Important Intersections at Auburn First Baptist

Intersections can be figurative or literal, destructive or constructive. Sometimes, they can be both. We are the church at the corners of Glenn, Gay, and College. But in 1900 we also occupied intersections of a new century, a failed pastorate, a phenomenally successful new pastorate, a period of growth unprecedented in church history, a strong surge in mission interest, a corresponding boom in student ministry, and the emergence of a lay woman who would become legendary in the annals of the congregation.

Pastor/historian John Jeffers handled the pastoral transition in his history of the church with typical tact and understatement: “The pastorate of J.J. Cloud seems to have come to less than a happy conclusion in the fall of 1900….” The church voted to relieve Rev. Cloud of his duties for rest. Following the furlough, he criticized the church’s lack of interest, attendance, and participation. A week later, the congregation voted to declare the pulpit vacant and seek a new pastor. Cloud had reason to complain. His salary had not been fully paid, and C.E. Little (who had long subsidized the budget from his own funds) submitted his resignation as church treasurer (it was not accepted).

[pullquote_right width=”50%”]As a cascading avalanche of college students joined the church, it not only escalated membership, it also fueled idealistic interest in mission work and less visionary concerns in the opposite sex. So many college romances began in the church that a catalogue of them might be longer than this history.[/pullquote_right]If the old century ended in controversy, the new one swept away bad memories. Upon the strong recommendation of Southern Baptist Seminary professor George B. Eager, the church called newly graduated Augustus Young (A.Y.) Napier as its youngest, least experienced pastor ever. Though the Georgia native and Mercer University graduate would go on to a distinguished career, he was untried and untested in 1900. That the church gambled so much on him owes much to Eager. He had pastored two of Alabama’s wealthiest and most influential congregations, Parker Memorial in Anniston and Montgomery First Baptist. His wife, Annie, had been a distinguished social reformer, vice president of the Alabama Library Association and Boys’ Industrial School, a suffragist, and president of the Federated Women’s Clubs. As a seminary professor, her husband was also an early advocate of social justice. To seal the deal, First Baptist for the first time extended Napier an indefinite call (rather than a one year appointment).

The church’s confidence was not misplaced. The young bachelor took the town by storm. A 23 day revival in 1902 added 34 members by baptism and another 19 by letter. The church increase for that year, 76, nearly doubled the membership of 100. The budget increased so rapidly that the church could afford to buy its first organ in 1904. Church infrastructure typical of modern Baptist churches emerged, with a Sunday School of nearly 100, a women’s missionary society, and a prayer meeting (which in contradiction of Baptist tradition and for unknown reasons was changed from Wednesday to Thursday night).

One source of the rapid growth was a flood of immigrants which both multiplied and dramatically changed the nation’s population. Another was ministry to the local population. The 1870 census listed only 1,000 Auburn residents; but rapid growth after 1900 pushed the population past 1,400 by 1910. In 1916 the church began a tradition now nearly a century old: it placed collection boxes to help the poor at the doors on communion Sundays. Students also flooded into Auburn. By 1907 the 600 students attending the Land Grant university made it the largest college in Alabama.

Just before J.J. Cloud resigned in 1900, he baptized Leland Cooper, a young school teacher who would become the focus of the congregation’s student work. Auburn Female Academy had employed Cooper in 1896 to teach second and third grades. The school soon admitted boys, and for awhile it was the only public school for whites. As a cascading avalanche of college students joined the church, it not only escalated membership, it also fueled idealistic interest in mission work and less visionary concerns in the opposite sex. So many college romances began in the church that a catalogue of them might be longer than this history. But the most unusual may have been between the dashing, leprechaun of a preacher and a teenage church visitor.

Lois Davie, a 16 year-old Judson College student and daughter of a prominent Clayton (Barbour County) Baptist merchant, visited Auburn First Baptist while on Summer vacation. After the service, she talked with the new pastor, and according to them “it was a simple case of love at first sight.” Three impediments stood in the way of their marriage: her age; her father’s fierce disapproval to her impulsive romance; A.Y. Napier’s growing sense of call to China as a missionary. They resolved these in stages. Napier sought missionary appointment. Successful in this step, he left for China. Upon graduating college, the daring young woman joined a vast stream of America’s most committed and idealistic Christians, traveling to Seattle where she embarked for Japan. Napier met her there where they were married, then immediately set sail for a 1000 mile honeymoon across the Yellow Sea and up the Yangtze River to Nanking, then overland to Chingchow in Honan Province, one of the most remote areas of China. They remained in China and parented two sons through plagues and violent revolutions. A.Y. returned to seminary on sabbatical where he earned his Ph.D. with a brilliant dissertation entitled “The Challenge of China in America”. Extolling the cultural and historical richness of China, he argued that though preaching the Gospel was important, social ministries that addressed poverty, illness, illiteracy, and the exploitation of women paved the way for such proclamation. Secular learning alone, which the Chinese welcomed, left them with much knowledge but little faith. But no door opened China more to the Gospel than medicine. He urged the Foreign Mission Board to appoint women physicians and devote more funds for medical missions. His advocacy established him as a leader of the Baptist cause in China, and he was elected head of the Central China Mission. He also urged more ecumenical ministries. In a letter to me many years after his parents died, their son, Davie Napier (who served as religion professor at Yale, Chaplain of Stanford University, and in the 1970s created controversy in the South by performing an unusual marriage—the union of Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s daughter to an African American Stanford student) wrote: “My parents’ China years moved them increasingly away… from ‘typically Southern Baptist culture’. Through all my life with them they were outraged by ‘our’ treatment of American Indians and Afro-Americans…; and, in another manner of departure, they advocated several times the merger of duplicated schools run by Southern Baptists and some other denomination.”

The Napiers were among the first of a great missionary tradition at First Baptist. Toward the end of the 20th Century, Dartie Flynt and other W.M.U. members determined to quantify this effort. They located the names of many dozens of members, most students, who volunteered for missions. Although their list is not exhaustive, it seems certain that few churches so small sent so many members and former members forth to the “uttermost parts of the world” to gather a great eternal harvest.

Auburn First Baptist Church