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Home News-Telegram News First Baptist Church celebrates 150 years in Sulphur Springs

First Baptist Church celebrates 150 years in Sulphur Springs

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One hundred and fifty years of memories will be celebrated this weekend by the thousands of people who call First Baptist Church of Sulphur Springs their house of worship.

The church is marking its sesquicentennial Saturday and Sunday with special anniversary celebrations exactly 150 years to the day since a dozen like-minded people decided to band together to form a Baptist church in a settlement then known as Bright Star.
Former pastors and staff were to be feted at a come-and-go reception Saturday afternoon from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church Activity Center on College Street.
Sunday’s worship service is expected to draw a huge crowd, so large that First Baptist’s leaders chose to hold the Sunday morning service at the Hopkins County Regional Civic Center.
Sunday is scheduled to begin at the Civic Center with coffee, juice and donuts from 8:45 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. The worship service is to follow from 10 a.m. to noon. Following services, families that made reservations in advance will be treated to a barbecue lunch at the Civic Center.

First Baptist Church of Sulphur Springs: The First 150 Years

It should be no surprise that First Baptist Church in Sulphur Springs is celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend. After all, it is a house of worship with almost 2,500 members of whom more than 900 regularly attend Sunday school. It is wealthy in spirit and finance, having been guided for a century and a half by some of the brightest minds and most thoughtful people to inhabit Hopkins County. It is a giving church whose members look out for one another, who band together in times of strife to help those less fortunate, whether it’s a family within its own community dealing with tragedy, or strangers hundreds of miles or half a world away.
What is surprising is that the church survived its first rugged years in existence at all.
If indeed, as the saying goes, God only gives you as much as you can handle, then He certainly had a lot of confidence in those original 12 souls who came together on Aug. 8, 1859, to organize First Baptist Church. At the time, there were already three Baptist congregations in Hopkins County, but none were near what was known as the Bright Star post office, later to officially become Sulphur Springs.
But the first 12 months could not have been easy. For one, there was no building. For that matter, there was no staff, or money, or a budget. No one had any great ties to the place — the members were essentially all recent transplants to the area. If all that wasn’t enough, in 1860, the Rev. William Askew passed away. Meanwhile, there was already a little disagreement going on between states in the Southern U.S. and the Northern part of the country that was about to explode into all-out war. When the inevitable occurred, off went many of the able-bodied men to fight it out on the battlefields of the War Between the States.
“Surely, in the midst of these circumstances, some despaired,” states a passage in the recent publication “The First 150 Years,” a 48-page booklet created by church members celebrating the church’s sesquicentennial. “Through the grace of God, however, the fledgling body of believers survived, reorganized, and eventually thrived. As those charter members could not have imagined the future that lay in store for their congregation, neither can our present generation foresee what God has planned for this body of believers in the future.”



