Although Brethren settled in our areas of North Carolina in 1742 and Virginia in 1745, organization of congregations proceeded slowly. A number of our oldest congregations date their beginning according to building dates rather than the beginning of worship in a given locality. It is apparent that several of these are older than the age commonly observed. The Fraternity congregation, near Winston-Salem, N.C., claims to be the oldest congregation within our bounds. It was organized by 1775. Brethren strength in southern Virginia by the time of the War between the States was centered in Botetourt, Roanoke, Franklin and Floyd Counties. The Annual Meeting was held in Franklin County in 1797 and in Roanoke County in 1845. As the church grew and prospered during the pre-war years it became necessary to relieve the increasing load of business before the Annual Meeting. During the 1850's a practice arose of holding General Council Meetings for the Brethren in Virginia. Conditional approval of districts was given in 1856, however this was not implemented due to war. The war years saw the Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee Brethren hold their own Annual Meetings. These were held in Botetourt and Franklin Counties during 1863 and 1864 respectively under the direction of B.F. Moomaw of the Botetourt Church.
On October 20, 1866 the First District of Virginia in council assembled at Germantown in Franklin County, VA was organized with nine congregations. These were Botetourt, Roanoke, Franklin, Floyd, Montgomery and Alleghany in Virginia, Monroe and Fayette in West Virginia, and Fraternity in North Carolina. The territory of the district included a large portion of southern Virginia, southern West Virginia, and central and eastern North Carolina. Not much is known of the early work of the district since minutes were not kept prior to 1877 and are missing with one exception through 1891.
While most congregations were rent in twain by the Old Order division in the 1880's, there seems to have been a spirit of charity prevailing which allowed continued shared use of congregational meeting houses. At least two congregations, Spruce Run and Johnsville, shared buildings with the Old German Baptist Church as late as the 1950's. Prominent among the early leaders in the district were Elders B.F. Moomaw, Peter Nininger, Peter Crumpacker, John Bowman, Joel Naff, Hardin P. Hylton and Jonas Graybill. These and others helped spread the gospel through sacrifice and diligence. Annual Meeting was held within the district in 1869, 1899, 1952 and 1957.
By 1902 there were 38 congregations that comprised the First District. Amongst those no longer extant were Alleghany, Antioch (Bedford County), Charleston (WV), Oak Grove (near LaGrange, Lenoir County, NC), Den Hill, Greenbriar (WV), Johnsville, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Jackson, Pleasant Hill and Swan Creek (Halifax County). Those still active, but with new names include Botetourt (comprising Daleville, Troutville and Cloverdale with meeting points), Chestnut Grove (Pleasant View), Monroe (Spruce Run), Roanoke City (Roanoke, First) and Walker's Well (New Bethel in Pittsylvania County). Thirteen elders and sixteen delegates represented seventeen congregations at the 1902 District Conference. The entire district organization that year took up part of one page with the only board being the District Mission Board consisting of eight men. Not until 1917 were women recorded as receiving appointment to any district office.
During the late nineteenth century agitation began to form smaller, more compact districts. This was seen as an advantage in promoting Sunday School and Home Mission work, as a way to increase attendance at district meetings and as a recognition of the differing approaches necessary for urban and rural mission. It also, perhaps, provided a convenient way to separate the rural congregations from the urban congregations. Although influenced to some degree by tension over the "dress" question, the proposed change provided a necessary stimulus to growth. At the beginning of 1909 there were, not counting the far-southwestern Virginia congregations belonging to the Tennessee and North Carolina districts, two districts in Virginia. By 1913 there were five.
After much deliberation, the 1912 District Meeting at Johnsville adopted a plan which created the Southern District of Virginia from the Floyd and Franklin sections of the First District. All territory in Roanoke, Bedford, Campbell, Botetourt, Alleghany and Craig Counties in Virginia remained in the First District; as well as all territory north of the Norfolk and Western mainline west of Roanoke County. The territory of First District gradually crept eastward to include Crewe by 1916, Hopewell by 1923 and the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area in 1953. As the Eastern District of Virginia contracted in size existing congregations and fellowships such as Bethel (1942), Richmond (1955), Newport News and Ivy Farms (1967) were added. The First District was highly successful at the creation of urban congregations in the Roanoke area. These derived from the Roanoke City congregation which was organized in September 1893 to serve the many Brethren coming from neighboring counties seeking employment. The city church worked diligently at the establishment of Sunday School missions and grew to 1,000 members by 1923. During the following two years the Ninth Street, Central and Tinker Creek (Hollins Road) congregations were organized independently. By 1929 the combined membership of these four congregations was over 1,600, a significant proportion of the 4,491 total members of the 28 congregations in the district. By 1970 First Virginia had 41 congregations with 7,978 members.
The Southern District strengthened the home mission work in its territory, particularly in Franklin, Pulaski and Henry Counties of Virginia and in Spray (now Eden), N.C. Beginning in 1913 with 24 congregations, by 1970 it had 40 congregations with 6,666 members. Among the prominent leaders of the Southern District prior to mid-century were L.A. Bowman, S.H. Flora, A.N. Hylton, D.A. Naff, J.A. Naff, W.H. Naff and H.W. Peters.
