It took several years to build the present Central Baptist Church building on Gainesville’s southside because it ran into the Great Recession in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The membership itself was stretched financially and had to call on the community at large to help complete the building. Some of the beautiful, priceless, hand-rolled stained-glass windows are dedicated to nonmembers such as Judge A.C. Wheeler and William Malone Johnson, whose families donated money along with the church’s Women’s Missionary Society.
Central probably was at its peak in the 1950s. More than 1,000 attended Sunday School. But many members left to form Lakewood Baptist Church on Thompson Bridge Road, and membership further fell as the southside residential area dwindled. New ministers from time to time invigorated the church, and it has continued to survive.
Y.J. Seay, 86, has attended Central since 1927 when he was 6 months old. Average attendance today is 140 to 150, he said. Some new blood with younger people joining have given the church hope. He also hopes Gainesville’s midtown initiative to attract more housing in the area will increase membership.
Jan Alton Cobb, who grew up in the church, returned eight years ago after an absence. Her father, Neal Alton, 91, has been a member of the legendary 101 Bible Class, which has been broadcast on local radio for 60 years. She sees that her father, an Alzeimer’s victim, gets to church, and for his sake, if nothing else, wants Central to remain a viable ministry in the community. Neal Alton once sang solo and with the late Grady Watson and others, and though limited, still plays the guitar in Sunday School.
When the Rev. Earl Pirkle came to Central in 2002, the church was almost $300,000 in debt, having built an atrium, installed an elevator and connected the church’s three buildings. He doesn’t take credit for the church being debt-free today, rather to a series of God’s miracles. In January 2003, the 112th anniversary of the church’s founding, members put out a box to accept donations. No letters or publicity went out, but 10 days later, a nonmember came by with a check for $25,000.
Two weeks later, a rain-soaked man hiking across the country came in from the weather and left $3, all he said he had. That led to a sermon by the Rev. Pirkle on “the widow’s mite.”
Shortly thereafter, a member died and left a house to the church. It wasn’t in the best condition and appraised at only $45,000, yet sold for $70,000. Within 18 months, the pastor said, with member and community contributions and small miracles, the debt was gone.
Central Baptist Church isn’t out of the woods, though. The building (the church itself was organized 123 years ago) is showing its 88 years. Water leaks are weakening its foundation, and a new roof is among other needs. Repairs could reach $100,000, a challenging amount for a church whose many elderly members are on fixed incomes. Jan Cobb, chair of the stewardship committee, is looking for another set of miracles in raising money for the historic building, a notable piece of the community’s story not limited only to Central’s members.
Helen Martin, who has painstakingly preserved the history of the church, also hopes people outside the church again will realize its value to the history of Hall County and religion in the community and come to Central’s aid. Anyone wanting to be a part of more miracles for the church can contact the office at 785 Main St. SW, Gainesville, GA 30501, phone 770-534-3528.
Footnotes: Central Baptist is between Main and Bradford streets. Years ago, when the city wanted to pave Bradford Street, the church voted against it. As time went on, however, members went along with the paving.
How the 101 Bible Class got its name: The goal for the new Sunday School class was 100 members. They exceeded it by one member for 101.
While the church yearns for new members today, you could easily get dropped from the rolls in the old days. Very strict even into the 1930s, the church would “withdraw from fellowship” a member caught drinking, not attending regularly or not contributing financially. An apology before the church usually would produce forgiveness and restore membership.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.