby,” “very large crowds inside and out” and then Wiatt recorded on Sunday, August 2, 1863, “at night Brother Bagby preached from II Corinthians 13:11, ‘Farewell’; Brother Bagby announced his intention of leaving in the morning; While here, he preached 46 sermons and delivered, I suppose 100 or more exhortations; many of us have reasons to bless God for sending him among us; he is, perhaps the best adapted man for protracted meetings I ever saw, very plain, very pointed, very sensible, very earnest, and very ready, today is the 38th day of our meeting; prayer in tent by self.”
Bagby wrote: “In December, 1863, I followed the brigade (Wise’s) to South Carolina; labored much among the troops there, scattered as they were in isolated camps from Charleston to Pocataligo and beyond, a distance of twenty-five or thirty miles. About this time scarcely ever preached a sermon without immediate fruit.”
During this time he preached to a detached company that was reputed to be very wicked. This company was made up of some eighty men and around seventy-five came to the service. Immediately after the sermon one of the officers came forth to make his profession of faith. Bagby wrote a letter to Superintendent A. E. Dickinson of the Virginia Baptist Colportage Work:
Chaffin’s Bluff, August 22.
Dear Brother Dickinson: God has seen fit, in His mercy, greatly to bless the labors of His servants in this (General Wise’s) brigade. We have recently closed a meeting in the Twenty-sixth Regiment, which resulted in the hopeful conversion of 150 souls; while forty or fifty more, many of them scarcely recognized as the followers of Christ, have been strengthened and encouraged to take a more positive stand for their Saviour and His cause. Rev. Mr. (William Gaines) Miller, of Forty-sixth Regiment, has been laboring faithfully with those under his care, with occasional help, and as the result about two hundred have been brought, as we trust, from darkness to light. Brother A. Broaddus, Sr., and myself are now laboring in a meeting at the Bluff. Two have professed conversion, and several have been built up and strengthened in the faith.
P.S.—Monday. Since writing the above, our meeting at the Bluff has greatly increased in interest Brother Broaddus was taken sick on Saturday. Yesterday I labored almost alone. Preached twice; conducted two prayer-meetings, exhorting five or six times. Six have professed conversion, and last night thirty presented themselves for prayer. The Lord is with us.
G. F. Bagby
The Lord was working and others wanted to be informed regarding this eternal redemption. The Holy Spirit was gathering in souls for the kingdom of God’s dear Son. Bagby also wrote:
Charleston, December 28
I am glad to inform you that the good work commenced in the Twenty-sixth Virginia Regiment at Burton’s farm still continues. Brother Wiatt (chaplain) has baptized fifteen since they reached Charleston, and others are waiting to be baptized, and still others are concerned about their souls. They have nightly prayer-meetings, and after the meeting is over singing and other devotional exercises are continued in the different messes until bedtime. One of the most interesting features in this revival is, that the young converts, almost without an exception, take hold of the work, and pray, and frequently exhort in public, and may often be seen conversing with the unconverted privately about the precious Saviour they have found. The troops around here (though much scattered), like those in Virginia, all seem anxious to hear the Gospel. I preached last night to one company, and I suppose there were from seventy-five to 100 present.
G. F. Bagby
The work in South Carolina prospered as Bagby explained. The meetings continued to have unabated interest with about seventy-five conversions. After services it was difficult to leave the place of meeting became so many were inquiring after Christ; they refused to leave after the benediction. These particular meetings had been going on for almost four weeks. Bagby concluded: “I do not believe such extensive revivals as we are now having through our beloved country have ever been heard of since the days of Pentecost.”
On December 31, 1863 Bagby returned for a visit to the regiment that his friend Wiatt served. They, as in times past, ministered together the next few days. Then on Tuesday, January 5, 1864 Wiatt wrote: “This morning my beloved brother Bagby left our Regiment to go to James Island to labor among the destitute troops over there; may the Lord be with him and bless his labors….” Bagby explained this in his pungent way:
About this time visited James Island; commenced a meeting in a deserted Presbyterian meeting-house. Congregation, at first small, gradually grew, and before meeting closed, which lasted one month, soldiers might be seen running an hour before time for service from regiments a mile off in order to obtain seats in the house. About one hundred professed conversion here. The converts belonged mostly to Colquitt’s Brigade, which afterward did such good service at Olustee, Florida, and subsequently around Petersburg with Army of Northern Virginia.
There was a transitory nature to Elder Bagby’s service for the Lord in the army. Next he was called from the labors in the army to raise money for the Colportage Board. The men were hungering for good literature so Bagby was engaged to help remedy the situation. During this time there was an interesting event in his life. While he was laboring among soldiers near Matthias’s Point there was a discouraging impression that came to light. The impression that was very prevalent among the men was that chaplains were somewhat nuisances, and also too numerous. Of course, there were never enough of them for the task. Bagby did not let this stop him and continued to preach the gospel to them.
While visiting a certain village in South Carolina, in 1863, he received a letter from a lady he did not know. She requested that he call on her. She alleged she had a special reason to speak to him. Bagby was too sick to call on the lady at the time so she came to speak to him. The lady confided: “A devoted friend of mine left home for the army, very wicked; accidentally heard a Mr. Bagby preach near Matthias’s Point, in Virginia. This sermon led him to consider his eternal interests, which resulted in his conversion, and he fell a few days after in the first battle of Manassas.” She began to weep profusely, while Bagby united his tears of gratitude with hers. His heart was always joyous when hearing of the salvation of men under his preaching of Christ. The Lord proved to use that nuisance in the conversion of a soul. What if Bagby had quit upon hearing the opposition?