Camp Bethel was established in 1927 on 62 acres of land near Nace, in Botetourt County, Virginia. It was the only Church of the Brethren summer camp in the Southeastern Region for a number of years. By 1960, as other districts established their own camping facilities, only the First and Southern Districts were left as owners. It was accredited by the American Camping Association in 1971. Intensive efforts since the early 1970's have developed Camp Bethel as a year-round asset to the Virlina District, the ecumenical church and the Roanoke Valley. Separate incorporation was dropped in 1981 as Camp Bethel was “merged” into the district corporation.
Camp Bethel continues to be a center for much intra-district fellowship and service. Heritage Day, the Labor Day camporee, the Memorial Day Weekend Spiritual Retreat, workdays and various retreats, in addition to a strong and well-attended summer camping program anchor this central role. The District Conference, held yearly on the second full weekend of November, provides a wondrous time of worship, fellowship, celebration and mission planning for hundreds of ministers, leaders and laypersons from throughout our three state area. The worship is characterized by inspiring speakers and wonderful instrumental and vocal music. Displays highlight the work of district and denomination. Various meals provide an opportunity for fellowship and sharing.
The Camp Bethel complex now totals nearly 500 acres. A full time staff of four persons, in addition to numerous part time persons, serve campers and guests. Barry S. LeNoir serves as Camp Director, Jenna Stacy Mehalso as Program Director, Mickey Nichols as Facilities Manager and Wesley Shrader as Food Service Director. At the current time the camp budget is over $800,000.
Agitation for a district sponsored "old folk's home" began in the 1890's. Several study committees were appointed beginning in 1896 before Friendship Manor became a reality in November 1966. This facility expanded its assets and services rapidly. Although the relationship with the Virlina District was severed during late 1986, the facility has grown to be the largest of its kind in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Until the late 1920's the mission and ministry of the district was directed by volunteers who were reimbursed for expenses. However, during 1928 the First District obtained the services of Walter M. Kahle as "fieldman" for its program. During 1929 the Southern District followed by employing Henry C. Eller as "fieldman" in conjunction with a half-time pastorate at Bethlehem. Since that time Cecil C. Ikenberry, Raymond Peters, Carson M. Key, Henry C. Eller and H. Lawrence Rice have served as district staff in First District and M. E. Clingenpeel, Guy E. Wampler, Sr. and Rufus McDannel in the Southern District.
During 1962 the field program of First and Southern Districts was combined under the leadership of H. Lawrence Rice in Roanoke. The Southern District office/parsonage at Collinsville, built in 1955, was sold. The offices were relocated to a newly constructed district office facility adjacent to Friendship Manor on Hershberger Road, N.W. in Roanoke during 1966. After nearly 47 years at this location, the building was sold to the Friendship Manor and demolished. Following a four-month interim office at the Williamson Road Church, the office, now called the Virlina District Resource Center, relocated to a newly renovated building, formerly a branch bank, at 3402 Plantation Road, N.E. in Roanoke effective in April 2013.
Upon the departure of H. Lawrence Rice in 1968, Robert R. Jones became the Interim District Executive. Jones had been called as Associate Executive Director on January 1, 1968. He was joined by a new Executive Director, Owen G. Stultz, on February 1, 1969. Subsequent to Stultz' retirement on August 31, 1992, David K. Shumate became District Executive Minister on January 1, 1993 and continues to serve. This position includes staffing for the Commission on Ministry, Commission on Stewardship, Executive Committee and the District Board. In addition, the executive serves as ecumenical representative and general administrator.
Following Jones full time employment as Executive Director of Bethel Ministries, Doris M. Quarles was employed as Associate District Executive on a part time basis beginning in 1985 and gradually increased to full time by 1996. She retired on December 31, 1999. Emma Jean Woodard served as Associate District Executive from January 1, 2000 until May 2017. After an interim period lasting until the end of 2018, Mary Sink St.John was called as Director of District Conference, Nurture and Witness on a 2/3 time basis.
A number of persons have been employed as office professionals over the years. Currently Betty M. Wills serves as Secretary/Receptionist and Sharon B. Jenkins as Coordinator of Financial Services. In addition, Cathy S. Huffman serves as Director of Ministry Formation and Donna G. Hornsby as Roanoke Center Coordinator for the Christian Growth Institute.
The 1960 Annual Conference adopted a position urging a reduction in the number of districts from 48 to 18 over a ten-year period. Under this plan First and Southern were to unite with Southern Virginia being the surviving entity. The first concrete step toward reunification was the institution of a joint district staffing program. Other cooperative efforts included joint ownership of Camp Bethel and Friendship Manor. During 1969-71 committees representing both districts negotiated and subsequently made recommendations favoring merger. However, a called Southern Virginia District Conference on April 18, 1971 failed to approve this recommendation. The First District, meeting in May 1971 approved merger by an overwhelming margin. The regular Southern Virginia District Conference reconsidered the matter in July 1971 and approved merger by a slim margin. After nearly sixty years of separation the two were one once more! The new Virlina District was instituted at a uniting conference held in Christiansburg on October 30, 1971.
