Columbus, GA Downtown Churches: First Baptist Church (Part 2 of 6)
Updated: Sep 10
For the month of September, we're highlighting more than just churches on our Instagram and Facebook! Please check us out on social media - @historiccolumbusga on Instagram and Historic Columbus on Facebook.
Sources: Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr., The Columbus Museum Archive, Historic Columbus Foundation Archive, and
Return to the Water by Richard Hyatt.
For nearly two centuries the First Baptist Church has been a monument to faith and service in the historic heart of uptown Columbus. Born in a storefront on Broadway in 1829, it has prospered blocks away from the waters of a river that tumbles from the mountains of Georgia to the oyster beds of Florida. The First Baptist story parallels the story and the history of Columbus. It is an account of spiritual leaders and devoted men and women who share inspired sermons, beautiful sacred music, and vibrant mission programs that care for children hungry for spiritual guidance and people around the corner and around the world in need of a hot meal or a helping hand.
Current-day view of First Baptist Church
In a small room inside of Estes & Brother, a hardware store located at 1107 Broad Street, a meeting was held on February 14, 1829, to discuss common interests and beliefs. Twelve people came together – four men, seven women, and a slave. They were Richard Gray, Margaret Gray, Thirza Gray, Robert Jones, Sarah B. Jones, John G. Hitchcock, William A. Hitchcock, Elizabeth Hitch, Ann Cook, Fanny Reese, Elizabeth Wharton, and Joseph, the slave. These twelve established a new organization named Ephesus Baptist Church – after an ancient Greek city that was home to one of the seven great churches cited in the book of Revelation. The church was founded a year after the city of Columbus was chartered and was known as the Ephesus Baptist Church until 1833 when it became the Baptist Church of Columbus. Later, in 1896, a Superior Court judge changed its legal name to the First Baptist Church of Columbus.
Embryo Town of Columbus
Ephesus built its simple sanctuary on Randolph Street, on the lot that has been its home from the beginning. The Baptist church might have been elsewhere, however, if not for a sick Presbyterian. The original city plan set aside four lots for the churches but did not make assignments. Selections were to be made at a meeting in December 1829. The property on Randolph Street was considered a choice spot since it fronted a busy street that would eventually connect the Chattahoochee River and the proposed train station on 6th Avenue. Baptists and Presbyterians alike preferred the location identified as Lot A. But on the morning that selections were made, the Presbyterian representative woke up sick. Having no means of technological communication, he could not report his illness. The meeting started without him, and the lot went to the Baptists. It was 1859 before First Presbyterian was able to purchase its current corner lot. The new church was a wooden structure, 28 x 40 feet with a 10-foot pitch and a price tag of $800. But those early Baptists accomplished more than building a larger sanctuary. They adopted a constitution and church covenant and wrote articles of faith that would require only one major piece of editing.
"An early depiction of the Baptist church building."
Richard Gray and his family had an impact on the early days of the church and the decades that followed. A native of North Carolina, Gray served as city sexton, bridge keeper, and overseer of the city's powder magazine. Baptized in his home state in 1812, when Gray and Margaret moved to Columbus, they sought out other believers. Of the original 12 organizers, Richard Gray, Robert Jones, and William Hitchcock became members of the church's first board of deacons. Other members of the governing body included: Edward Birdsong, James Boykin, J.F. Bozeman, H.S. Estes, Daniel Grant, W.C. Gray, Dreery Mimms, Nathaniel Nuckolls, J.H. Redd, Dozier Thornton Jr., Dozier Thornton Sr., Jeremiah Thornton, and A.M. Walker. Richard and Margaret Gray’s daughter, Thirza (pictured below) was married three months after the organizational meeting to James H. Kirven in what might have been the first wedding held in the Baptist church. Thirza Kirven’s sons, J. Albert and Richard M., and their descendants became strong voices in the leadership of the church, and for generations Kirven’s Department Store – founded a block away from the church – was the city’s premier retail establishment.
On March 25, 1834, the church began its first Sunday School. When the current sanctuary was built in 1859, classes were moved to the basement. A Sunday School library was established in 1863 and by 1912, the Sunday School had five designated departments: senior, intermediate, junior, primary, and beginner. The initial congregation of First African Baptist Church was formed by enslaved people who had attended Ephesus and later First Baptist. When the second church building was constructed for First Baptist in 1840, the enslaved worshipped in the older building. White ministers served the African Baptist Church until 1862 when Rev. Harry Watson became the first Black minister. The church was granted a site at Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue by the Georgia General Assembly but moved to its current location at a cost of $75,000 in 1915. It was renamed First African Baptist Church under the leadership of Rev. J. H. Smith.
James H. DeVotie loved the Lord and thrived on attention. He was as good at making enemies as he was at saving souls, and as shrewd at doing business as he was sharing God’s Word. Dr. J. H. DeVotie became pastor of First Baptist in 1856. He had a vision and challenged the congregation to erect one of the first commanding houses of worship in Georgia. A Greek Revival structure with a Gothic steeple was dedicated on October 25, 1859. Measuring 7,700 square feet, it would seat over 800 worshipers. The new worship center would cost about $25,000, including the organ. Much of the architectural design has been attributed to a deacon of the church in the 1850's - Nathaniel Nuckolls. This was the third church building constructed on the property.
