By Erica Boleyn, Hannah Looper, Lily Pinon, and Rori Wood
The First Baptist Church of Birmingham is located on Lakeshore Drive in Homewood. A church where the worship service is central to the life of the church which has developed the identity it chooses to uphold. Its music is not defined by a particular style, although the importance of it is to praise and glorify the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The main intention of this Baptist church is to know Christ and to make him known to other individuals within and around the community. The core values this congregation champions are purpose, scripture, redemption, spiritual formation, community service, missions, and cooperation.
The first core value is purpose. Congregation members’ purpose is to glorify Jesus Christ in who they are and what they do as the First Baptist Church of Birmingham. Through the value of purpose comes scripture. They honor the Word of God in biblical preaching, teaching, and living. To proclaim that all people can be forgiven and transformed is the value of redemption. Redemption is found through the blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit it is the gift and grace of atonement. Spiritual formation develops believers to become disciplined to live and grow in the truth and application of God’s word. With spiritual formation, those believers have the ability to unite all generations, races, and nationalities, under the Lordship of Christ, through a lifestyle of worship. To help further and gain more believers, the First Baptist Church of Birmingham presents their gifts of ministry to provide opportunities for the exercise of those gifts. To accomplish Kingdom work through cooperation with other Christians, bible-believing church, and biblically-based organizations.
Dramatic changes have marked the history of the First Baptist Church of Birmingham. They have affected the work of the congregation. These altering experiences have changed the functions of the church.
First Baptist began in 1871 when the Reverend Jonathan Hillyer came to the new city of Birmingham with the dream of starting a church. In his first year, he gathered a group of individuals who united together as a Baptist church and elected him as pastor. In 1872 when the church had twenty-two members, the Elyton Land Company provided them a lot on which the church erected its first building.
In 1877, John H. Hendon became the church’s second pastor, bringing in one-hundred more members. Ten years following the establishment of First Baptist, Hendon became ill and the Reverend D. L. Purser took over as a temporary pastor with a vision of his own. He believed the congregation needed to return to its missionary roots and led it in establishing South Avondale, North Birmingham, West End, and Southside Baptist churches.
The church continued to grow and so did the need for space. During the pastorate of the Reverend A. J. Dickinson (1901-1919) a new church building was built with stained glass windows the church still treasures. The growing church soon required more educational space, so the next pastor, Dr. J. Randolph Hobbs (1919-38) helped establish a large education building next to the church. This building included Sunday school rooms and office spaces. When the Reverend Hobbs resigned due to illness, Dr. John L. Slaughter (1928-1952) came on board he led the church through the difficulties of the Great Depression into a post-World War II boom in both attendance and wealth.
In 1980 a local bank asked the church if it could buy the church’s property for a parking lot. This congregation took the opportunity to move over the mountain to land on Lakeshore Drive owned by Baptist-affiliated Samford University. It remains there today, the first service in the new building was on Easter Sunday: 1986. In this new location the congregation grew precipitously, and enlargement of the sanctuary and addition of an education wing followed in 1991.
First Baptist experienced some significant conflicts in its long history. In 1970, two black individuals, a young girl named Twila Fortune and her mother Winifred Bryant, had been attending Sunday school classes at First Baptist Church and decided to file for membership at the church (Flynt 1998, 519). On September 27, 1970, the church voted, and Twila and Winifred failed to receive the two-thirds vote needed from the congregation in order to join the church (Bass 2001, 222). This vote triggered the breakup of First Baptist Church from one divided congregation to two separate churches.
By 1970 the church had become a congregation made up of white individuals commuting from the suburbs while the black population in downtown Birmingham had been growing significantly (Flynt 1998, 519). This conflict that occurred over Fortune and Bryant filing for membership points to the greater issue that was occurring at the time, which was First Baptist Church resisting integration while the church was meeting in a majority black community. The pastor of First Baptist Church at the time was Herbert Gilmore. Pastor Gilmore immediately resigned after the congregation voted against their membership, along with much of the church staff, and soon after founded the Baptist Church of the Covenant along with the previous members of First Baptist Church who strongly opposed the congregation’s vote (Bass 2001, 222). After this event, First Baptist Church struggled to find a stable pastor until they moved their building to Homewood in 1984 (Bass 2001, 223). This schism of the church’s congregation demonstrates the role social movements in Birmingham, such as the civil rights movement, have played in First Baptist Church’s history.
