History of First Baptist
According to the church history written by the late J. W, Leigh in 1949, when all was night for Negros of Brownsville, when the curse of slavery was at its height, and it seemed as though God had withdrawn His mercy, there was a little band of slaves hidden in some secluded spot near Brownsville communing with God. To these people, God revealed a brighter day.
God's revelation showed a day when they would be free, a day when they could worship God in boldness and holiness He revealed a day when the air would be charged and surcharged with freedom: a day when the word "Freedom would be written across the canopy of heaven and the sun in its splendor would sanction the same giving a new song of joy to the Negro race, Free at Last"
That day came in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln dipped his pen in black ink (a symbol of our race) and signed the document of the Emancipation Proclamation, setting 4,000,000 sable sons and daughters of Ham free.
It was the spirit of missionary zeal to bring the gospel to all men that prompted Brother Major Thomas Owen, pastor of the local white Baptist Church to assume leadership of a black band of worshippers. In 1840, he opened the doors of the white church to a little band of two hundred blacks. which had been hidden in secret since 1810. Each Sunday they held service in the white folk's church. This arrangement for worship continued for forty-five years
Brother Owen gave further assistance to the Black Baptist group by training Brother Martin Winfield in the ministry and saw that he was ordained Brother Winfield held his first revival in 1866 in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the building of a white congregation. At the close of this revival, “The First Baptist Church" of Brownsville completed its organization with a thousand members.
According to Brother Leigh, the first work of Brother Winfield, as a pastor, was to get a church home for his congregation. A lot on College Street was purchased and cleared. The first building rally date was set and every member pledged one dollar (a large sum in those days). Foremost in this effort was the late Sister Harriett Taylor.
The rally was a success, and a contract was let to a Mr. Henley who hired the following black carpenters: Joe Smith, Jeff Smith, and Chester Thompson. Bright Green was hired as a bricklayer. Though not a Christian, Lewis Johnson helped in many ways to make the church building a reality.
In 1868 the church was completed, and a soul-winning revival was held in which two hundred souls were added to the membership. Pastor Winfield held a memorable baptism in the murky waters of the Hatchie River. Brother Hardin Smith preached a doctrinal sermon standing upon a tree stump. Others in attendance were aspiring ministers Brother Whitelaw and Brother Drak Parker.
The first deacons of the First Baptist Church were Brothers Cary Walker, Frank Peeples, Albert Whitelaw, Jim Fox Owens, John Doctor Owens, Peter Harbert, and Henry Boyd. These men worked closely with their pastor Martin Winfield. who served for seventeen faithful and fruitful years?
Brother Winfield also gave to Brownsville and Haywood County a noble in the person of son Brother Wm. Winfield who became a benefactor to the church and the surrounding area.
Associated with Brother Winfield during his pastorage, was brother Harden Smith in whom he found loving fellowship, wise counsel, and strong Christian assistance. So great was Brother Smith's influence, that he was considered the "Father of the colored race of Haywood County." Death in no way diminished the bonds of brotherly love between these two men. In his eulogy for Brother Winfield, Brother Smith said: "that he was a good pastor, and the grave could hold no better man." For many years, the walls of First Baptist Church were graced with a portrait of Brother Martin Winfield, the first back pastor.
Brother T. R. Searcy from Roger Williams college succeeded Brother Winfield. The deacons serving with Brother Searcy were Brothers Simeon Sturdivant, Wm. Winfield, and A. A. Bond.
In 1893 the coming of Brother H. Owen a product of the instructions of Brother Major Owens and Martin Winfield proved to be a Moses for his people. Great was his work in this church. With the support of deacons Jordan Irving, Lee Jones, Sandy Hay, and Green Currie the church was remodeled, stained glass windows installed, a new roof put on, and electric chandeliers were hung. It was said of Brother Owens that "love was written across his countenance, patience in his ministry, humbleness in his greatness, and Christlike in his dealings."
To Brother Owen and his wife, Haywood County is indebted to one of its most illustrative sons. The nationally known Samuel A. Owens pastor of the great Metropolitan Baptist Church of Memphis, Tennessee for many years, and moderator of the West Tennessee Educational Association, a giant among religious and civic leaders, was born in Haywood County.
At the resignation of Brother Owen in 1900, Brother J. H. Fulton became the third pastor of First Baptist Church, He served for four years, and his work included the building of the first parsonage and improvements to the church. His congregation was impressed by the importance he placed upon punctuality.
In the summer of 1904, First Baptist called Reverend T. J. Townsend. During his stay, the church remodeled its roof, bought new pews, and with Brother John Hill as president organized the First Baptist Young People's Union. The first literary society was also organized for the intellectual development of young people.
In 1909 Brother Parr came to the church. During his stay, the parsonage burned and was replaced by a more modern structure. A concrete sidewalk was laid and the Literary Society, led by its president J. W. Leigh, bought a piano for the church.
