In 1866, seven freedmen gathered for the purpose of forming a church. Receiving the necessary certification from the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, these former slaves set themselves apart and formed the Fifth Baptist Church of Washington, DC. They called as their pastor the Reverend John Henry Brooks, a former Union army wagon driver.
has been blessed to have only
pastors. Reverend John Henry Brooks,
our first pastor, shepherded the
from 1866 until his death in
Under his pastorate, the church was renamed and erected what is
now the main sanctuary of the church.
We were blessed
when God sent
Reverend George Wellington Lee to
our second Pastor. From 1885
1910, Reverend Lee guided us,
his world‐renowned stature and reputation
to our burgeoning position as one
the nation’s leading churches. During
Reverend Lee's Pastorate, the current front of the main church
building, along with it's distinctive tall steeple, was
From his deathbed in 1910, Reverend Lee commissioned Reverend James Edward Willis, our third pastor, to tend to the church. Reverend Willis, “Little David” as he was affectionately called, was an extraordinary preacher. His leadership, from 1911 until 1928, kept the spirit and development of our church on fire for the Lord. During his pastorate, the back of the main sanctuary was built, containing the current choir loft and pulpit.
At Reverend Willis’ sudden death in 1928, the Lord furnished the church with Reverend Chasteen Theophilus Murray. From 1929 until his retirement in 1969, Reverend Murray steered this congregation toward unparalleled growth and development in the midst of some of our nation’s most troubling times. During his forty years of pastorate, Reverend Murray reorganized the church and formed countless clubs and auxiliaries, while numerically and spiritually we continued unprecedented growth. During his pastorate, the C.T. Murray Extension Center building was erected, enlarging the classroom space, adding a larger cafeteria, kitchen, and church office, and a multipurpose Roof Garden for outdoor activities.
At the announcement of his retirement, Reverend Murray recommended that Reverend John Rayford Wheeler, a son of the church, become its fifth pastor. On March 2, 1969, Reverend Wheeler was installed as pastor and an era of leadership began that would propel us into an unmatched position in our nation and in various parts of the world. March of 1969 was less than a year after the riots in DC launched a mass exodus from the urban neighborhoods of our past to the newly developed and integrated suburbs for many of our people. In spite of the challenges of urban withdrawal and abandonment, Reverend Wheeler used his unique style and personality to consistently lead the nation’s Baptist Churches in giving to Foreign Missions. Under his leadership, we were the first African American Baptist Church to give $50,000 to the Foreign Mission Board. Our purchase and gift of a church to the Baptist congregation in Kwa Mashu, Zululand, South Africa, stands as testament to the magnitude and commitment of Reverend Wheeler’s zeal for missions.
In the early 1990’s, while other churches were finding homes in the suburbs, Reverend Wheeler led our congregation to construct, then retire the mortgage on the John R. Wheeler Family Life Center, a facility complete with a bowling alley, an exercise room, a modern cafeteria and a luxurious banquet hall. Our Family Life Center serves as a model for churches interested in the holistic approach to ministry. It has allowed us to open our doors to numerous groups and individuals, some of whom who have no church affiliation or rearing. The Family Life Center has proven to be an invaluable missionary tool in our ministry.
Reverend Wheeler’s tireless dedication to leading souls to Christ and helping families as they struggle to improve their lives has made the name Vermont Avenue Baptist Church synonymous with “Missions”. In addition to the “firsts” in Foreign Missions, and our standard setting Family Life Center, Reverend Wheeler’s vision led us to the establishment and implementation of the city’s first “Shoe Fund”. Children all over this city have been provided appropriate shoes empowering them to attend school without the embarrassment and physical peril of worn and tattered shoes. The Higher Education Fund, another accomplishment under Reverend Wheeler, provides assistance to college students in the purchase of books and supplies. These programs, in addition to the monetary gifts supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Baptist Seminaries, have assisted thousands in their quest for a more abundant life.
to missions has been just a
of the ongoing ministry of our
church. Most importantly, Reverend
has continued in the legacy of
pastors before him in preaching the
Word of God. We have remained
church wholly dependent on God as
source and provider of every good
perfect gift. It is through
hearing of the Word that we
benefited most. Reverend Wheeler’s
distinctive sermonic lessons have brought
us all to a higher, more
appreciation for the truth in the
Word that makes us free.
In 2007, after the passing of Rev. John R. Wheeler, the church confirmed the naming of Co-Pastor Cornelius Wheeler as the sixth Pastor of Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. Rev. Cornelius Wheeler had served as Co-Pastor for five years and directed the church during the long illness of his father. His dynamic, bible-based, lesson-focused ministry serves as the foundation for a church that continues to prove itself relevant to the present, standing on our history, and reaching for the future in the name and cause of Jesus Christ.
We have so much for which to be thankful!
Reverend John H Brooks