A Brief History of First Baptist Church of Athens
Submitted by Nelle Price Epps
August 18 , 2005
Evangelism, education, fellowship, and stewardship are persistent themes in the history of First Baptist Church, Athens, Georgia. The 24 ministers who have served the church since it was founded in 1830 as Athens Baptist Church have provided variations of these themes, but the emphasis has remained constant along with the determination to provide a downtown church for the whole area. The church was constituted January 31, 1830, in the Presbyterian Church building primarily by persons from Trail Creek Baptist. The church adopted a covenant and rules for operating conferences in 1840, and it was incorporated as Athens Baptist Church in 1866. The name was changed to First Baptist Church in 1944.
The 15 charter members included natives of Ireland, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as Georgia. The Reverend James Shannon, a native of Ireland and professor at the University of Georgia, was the first pastor. Stephen Borders was the first deacon and the only one until 1848 when two others were elected. Junius Hillyer was the first clerk.
19th Century Growth
Growth was steady in the 19th century, and the church reached 400 members by 1899.The numbers might have been higher had the church not launched several mission churches including one which became East Athens Baptist Church.
They would have been significantly higher had 129 African-American members not decided in 1867 to form an independent church, Hill First Baptist Church, and call a minister. Many African-Americans had been members during the early decades an in 1855 there were five more African-American than white members. The African-American members were encouraged to remain, but subsequently accepted their resolve to separate and assisted them in the development of their new church. Although African-Americans occasionally participated in programs at First Baptist after that, it was until recent decades than any chose to become members.
A University Connection
Athens Baptist originally met in a small frame structure on the University campus near the intersection of Broad and Lumpkin Streets. In 1860 the church moved to a new facility on Washington Street near College Avenue where it became one of the first buildings in Athens to have gaslights installed. Members remained there until 1898 when they moved into a new facility at approximately the same location but facing College Avenue. They moved to the current location at Hancock and Pulaski in 1921. A new education wing was added in 1951, all facilities were renovated in 1980-1981, and additional classrooms, new offices, a new library, a new kitchen and a new fellowship hall were added in 1993-1994. The church now occupies a full city block, and it owns land across Pulaski Street that is used for parking. Facilities were expanded and renovated to accommodate continued growth, which reached approximately 800 resident members in 2000.
An Emphasis on Missions
Missions continued to be a major emphasis in the 20th century. The church continued it is 19th century policy of creating mission churches where needed and several of these missions have become independent churches, including West End Baptist Church, 1907; Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, 1958; and Beech Haven Baptist Church, 1959. First Baptist also cooperated with four other churches in developing the mission that became West Athens Baptist Chapel in 1986. The church also has sponsored a Bosnian family in Athens, participated in a mission program to international students at the University of Georgia, provided classes in English as a second language, and built several Habitat for Humanity houses, including one that was a joint project with Hill First Baptist Church. New partnerships have been developed with India, including the India Baptist Seminary, and the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens.
First Baptist provided the house property on Lumpkin Street used by the BSU for many years, and in 1961 deeded the property over to the Georgia Baptist Convention so that it could build the expanded facility still in use there. It has sponsored Scout Troup 22, since its beginning of the scouting movement in 1910, and it has sponsored mission trips for its middle and high school youth. Youth have visited Europe, the Bahamas, and various places in the United States. Members participate in a variety of local programs such as the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, and Sunday Bible Study teaching at Denny Towers in Athens.
The twentieth century was marked with consistency in the church’s leadership. A total of four ministers and one interim minister served from 1921-2000. Dr Jim Wilkinson, 1921-1948 stressed fellowship in the community and tried to keep every member purposefully involved. He implemented the Training Union program in the 1930’s, and was minister when the church got its first educational director in 1945. Dr. Howard Giddens, 1948-1967, continued to stress evangelism and fellowship and gave new emphasis to education and stewardship. Educational programs were expanded and a new educational wing was added in 1951. The Rev. Julian Cave, 1968-1975, continued the traditional themes and led the church in developing a day care center in Parkview Homes. The center celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1998. Dr. Jon Appleton, 1976-1999, fostered significant growth, especially among young adults and children, and presided over two building programs to accommodate them. Under his leadership, the church also developed an outstanding continuing education program and expanded its mission work. The Rev. Kent Anglin, 1999-2000, kept the church moving forward on all fronts during his year-long interim ministry. Dr. William L. (Bill) Ross, 2000-present, is well known for his ministry which includes a strong missions emphasis. During his tenure to date the church has sponsored several international mission trips to India, joined as a sponsoring congregation for the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens , and sent teams to serve with Touching Taliaferro with Love.
First Baptist members are excited by the opportunities to continue in ministry and mission in the new millennium. First Baptist is affiliated locally with the Serepta Baptist Association, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, and nationally with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Members are confident they made the right decision in April 2000 when they voted to withdraw from the Southern Baptist Convention and to withdraw from the Georgia Baptist Convention in 2001.
These decisions were based on their belief that the SBC favors increased pastoral authority, restrictions on inquiry and discussion at the seminaries, and a reduced role for women at a time when First Baptist strongly favors priesthood of the believer, congregational authority, academic freedom, and the ordination of women. Members expect to continue their emphasis on evangelism, education, fellowship, and stewardship.