Celebrating God's Story

On May 9, 1818, Providence Knob Baptist Church of southwestern Warren County dismissed Pastor John Keel to organize a Baptist church in Bowling Green.  The church received four members on June 13, 1818, bringing the total membership to twenty-one.  The congregation held services on an irregular basis, most customarily meeting on the Saturday prior to the third Sunday of each month.  Like most other Baptist congregations, the members met in various homes or public buildings. The church called its first pastor, William Warder, in March 1820.  Pastor Warder lived in Russellville, and he preached once a month at the salary of $100 per year. The church came to be called the Church of the United Baptists.

On May 12, 1830, the congregation of now 84 members purchased its first property to build a meeting house on the northwest corner of Green (now Center) and Main Streets. After Pastor Warder died on August 9, 1836, the church sought a full-time leader.  Dr. James Madison Pendleton accepted a call to be our pastor on January 1, 1837 at a salary of $400 per year.  He was expected to preach two Sundays per month 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. 

In 1854, during Dr. Pendleton’s pastorate, the church moved across Main Street and half a block toward the city square.  Through sacrificial giving by the 150 members and a nonmember, A.G. Hobson, the new two story, Greek revival brick building on the south side of Main Street was completed. 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. 

 

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 Two months later that motion was rescinded, but in October 1874 the church again accepted the name First Baptist Church.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 Pastor William Lunsford and Dr. J. S. Dill had both urged the church to build a larger facility, crowded conditions made it essential in January 1912.  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 Twelfth and Chestnut Streets. The total cost of the building, organ, and furnishings was $135,304.  The building, constructed of white limestone, was built by Creed Morgan Fleenor. The citizens of Bowling Green referred to the new sanctuary as “The Great White Temple” because of the sun’s reflective rays.  The membership accepted and frequently used this nickname. Approximately three hundred members sat under the scaffolding and attended many services before the edifice was completed. On June 13, 1915, the new sanctuary of First Baptist Church was dedicated.

The ladies of the church 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 preceding years. First Baptist Church had also 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. L. W. 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 State Street Baptist Church (1838), Forest Park Baptist Church (1953), Eastwood Baptist Church (1953), Emmanuel Baptist Church (1956), and Andrew Baptist Church (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 Baptist Young People’s Union (BYPU) in October 1915. During the 1920s the membership became increasingly interested in meeting the needs of the growing college community.  Approximately one thousand 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 campaign of approximately 1,000 home visits.  As a result of those efforts, First Baptist added eighty-eight teachers and officers and had 1,077 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. E. V. 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 full-time Minister of Music, establishing a full choir program for all ages.

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 1954, renovations to the sanctuary included lowering the choir loft, installing a new organ console, and placing the baptistery behind the loft.  In 1989, the church started a Child Development Center for Christian daycare.  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 1,500 seat complex, joining two separate existing buildings to the new sanctuary at 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 Frères Opus 3718 Pipe Organ was dedicated.  An additional facility, the Recreation Outreach Center, was completed and opened in 2004. 

Today, the ministry of First Baptist Church continues to advance the Kingdom of God in our city, region, nation, and world.  The church remains passionate about worshiping God, employing the wide-ranging gifts of so many artists to exalt the name of Jesus Christ.  The church remains passionate about making disciples of Jesus Christ from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that Christ has commanded.  The church remains committed to building strong and healthy families, seeking to learn from biblical teaching how to be the best individuals, husbands, wives, parents, and children we can be.  The church remains passionate about making a difference for God in the surrounding world, whether that world is at the local athletic complex or on the other side of the globe.  God has blessed First Baptist Church indeed, and He continues to call the church to be a blessing to the world.