THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
595 New Street
Macon, Georgia 31201
In the midst of social turmoil in the United States, African Americans held strong to their faith in the Lord.
The First Baptist Church on Cotton Avenue was established by African-Americans more than a quarter of a century before the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, which called for the freedom of all slaves on United States soil. Its origin was in the Baptist Church of Christ at Macon. For the first eight years, whites and African-Americans worshipped in the same building. Records indicate that at the time, there were two hundred eighty-three African-Americans and one hundred ninety-nine whites. In 1835, E.G. Cabiness, an early historian wrote: “It’s thus seen that a majority of the church are slaves.” As members of the racially mixed church, the African Americans were to a great extent, a distinct body. Alternate services were led under the direction of a licensed minister and deacons of their own color. Members exercised authority to receive and exclude persons as members of their church body. The ordinances, however, were administered by the pastor of the whole church.
On March 1, 1845, land and building were deeded to the colored portion of the Baptist Church at Macon, “for religious services and moral cultivation—forever.” The members of the church (African-Americans) were able to praise God in their own building.
The First Baptist Church of Christ was still responsible for providing a pastor for the African-American First Baptist Church. On October 5, 1860, the congregation called the Revered Robert Cunningham, a white minister, to serve as their spiritual leader. His annual salary was $150.00.
In the 1860’s, there were 6,890 slaves living in Macon. With a growing church population the members of the church asked to be separated from the First Baptist Church of Christ in September 1865.
The membership then elected the first ordained African-American minister of the church Reverend Milton Tillinghast, who served for one year, 1866-1867. Succeeding pastors were Reverend Milus Wilburne and Henry Williams, 1878-1886. During Reverend Williams’s administration, the church became a charter member of the National Baptist Convention.
Founded in 1886, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. is the nation’s oldest and largest African American religious convention with an estimated membership of 7.5 million.
The church’s membership began to worship and grow stronger in the Lord. During 1887-1895, Reverend T.M. Robinson led the First Baptist Congregation into the building of the first unit and the laying of the corner stone.
Following Revered Robinson’s death, a dispute emerged among the congregation regarding the selection of a pastor. The dispute resulted in the church being closed by the court action in November, 1896. A settlement was reached with a split of membership. The split gave rise to the birth of another church, Tremont Temple Baptist Church.
On December 27, 1896, the First Baptist Church called the Reverend W.G. Johnson as pastor, and the keys to the church were turned over to him. The sanctuary was completed and the first worship service was held there on November 21, 1897. The building was paid for by1903. Reverend Johnson led in the formation of the B.Y.P.U, the installation of the city’s first pipe organ in a “colored” church and witnessed the church’s membership grow to over 1,900. Reverend Johnson was called to rest November 13, 1914.
The 1900’s brought about a lot of change in African American History. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed on February 12, 1909, in New York City. The 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated in 1913, throughout the nation over the entire year. The decade of the 1920’s witnessed the Harlem Renaissance, a remarkable period of creativity for black writers, poets, and artists. Carter G. Woodson (1926) established Negro History Week in February between the Lincoln and Washington Birthdays. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in all public schools in the United States unconstitutional, nullifying the earlier judicial doctrine of "separate but equal."
As the nation was experiencing change so was First Baptist. During this time frame First Baptist had eight pastors at the helm. Succeeding Reverend Johnson as pastors were Reverends T. L. Ballo, 1916-1917; S.E. Piercy, 1919-1925; G.L. Harris, 1926-1927; E.G. Thomas, 1928-1932; Sandy F. Ray, 1933-1936; Ronald Smith, 1936 and F.N. Mashburn,1936-1940.
In Macon, many freed blacks began opening their own businesses. They sought economic freedom with entrepreneurship. As African Americans in Macon began to experience more economic freedom First Baptist Church was able to pay off the church’s indebtedness of $2,000.00 under the leadership of Reverend Earl Penn. The Revered Earl Penn took the helm in 1941. He resigned to enter the United States Army in 1945.
As African Americans continued the struggle for equality and justice, the church was a place for spiritual and civic uplifting. First Baptist was the site for many civic meetings to combat racial inequality and to establish interracial working partnerships. Under the leadership of the pastors, the doors of the church were open to support the needs of the community. The Reverend H. J. Sherard served from 1946-1947. The Reverend A. F. Tyler was called in 1948 and served until 1953. He was followed by the Reverend Charles W. Ward in 1954. Under his leadership, two hundred four persons were baptized into the fellowship and the Youth Fellowship. He was instrumental in organizing the Calendar Club, the Junior Ushers and, the annual Bible School. A new gas heating system, roof, lightning, and rewiring of the entire building are some of the major accomplishments of his leadership which ended in 1959.