First Baptist Church: From humble beginnings grows a vibrant institution

(Editor’s Note: The following history of First Baptist Church was taken from various accounts in the News-Telegram over the years as well as the church publication “The First 150 Years.”)
The Sulphur Springs Baptist Church was organized on Aug. 8, 1959, with Elder Joshua Johnson presiding. The charter members included Mrs. E.M. Ashcroft; the Rev. William Askew and wife; F.E. Finney and wife; Jesse Greer and wife; Dr. Reeves and wife; Mr. Posey and wife; Mr. Denton and wife; and Mr. Connally and wife. The presbytery which constituted the church included Revs. Askew and Johnson along with the Rev. James Hargrove. Mr. Posey served as deacon, and Capt. Finney was clerk of the church.
Rev. Askew, however, died in 1860, and Dr. William Elder became pastor of the church. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, a steady stream of “supply pastors” came and went. “The church was very weak and almost demised,” wrote Mrs. Wright.
Dr. Elder left after 1861; he was succeded by a Rev. Roe (or Rowe), then the supply pastors.
The Sulphur Springs church reorganized in 1870, the same year that Union occupation ended.  The Baptists, in partnership with the Disciples of Christ, bought the Methodist church house located on the Old Spring Lot (bordered today by Connally, South Davis, Magnolia, and Spring Streets). The congregations worshiped on alternate Sundays. Within a year or so, however, the Baptists bought out the Disciples of Christ.
Another Civil War veteran, the Rev. Stephen H. Brooks, became pastor in 1871. He had been born in Georgia, the son and the grandson of Methodist ministers. During the war he read the entire New Testament seven times and decided to become a Baptist. When the war ended Brooks intended to go back to Tennessee to attend school. On his way he spent the night in Saltillo with a relative. He was asked to preach in a revival service and there met Francis Louise Bennett. Rev. Josh Johnson conducted their wedding six weeks later.
By 1875, church membership had grown to 148. In 1879 the church reached 202 members. In 1880, the church moved the old church house, erected around 1852 by the Methodists, and replaced it with a new building. The white frame structure included a large gallery that added greatly to seating capacity.
In 1884 the Rev. John Hutchens Boyet came to be the pastor. During the Rev. Boyet’s tenure, membership grew to 271, and the church added a parsonage and remodeled the church house.
In 1897, the church building was destroyed by fire, although the parsonage escaped damage. Fortunately, a new church building was already being planned by a committee made up of Judge Bayles Francis Crosby, John T. Hargrove, and Dave Smith. The church had decided to move to a new location and had purchased a large lot on the corner of College Street and Oak Avenue (formerly Depot Street) from John Buford for $3,500. The Buford home was moved and work began in December of 1897. In the meantime, the congregation met at the county courthouse.         Construction had to be suspended in the spring of 1898 due to lack of funds. Despite their circumstances, Rev James P. Kincaid asked Sid Williams to conduct a revival in the summer of 1898. It was immensely successful, and almost 100 people were baptized in an above-ground baptistry on the spring lot. Ten years later, the church rolls still included the names of 43 members who had joined in the summer and early fall of that year. Church membership reached 382, and more than $3,000 was raised, allowing the work on the new building to continue.
The Rev. Robert Winfred Merrill became pastor in 1898. While the Merrills were here, the church finished the new building, spending $16,000 on construction. The new facility had a vaulted central roof, and the highest tower rose 104 feet. The main auditorium, 54 feet by 54 feet, had an interior made of native pine with a hard oil finish, a corrugated steel ceiling, stained glass windows, and pews rounded to fit the building.
George and Al Wilson served as contractors and used hand-pressed bricks made at their kiln. To pay for construction, the church borrowed $4,000 from a church member and raised the rest through public subscription. All indebtedness had been paid by May 5, 1901, when the building was dedicated.  The Old Spring Lot was finally sold in 1909 for $1,250. Spiritually, the church prospered as well. In 1901, 112 people were baptized into the church, bringing the membership to 488. At about the same time, Sulphur Springs voted to ban the sale of alcohol. Thirteen saloons were put out of business as a result.
The earliest surviving church records are from 1905. The church published a directory in April of that year. The small pamphlet  lists the calendar, the officers, the articles of faith, the rules of order, the church covenant, a historical statement, a financial statement, and, of course, the members. The weekly calendar explained that the church offered “Preaching each Sabbath 11 o’clock a.m. and 7:45 p.m.” with Sabbath School at 9:30 a.m. and B.Y.P.U. (Baptist Young People’s Union) at 3:00 p.m. Although the cover says, “First Baptist Church of Sulphur Springs,” other records continued to refer to the church as Baptist Church of Sulphur Springs and Sulphur Springs Baptist Church. Information about both beliefs and behavior is carefully explained, as in the following paragraph: “That we will abstain from the use of wine and all intoxicants as a beverage; abstaining from its use at all, at a public bar; also from the renting of our property for the use and sale of intoxicants; from dancing; from tattling and backbiting; from all forms of gambling, including future dealing, where commodity is not expected to be delivered; from reading low or trashy literature.”

