COURT HOUSE ─ "Who I am on Sunday morning is who I strive to be the rest of the week," Pastor George DeVol said, sitting in his office Feb. 21. DeVol shared the challenges of sharing the Gospel message in relevant ways.
Balancing family, studying, and shepherding the congregation of the First Baptist Church, on South Main Street, takes more than showing up for Sunday and presenting a sermon: it's a calling.
DeVol's experience is not new, and for those who first settled Cape May County, the days of toil just to survive testify to that. Creating a better life for family and helping the community rests on faith.
In 1675, George Taylor and Philip Hill came "in which year a vessel with emigrants arrived in Delaware from England who settled at the Cape and some elsewhere," according to Morgan Edwards, 18th-century Baptist historian. Taylor opened his home for Bible study and prayer. Soon converts were added tothe fledging church. The names run deep in local history: Cresse, Hand, Stillwell, Stites, Swain, Whildin, and more. As the church grew, they met in Coxe Hall in Portsmouth, now Town Bank, after 1691.
Rev. Nathaniel Jenkins, a Welsh minister in Philadelphia, arrived in 1712, accepting the call to become pastor. The embers of civilization fanned to life, and the Baptists thrived alongside.
What made someone a Baptist? Those believers declined the practice of baptizing infants, as found in established churches, i.e. Church of England, Puritan, and Presbyterian.
Only those who gave a statement of faith could be baptized and accepted into the church. The Baptists were also congregational - independent from a bishop's rule and answerable only to each other and God as conscience allowed. Separation of church and state (civil government) was also taught.
The Baptists in Cape May County came from England, Wales, and Ireland, seeking religious liberty. Declaring the message of salvation and redemption was the central theme and mission of those early pioneers.
DeVol wishes to build upon the legacy left by those who went before and thanked church member/historian Susan Armour for writing the 300th anniversary book, in 2012.
Armour, whose maiden name was Shivers, traces her spiritual roots to the Baptist church. The Shivers were one of the first families to settle historic Anglesea (North Wildwood) and also help found the First Baptist Church of Anglesea, the "daughter" of the mainland congregation, in 1898.
More "daughter churches" include the Dennisville Baptist Church (1729), the Second Cape May Baptist Church, Marmora (1770), Cape Island Baptist Church, Cape May (1844), Calvary Baptist Church, Ocean View (1811), Rio Grande Chapel (1871) and Dias Creek Baptist Church (1891).
How does a historic church enjoy a bright future?
"We are almost always drawn by relationships," DeVol said, explaining how a church grows. Organized activities will draw people, but it's the personal touch that makes a family.
"Jesus was incredible relational," DeVol said, "never aloof."
Young people are the future, and DeVol seeks to see growth in the youth group and involve them in helping others. Families with children ensure a following generation, but, as many churches experience, older congregations face a shortage of young people. Outreaches and Bible studies encourage others to come and see what the church is about.
"We're slowing building younger families," DeVol said. "It's hard." With teenage children of his own, the pastor admits it can be challenging for families to attend and "plug in."
Every generation faces unique challenges, both past and present. The church endured the American Revolution, Civil War, and other national crisis.
Baptists, in general, were split on the subject of revolution in the Colonies - families watched neighbors and friends march off to war, some loyal to King George III, some wearing Continental blue uniforms.
DeVol points to Jesus' example of loving all people, praying that he will follow the same truths he preaches.
In 1841, a resolution was passed by the church, stating, "that the 'Slave System,' as it exists and operates in these United States is...a moral and political evil, a sin against God and a disgrace to the Nation."
That statement was bold, 22 years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Africans were baptized as early as 1802.
Building upon a legacy requires learning from victories and failures of those gone before, according to DeVol.
"How do we share this timeless message?" DeVol said. Openness is also key - open hearts to others and to the Bible.
"God needs to move us, rouse us from everyday life," DeVol said. Engaging with and getting to know one's community coincides with whatever vocation one practices.
A church family is relevant when the Bible is central and people are empowered to serve others in love, according to DeVol.
Technology is welcome in the sanctuary as well as a mix of traditional hymns and contemporary music. The pastor is thankful for men and women who use their gifts in the church.
"No one person can do it all," DeVol said.
"People think church is full of hypocrites," DeVol concluded. "Who I am Sunday morning is who I strive to be the rest of the week."
DeVol and his family came to Cape May County in 2018. He is a graduate of Cairn University and was the director of Camp Ha-Lu-Wa-Sa.
Those with a story of faith to share for this ongoing series should contact the writer at: email@example.com.