Reverend Van J. Malone assumed the pastorship in 1959. Under his leadership, 176 members were baptized into the membership. Boy Scout and Cub Scout Troops were chartered and the Progressive Club was organized. Reverend Malone led First Baptist in improving the first unit of the church building, the carpeting of the sanctuary, constructing the choir stands and installing an electric organ. His service as pastor ended in 1965, and the Reverend Marshell Stenson was called to lead the church. He served from 1965-1969. His labor was noted with extensive renovation of the first unit of the church, providing classrooms and a ladies lounge.
In 1970, the Reverend Julius C. Hope was called as pastor and served from 1970-1978. Under his administration, a new parsonage was built and paid for. Eleven acres of land were acquired at the price of one hundred thirteen thousand dollars ($113,000.00) for the relocation of the church and new church facilities. The Birth Month Club and the J.C. Hope Ushers were organized. Reverend Hope’s love for the youth of the church led the way to the reviving of the youth department. Reverend Hope resigned to become the Religious Coordinator of the NAACP.
On May 1, 1979, the church called the Reverend John P. Harris for the Trinity Baptist Church, Columbia South Carolina. He served until November 30, 1982 and was followed by Dr. Ronald E. Odom. Reverend Odom assumed his duties as pastor on March 13, 1983. During the period that Dr. Odom was at First Baptist Church, additional organizations came into being which included the institution of Monthly Sheepfold, Annual Family Day, the Voices of First Baptist Gospel choir, Bible study classes, a Nurse’s Guild, and the reorganization of the Youth Usher Board. A radio broadcast ministry, known as the Lifeline Hour, began to serve the needs of the home bound, and a very successful Ministry for the Deaf was instituted. Most notably, a renovation project for the exterior of the building was completed at a cost of $230,000.00. His service to the church came to an end on September 24, 1985 with his sudden death.
On October 12, 1987 the Reverend Carl K. Rolle was as the 25th pastor of the First Baptist Church. The church was blessed with the brief and successful pastorate of the young Reverend Rolle. He made a lasting impact Macon and the church. First Baptist witnessed growth in its fellowship. Changes were seen in its physical structure with the installation of an elevator. Reverend Rolle was a pastor noted for “lifting the hearts and lives of the people.” He died while serving the church on Sunday, June 18, 1989.
On January 7, 1990, the congregation met and followed the will of God by agreeing to extend an invitation to the Reverend Benjamin E. V. Lett, of Alabama, to take the helm as pastor. In a few years, the church saw growth spiritually, financially and numerically. Members recommitted themselves to the kingdom building program at First Baptist Church. Evidence of this recommitment was seen in greater worship attendance, increase of financial gifts, and an accelerated effort to render service in the giving of time and talents to the Lord. Extensive renovation was done of the first unit and grounds of the church. Special needs ministries were added to the church, such as the Singles Ministry, Couples Ministry and the Sisters-in-Christ. Other departments were revitalized. Notably, in 1997, the church started a Meal on Wheels ministry to feed those who are shut-in in the community. Twice a month over 100 meals are prepared and delivered by the church. Reverend Lett resigned and moved to Athens, Georgia to become the Director of Christian Education.
As the African American population continued to rise in Macon, the city had welcomed its first African American Mayor, C. Jack Ellis.
Changes were also taking place at First Baptist Church, as the congregation welcomed its 27th pastor, James W. Goolsby, Jr. of McDonough, Georgia. Chosen by God to begin his pastorate in April 2004, Pastor Goolsby has been blessed with a beautiful marriage of church and pastor. God has used Pastor Goolsby to serve and lead others to Christ, to usher in a spirit of genuine love for the people of God, to shape and stabilize an atmosphere of true worship, praise and fellowship, to re-establish and add new ministries, to increase church membership, and to increase Bible Study attendance. Pastor Goolsby is committed to developing and maintaining a standard of excellence in Christian service.
As times change, First Baptist Church of Macon will continue to move forward under God’s guidance as a church appointed and anointed to do His work.