The most outstanding historical event during these years was the purchase of new land and the erection of a new church building. The pressures of a growing town called for a more selective housing arrangement of ethnic groups, thereby making the College Street location undesirable. The old church and parsonage were sold for five thousand dollars and a site new Church was bought on Jefferson Street. On this new site, a new church was built in 1920 at the cost of twenty-four thousand dollars. Before Reverend Parr’s resignation in 1922, ninety percent of the church's indebtedness was paid. His work concluded 39 years of church history.
For seven months the church moved along without a pastor.
In answer to sincere prayer, on the first Sunday in March 1923, Brother S. L. McDowell and his dear wife came to us. They proved equal to the task of meeting the church's great need for love. hope, and spirituality. With this accomplished, they turned to other church improvements which included new balcony seats, orderly arrangement of pews, painting of the walls, strengthening and painting the ceiling, hanging the old bell in the belfry, replacing stucco with metal siding, grading the grounds, improving the pastor's study, and the climax was the installation of great stained glass memorial windows that told the story of the faithful families sacrificing to donate them.
In April 1924, Brother McDowell left. But before his departure, he assisted in bringing Brother S. A. James to pastor the church. Working with Brother James were deacons J. W. Leigh, Dr. J. W. Evans, Prof. F. E. Jeffries, Alex Hill, Isaiah Pari Sam Ingram, Manuel Williams, Henry King, and Tom Tatum.
During his brief stay, the church moved forward rapidly. He modernized the Sunday School with the able assistance of Superintendent Alex Hill. His soul-winning program brought into the church some of the oldest sinners of the community such as Brothers J. K. Brewer, Robert Voss, Wheeler Jones, and James Crosby. Under his leadership, the church feasted spiritually and intellectually as never before in its history. Other improvements that he made for the church were lights on the campus and new seats. His interest in civic affairs led to the City's Board's appointment of Brother Jake Brewer as a Probation Officer Work to work with wayward black youth. Public restrooms were also built downtown for the black people of Haywood County.
Again, the leadership changed, and in 1927 Reverend W.S. Vance heeded the call of a needy First Baptist Church. With love, patience, peace, harmony, justice, and honesty this sainted man served the church for twenty-nine years. Within these years numerous difficulties, as well as pleasure, were experienced. Relying upon divine guidance, Reverend Vance proved equal to the solution of any problem that beset the church, he worked and sacrificed (worked sometimes without salary during days of depression) along with its members. The church officials working with Brother Vance were deacons. J. W Leigh, Chairman of the Board, F. E. Jeffries, Isiah Paris, Alex Hill, Dave Smith, Robert Shirley, and Morgan Taylor.
Robert Shirley church treasurer and Katherine Taliaferro (Henning) church clerk. Church musicians were Mrs. Kate Evans, director, and organist; with Willie Bell Leigh (Rawls) and Katherine Taliaferro (Henning) assisting. The deaconess working with Rev. Vance were Narciss Brooks, chairman of the Deaconess Board, Mrs. Louise Williams, secretary, and Mrs. Pearl Guy, treasurer; Mesdames: Mattie Hicks, G. M. Perkins, Burnette Hotchkiss, N. B. Leigh, Estelle Currie, Orena Jones, Elizabeth Lee, and Carrie Boyd: honorary deaconess were Mesdames: Anna Green, Della People, and Vinnie Pete. Reverend Vance proved to be a man among men.
Reverend Vance added hundreds of new members to the church roll. Improvements made to the church building included new concrete steps at all entrances, a steam heating system, a connection to the city sewer system, repair of the church walls, and the installation of a Hammond organ, and Brother Eddie Smith donated inside and outside lights. With the able assistance of J. W. Evans, C. A. Rawls, Professor F.E. Jeffries and Usher Boards One and Two, the old debt which amounted to three thousand dollars, was paid. In 1940 when it seemed as if the sun had set for the law-abiding Negroes of Brownsville it was Reverend Vance who championed the cause for the good of all. His interest in the welfare of this entire community lead Reverend Vance into civic work that was of great benefit to all black citizens.
With Reverend Vance came a fine wife. Though, not of the same denomination, she was a strong Christian, true to her faith. In all her life she set a perfect example of high moral living. In the business world, this woman stood high as a pioneer in the field of pharmacy, a field dominated by men, in which a black woman of the south was almost unheard. Our pastor, his wife, and young daughter, Bobby, lived happily until Mrs. Vance's death.
After a period of grief and many lonely times, God blessed the meeting of Reverend Vance and Mrs. Jennie Sims Brodnax Vance. This woman, a religious leader and teacher of state and national renown, author, public speaker, and talented musician was the light of his life in his declining years. Even though Reverend Vance has gone to his heavenly home, this faithful woman labors on serving to this day as minister of music emeritus, Sunday School teacher, and promoter of major church programs.