Elder A. E. Dickinson, the superintendent of the Virginia Baptist Colportage Work, described Elder Bagby as laboring as a colporter and rendering “valuable service by occasionally taking an agency tour for us. He recently spent a few weeks in the Rappahannock Association, and returned with $850.” This amount would provide a great deal more Christian literature for the spiritually starved soldiers.
Chaplain Bagby wrote his friend Wiatt, who received some of his letters on January 25, April 28 and at other times. Bagby was visited by Chaplain Wiatt on May 23, 1864 and they spent time in ministry together. Wiatt visited his friend on June 28, 1864 and the regiment was presented with 100 Testaments.
Chaplain George F. Bagby performed many baptisms of those professing Christ as Lord and Saviour. “At Aquia creek thirty have professed conversion within a few weeks, a number of whom were baptized in the Potomac by Rev. Geo. F. Bagby, a chaplain. The entire regiment with which the converts were connected turned out to witness the ceremony. Our informant says he has never looked upon a more lovely and impressive scene” [Chaplain J. William Jones].
Brother Bagby summed up the fruits of his ministry during the war.
I think, as near as I can judge, that about 400 professed conversion in connection with my labors during the war. So far as I have been able to ascertain, these converts have been among the most faithful among our church-members. Very few have been the cases of backsliding which have come under my observation; indeed, I can recall not one, thank God.
In an era of bogus evangelism most of the “so-called” converts fall away in a short order. When the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner it is forever! Oh, for the genuine work of grace!
The Post War Ministry
Elder George F. Bagby must have felt that the world had been reduced to a snail’s pace once the hectic pace of the war had ended. His beloved Virginia had been greatly devastated and her land raped by invasion forces that finally gained the upper hand after the attrition of those years of destruction. Churches had been desecrated, homes had been destroyed, lives had been destroyed, bodies had been mutilated and farms had been decimated. Where should he minister? Where should he go? Where did the Lord want him? Who knows how many questions could have been entertained?
Providentially, he visited Kentucky to raise money for the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers. He was still, in his own way, performing a work for the soldiers by helping their widows and orphaned children. While in Kentucky for the aforementioned purpose he became known for his ministry of the gospel. There were churches without pastors. Thus in the fall of 1866 Elder Bagby received a call to become pastor of Flemingsburg Baptist Church and some other churches in Fleming County, Kentucky. Once his family was in Kentucky he began a very productive era of ministry.
Much of his life from June, 1870 to January 1882 was in Russellville where he became associated with Bethel College. He was a part-time professor. Sandwiched in between those years at Bethel College (which no longer exists) was the pastorate of Trenton Baptist Church in Todd County and Salem Baptist Church in Christian County. There was a brief pastorate at East Hickman Baptist Church in Fayette County, Glens Creek Baptist Church and Mt. Vernon Baptist Church both located in Woodford County.
Elder Bagby became the pastor of the Frankfort Baptist Church in 1885 which proved to be difficult as well as successful. Some think it was the greatest of his accomplishments. He was ministering in the capital of the state in the environs of a beautiful city. The physical plant was in much need of repairs and was saddled with debt. The Lord blessed Elder Bagby’s ministry as He had during his ministry in the Confederate Army and a visitation of revival came. There was an ingathering of souls, a lifting of spirits and a doubling of the congregation when five years of his ministry had ended. During Elder George F. Bagby’s pastorate at Frankfort he was given an honorary doctor’s degree from his alma mater Columbian College.
Dr. Bagby, in his final years, returned to his native Virginia to pastor in 1890 in Prince Edward County. He was called to the Farmville Baptist Church where he had a nine-year ministry (1891-1899). Then he became pastor of Pisgah and Sharon Baptist churches (1899-1900). His ministry was blessed of the Lord. There was a church organized to honor the memory of George F. Bagby on April 18, 1903 that was named Bagby Memorial Baptist Chapel. The charter members came from Pisgah, Sharon and Burkeville Baptist churches. His ministry had been very useful and appreciated by the churches of the Appomattox Association of which he was a leader. Taylor said, “Dr. Bagby was devoted to the cause of missions, and a thorough-going Baptist. At the beginning of his ministry he was accepted for work in China, but was prevented from going to this field by the War.”
During his tenure in this part of Virginia there was an invasion of Mormon missionaries. A couple of them called on Dr. Bagby and he met them at the door. He explained that his Bible would not allow him to invite them in, but if they would kneel down with him he would be glad to pray for them. So the Baptist parson prayed for the souls of the cultists.
After being sick for several months Dr. George F. Bagby died on a Tuesday night, March 27, 1900 at the home of his son, Dr. G. F. Bagby, Jr., in Richmond. Just before he breathed his last he declared: “Poor life, great hope!”
His body was taken to the Bruington Baptist Church burying ground where it was interred. In the area of Virginia where he first saw the light of day, where he was reared and where the Spirit of God gave him a heart for Christ; there he was laid to rest. Now George F. Bagby’s body awaits the resurrection.
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Bradshaw, Herbert Clarence. History of Prince Edward County, Virginia. Richmond: The Dietz Press, Incorporated, 2003.
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