As the longest-living Baptist church in Gainesville, First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has built a rich history.
After celebrating its 180th anniversary this year, the church is looking forward to all the years ahead, learning from its past to make them the best yet.
“We’re not here to just celebrate the moment, but to celebrate all that has taken place throughout the history of our church,” said the Rev. Isaac Whitehead, who’s in his 21st year with the church. “Obviously we’ve had to overcome some things, go through some things. And we’ve had to have some very committed people, generous people … and of course, we all know that God stands behind it all, but at the same time, we don’t overlook the efforts of the people who have come and gone.”
Lynn Leverette, a member of the church since 1979, remembers sitting in the back pew of First Baptist listening to Martin Luther King Sr. preach one Sunday decades ago.
She was with her mother as King was preaching. The father to the civil rights hero was once a candidate for pastor at the church and Leverette was there soaking in every word he had to say from the pulpit. The rest of the church was packed — it was standing-room only.
“We barely did get in,” said Leverette, also the current secretary at the church. “But it was pretty special.”
That’s the kind of history the predominantly African-American church, founded in 1838, is steeped in — existing and surviving before slavery was abolished in 1865, making it through the tornado of 1936, which left many in Gainesville dead, injured and homeless. It’s now thriving on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and E.E. Butler Parkway after moving from the corner of Pine and High Streets, with a senior pastor who holds a special relationship with his 300-plus member congregation.
“In the people that are here now, you’ll see the same kind of people who started the church during slavery times with that level of commitment, that level of character and integrity and that work ethic,” Whitehead said. “Although you may not be able to see back in 1838, if you look at the people now, I think you’re looking at the same kind of people.”
Times weren’t always easy and Deborah Mack, the church’s financial secretary, said she could see the hand of God on everything along the way.
“God has allowed us to stay on this corner for a purpose,” said Mack, who’s been a member since 1950. “At one point, there was a bus station next door to us and people would be passing through and they’d get off and come over and visit with us. And sometimes there’s people in need who stop and check with us.”
Like many churches, First Baptist has seen its fair share of financial struggles. Just before Whitehead got to the church, it was “in debt thousands of dollars.” Membership was dwindling and the church seemed to be falling apart.
The church was without a pastor for most of 1997 but Whitehead said the members held it together.
“The people of this church that remained got together and came to the rescue of this church, and helped this church out of a real dark place in its history,” Whitehead said. “Once I got here, they continued to work hard and continued to give, and they got to a point where they paid off all that debt.”
Leverette said one of the most pivotal moments in recent memory came after that debt was paid in 2000. The church had a celebration and as a symbol of everything it had done to make it out of that dark place, it burned a copy of the mortgage in front of the whole congregation.
“It was an awesome sight to see us actually burn that,” Leverette said. “It was because God kept us. It was because he kept us on the high road and we came through by faithfulness. We really did.”
The history of First Baptist is visible throughout the church. There’s an outline of a door on the back wall of the sanctuary, which used to be the door to the choir room. In the foyer, there’s a step that used to be the step into the church from the sidewalk. There’s a ring in the ceiling of the sanctuary where a pipe that heated the church used to fit. It ran on coal. The wood around the bottom half of the sanctuary walls is original to the building.
“We used to have windows that raised up,” said Robert Hale, a deacon at the church. “We didn’t have stained-glass windows like this. Sometimes, we’d have so many people in here, they would stand out there on the outside and look in and listen.”
That’s the kind of atmosphere and Sunday service First Baptist is building up again. With 180 years behind it, Whitehead said the church is headed in the right direction.
He believes it’s God and the members of the church that have made it all happen.
“There’s no such thing as the preacher doing it himself, alone,” Whitehead said. “There’s an engagement with the congregation that takes place. So whatever happens, it’s not something that can be attributed to the pastor alone or the preacher alone, but it’s the congregation … We do this together.”