The History of First Baptist Church of Chattanooga
Behind every institution there are people. This is especially true of a church, for a church is a body of believers, the body of Christ.
In the beginning of First Baptist Church, there was one person, Matthew Hillsman, a young merchant who owned a store at Ross's Landing and was also an ordained Baptist minister. The year was 1838, a time of change. Ross's Landing became Chattanooga and the Cherokees were being evicted from their homes to begin the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma Territory. White settlers came to claim the lands vacated by the Cherokees, among these were a handful of Baptists, including Matthew Hillsman.
He began preaching in the vicinity of Fourth and Fifth Streets near Georgia Avenue in a log schoolhouse, a building chinked with mud. Built around 1837, it had benches with no backs and the floor was the bottom of an old abandoned flat boat. It was jointly used by all denominations on a rotating schedule. Through his efforts, this group of Baptists were organized into a mission of the First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee, in May 1840.
The town commissioners granted the group a plot of land on the corner of Lookout and Sixth Streets (present site of the Hamilton County Courthouse), but it was a decade before they were able to erect their first building. They organized into a church, The Chattanooga Baptist Church, adopting a Constitution with Rules of Order and Articles of Faith, on May 29, 1852. That same year they began the first building, and it was dedicated in 1853.
It was also in 1853 that one of its most illustrious laymen, Foley Vaughn, became a member of the church. Rev. Hillsman had departed in 1842 to become the first president of Mossy Creek Academy, forerunner of Carson-Newman College. The church had several pastors during the two decades preceding the Civil War, most of them staying only a short time and then moving on to the West.
In September, 1863, the church was occupied by the Union Army as a hospital for Federal troops and subsequently as a Chapel. This almost dealt the church a death blow because the building was left in ruins and most of the congregation was scattered to other places. It was due to the perseverance and dedication of one man, Foley Vaughn, that the blow was not mortal. He held prayer meetings in his home, mortgaged his own property to have the church repaired, and secured a minister, acting as custodian himself. Faithfully, every Sunday, Mr. Vaughn rang the church bell to call people to worship. The first post-bellum minister was Rev. J. P. Kefauver.
In 1886, Dr. M. M. Wambolt, eloquent and persuasive, became pastor and crowds flocked to hear him, so much so that the building was bursting at its seams. It was enlarged and several months later the congregation purchased a new site at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Oak Street.
During the pastorate of Rev. Robert J. Willingham, later to become Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, a new building was erected, made of Sewanee sandstone. It was initiated at a cost of $50,000 in 1885, the cornerstone was laid in May, 1888, and it was dedicated November 23, 1890. At this time membership had grown to 627. In 1895 the sanctuary was severely damaged by fire, but was rebuilt the same year.
During the years around the turn of the century, the church was experiencing steady growth. Four sessions of the Southern Baptist Convention were held in the church in 1896, 1906, 1921 and 1928.
Rev. John W. Inzer began his ten-year ministry in 1919 and under his leadership the church experienced its greatest growth, the Church School averaging 1,200 a week in attendance. The educational facilities were enlarged in 1924 and a new educational building was erected in 1929.
In 1937, Dr. John A. Huff became pastor, and it was under his ministry that the large indebtedness, resulting from the expansion program of 1929 (which had immediately preceded the nationwide depression) was retired.
In 1948, Dr. Carl J. Giers began twelve fruitful years, the longest pastorate in the church's history to that time. Under his tenure much remodeling was done within the buildings, and there was a great increase in gifts. The church had always been mission-minded, beginning with the establishment of two missions which became the Ridgedale Baptist Church and the East Lake Baptist Church, and during Dr. Giers? ministry much emphasis was placed upon the support of missions. The Fox Trust Fund was founded by Anna and John Fox.