The help that Reverend Vance gave to many young ministers showed that he was certainly concerned about the continuation of the work of the Lord. Three of these young men whom he helped were the Reverends Moses Taylor, Byron Ragsdale, and Eddie L. Currie. These three young men are now outstanding pastors.
When Reverend Vance grew physically weak one of these men was on hand to take up the cross. From the years 1956 to 1966 Reverend Currie, a native son, filled the pulpit of First Baptist. The relationship between Pastor Emeritus and the new minister was an inspiring thing to see. It was like a good wise father and an obedient son. Just before Reverend Vance retired, the need for a new church building became urgent. Reverend Currie assumed this great task and the present edifice replaced the old building. In 1967, Pastor Currie accepted another call.
A man of experience took over the pastorate in the person of Reverend J. L. Tolbert. His interest in the total church program and organizational knowledge did much for the church. The new building was completed, carpeted, and furnished. His reorganization of the financial practices within the church revealed to the members their real ability to meet their obligations. At the close of Reverend Tolbert's service in 1969, the church officers spent months of diligent searching. Again, a native son shone brightly and the Reverend W. N. Reed called to the church in 1970. For three years Reverend Reed was a progressive pastor who worked with church and many communities ‘activities. Able young men are in demand and when the greater opportunity came, Reverend Reed moved.
The rapid turnover of pastors proved some what frustrating to a congregation grown use to one shepherd for so many years. After prayerful consideration of the qualifications needed by the next minister, and contact with many available ministers, Reverend C. A. Williams came to us. For approximately three years this kind man, and his family held first place in the First Baptist Church. In true Baptist Fashion, his soul stirring sermons, enhanced by his rich baritone voice, gave to the church members constant feast of mountain top spirituality. Reverend Williams resigned and the church was again without pastor.
By this time, the church had grown more accustomed to moving along without a leader and unhurriedly sought another pastor. Finally, the Lord brought Reverend J. M. Williams to grace our pulpit. This divinely called man brought with him a lifetime of experience in the service ministry. No previous minister has shown more interest in the personal spiritual welfare of the individual members, a most endearing personal characteristic.
The church members became acutely aware of the need for a church bus. The idea of organizing a group of women to raise funds to purchase a bus was conceived. This group chose the name "Willing Workers". They gave willingly of their time, talent and means to help pay for a bus. With their initial objective obtained, the Willing Workers continued to function until 1988 when they transferred their remaining funds to the general treasure to pay for a church steeple.
Another outstanding achievement under Rev. Williams' pastorage, was the updated church library. Mrs. Zelma Rogers serves as librarian. She has done outstanding service in establishing and maintaining the library. Our hope for a long tenure with Reverend J. M. Williams was not to be fulfilled, however. After approximately two years, Rev. Williams said that he was going away for rest with relatives.
Since pastor Williams leaving was not verbally finalized, members of the church constantly questioned officers about his return and no answer came. With the passing of ample time, the church realized it was once more without a shepherd and began to search for a leader.
The demand for greater knowledge of the background of a prospective pastor was made. Officers sought diligently to find the right man. Officers sought diligently to find the right man.
First Baptist was richly blessed with the guidance of the Reverend Dr. Jacob C. Oglesby. The future of First Baptist looked very bright indeed with Dr. Oglesby at its head and his lovely wife by his side. In only one year, church organization, growth in membership and knowledge of Church discipline excelled all previous times.
Dr. Oglesby brought a dedication to mission as never before exhibited by any previous pastor and the church did much financially for home and foreign mission. Even his home became a home for many African students who completed their educations in the U. S. A. Even though childless, theirs is a large and loving family.
He was self-sacrificial even to the point of giving up his salary if the church needed it.
He shared his talents by accepting a temporary teaching position at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. He returned on weekends while Assistant Pastor, Rev. John R. Coleman ablely carried on weekly church activities.
Dr. Oglesby was a living example of his faith in the motto he gave to the church "Where God Guides, He Also Provides”.
We also have a new Young Men's Sunday School Class, the W. S. Vance Class included in the scope of his work. His lovely wife, affectionately known as Miss Anne, was ever by his side visiting shut-in members. She too was organizer and sponsor of new worthwhile activities. Today, the Progressive Matrons and YWA's are a most vital part of all church activities due to her guidance.
Prior to Dr. Oglesby's resignation plans were in motion for church repair and improvement. After he left the staff and membership continued to work toward this goal.
In July of 1987, Rev. Joseph Darby was elect- ed to serve as pastor of First Baptist Church. His sweet wife and bright young family set a perfect example for home and family so much needed in today's society.
In less than a year, the repair and improvement have been completed. The congregation now worships in comfort and beauty unknown before. Rev. Darby is progressive in his thinking while holding firmly to strict Bible teaching. He is an able speaker leaving no doubt in the minds of his listeners what "Thus saith the Lord."
First Baptist Church has a long and rich history and may the spiritual leader and the membership hold fast to this heritage.