Church clerk and Trustee T.S. Christian kept the minutes each time the church conducted business. Since the church body could be “called into conference” after any service, the account provides priceless insights into how the church operated at that time. In August of each year, for example, the church voted on a pastor for the following year. There was no budget. Salaries and bills were paid by subscription, and people were sent to collect from those who had neglected to pay as promised. In 1904 the church collected a grand total of $3,182.05.
Members who misbehaved were called to account, and differences between members were discussed. The entry for January 17, 1906 notes that the “unpleasant differences between brethren T.J. Flewharty and L.C. Ponder was reported by our pastor as satisfactorily adjusted.” Occasionally members were withdrawn or excluded from the fellowship of the church for conduct as varied as “conducting a business of future dealing,” “swearing and other gross unchristian conduct,” and “heresy.

The Rev. Wallace Bassett took the pulpit on January 8, 1911. During his tenure, a new pipe organ (Estey Opus No. 1274) was purchased and installed through the help of the Carnegie Foundation and other donors. The first organist, Pauline Searles (later Mrs. Ward Gober), was the daughter of a church pianist. More than 55 years later, Mrs. Gober was still playing for the church and was honored with a “Pauline Gober Day.”

Dr. H.R. Long arrived on September 1, 1929, less than two months before the Wall Street crash that plunged the country into the Great Depression. However, within the first few months of his pastorate, the church collected one offering of $1,600 to pay off debts the church owed on the parsonage and the furnace. The Rev. Long also convinced the church to leave the subscription system of finance and move to a budget plan.
In 1930, the church gained 88 new members and collected $8,815.79, an impressive amount considering the times. The ladies of the church, through the Women’s Missionary Society, worked hard throughout these years to help those in need. In 1932, for example, they gave 47 jars of jellies, jams, and vegetables to Baylor Hospital. They collected dishes and silver for church use in 1933. In 1934 they donated 52 cakes and 103 crates of eggs to Buckner Orphan’s Home and helped purchase an automobile for Miss Sue Middleton.
‘    Miss Middleton, who had joined the church in 1919, had been hired as the office secretary and church treasurer in 1929, the first full-time person in this position. She was, furthermore, the first woman to ever serve as the treasurer of the Rehoboth Baptist Association.
First Baptist celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1934. Revised church rolls put membership at 863, and Sunday School was running an attendance of about 350. Three years later, the church held Vacation Bible School, perhaps for the first time, and in July, a great revival resulted in 102 additions, including 60 baptisms. By 1938, average Sunday School attendance had grown to 496.
Dr. Long was succeeded by Dr. C. Wade Freeman.  The Freeman family arrived in July 1942, in the midst of World War II. In the following five years, 1,100 members were added, the church budget swelled to more than $50,000, and three building were completed: a second education building, a $125,000 administration building, and a $7,500 home for the Education Director.
However, the most momentous occasion was the first radio broadcast of the church service on March 2, 1947. Within a couple of weeks, the Busy Men’s Bible Class, the section taught by Delbert Hutchinson, was also aired. The Lemon Bible Class wanted radio time ,too, but none was available. The two classes decided to alternate Sundays. Class members gave a quarter each Sunday to pay for the broadcast since 30 minutes of air time cost $12.24 in those days. Clovis “Peavine” Pinion did the introductory broadcast each week on a portable unit with a small antenna, while Buddy Funderburk helped with the equipment. For more than 60 years now, radio broadcasts have provided an avenue of evangelism to the lost and one of worship for the homebound.
Dr. Darold H. Morgan, the next pastor, arrived in Sulphur Springs in March 1953, when plans for a new sanctuary were moving forward.
The old house of worship was demolished, and the ground breaking ceremony for the new church was held September 13, 1953. In the interim, the church met in the nearby Carnation Theatre. The $290,000 sanctuary was completed in 1954. The Sulphur Springs Daily News-Telegram described it in detail:

