A History: First Baptist Church of Auburn, Alabama; 1838-1966

Foreword

The Church Member Orientation Program being pursued at this time (Fall 1965) during the Training Union hour, includes a study entitled, “Your Church And Its History.” There being no compiled history since 1926, and this writer having been a member of this church since August 26, 1900, she was asked to write a sketch bringing the history up to date.

The information contained in this history of the First Baptist Church of Auburn was obtained from church minutes, church bulletins, Tuskegee Association minutes, a few annuals of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, a history of the church written in 1926 by Mary Reese Frazer (Mrs. William Baxter Frazer—great aunt-in-law of the present writer), by personal interviews and from personal experience and knowledge.

Written November 1965  |  Printed September 1966

A History of First Baptist Church of Auburn, Alabama
by Miss Leland Cooper

The First Baptist Church of Auburn is one hundred and twenty-seven years old having been constituted in 1838. It has worshiped in five church buildings, four of which have been located on the present lot.

Twenty ministers have served as pastors during these one hundred and twenty-seven years. At least five other ministers have served from a few months to a year as interim pastors also. Three pastors had long terms of service. Mr. W. E. Lloyd was pastor three different times, which amounted to almost twenty-two years. Dr. Murray P. Edwards was pastor fourteen years, and Dr. James R. Edwards, eighteen years and a few months (they were not related).

This part of Alabama was inhabited by the Creek Indians and in 1832 the Federal government made a treaty with them in which they agreed to relinquish all their lands east of the Mississippi River and move west of that river.

A Mr. John Harper and young son, Jack, from Harris County, Georgia, came to this part of Alabama in 1833 in search of a new home and new surroundings. They spent the night at an Inn operated by a Mr. Taylor as they traveled to Alabama. His young daughter Elizabeth was home from boarding school. She and young Jack were very much attracted to each other.

On a later stop at the Taylors, the Harpers reported they had decided to move from Georgia to this Alabama location and wanted a name for the town. Elizabeth Taylor, who had been reading Goldsmith’s Deserted Village enthusiastically proposed the name “Auburn” which the Harpers accepted. Young Jack also later adopted Elizabeth as his wife and she was said to have been very influential in shaping Auburn’s early history.

We are indebted to Mary Reese Frazer (Mrs. William Baxter Frazer) for much early history of Auburn and the Baptist Church from its founding through 1926. Her father and mother came to Auburn as bridegroom and bride in the late 1840s, and she was born here August, 1850. She was a very jovial person with a most pleasing personality, a faithful church member and steadfast worker with the children and young people. She wrote the history of the church from its beginning through 1926.

The first church building was a log house erected on land donated by Mr. John Harper, a Methodist, to the Baptist people. He also gave lots to Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal congregations. The Baptist lot was located on the north side of West Glenn Avenue about where Toomer Street intersects Glenn. I recall gravestones on that lot in the early 1920s.

The Baptists somehow were not pleased with their location; therefore in 1848 the present lot was given by Mrs. Matthew Turner, who also built the first building on the lot. The College building of East Alabama Male College and all church buildings in the town were used by sick and wounded soldiers as hospitals during the War Between the States. A violent storm in 1864 unroofed the Baptist church. But the roof rested on the tops of the pews and not a soldier nor volunteer nurse was injured, neither did any get wet by the downpour of rain that followed the cyclone.

The church house remained in this dilapidated condition for several years. Mrs. Frazer says, “A Baptist will not always remain down and under.” Therefore, in 1866-67 under the inspiration of her father-in-law, a layman, Mr. Alexander Frazer, a second building on the same foundation was erected.

Miss Mildred McElhaney, the oldest native member of this church, has presented three pictures of the earliest church buildings to the Church Library. Miss McElhaney will be ninety-two years of age this year (1966). She united with this church by baptism on May 28, 1885.

This building, an exact reproduction of the first one, was an old fashioned one-room structure, with a long, wide porch across the front from which there were two entrances, one for the men, the other for the women and children-because the men occupied pews on one side of the house; women and children the other.

Second building housing First Baptist Church on present site.

The pulpit was an old box concern with steps on either side and doors to “close the preacher in securely.” The building seated about two hundred people including the negroes who occupied the back pews, for there were no negro churches in those days.

The musical instrument was a melodeon, a small reed organ. A Mrs. Swanson, a very modest and timid little woman, agreed to play the melodeon for the church services if a curtain could be drawn in front of her in order that she might not be seen. Therefore, the melodeon was placed in the center of the church surrounded by a green curtain which enclosed the organist and choir.

