The earliest predecessor of present day First Baptist Church is traced to the Somerville Missionary Baptist Church that was organized in the summer of 1836. The church paid E.S. Tappan $350.00 August 21, 1838 for a small lot on North Street and by the next year it had constructed a church building at that location. The first known preacher was Neville L. Lumpkin. Between 1850 and 1865 the church had a series of preachers including N.S. Bastion, S.H. Bundy, William Nolan, Moses Green, and Francis M. Freeman. The original church building was partially destroyed by fire in July, 1859 so, for a time, the church met in a rented space above the Odd Fellows Hall on the Stage Road (present day Market Street).
During the Civil War years, church membership declined and church services were sporadic at best because a number of the young men had marched off to war and also several church families had moved farther south in a vain attempt to avoid the dangers and uncertainty that inevitably accompany war. The church’s situation was strained even more by two major outbreaks of Yellow Fever which resulted in the deaths of a considerable number of people in the area.
In 1874 the church paid $500.00 to purchase a lot adjacent to “Frogmore,” the present day Claxton House, on South Main Street. Unfortunately, the church was unable to pay off a $194.05 mechanics lien filed by a Mr. R. Winsett so, on January 6, 1881, the church property was sold at a Sheriff’s Sale and the congregation found itself homeless once again.
This situation was remedied when the church purchased a parcel of land from Mrs. Elizabeth Ford and Mrs. Ann Henry Green on November 27, 1881. This newly purchased property joined another piece of property on Marginal Street that was already owned by the church. On these two tracts a new church building was constructed in 1884 and it remained in regular use for almost 60 years.
Very little of the church’s history at the end of the 19th century and through the first third of the 20th century has been preserved. What is known is that First Baptist very nearly ceased to exist and probably would have had it not been for the faithfulness of three ladies who just refused to give up. First Baptist owes a great debt of gratitude to Mrs. J.W. Hilliard, Mrs. Hattie Mitchell, and Mrs. Sallie Locke. Moreover, due to the steadfastness of these women, the church’s membership increased to the point that they were able to call Rev. J.H. Oakley as pastor in 1907 after that position had remained vacant for several years.
In spite of the rigors of World War I and the “Great Depression” the local Baptist work seemed to be on the mend. During the night of November 24, 1941, however, another blaze reduced the church house to smoke and ashes. Nothing remained of the building except the front steps which were made of concrete. These old steps are now displayed near the rear entrance of the main church building.
The next building site, at the intersection of Church and Charleston streets was purchased March 3, 1942 from Mrs. Annie Mae Mitchell. World War II intervened this time allowing only the completion of the basement portion of the proposed church building. The rest had to await the end of the hostilities.
Beginning on June 13, 1948, Reverend Jonas L. Stewart led a rejuvenated congregation on its most ambitious building program to date. On September 29, 1948, a new building housing a sanctuary, nursery, church office, and Sunday School rooms was dedicated. With some modification and expansion this facility served the church well for almost twenty-four years. During this period of time, the old Memphis and Charleston Railroad depot property was purchased from the Church of Christ which had bought it earlier. The old depot was renovated and converted into a Fellowship Hall. The Isaac McClellan house and lot were also purchased.
Through this modern period, First Baptist was led by a number of pastors including O.M. Dangeau, William R. Dunning, and Bro. Tom Pope.
Then, for the third time in its 134 year history, on January 25, 1972, fire ravaged the church’s buildings. Only the Education Building and the Fellowship Hall remained. Undaunted and with their eyes on the Lord, the congregation rebuilt. The building that stands today on the site of the McClellan house – at 12685 S. Main Street – was dedicated on April 28, 1974. Brother Thomas Pope was pastor at the time. Four years later, additional property at the north end of Charleston Street was secured and the church’s Family Life Center was built there in 1982. Adjacent parcels of land were purchased in 1983 and 1985 for future expansion.
Brother Fred Tubbs served as pastor from 1978 until 1982 when Jonas Stewart returned to serve the church a second time. Brother Stewart was called to heaven while still at his post in October 1985. A plan for expanding the church’s facilities was developed during the tenure of Dr. Paul Williams who was pastor from April 1986 to 1992 but the planned expansion was not actually constructed until 2003. Brother Phil Lovelace became pastor in June of 1993 and served until September of 2001. Dr. R.G. Elliot began as the Interim pastor in September of 2001 and subsequently was called to be pastor in February of 2002. It was under Dr. Elliot’s leadership that the planned church expansion was built – a two-story education wing and large fellowship hall – dedicated on September 23, 2003.
After Dr. Elliot’s retirement in 2007, Brother Granville Watson served as interim pastor until Dr. Frank Crawford Jr. became pastor in 2008. He served in this capacity until August 2010. In April of 2011, Dr. Ken Story became pastor at First Baptist Church. Dr. Story resigned in November 2014. Brother Stan Smith became pastor on December 1, 2015.