When asked to name Auburn First Baptist Church’s golden age, long time members often mention the years from the end of World War II to the 1960s. America’s most formidable global economic competitors lay in ruins. People discovered new and profound meaning in their families. They sought religious renewal. Baptist evangelist Billy Graham launched a world wide revival. The modern Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy. The Women’s Movement, jolting cultural change, the Baby Boomer generation, all were on the horizon but had not yet matured.
These would transform Auburn in the 1960s. Until then the town seemed to be in a time warp. Auburn First Baptist Church was the only option for white Baptists. Alabama Polytechnic Institute claimed to be the largest Baptist University in the world: in 1947, 2,300 of its 6,300 students belonged to that denomination. API president Ralph Draughon was a prominent layman. Though some students had fallen from grace, those who had not either returned home to worship or attended AFBC. Church membership broke new records nearly every year. Not coincidentally, so did enrollment at API.
The G.I. Bill, perhaps the most transformative development in higher education since the Land Grant Act, unloosed an avalanche on the town. Winter quarter enrollments soared from 1,778 in 1945 to 3,498 the following year, to 6,311 in 1947. API staff and faculty grew from 411 to 899 by 1955. City limits more than doubled from 4 square miles to 9. With 6,000 Baptists living within the city limits by 1955 and only one white Baptist church to serve them, church growth needed no guru: just open the doors, get out of the way, and welcome hordes of new comers. On the first Sunday of Fall quarter in 1948, 102 students crowded into the aisles to move their membership (records do not record the number of verses of the “invitational” hymn the congregation sang that October morning to accommodate the response or even where so many found a place to stand). Pastor Howard Olive baptized 45 in 1951 and 53 the following year. By 1953, the church had to add an 8:30 a.m. service because of overflow crowds. Shortly thereafter, the church installed air conditioning and an auxiliary speaker system so members listening in a large auditorium could leave the main sanctuary for visitors and new members. In 1945 membership stood at 847 (300 of whom were non-resident, probably students who had graduated without moving their membership). By the mid 1950s, membership reached 2,178, with 312 in WMU and 89 in Brotherhood. Contributions reached an unprecedented $71,000 plus $23,000 in mission gifts.
Missions dominated the congregation’s vision. API was second among state colleges only to Baptist Howard College in number of graduates who entered missions. Many began their mission careers as students, working at one of three African American Baptist churches in Auburn, or serving Summer mission terms. During the Summer, 1956, Walter Porter and Dwayne Beckett worked with the Tentmaker program in California. By that year, BSU, located in the church, enrolled 600 API students. Many BSU members departed for graduate school, then returned to teach at their alma mater, where they rejoined the church (Dwayne and Lois Beckett, Walter Porter, Oyette and Brenda Chambliss, Tom and Linda Powe, Betty and Paul Smith), giving the BSU and AFB family a multi-generational flavor. J.C. Grimes, chair of the Search Committee for a new BSU director in 1951 as well as of the Trustees, described enormous opportunities: “I believe that the First Baptist Church… is a part of the Divine Plan. I believe that it will continue to do in the future what it has done in the past; that it will grow and will expand its facilities and resources to meet the spiritual needs of a growing student body and an expanding community.”
In 1955, the church established a Missions Committee to study the need for a new Baptist church in Auburn. L. M. Ware, chair of Deacons, described in the new church newsletter, The Auburn Baptist, “A Church Vision” to sponsor new congregations in a town where only a quarter of Baptists attended AFB. Members voted to buy a lot and began plans for what would become Lakeview Baptist. The timing could not have been worse. Ware joked that the congregation was without pastor, minister of education, music, organist, choir director, and chair of the Nominating Committee, “all of these at a time when everyone seems to be on vacation, when a student body is about to descend on us, when officers and committees are about to change, and when many of our key men and women are out each Sunday trying to find a new pastor. Will you do just a little more than your part while this emergency lasts?” They did, and in September, 1959, Lakeview was chartered with 186 members from AFC as its core leadership.
Although the church was blessed with fine pastors during these years, they served short terms. The three between 1945 and 1958 averaged only four years. So, lay leaders filled the void, as they had so many times before.
Familiar names appear in critical leadership positions: Leland Cooper; J.C. Grimes; Felton Little. But one layman seemed to fill the most key roles. Lamar Mims Ware, referred to simply as “Professor Ware” by generations of church members, was born in Marshallville, Georgia, on August 20, 1895. He attended API for his BS and MS degrees before leaving for additional graduate work at Michigan State. He returned in 1923 as instructor of Horticulture before moving to Mississippi State in 1928. He returned to his alma mater and became chair of the Department of Horticulture and Forestry in 1932. He founded the new School of Forestry in 1947 but remained chair of Horticulture until retirement. He became nationally known for his research on sweet potatoes, headed the Southern Region of the American Society of Horticulture, was voted 1960 “Man of the Year” in Service to Agriculture by Progressive Farmer, and joined the ranks of those honored in American Men of Science and Leaders of American Science. But in his biography at the Auburn University Archives, he especially delights in describing himself as “a faithful member of First Baptist Church, Auburn, Alabama.”
Rightly so. He served as chair of deacons, trustees, and most strategically, of the Building Finance Committee. Shrewd with his own money (at the end of W.W.II he built a men’s dormitory behind his house to rent to veterans) he was also a meticulous accountant and financial whiz who wrote a little remembered book, A History of Church Buildings, Properties, and Capital Assets of the First Baptist Church, detailing the church’s financial history. He devised the strategy that allowed the church to spend hundreds of thousands for missions by utilizing the 1945 Clifton Jones bequest of land on College Street to guarantee loans or for revenue.
On the bottom of the title page of Ware’s history of API’s forestry program, he quoted a passage from French novelist Victor Hugo which could just as well have described his role at Auburn First Baptist: “We build the Road: Others Make the Journey.”