In 1892 a new and more pretentious building was erected. The lumber was secured from the plantation of Mr. T. O. Wright and prepared by Mrs. Wright’s father, Mr. Parkinson. Mrs. J. T. Williamson (Bessie Wright) and Mr. Emil Wright are daughter and son of Mr. and Mrs. T. O. Wright and grandchildren of Mr. Parkinson.

This building had three Sunday school rooms across the rear and beautiful stained glass windows. There were two entrances, one facing College Street, the other Tichenor. This building was located about where the south end of the present Sunday School Annex extends. It faced College Street as did the other two buildings.

As the college enrollment increased and the town’s population grew, an annex was added to this building in 1910. The south side of the building faced Tichenor Avenue. It provided seven Sunday school rooms and seating for more than two hunched people.

On the second Sunday, May 1911, the Sunday school observed Mother’s Day for the first time. In those days college students wore uniforms at all times and went to Roll Call on the campus at 10:30 A.M. every Sunday then marched to the church of their choice for preaching service. As time passed the congregation also outgrew this building.

To help relieve this situation the interested college students and the men of the church in two Saturdays built a long “shack,” as they called it, just back of the three Sunday school rooms in the rear of the church. This building had movable partitions so it could be used as one room or three class rooms.

The women of the church furnished sumptuous dinners to the builders during this building process. This house filled the needs for a short time; but with more Sunday school classes and Baptist Young People’s Unions being organized, more space was needed at an increasingly rapid rate.

The Grammar School Building across Tichenor, where the Post Office now stands, was used for both Sunday school and B.Y.P.U. meetings. Also a class of college men students—about two hundred in number—met in the town picture show building then located where Stacy’s Thrift Store and Guy’s Appliance are located. This class was taught by Dr. Spright Dowell, president of Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Mr. Earle W. Holmes was the pastor then—1922.

With aid of Dr. Dowell, other interested members, and a number of college students, Mr. Holmes went to Montgomery to the Baptist State Convention in 1923 and presented these needs. The convention appointed a committee to study these needs with the view to furnishing some financial aid to the church for erection of a larger and more adequate building. These plans resulted in the present building which was begun in early fall of 1928 and completed the spring of 1929. The pastor was Dr. James R. Edwards. This building was dedicated April 14, 1929.

Dr. Spright Dowell, then president of Mercer University, preached the dedicatory sermon. His text was “What Mean ye By These Stones?” Joshua4:6. The mortgage was burned April 5, 1942, when indebtedness had been fully paid. The total cost of the building was a little more than $100,000. The ladies of the church contributed $11,453.60; the men about $40,000; and the State Mission Board, $50,000.

By 1948 the church building was again inadequate for our needs. The church auditorium was, consequently, enlarged by spring 1949. The pastorium, built in 1927, was converted into an office and Sunday school building in 1950 and in 1953 the present Sunday School Annex was erected.

A home for the pastor was bought on Norwood Avenue, which was used until 1957. In 1958 the present pastor’s home on Moore’s Mill Road was acquired. The Baptist Student Center was completed in 1961. And yet more space is needed to accommodate our ever increasing membership with its unnumbered opportunities in the Lord’s work here at Auburn.

In addition to enlarging the present facilities of the First Baptist Church, a mission branch was started in 1956, which in 1959 became Lakeview Baptist Church, an independent and full time church with Wyley M. Peebles as official pastor. This church is rapidly growing in buildings and membership with Rex H. Dickey as the present pastor.

The summer of 1963 Airview and Pepperell Baptist churches sponsored a Daily Vacation Bible School in the vicinity of Starr’s and Stoker’s Trailer Courts on Opelika Highway. Auburn First Baptist soon became a third sponsor of this project; thus today the Auburn Heights Mission is being developed as another church.

Our church is also looking forward to its future expansion in the recent acquisition of lot and buildings east of the present lot, bordering Gay Street. This lot, with buildings—one of which was a two-story house—was once owned by the church, but was sold February 28, 1893, to W. E. Lloyd, a former pastor, for $1500. We bought lot and buildings from last owner on July 15, 1965, for $165,000.

Sunday school is the Bible teaching period in the program of the church. We know little about the Sunday school of this church in its early days. We find in Mrs. Frazer’s history that in the late 1850s the church membership was very small and rather indifferent toward the church program. None of the men could be induced to conduct Sunday school; so Mrs. Mary Reese, Mrs. Frazer’s mother, and a Mrs. Drake kept the Sunday school work alive quite a long time. Both Mr. and Mrs. Frazer were quite active in Sunday school work in 1880s through early 1900s—Mr. Frazer as Sunday School Superintendent, and she as teacher, sometimes of the Primaries, at other times teenage girls.