“Measuring 139 feet in length and 76 feet in width, the new building faces west on Oak street. A Gothic tower 80 feet in height is on the corner of Oak and College streets. Its top is marked with a powerful light which should be visible for several miles.
“Carrying out the Gothic architecture style, a second tower 55 feet tall is on the west front corner of the building. The exterior is built of buff brick, trimmed in cut limestone.
“The modified Gothic architecture also has been used in the interior of the church, with a high exposed-beam vaulted ceiling and a Gothic arch over the rostrum section. A carefully planned color scheme adds much to the atmosphere of the sanctuary. Twelve 19-foot windows, made of turquoise cathedral glass with ruby red, blue and orange insets, give off restful light.
“The walls and west end of the building are painted in mulberry. The choir loft around the rose window is in an Indian turquoise, as is the remainder of the building outside the sanctuary itself. Turquoise velvet seat cushions blend with multi-colored carpeting to give a restful and reverent effect. Pews and the extensive paneling used around the choir loft and Baptistry are finished in platinum gray.
“The floor, except for the four carpeted aisles, is gray asphalt tile. Ten large chandeliers of Swedish hammered iron hang from the ceiling. Additional illumination is provided by a cove lighting system extending around most of the building in a paneled trough where walls and ceiling join.
“The main floor of the sanctuary seats 750 persons, with accommodations for approximately 150 more in the balcony. If needed, arrangements can be made to seat at least 100 additional persons, bringing the total seating capacity to 1,000.”

A public address system was put in, the Estey organ was rebuilt and electrified, and a new grand piano was purchased. The installation of air conditioning earned a completely separate newspaper article. When all was complete, the church hosted an open house. A series of services featuring Dr. Morgan and former pastors Rev. Joe Weldon Bailey, Dr. Wallace Bassett, and Dr. J. Howard Williams dedicated the structure.
Spence Chapel was dedicated on November 19, 1967. It was named in honor of Jimmie D. and Leta Spence who willed $468,000 each to First Methodist and First Baptist.
Dr. Travis Gene “John” Sullivan came to Sulphur Springs in June of 1971. He started a Bible Institute with professors from Southwestern Theological Seminary coming to teach on Monday nights. Children’s church was held each Sunday in Spence Chapel under the direction of Paula Hanger and John Sharber. A bus ministry was begun as well which eventually included seven routes and brought 150 to 200 children to church weekly. To ensure future growth, the church bought several city lots, including the old city library.
In 1975 First Baptist also began broadcasting services via television, as well as continuing the radio ministry. Currently, the 8:30 a.m. service is taped and shown at 11 a.m., and the evening service is shown live at 7:00 p.m.

In 1981 Dr. Charles Redmond began his pastorate at First Baptist. Dr. Redmond brought with him the “two Freds,” Fred Lewis and Fred Randles.
Twenty-eight years later, Fred Lewis is still calling every church member on his or her birthday, visiting the sick, and driving busloads of senior adults on excursions. His kindness and warmth are legendary.
In 25 years of service, Fred Randles and his wife, Jane, were used by God to build an exemplary church music program. From age 2, every church member could participate in at least one choir. Hundreds of children attended children’s choirs every Wednesday evening and each choir performed several times a year. Beginning with fifth grade, students could participate in annual choir trips, with the High School Choir traveling as far as Hawaii and Ireland to sing, serve, and share free Bibles. Fred also led the adult choir, which sang in Sunday worship services, the Silvertone Choir, for those over age 55, and various groups such as the Ladies’ Ensemble. Jane established and directed several small groups, such as a Boys’ Ensemble. She also created the choreography for youth choirs, and, for large, seasonal productions, she directed the drama and oversaw the production of sets and costumes.
In 1983 First Baptist began the “Together We Build” campaign, chaired by Wayne Galyean. Educational and office facilities and a media library made up the first phase of the nearly $2 million program. The second phase, completed in 1984, included remodeling of the three-story education building and the addition of a choir suite. Five years later the Steinway grand piano that is currently in the sanctuary was purchased.
Also in 1984 First Baptist began a mission church for Spanish speakers – the Primera Mision Bautista de Sulphur Springs. The Rev. Amadeo Miranda is now serving his 25th year as pastor of the Primera Iglesia Bautista, which averages more than 90 in its Sunday morning services.