The work of the district is under the direction of a board of thirty-four members. Thirty are elected by the District Conference from ten areas and at-large. Two are members of the Outdoor Ministries Committee (which has oversight of Camp Bethel), including the chairperson. Another member by virtue of office is the chairperson and another member of the New Church Development Committee. The board has four commissions: Ministry, Witness, Stewards and Nurture. These in turn appoint a number of subcommittees. The executive committee of the board appoints three other standing committees including New Church Development and Discipleship and Reconciliation. Communication to nearly 2,200 leaders throughout the district is effected through the HEADLINER. This eight-page newsletter is professionally printed and distributed six times yearly. Over 200 key pastors, ministers and leaders receive "Memo for Ministers" six times per year with detailed information pertaining to specific events and other information of interest. The advent of electronic mail has proved advantageous for certain items by providing speed with cost savings. The “E-Headliner,” an electronic newsletter published every two to four weeks, is circulated to over 1,000 addresses.
Virlina is recognized as a new church development leader within the Church of the Brethren. Following a hiatus of nearly two decades, since 1981, ongoing fellowships and congregations have been created at a number places. These include Iglesia el Buen Pastor in Blacksburg, VA, Living Faith in Concord, NC, Peace Covenant in Durham, NC, Iglesia Cristiana Nueva Vida in Floyd County, VA, Good Shepherd in Blacksburg, VA, Lake Side Fellowship in Moneta, VA, New Covenant in Chester, VA, Iglesia Cristiana Renacer in Roanoke, VA, and Smith Mountain Lake Community in Franklin County, VA. Brethren work in Rio Verde, Goiàs, Brazil was a partnership responsibility of Virlina from 1992-98. Ministries directed at social concerns such as the Little Kentucky Project and Project W.A.R.M. have been created by the Brethren and secular efforts such as Habitat for Humanity have had our strong support. Disaster response volunteers are dispatched throughout the United States in cooperation with the Brethren Service Center at New Windsor, Maryland. Ecumenical involvements include full participation in the Virginia and West Virginia Councils of Churches, as well as contacts through refugee resettlement and disaster work.
Minister's fellowship groups are organized and meet in the Northern (Roanoke) and Southern areas on a regular basis. A number of other informal ministers meetings are held in various locations for mutual support and cooperative ministry. Persons are invited to consider the ministry through an innovative "calling and discernment" process. While strongly supporting Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, IN. as the only graduate school of theology for the Church of the Brethren, the Virlina District provides ministers who cannot leave the area with minimal training through the Christian Growth Institute (CGI), an Academy Certified Training System (ACTS). More advanced training is available through T.R.I.M. (TRaining In Ministry), co-sponsored with the seminary, the Mission and Ministry Board and Bridgewater College. Placement, support and evaluation of pastors is carried out by the District Executive with guidance from the Commission on Ministry. Matters of discipline are handled by the Ethics Committee.
Mission resourcing campaigns have been held periodically to remind individuals and congregations of the great opportunities that are before us. These have included "Decade of Development" during the 1970's which enabled a transformation at Camp Bethel, "Virlina Vision" in the mid 1980's, "Mission and Ministry: Making Our Witness Sure for Future Generations" during the early-middle 1990's, “Forward In Faith: Continuing the Work of Jesus” during the late 1990's and early 2000's, and “Seed, Scattered and Sown: Reaching Beyond this Generation” during 2014-2021. These aided New Church Development and other ministries in addition to improvements to Camp Bethel. Beginning in 2002, a new resourcing effort entitled “Trailblazer II”, was undertaken to eliminate indebtedness on a newly purchased 246-acre addition to Camp Bethel. Within a year, pledges had surpassed $340,000 victory goal.
Age and gender programs have included a broad range of activities. A highlight is the FaithQuest retreat held every second year for high school students. This focuses upon spiritual development and growth. Youth gatherings are clustered in the Roanoke area and provide a strong supplement to local youth groups. Until recently strong women's fellowships in the Southern and Northern Areas provide opportunity for learning, fellowship and support of mission. During 1998, Pilgrimage: A FaithQuest for Adults was initiated. This annual spiritual development opportunity for adults continues to be a tremendous district ministry.
Since 1973 the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren has been held within our bounds on eight occasions, Roanoke in 1974, Richmond in 1977, 1992 and 2008, Norfolk in 1986, Charleston in 2004, Greensboro in 2016 and 2019. A number of district natives have served as Annual Conference moderator, M. Guy West in 1968, Ira Peters in 1978, Judy Mills Reimer in 1995, David K. Shumate in 2009 and Andy Murray in 2016. Both Peters and Reimer were members of the Williamson Road Church of the Brethren. In addition, Edward K. Zeigler, pastor of Williamson Road, served in 1960, and Timothy P. Harvey, pastor of the Oak Grove Church in Roanoke in 2012. Quite a number of district personages have served on the boards of denominational agencies.