The associational church letter of 1897 records eight members of the Sunday school were received into the church for baptism. The 1901 associational letter noted the “Sunday school in a flourishing condition with one hundred and thirty-five enrolled, ninety-six average attendance.”

In 1902, twenty-five from Sunday school were received for baptism. A. Y. Napier, a young minister, just out of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was pastor at that time. He had a burning passion for lost souls. Two revivals were held during his administration, one of twenty-three days in July 1902 with fifty-three additions to the church; the other, twelve days in April 1903, nineteen additions, with fourteen of these for baptism.

Brother Napier went to China in 1904 as the first missionary from Auburn. He served there twenty-eight years. He died in 1964 at a son’s home in Virginia at the age of ninety-two. The spiritual and numerical growth of the church and Sunday school during these years continued for many years afterward.

Professor R. D. Webb of the English Department of Alabama Polytechnic Institute, became Sunday school superintendent about 1905. He organized the Sunday school into departments and the classes according to aqes. He introduced a three point record system, namely: attendance, lesson study, and contribution, for which three credits were recorded every Sunday to each individual who had a perfect record. It was possible to earn one hundred and fifty-six points per vear, but for as many as one hundred and twenty points, a diploma of merit was awarded at the end of the year.

A quarterly report was printed each quarter and furnished to all church families. This greatly strengthened and increased the interest of the church members in regular attendance, not only for Sunday school, but for all other church services. This Sunday school development served as a foundation for building a better and stronger church organization.

There are records in Alabama Baptist History of women’s missionary societies under varied names, even before the Baptist State Convention was organized in 1823. One name found in several records was “Benevolent Sewing Society.” We have found no such record for the Auburn Baptist church, but we have visible evidence that there was here a society by this name as is portrayed by the inscription on the tankard which is part of the old communion set in our library.

We have records of a Ladies’ Aid Society in 1897 and 1898, also a Sunbeam Band in 1897 and years following. In the associational letter of 1902, the Ladies Missionary Society was reported as “Woman’s Missionary Union,” whose president was Mrs. E. G. Boyd—wife of Dr. Boyd, president Agricultural and Mechanical College, the year 1883. The 1905 report bore title: “Woman’s Missionary Union and Ladies Aid Society with Mrs. M. E. Bell as president.”

In 1905 a Young Ladies Aid Society was organized which was known later as “The Willing Workers.” The church minutes February 27, 1916, state this group planned to kalsomine the walls of the church building.

Miss Willie Kelley, an Alabama woman, who went to China as a missionary in November 1894, was supported financially by Alabama Woman’s Missionary Union for a number of years. This fact was a great stimulus to Auburn Woman’s Missionary Union work in its early existence as Mrs. Bell and Miss Kelley had been girlhood friends at Renton, Alabama.

The name Woman’s Missionary Union was adopted about 1909 or 1910 by the ladies of Auburn Baptist Church and seemed to have become firmly established as a permanent part of the church organization. Thousands of missionary-hearted men and women in our Southern Baptist Convention churches testify that they received their first missionary impressions in Woman’s Missionary Union young people’s organizations. Many missionaries on state, home, and foreign fields heard the call of God for special Christian service while members of Sunbeam Rands, Royal Ambassador Chapters, Girls’ Auxiliaries, or Young Woman’s Auxiliaries.

First Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union has had a long list of capable and consecrated women as leaders—too long to name here—who from 1897 to the present day have achieved great things for the kingdom of God at home and abroad.

Among many worthy achievements of these noble women was the establishment of a memorial fund of five hundred dollars with the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to be used by the Church Building Loan Fund. This is known as the Murray P. Edwards Memorial Church Building Loan Fund. Inspired by its growth and development and these accomplishments may we ever keep before us the love of Christ for a lost world as expressed in His sacrificial death on the cross. Today is the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Foreign Missions and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The most missionary churches are those that have the strongest Woman’s Missionary Union.

For several years there have been strong and enthusiastic Sunbeam Bands, Junior Girls’ Auxiliary—ages 9-12—Intermediate Girls’ Auxiliary—ages 13-15—and Young Woman’s Auxiliary organizations in our Woman’s Missionary Union. We have a Young Woman’s Auxiliary of local young women and one of young college women. These young people are the future leaders of our churches and mission enterprises through our denomination around the world. We are being unfair and disloyal to them if we fail to give them the training due them.