In March, 1960, Dr. Luther Joe Thompson became pastor of the church. He led the congregation in purchasing the site in the Golden Gateway and in the construction of our third building, October 29, 1967. At the opening of each service in the Sanctuary, worshippers hear the lovely tones of an historic bronze bell, hanging high in the bell tower of the building. This bell is the same one which hung in the tower of the first building of First Baptist Church. During the Civil War it was painted black and hidden to discourage it being melted down for scrap metal. For several decades it was used by a sister church, but was re-acquired and restored to its place of honor when these new buildings were constructed.
Of additional historical significance is the three-piece silver communion service which graces the communion table in the Sanctuary just in front of the pulpit. This silver service was a gift from the Ladies of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, to the Ladies of First Baptist Church, Chattanooga as that body welcomed the Chattanooga church into the fellowship of Baptist churches in 1854.
Dr. W. Eugene Spears was pastor of First Baptist from 1969-1972. A native of South Carolina, Dr. Spears was a graduate of the University of South Carolina and earned his B.D. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He was one of the youngest men to earn a Ph.D in Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Spears served several baptist churches and came to First Baptist from Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina.
Dr. Jack H. McEwen, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, was called as pastor on December 9, 1973, after he had served as interim pastor for several months. Although a longtime minister and former pastor of several Baptist churches, Dr. McEwen, for a number of years, had been involved in educational affairs serving on the faculty of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Dr. McEwen graduated from the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri and earned his degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. McEwen and his wife, June Holland McEwen, a member of the Deacon Fellowship of First Baptist, continue to be a part of the First Baptist family.
In 1975, the Fellowship Hall was remodeled, doubling the dining capacity and providing additional classroom and meeting room space. At the same time, the breezeway connecting the Sanctuary to the education and office area was enclosed. On November 25, 1979, a dedication service was held for a new chapel (later named the McEwen Chapel) and education complex. Dr. McEwen is currently Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist Church and June teaches the Waters Sunday School Class.
Rev. Peter McLeod became our pastor in 1980, coming from a church in Waco, Texas. He had emigrated as a young man from Scotland to study engineering. During his ministry in Chattanooga, Rev. McLeod visited every member of the Home Bound Department on their birthday. The McLeods were interested in television and radio ministry and left Chattanooga to pursue a call to the First Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Dr. Donald Harbuck became pastor of First Baptist on August 14, 1983, having previously served as pastor of First Baptist Church of El Dorado, Arkansas for 21 years. He was a graduate of Centenary College (Shreveport, Louisiana), where he was a varsity baseball player and graduated with honors in 1951. He entered New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1954 and earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree with the highest possible academic average and later the Doctor of Theology degree, majoring in theology and the philosophy of religion. He was the author of three books, including The Dynamics of Belief. Dr. Harbuck served this church admirably, but for a brief time. He was forced to resign as pastor due to illness and became Pastor Emeritus upon his retirement. He died of a brain tumor on June 4, 1985.
Dr. Gary L. Carver served longer than any other pastor in the history of First Baptist. He retired December 21, 2008 after twenty-three years of service. Dr. Carver is a native of Alabama, a graduate of Samford University (1968) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1972, 1977). He has pursued additional study at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University (1990-1992) and was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard University, School of Divinity (February-May, 1995). Dr. Carver has served in leadership roles throughout the Southern Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Tennessee Baptist Convention, Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Hamilton County Baptist Association. He is active in Chattanooga Rotary.
With the adoption of the Gateway 2000 Planning Project Report and the successful stewardship campaign of commitments totaling $2,783,000.00, the congregation took steps to renovate existing structures and build an addition for offices, music suite, recreational center and gym, which was dedicated February 6, 1994.
In 1999, First Baptist started a contemporary worship service named Connections. With both a contemporary and a traditional service, First Baptist Church continues to emphasize a diverse yet inclusive congregation, different worship styles, a dedication to mission efforts here in Chattanooga and around the World, a strong educational program for all ages, and an unending investment in the downtown community with involvement in over 25 local service ministries.
Throughout her long history, First Baptist Church has had a strong commitment to proclaiming the word of God and in "making more disciples and better disciples of Jesus Christ." This commitment continues as we live out our faith in the 21st century.