The first church building where the congregation met was only sixty by thirty feet, but the congregation soon outgrew the small building. Later, in 1905 an even larger and more decorated auditorium sanctuary was built to further accommodate the growing size of the church (“Our Story”). It was designed by the prolific architect Reuben Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga. It is an adaptation of a plan he used for dozens of churches through the country (Butler, 2018). This new addition to the church building was more elaborate than the earlier architecture of the church. The sanctuary was built out of Bedford limestone and had an ornate stained glass window that still exists in the new location of the church today (“Our Story”). Keeping the stained glass window in the new church building on Homewood is one of the ways that, First Baptist Church of Birmingham has kept a tie to its history and tradition.
This new building marked an architectural change in First Baptist’s history, it was built in a neo-traditionalist colonial revival style. The previous building had been built in a Richardsonian Romanesque style that featured rounded towers and simple arches and windows. Even though the architectural style significantly changed when First Baptist Church moved downtown, the stained glass window that was preserved and placed in the new building provides a sense of continuation with First Baptist Church’s past in downtown Birmingham.
The pastors and authoritative figures in the church believe it is imperative to have a chance to reach out and make every member of the congregation feel a personal connection. They also believe the personal connection is especially important in the world we live in today, though it is much different and harder to lead a virtuous life.
In order to reach out to everyone and maintain tradition, groups are separated into children’s ministries, youth ministries, young-adult/college ministries, senior ministries, and women ministries. They relate daily struggles that relate to the specific members in the study group. They focus their lessons on God, scripture, love, and compassionate principles. They close their Bible studies and their services with music. They focus on scripture to honor the Word of God in biblical teaching, preaching, and living. They focus on redemption to proclaim that all people can be forgiven and transformed through the blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. They focus on spiritual formation to develop disciplined believers to live and grow in the truth and application of God’s Word. They focus on community to unite all generations, races, and nationalities, under the Lordship of Christ, through a lifestyle of worship. They focus on service to help believer discover their gifts of ministry, and to provide opportunities for the exercise of those gifts. They focus on missions to model Acts 1:8 and spread the gospel local, nationally, and globally.. They finally focus on cooperation in order to accomplish Kingdom work through cooperation with other Christians, Bible-believing churches, and biblically based organizations.
First Baptist Church of Birmingham has had an extensive history in Birmingham since its establishment in 1872. The various events, social movements, and religious movements that occurred in Birmingham had direct effects in shaping the history and growth of the church. Due to financial, practical, and cultural changes, First Baptist Church has changed its location, some of its practices, and some of the focuses of their church. The changes in their practices can be seen through their new use of technology, modernized services, the language in their core values, and their new focus on global missions. Both societal changes throughout Birmingham and other considerations have catalyzed the modernization of First Baptist Church since its first establishment in downtown Birmingham to its new location in Homewood. This modernization can be seen through the mission statement of the congregation, the architecture of the building, and in the missions and services of the church. Modernization is not something that is unique to First Baptist Church of Birmingham, but it is clear that the events and cultural movements in Birmingham have played a role in the modernization of many aspects of this church and its congregation.
First Baptist Church of Birmingham
Address: 2209 Lakeshore Dr, Homewood, AL 35209
Congregation Organized: 1872
Current Site Opened: 1986
Affiliations: Southern Baptist Convention, Alabama Baptist State Convention, Birmingham Metro Baptist Association
Sources for Further Information
Bass, Jonathan S. Blessed Are The Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Butler, S. A.. “Reuben Harrison Hunt.” Tennessee Encyclopedia March 1, 2018. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/reuben-harrison-hunt/.
“First Baptist Church of Birmingham.” Bhamwiki, 2008, updated 2018. www.bhamwiki.com/w/First_Baptist_Church_of_Birmingham
Flynt, Wayne. Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Gilmore, Herbert J. They Chose to Live: The Racial Agony of an American Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.
Hammet, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Kregel, Academic & Professional. 2005.
Lawson, T. R. The First Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham, AL: The First Baptist Church of Birmingham, 1972.
“Our Story.” First Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Accessed November 8, 2019. http://www.fbcbirmingham.org/our-story/.
Published December 17, 2019.