The church has been greatly blessed through the men and women who have gone from among her members as foreign missionaries.

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The first student on record to go as a missionary from this church was Arthur E. Hayes, who went to Brazil in 1919. Since that time we have had at least ten other students go as missionaries and one former pastor. Among the students are Mary Hazel Ford Moon who with her family spent their furlough here and returned to Brazil recently. Another Auburn student couple are Dr. and Mrs. William R. Norman, missionaries to Nigeria, who returned to their field of service last August. Dr. Howard D. Olive and family of the Philippines are now on furlough at Howard College.

In 1890 in connection with some Baptist meetings in Chicago, the Baptist Young People’s Union was organized, including the United States and Canada. Dr. A. J. Dickinson of Birmingham, while serving as interim pastor, stated from this church pulpit in 1921, that he offered a resolution to the Alabama Baptist State Convention in 1892 or 1893 that Alabama Baptist churches be allowed and encouraged to organize Baptist Young People’s Unions in order that young Christians might have the benefit of its training program.

First Baptist Church’s associational letter of 1898 contains this statement: “Interest in church work has been greatly increased by the active work of the Baptist Young People’s Union under the leadership of Brother P. H. Mell.” Dr. Mell was a member of the college faculty in Science for twenty-five years, leaving Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1902 to become president of Clemson College, South Carolina.

The Baptist Young People’s meetings were held on Sunday afternoons. During the early 1900s, the organization was of short duration, due perhaps to lack of leaders. However, in the fall of 1916 two local young women-Miss Laura Watt (now Mrs. J. H. Hanson) and Gatchell Cooper with A. B. Pimm, a college student from Florida, talked with the pastor about organizing a Baptist Young People’s Union. With the pastor’s blessings and sympathetic cooperation, a Baptist Young People’s Union was organized. It began functioning in January 1917 and has lived continuously ever since.

In January 1919, B.Y.P.U. was divided into Senior, Intermediate, and Junior departments with Leland Cooper as director. The name was changed by our Southwide leaders from Baptist Young People’s Union to Training Union in 1937 with three other departments added to the work—Adults, Beginner, and Nursery.

During Baptist Young People’s Union study course week in December 1923, Dr. Frank H. Leavell, Southwide Secretary of the Interboard Commission, was here teaching his book on Stewardship. He suggested we organize a BSU except it wasn’t called by that name. The name Baptist Student Union originated in Texas in 1920 but was not applied to southwide student work until April 1924. Dr. Leavell, the pastor, the B.Y.P.U. director, and a number of interested college students laid the foundation the Baptist Student Union organization. Thus BSU was an outgrowth of Baptist Young People’s Union. P. T. Ray, an electrical engineering student at A.P.I. on a scholarship, was elected the first president.

There was much pioneer work and many unusual undertakings among Auburn college students during the next five years. Pastor Holmes and Dr. Spright Dowell, A.P.I. president, were most helpful and cooperative in promoting Baptist Student Union activities and in ironing out rough places that often arose.

The BSU undertook and accomplished one thing not usually listed on any BSU calendar of activities. The second state BSU convention was held in Tuscaloosa in November 1925, and for several reasons the BSU director was not able to attend. One particular reason was that her T Model Ford was almost beyond travel use. The twenty-odd students who attended the convention decided with the pastor’s approval that they would solicit funds from Baptist students and church members with which to buy a new car for the student director as a Christmas surprise. It was indeed a surprise and a most welcome one!

Not until October 1, 1935, did this church have a full time student director to assist in leading and training Baptist students. Davis C. Woolley became the first paid student director. His first term of service was for only nine months, but he was reemployed September 1, 1936, and served continuously until June 1, 1940.

In 1946 the state Baptist Student Union Convention met in Birmingham. Auburn had furnished the state president for two years—Ralph Gandy, a veterinary student from South Carolina. At this convention a former Auburn student who had accepted God’s call to the ministry and had transferred to Howard College was elected president for the following year.

It is significant that two Auburn students filled the office of state Baptist Student Union president for three consecutive years. Charles Martin and family had one tour of service as missionaries to Japan. He is now pastor of Parker Memorial Church, Anniston, Alabama. Baptist Student Union as we know it today is designed to meet the spiritual needs of all Christian students. With its Training Union, Sunday school, Young Woman’s Auxiliary, Brotherhood, music, missions, drama, journalism, and other phases of work, a student is able to develop in many worthwhile directions in Christian endeavor.

