The Making of Modern Auburn First Baptist Church

Nearly all churches have several beginnings, some many more. As decades come and go, realities change, and elements of tradition and modernity collide, dramatic alterations occur. For Auburn First Baptist, the decades between 1900 and 1940 produced most of those transitions. Organizationally, theologically, and culturally, the church after 72 years of life became more like the church of 2013 than the one of 1838. The “indefinite call”, which began in 1900 stabilized pastoral leadership. The 8 pastors who served between 1838 and 1877 served an average of 5 years, those from 1878 to 1903 only three-and-a-half years. But the 12 pastors who served from 1904 until 2013 averaged 9 years (a figure distorted by the long pastorates of Murray Perceval Edwards, 14 years, James R. Edwards, 19 years, and John Jeffers, 28 years).

Although the church had always enrolled college students, the rapid growth of Auburn University resulted in a structured, organized, and highly successful student ministry led by Leland Cooper. Some old time members note that Cooper never married. In some sense that is incorrect. She gave her heart and life to two generations of college students. Having herself become a Christian as an adult, she understood that not every student was nurtured to early conversion. Together with pastor Earl W. Holmes and new university president Spright Dowell, Cooper established a vibrant youth program. She organized Senior, Intermediate, and Junior departments. One branch became the new Baptist Student Union, which met for some years in her home. When it overflowed that space, she moved to a public school auditorium. So beloved was she that during Christmas season, 1925, students raised enough money to buy her a spiffy new Model T Ford. That year church membership reached 340.

[pullquote_right width=”50%”]Evangelical Americans had reached a consensus that much was wrong with the game of football. Too much violence and mayhem. Too many badly injured players. Too much association with alcohol and gambling. Too many double standards in both academic and ethical conduct of players.[/pullquote_right]Already Baptist life had developed a toxic pattern in gender relations. As long as church staff positions were largely voluntary, women generally filled them. But when they became organizationally large enough to require a full time person, the paid staff were almost always men. So it was for Miss Leland. The State Baptist Convention employed Davis C. Wooley as first Student Secretary (director) for BSU in October, 1935. The warm, hospitable Wooley carried on Cooper’s work and institutionalized it. On “Freshman Sunday”, he preached sermons such as “If I Were a Freshman.” Unlike Cooper, Wooley became a regular church staff member. Using the argument that the avalanche of 140 BSU members realistically could contribute little to the church budget, AFBC asked the State Convention to fund student work, help with facilities, and supplement the pastor’s salary.

Dr. James R. Edwards began the second longest tenure in church history, 19 years, in 1926. A North Carolinian, Edwards attended Wake Forest and graduated from Colgate University, then pastored several churches in Brooklyn and New York. Moving to Birmingham as pastor of Ruhama Baptist, the home church of Howard College, he also taught Bible at the college. This educational experience made him a good match for AFBC. Though scholarly and formal in the pulpit, he flourished on personal visitation. The first pastor to occupy the new pastorium next to the church built in 1927 (the dream of C. E. Little, who died before it was completed), Edwards functioned as custodian as well as pastor. He locked and unlocked the doors, stoked the furnace, and presided at the weddings of many college students. He also formed a board of trustees to oversee construction of a new church. The congregation moved into its new sanctuary, built for $85,000, on April 29, 1929. Beloved Dr. Dowell, who had left Auburn to become president of Mercer University, returned to preach the dedicatory sermon. C.E. Little’s son, Felton, honored his deceased father with the gift of a new organ which served the church until 1975.

Dowell’s reunion was bittersweet for him and the church. A distinguished North Carolina educator, he came to Alabama to supervise Birmingham public schools, then moved on to become State Superintendent of Schools. He became president of Auburn in 1920. He immediately plunged into church life, moderating church business meetings.

He also plunged into a mess of trouble over football. Evangelical Americans had reached a consensus that much was wrong with the game. Too much violence and mayhem. Too many badly injured players. Too much association with alcohol and gambling. Too many double standards in both academic and ethical conduct of players. To minimize corruption in recruiting, Dowell sought to transfer control of athletics from the semi-autonomous Auburn Athletic Association–made up of coaches, alumni, and boosters—to regular academic officials. He rejected more money for sport and required that coaches actually teach. Under his watch, the university avoided scandal but also avoided victories on the gridiron. Coach Mike Donahue, who had won three conference championships, departed for L.S.U. The Jefferson County Auburn Club demanded Dowell’s resignation. A fierce three year battle ensued, highlighted by Dowell’s suspension of players for academic deficiency and violating the school’s moral code. Church members, led by Leland Cooper, loyally sided with him. The pastor of Auburn Methodist Church condemned football as little better than a collective brawl. Though many moralists agreed, this theology did not take deep root in Alabama, where the University of Alabama had just won a national championship in 1926. Moralists lost the battle (and AFBC a steady and strong leader) in 1927, when Dowell was fired. It is a good thing the church completed its building in April, 1929. If the project had continued into the Fall, the Wall Street panic and ensuing Depression might have prolonged the project by more than a decade. With a hefty debt to pay and offerings falling to $5,000-6,000 a year, austerity became the major fixture of church life. The pastor’s salary declined by more than half, $3,000 to $1,200. The church tried to lease its property on College Street, but finally had to sell it for a service station in 1938.

Nonetheless, life went on. As in the past, volunteers stepped forward to serve the faith community they loved. Beloved Dr. Edwards preached on, the quality of sermons not declining with his salary. Mrs. Christine Tidwell served both as part time organist and choir director until prosperity returned and she was replaced by a full time male director. She combined various church choirs at Christmas, 1938, with 800 attending the cantata she directed. The church eased up a bit on membership requirements, adopting a rule unusual for Baptist congregations at the time. In 1930, AFBC allowed people who had been immersed in some other denomination to become full members without rebaptism. Eleven years later, members voted to accept as associate members persons from other denominations who had not been fully immersed in the Baptist way.

By the death of Dr. Edwards in 1945, Auburn seemed set on a course that would lead straight to the future: strong lay leadership, including females; a robust student ministry; strong organizational structure; a modern sanctuary; and an independent streak in theology and polity.

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