“Not Made for Defeat” was the title of a book the Rev. Harold Frederic Green wrote about Gainesville’s Central Baptist Church in 1974, a history of the church from its beginnings in 1890.
Few churches have survived the challenges Central Baptist faced over its 123-year lifetime.
The church is located on Gainesville’s southside, once a prime residential area, but now home to mostly commercial enterprises. Most of its members used to walk to church. Changing demographics, along with other factors, sucked the numbers from its membership, but never its spirit. Central continues as an important inner-city ministry in its community and beyond.
A glance at the church’s history, its membership and ministers over the years demonstrates why there is no mystery to Central’s survival in the face of adversity after adversity.
The church began as Chestnut Street Mission in a school house operated by Amanda McCants at the corner of High and Chestnut streets. Gainesville’s First Baptist Church, which sponsored Central, donated a lot on Chestnut Street valued at $200, but the church accepted only half of it because it believed it was more space than needed at the time.
By June 1892, the building had progressed enough that services could be held inside. Eleven years later, the 1903 tornado that devastated Gainesville Mill and much of the southside also took down the church. Numerous mill employees, many of them children, died in the storm that took more than 100 lives in all.
Members decided after that tragedy to relocate to Myrtle and Maple streets. In the meantime, services were held in what was known as Hobbs Chapel, a house on Summit Street. The Myrtle-Maple church was completed in 1904 and served as Central’s home until Dec. 5, 1926. Until the move, the church had been known as Chestnut Street Baptist. The Central Baptist name came after the new building was occupied at Myrtle and Maple.
During those early years, finances were a constant problem, with much of the collections going to pay back salaries to the various ministers. As an example, after the 1903 tornado, the church sold its property on Chestnut Street for a mere $50 to help catch up on its debts.
One of the church’s most beloved ministers, the Rev. A. Scott Patterson, came to Central’s rescue when the Myrtle Street building began to deteriorate. Some members and the pastor wanted to relocate to Main Street, near the church’s original location. Patterson’s proposal to buy the Main Street property was voted down in 1919, but he went out and bought the lot himself, eventually persuading the congregation to move. The church paid him back the next year.
Yet it would be 1925 before the church voted to actually build on Main Street. Member Charles Eidson designed the building, and workers laid the foundation in August that year. The outside walls were up by the end of the year, but it would be December 1926 before the first meeting would be held in the basement.
The lack of finances delayed laying of the first brick for the sanctuary building until June 1928. Unable to raise enough money from the membership, the church decided in 1929 to borrow $10,000 from the Home Mission Board to complete the building. During this time, Central had sold its Myrtle Street property to the Salvation Army for $1,000.
The Rev. W.A. Keel, another popular pastor, shepherded the church during its long and arduous building phase and also during the Great Depression. It was 1931 before Central Baptist would occupy its new home.
Just five years later, another tornado had a great impact on the church. The storm destroyed downtown Gainesville, leaving Central as one of the few major churches to escape major damage. It served as a hospital and morgue. Medical personnel came by train to the nearby depot to assist. Surgery was performed on Central’s communion table, which since has been retired and is on display in the church’s history room.
Central Baptist has expanded over the years, adding the J.L.R. Barrett Educational Building and the Shivers Elementary Building. Barrett was Central’s founding pastor, and the Rev. E.B. Shivers was the 26th pastor, serving 1959-61. The area behind the sanctuary is named for Patterson, who secured the property for the church’s present location.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.