John Blanton Belk (3 July 1893–28 May 1972), Presbyterian minister, was born in Chatham, the eldest of three sons and second of eight children of George Washington Belk, pastor of the Chatham Presbyterian Church, and Mary Thornton Blanton Belk. He grew up in Chatham and in Charlotte, North Carolina, where his father moved the family in 1900. From 1911 to 1913 he attended Davidson College, after which he taught in a one-room school near Mills River, Henderson County, North Carolina, for two years and then matriculated at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in 1915. A member of the National Guard, Belk was called to active duty in 1917 and served in France for fourteen months before being discharged in August 1919.

Belk returned to the University of South Carolina and received a B.A. in 1920 and an M.A. in 1921. He also received a B.D. from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1921 and later studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. On 30 June 1921 Belk married Jennie Bruce Wannamaker in Saint Matthews, South Carolina. They had two daughters and two sons.

Belk ministered to Presbyterian congregations across the South, serving in Piedmont, Greenville County, South Carolina, from 1921 to 1923, Clover, South Carolina, from 1923 to 1924, Orlando, Florida, from 1924 to 1929, and Huntington, West Virginia, from 1929 to 1933. In 1933 he became pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in Richmond. Belk soon became mired in a controversy arising from his participation in the Oxford Group Movement, later known as Moral Re-Armament. He espoused Oxford teachings from the pulpit and in his popular radio sermons. Many members of his congregation preferred a more traditional ministry and criticized his advocacy of the movement's attempts to foster a national spiritual revival and spread democratic values throughout the world.

In 1937 the congregation of Grace Covenant Church split over Belk's continued espousal of Oxford principles. Thirty-one of the church's forty-six officers threatened to resign if he did not dissociate himself from the movement. The controversy ignited intense emotions and was covered in detail in the local newspapers. At the request of the church session, East Hanover Presbytery appointed a special commission to investigate the dispute. Chairman Ernest Trice Thompson, of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, submitted a report that found fault with both the church's officers and its minister. Reconciliation being deemed impossible, the commission dissolved Belk's relationship with the church. On 19 December 1937 several of the leading members of Grace Covenant, including James Scott Parrish and Charles F. Gillette, organized the new church of Saint Giles' and installed Belk as pastor the next month.

Belk remained a public advocate of Moral Re-Armament. His popular sermons and radio ministry made him one of the best-known clergymen in Richmond, and by the time he retired on his sixty-fifth birthday in 1958, Saint Giles' Church was the third largest in the presbytery. Belk received an honorary D.D. from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, in 1937 and was elected moderator of East Hanover Presbytery in 1940. From the latter year through 1958 he frequently offered the invocation at the beginning of sessions of the Virginia House of Delegates. He also wrote two books: Our Fighting Faith (1944), based on sermons preached at Saint Giles' Presbyterian Church and broadcast over radio station WRVA, and A Faith to Move Nations (1969). John Blanton Belk died at his retirement home in Tucson, Arizona, on 28 May 1972 and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery in Swannanoa, Buncombe County, North Carolina.


Sources Consulted:
Feature articles in Richmond News Leader, 26 Dec. 1932, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 31 Mar. 1958, 7 Apr. 1962 (portrait); Birth Register, Pittsylvania Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Eugene D. Witherspoon, ed., Ministerial Directory of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., 1861–1967 (1967), 39; Jack Abernathy, Living Monument: The Story of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia, 1790–1990 (1989), 26&ndash34; congregational dispute covered in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 1937–Jan. 1938, and George C. Longest, Genius in the Garden: Charles F. Gillette & Landscape Architecture in Virginia (1992), 99–107; obituaries in Tucson Arizona Daily Star, 29 May 1972, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 30 May 1972.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Robert Benedetto.

How to cite this page:
Robert Benedetto,"John Blanton Belk (1893–1972)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Belk_John_Blanton, accessed [today's date]).


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