The Rev. David W. Hardage arrived in Sulphur Springs in May 1990.Dr. Hardage stayed almost 14 years, becoming the longest tenured pastor in the church’s history. The church erected no new buildings during Dr. Hardage’s tenure, but it acquired several strategic properties, including the lot now known as “the ball field,” the Tapp Furniture property, Meeks Cleaners, and the Banks Company. The lot containing the cleaners and the Banks Company was of particular importance. Sold by the church in 1947, it sits right next to the church’s administration building, facing Oak Avenue. The building currently houses a youth activity center. These purchases helped consolidate church holdings and provided additional parking. The extra parking was needed partly because the church vehicle fleet expanded by four vans and one bus.
Church staff also expanded when the following positions were added: Middle School Minister, Preschool Coordinator, Children’s Minister, and Business Administrator.
The entire church facility was evaluated, and an architectural firm developed a master plan designed to meet building and parking needs for future growth. First, though, repairs were made as needed in two projects designed to “fix anything and everything.” One phase included work on the roofs, the air-conditioning units, and masonry. The other phase focused on the sanctuary. About $1 million was spent repairing and refurbishing both the interior and the exterior. Walls were painted, woodwork was refinished, stained glass windows were repaired, and additional lighting was added. Services were held in the gym during the months in 1995 that it took to finish the project. Over the years, the Harvest Day offering also increased, from $100,000 to $150,000.
Dr. Hardage led the church to mission “centeredness.” He started and, for 10 consecutive years, led an annual trip to Milwaukee, Wis., performing manual labor side-by-side with other team members. Other groups headed off to Morelos, Coahuila, Mexico, to work with La Iglesia Bautista Central (Central Baptist Church); Austin, Texas; the central American countries of Honduras and Nicaragua; Michigan; and Montana. For those unable to travel, a week of work was scheduled right here in Sulphur Springs.
Other local efforts included an African-American mission called Liberty Baptist Fellowship, led by Rev. Raymond Hawkins. From 2001 to 2003 this congregation met in the College Street facility once known as the Women’s Building (which had been purchased by the church in 2000).
Today, the Rev. Bill Anderson is serving as interim pastor of the church. One of the leading Baptist preachers in the Southern United States, Anderson pastored Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., for 26 years, was the interim pastor for First Baptist Church in Dallas, was vice-chairman of two Billy Graham crusades, and has held the position of national chairman for the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board as part of his storied career.
He has spent 50 years in the pulpit, but he’s hardly one who seems to have a retiring mind. In fact, during the preparations for the church’s 150th anniversary, the church and staff have been working on a “Purpose Statement” for about a year.
“The entire congregation will be working through it to insure that we all know, and everybody who visits with us knows, in a very precise and specific way, what it is that we are all about,” Dr. Anderson wrote in a church blog. “Simple as that sounds, it is crucial that our ministry focus be carefully thought through.  And understood.  And agreed on.  And passionately pursued!”
Youth Minister Brian Brewer may have described the outlook for First Baptist Church’s future best in another blog entry.
“As we have been singing...
Greater things are yet to come, and greater things are still to be done in this city...’ God is NOT finished with us yet.  The dreams He has are so much more than we could ever ask or imagine according to Ephe-
sians 3:20-21!  This is exciting because I have some pretty BIG dreams for what God wants to do in and through the ministries of FBC ... yet I know He desires to do even more!”
And if the past is any indication, there’s plenty in store for the future.




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