War was on the horizon. The new sanctuary hadn’t been in use long when Rev. DeVotie received news about his oldest son, Noble. Noble was one of eight founders of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity and the first chapter president in 1856. He was also a chaplain in the Confederate Army and considered the first casualty of the Civil War. Noble is buried at Linwood Cemetery and SAE pledges have been known to make midnight vigils. Five years after the end of the Civil War, Rev. James DeVotie left First Baptist. Neither history books nor church records explain the reason behind his resignation after 14 years, only that “events occurred which led to his departure.”
(L) Dr. Thomas E. Skinner (pastor, 1870-1872) leads the way in improving Sunday School attendance through special emphases. (R) During the tenure of Dr. M. Ashby Jones (pastor, 1906-1909), weekly Sunday School teacher meetings begin.
(L) Dr. Luther Rice Christie (pastor, 1909-1917) initiates a plan for improved Sunday School facilities. (R) Dr. Solon B. Cousins (pastor, 1918-1921) resurrects Dr. Luther Christie's plans for providing additional Sunday School space.
Today, worshipers at First Baptist Church of Columbus can admire the beauty of the sanctuary that was Dr. DeVotie's vision. Many changes, additions, renovations, structural modifications, and new construction have provided many new looks as well as functional space demanded by church growth.
In 1909, six Doric columns and a pediment are added to the façade of the sanctuary, largely transforming the building from its Gothic roots into a Neoclassical structure.
The real work of Christian education at First Baptist for years started with Miss Edwina Wood, “mother of kindergartens” and the first woman to serve on the school board, and her work with the children of the church. Generation after generation, she headed the young children’s Sunday School Department at First Baptist. With her sister Miss Marie at her side and Edith Brannon on piano, they read Bible stories and sang songs, never forgetting a touch of Old Testament discipline. Miss Edwina conducted her class from 1898 until 1962. For most of her life, the stern and proper Miss Edwina touched lives in this community, teaching people how to live for others rather than themselves.
This 1928 view of the church from the east side shows the columned front portico and the 1923-1924 Sunday school addition to the rear.
From the beginning of Camp Benning, relationships between the Army and the church were sound, but during World War II those connections grew even stronger. With scores of their loved ones serving in the military overseas during World War II, First Baptist members embraced young soldiers in training at Fort Benning by inviting them to special programs and hosting them for home-cooked meals on Sundays. From 1941 to 1945, an astounding 417 First Baptist members donned the uniforms of various branches of service. Following World War II, First Baptist Church saw a need for a new Baptist congregation in the heart of the city. The church purchased an attractive piece of property on Hilton Avenue for $40,000 and established a mission that within a year became a church. In 1958, it was named Waldrop Memorial Baptist Church honoring Dr. John Waldrop’s (pastor, 1952-1957) memory and his inspired passion for missions.
A search for a new pastor began in 1961. Within a year, First Baptist was introduced to a whirlwind from Mississippi who never met a person who was not worthy of a conversation. Dr. G. Othell Hand arrived in Columbus at the age of 41 with wife Martha and their two sons, Kerry and Mark. He also brought with him an incredible wardrobe and a philosophy on life that was spelled out in his own ABC’s: Acknowledge or accept yourself; Better yourself. Think tall, feel tall, and walk tall; and Commit yourself to a purpose, a plan, or a goal.
Othell Hand was not deterred by big projects or big ideas. He shepherded the renovation of the 100-year-old sanctuary in 1962, renovated the pastor’s study and a museum-reception room was created. Dr. Hand also created what is considered his most lasting legacy, The First Baptist Foundation, Inc. The Foundation holds, manages, and administers funds and property of all kinds with the proceeds being used for charity and religion. Sunday School was always the church's most effective tool in reaching, teaching, and retaining, something Dr. Robert Potts already knew when he became the pastor at First Baptist in 1973. Potts was new to town when he announced a laundry list of goals. He called on members to support every program in the church, but especially Sunday School. The 22 years that Bob Potts (pictured with his wife Dorothy, below on left) spent at First Baptist add up to the longest tenure of any pastor in the annals of the church.
In the fall of 1996, the congregation voted to purchase the Corporate Center office building and parking garage on the opposite corner of 12th Street. The estate of longtime member Ella Kirven helped make the purchase possible. The property would provide rental income and help solve longstanding parking problems on Sundays. This was just one example of that early vision held by Othell Hand and how The First Baptist Foundation could work. On the appointed Sunday of his “test run” in 2002, Jimmy Elder preached at a combined service to filled pews. Noting the full house, one woman said she had not seen that many people at church in a decade. He preached about the prodigal son and seemed at home. Luckily for First Baptist and our entire community, Jimmy and Roxann Elder (pictured above on the right) decided to stay. Even during times when the original streets of Columbus were decaying and churches were springing up on the edge of town, First Baptist stood firm, waiting for a rebirth. While they were waiting, they invested in nearby properties, and they invested in people through decades of outreach programs. They have also returned to Broadway with Second Story, a ministry committed to reaching out to a diverse audience and a place for downtown students to congregate. From its earliest days, First Baptist has been a church of missions. They have always responded to the need... by opening factory schools to keep children in the classroom instead of the cotton mill; by reaching out to a new military base to bring God's word; when people were hungry and the church gave them food; and on the day when great buildings fell providing a place where people felt safe. Times change and needs change, but First Baptist has always been ready to meet those needs for its congregation and the community. As the 200th birthday of First Baptist draws near, there is still joy on 12th Street.
Next Week: First Presbyterian Church! If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director