The church library is an integral part of the education ministry of church. Our early church leaders may not have thought of the education ministry of the church; but someone was interested in books and people and thought and cared enough to have a library in this church as far back as 1899. The associational letter of that date reported one hundred volumes in the library. The following year, 1900, two hundred fifty-six volumes were reported. How long this library existed has not been ascertained. But we do know that within more recent years a library was begun with Mrs. O. R. Hodges as librarian, who served from its inception till
she left Auburn in 1955.

Miss Berta Dunn was then elected and has filled the office so acceptably until September 1, 1965. With her dedication and conscientious ability, the library has been developed to fill the need for which it is designed. Mrs. Robert Williams has been chosen as the librarian for the future. With her enthusiasm and competence, the library in its new location will continue to be of great service to our church people. Presently we have more than two thousand volumes in the library. New books are constantly being added.

The Brotherhood department of our Baptist work provides four areas of emphasis for the men of the church, namely: Christian witness, personal stewardship, world missions, and boy’s work.

Dr. W. J. Isbell, Jr. a graduate of Auburn University and former member of this church is secretary of the Brotherhood Department of the Alabama Baptist State Executive Board.

Auburn First Baptist Church had no Brotherhood organization until early 1953 when a Men’s Fellowship Dinner was held March 25 at seven P.M. with Mr. Forrest R. Sawyer, then State Brotherhood Secretary, as speaker. The organization was perfected some time after this meeting. The new organization held a Fathers’ and Sons’ Banquet on June 19, 1953, at the church with Mr. L. M. Smith, president of Alabama Power Company, a very active member of Brotherhood of Ensley Baptist Church as the speaker.

Until a few years ago the Woman’s Missionary Union had as part of its mission work, boy’s work known as Royal Ambassador; but this was presented to the Brotherhood as their responsibility. It is the belief of Baptists that Christian men should be interested in boys and provide the proper outlets through which their energies may be directed to higher Christian principles of life. The Royal Ambassador program, with emphasis on Christian missions, is the ideal way to meet many of the boys’ needs today.

Present building housing First Baptist Church (1965)

It has been said that music is a universal language. All people of all nations love and enjoy music. It speaks a language all its own. The Bible contains many beautiful psalms and hymns that God’s people used in worship ages ago. We still use them in our worship services today.

Miss Kate McElhaney was church organist for many years. A small organ, pumped with foot pedals, was in use when she first became organist. Later a larger organ was bought that in addition to foot pedals had to be pumped by hand-because we had no electricity. A Junior or Intermediate Sunday school boy was paid one dollar per month to do this service for many years. Mrs. Sara Tidmore was organist for a long time after Miss McElhaney resigned.

For many years the Ladies Aid Society, Willing Workers, and Woman’s Missionary Society saved money to buy a pipe organ. They had about six thousand dollars in this fund. With the erection of the present building in 1928, Mr. Felton Little presented our beautiful pipe organ as a memorial to his father and mother. The ladies put their money into the building fund.

There have always been faculty members and their wives as well as students with good voices who are glad to serve in the choir. For many years the principal soloist was Mrs. P. H. Mell, wife of Dr. Mell in the Science Department of A.P.I. She was a Presbyterian; but as preaching services were held only once a month in her church practically the whole time she lived here, she was in the Baptist choir with her husband at least three Sundays per month.

The faculty and students of University Music Department render much help to our church in many ways. If little Mrs. Swanson of so long ago could spend a week around First Baptist Church and observe the music activities, she would hardly believe it possible. There is Youth Choir rehearsal at 5:00 p.m. Sunday; Student Choir rehearsal at 6:30 p.m. Monday; Church Choir rehearsal at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday; Primary I, Primary 11, and Junior Choir rehearsals at 3:00 p.m. Thursday.

With the well prepared and efficient music directors we have fortunately had, the dedicated pianists, and organists, our people learn to sing well and enjoy praising God with their voices. Good music takes dedicated people, prayerful patience, and persistent practice on the part of director and choir members. Let us pray that our lives as well as our music may always be not for our selfish gratification, but for God’s glory.

Since March 1, 1958, Auburn First Baptist has been fortunate to have as leader and pastor, Brother John H. Jeffers, who is friend, counselor, and guide in all our undertakings. We hold him and his family in high regard and great esteem and thank God for sending him to us. Our church has accomplished much under his leadership and is looking forward to greater achievements in the kingdom work.

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