On May 9, 1818, Providence Knob Church of Warren County dismissed Pastor John Keel to organize a Bowling Green church. The church added four members on June 13, 1818, making a total of 21 members. The Bowling Green members held services on an irregular basis, the Saturday prior to the third Sabbath being its custom. Like most other Baptist congregations, the members met in various homes or public buildings. William Warder, the first regular pastor, was called in March, 1820. Living in Russellville, he preached once a month at the salary of $100.00 per year. The church came to be called the Church of the United Baptists but was popularly known as the “Main Street Church.”
On May 12, 1830, the congregation purchased its first property to build a meeting house on the northwest corner of Center and Main Street. At that time, the church was comprised with eighty-four members. After William Warder’s death on August 9, 1836, the church sought a full-time pastor. Dr. James Madison Pendleton accepted a call January 1, 1837, at a salary of $400.00 per year, but with the understanding that he would preach two Sundays and hold mid-week prayer services. In 1838, the pastor’s wife, Mrs. Catherine Pendleton’s disappointment at finding no Sunday School caused her to attend the First Presbyterian School. This catalyst was sufficient to organize the members into a Sunday School. Through sacrificial giving by the 150 members and a nonmember, A.G. Hobson, the new two story brick building between the south side of Main Street was completed in 1854. No official records were kept for the church between 1855 and 1866 due to the discord in the nation as its leaders chose opposite sides. After Dr. Pendleton resigned in December 1849, Thomas Vaughn served from 1858 to 1861. During the Civil War, Thomas Storts was interim pastor. The United Baptists, with a membership of about 200 members, left the Meeting House to relocate to a new building called the Main Street Baptist Church. Services were held in this location for sixty years before moving into the 12th and Chestnut building in 1915.
On September 6, 1873, it was “moved and carried that hereafter this church be known or hailed as the First Baptist Church of Bowling Green”. Two months later that motion was rescinded, but in October 1874 the church again accepted the name First Baptist Church. Although Brother Lunsford and Dr. Dill both urged the church to undertake building a larger facility, it was January of 1912 when crowded conditions made it essential. Dr. J. S. Dickey wrote that despite including all available space on the pulpit and over the baptistery, “two or three hundred people were turned away at nearly every service”. In June 1915, the congregation moved to its present location at the southeast corner of 12th and Chestnut Streets. The total cost of the building, organ and furnishings was $135,304.08. The building, designed of white limestone, was by Creed Morgan Fleenor. The citizens of FBC referred to the new sanctuary as ‘The Great White Temple” because of the sun’s reflective rays. The membership frequently accepted and used this nickname. Approximately three hundred members sat under the scaffolding and attended many services before it was completed. On June 11, 1915, the new sanctuary of First Baptist Church was dedicated.
The ladies had been meeting and praying for the nation and the church for years; however, on Armistice Day in 1918, they met openly and praised God for victory in the worldwide conflict during the past few years. First Baptist Church had been interested in local missions for years. In 1890, the church erected a mission chapel in Delafield donated by Mrs. Delafield. That congregation later took the name of Second Baptist Church and moved to the corner of Adams and Tenth Streets, then to Eleventh and Center, prior to uniting with the First Baptist congregation on April 18, 1915. During Dr. Doolan’s pastorate, missions were planted on Fairview Avenue, Woodford Avenue and Barry Street. Efforts to establish other churches in the community have resulted in Forest Park (constituted in 1953), Eastwood (1953), Emmanuel (1956), and Andrew (1973).
The years in the “Great White Temple” witnessed expanded ministries to the youth and interest in national and world events. A. B. Barnes organized the BYPU, Baptist Young People’s Union in October of 1915. During the 1920’s the membership became increasingly interested in meeting the needs of the growing college community. Approximately 1000 students from Western Kentucky Teacher’s College attended a special Student Night Service in 1923. The following spring some 500 BYPU delegates attended the BYPU Convention in Bowling Green.
In 1924, the church called the first full-time Educational Secretary, Davis Cooper. In one year, he led a Sunday School Enlargement Campaign, held a Daily Vacation Bible School, and hosted an eight day training school. Capturing his enthusiasm, Sunday School Superintendent, H. Clay Hanes and his associate, W. R. Gardner held a city-wide consensus of approximately 1000 home visits. First Baptist added eighty-eight teachers and officers and had 1077 present for Sunday School. Composition and titles of the ministry team and staff have changed through the years to meet the needs of the congregation. Numerous uniquely gifted men and women have served in paid leadership positions in administration, education, children, youth, university and senior adult ministries. For many years, the individual charged with student ministries had the title Student Secretary. Faithful to this task were: Ida Nance, Davis Cooper, Cleo Roberts, John Arnett, Sarah Rowe and Norma Ann Richards.
Music has always been at the heart of worship at First Baptist Church. Dr. Baldy’s love for music encouraged the purchase of a pipe organ, pumped by bellows, for the Main Street Sanctuary. Harps, violins, and choirs have provided special music throughout the years. For the first one hundred thirty-eight years, female laity led the choir. In 1956, Jim Jones became the first Minister of Music establishing a full choir program for all ages.
The Senior Adult Fellowship was organized in 1972 with Hayward Brown being the first Director. The group provides many opportunities for senior adults in the areas of travel, crafts, education, fellowship, and
entertainment. Monthly luncheon meetings are held and an annual Hayward Brown Banquet is provided as an evening of enrichment and fellowship for seniors and their guests.
Over the years, as ministries grew, so did the physical size of the church. Additional educational buildings and facilities were added in 1923, 1950, 1974, 1990, and 2004. In 1989, the church started a Child Development Center for Christian daycare. In 1954, renovations to the sanctuary included lowering the choir loft, installing a new organ console, and placing the baptistery behind the loft. As the church was contemplating the next expansion, disaster struck on October 14, 1991. A fire, of undetermined cause, engulfed the sanctuary structure. The church voted on October 23, 1991, to raze the unstable walls and rebuild the sanctuary.
For thirty-seven months, the congregation worshipped at Bowling Green High School and later at Bowling Green Junior High School. The church’s insurance and members’ contributions replaced the sanctuary with a 1500 seat complex, joining two separate existing buildings to the new sanctuary with an approximate cost of $9.1 million. Joseph Jones, the principal architect, sought to retain much of the original style, using buff brick and plaster to replicate the limestone façade.
On December 18, 1994, the members met to worship for the first time within the new building. After Pastor Dick Bridges proclaimed, “We’re home!” the congregation sang “Amazing Grace”. On March 5, 1995, members dedicated the new sanctuary. On March 12, 1995, the new Casavant Fre’res Opus 3718 Pipe Organ was dedicated. An additional facility, the Recreation and Outreach Center, was completed and opened in 2004.