First Baptist Church Morganton was organized in 1879 with eight charter members. A detailed study reveals scores of dedicated people - the real church - along with their contributions of time, talent, love, and money given to honor God and further His purposes. The work of dedicated pastors, of whom there have been twenty-two could fill volumes. To this record of over 120 years of dedicated leadership, is added countless years of individual records of love and service by dedicated adults and young people, all comprising a precious testimony of Christian service to further the Lord's kingdom in Morganton, North Carolina.
A Brief History of First Baptist Church, Morganton, 1879-2009
(Author’s note: This overview of the history of First Baptist Church is deeply indebted to the two existing comprehensive histories of the Church: Maud Patton Anthony’s Historical Sketch of First Baptist Church, Morganton, North Carolina, and Personal Reminiscences, 1879-1956, edited by Jeanne Anthony Dyer (published 1995); and W. Stanley Moore and Samuel W. Freeman’s A History of First Baptist Church, Morganton, North Carolina, 1879-1990 (published 1991). This historical essay attempts to cull the major details, along with some endearing anecdotes and vignettes, from these two sources and to document significant events that have occurred between January 1991 and June 2009, the time of this writing. A detailed knowledge of the First Baptist story is attainable only from reading these two foundational works and from the next major installment in the series--forthcoming someday.)
Thomas A. Bland, Jr., June 2009
I. From Humble Origins to Great Expectations: 1879-1919
Despite the existence of a Baptist presence in Charleston by the late 17th century, in eastern North Carolina by the early 18th century, and in the central Piedmont region by the mid-18th century, Baptists of every variety were slower to establish roots in western North Carolina.
Perhaps the relative lateness of Baptists’ arrival to this area had to do with migration patterns. Perhaps also it had a lot to do with the rich Germanic and Scots-Irish heritage of western North Carolina, which differs somewhat from the genealogical background of the central Piedmont and Sandhills and markedly from the English roots of the coast and coastal plain.
At any rate, the Baptist witness was slow to arrive in Burke County and much slower still to manifest itself in the village of Morganton. We know that by 1797, almost 20 years after the founding of Morganton, Presbyterian work was already established nearby at Quaker Meadows and would very soon begin locally at what would become the First Presbyterian Church. Methodist activity, undoubtedly spurred on by the at least eight visits that Bishop Francis Asbury made to Burke between 1786 and 1814, was also very evident at old Gilboa Methodist Church and elsewhere. The First United Methodist Church would be founded in 1846. Grace Episcopal Church, admitted to the Diocese in 1845, would have its own frame building by 1847.
Admittedly, the first stirrings of what would come to be called “missionary” Baptist life were recognizable not far from here at North Catawba Baptist Church in 1795. Silver Creek Baptist Church, formed about 1800, and Smyrna Baptist Church, established about 1804, were the first Baptist churches in Burke County, but almost 50 years would pass before another Baptist church was founded in the county. The Catawba River Baptist Association, which was established in 1827 with 13 churches and 579 members, in those days covered ten counties. (For perspective, consider that the Catawba River Baptist Association now is comprised entirely of Burke County Southern Baptist-affiliated churches, 63 in all.) At least six other Burke County Baptist churches, including Zion (1854), Enon (1855), Pleasant Hill (1858), Hopewell (1871), Mount Home (1873), and Oak Grove (1879), all predate the establishment of First Baptist Church of Morganton. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (1832) and the Southern Baptist Convention (1845) also had been around a long time before Baptists began a church in the town of Morganton.
In addition to the cultural influences already cited, perhaps Morganton was simply not fertile soil for Baptists for the first 100 years or so of the town’s existence. W. Stanley Moore quotes one unnamed historian who describes the early population of this community as follows: “. . . The people were non-conformist in every particular. They resented any and all efforts by either state or church to mould their lives and bitterly hated the agents and trappings of authority. The gown of a priest and the uniform of an officer alike were abhorrent . . . .” While this observation may make the relatively early establishment of the more liturgical, “gowned” Protestant traditions here seem all the more remarkable, it may also explain in part a certain perennial resistance by the local populace during that first 100 years to the historically aggressive mission and evangelistic tactics of Baptists. Furthermore, the relative poverty of most Baptists in that era may shed light upon their scarcity within the town limits here (one source indicates that there was only one Baptist living in the town in 1875).
Despite these limiting factors, we know that at least eight and possibly twelve hardy souls collaborated in the formation of what was at first called Morganton Baptist Church sometime (we do not know the exact date) in 1879. The eight known charter members and their original Baptist churches were Marcus D. Brittain, his wife Minerva Hawkins Brittain, and their daughter Sarah Elizabeth Brittain (all from Mount Home); Miles Pinkney Hildebrand (also from Mount Home); Julius Alexander Cox and his wife Phoebe Elizabeth Shull Cox (from Smyrna); and Ephraim S. Whisnant and his wife Louise Benfield Whisnant (from Zion). Their pastor, initially supplied and paid by the Association, was J. R. Jones, predictably an eastern North Carolinian (from Franklin County).
The Church grew slowly at first, but somehow very early in its history the members were able to construct a wood-frame, steepled building on the corner of North Sterling and Queen Street, near where the Northwestern Building presently stands. Records indicate that by 1889, Sunday services were being held twice a month, and the membership had reached 51. By 1893, the membership had increased to 80, and Sunday evening services had been added. At some point (again, we do not know exactly when) the organization was renamed the First Baptist Church.
Beginning at 2 o’clock on the morning of December 13, 1893, an event that would prove pivotal in the history of the Church played out on the streets of Morganton. A fire swept through the business district, destroying eight stores, a hotel, and the Baptist Church building. In all, 17 property owners were affected with a total loss estimated at $40,000--a staggering sum in 1893. Insurance, which was very expensive in those days, was hard to come by, and damage payments amounted to only $8,100 for the combined losses. The earliest records of the Church were destroyed in the fire, which explains why certain details of First Baptist’s early history are forever lost.
Nevertheless, recognizing as they did that a church is not a building but a living, dynamic body of believers, and spurred on by their wonderfully gifted, Amherst-educated pastor at the time, the Reverend Robert Logan Patton, the members resolved to press on. The ecumenical spirit of this community, so very evident over the years, manifested itself beautifully then, confirming that by now perhaps the Baptists generally had been accepted in town.
On December 21, 1893, Reverend Patton wrote the following message to the congregation and community:
The pastor and members of the Presbyterian Church offered us the use of their house half the time--every other Sunday or every Sunday night. The pastor of the Methodist Church made in substance the same offer. Our Episcopal brethren have given us the use of Town Hall every Sunday in a way that does not conflict with their services.
In behalf of the Baptist Church, I hereby extend to our brethren in Christ our most hearty thanks for their extreme kindness and Christian consideration.
Our services will be in the Town Hall, Sunday School at 9 a.m., preaching at 7 p.m., and prayer meeting Thursday night.
Subject next Sunday night-- “Degrees in Heaven.” The public are invited to all services.
In October 1894 the Church moved temporarily to the Burke County Court House, which enabled members to begin meeting weekly for worship again. Ironically, the fire seemed to catalyze Baptist work in Morganton. Associational records indicate that the Church was the only one in the entire Association then holding weekly services. Membership soared to 118 in 1894. And ambitious plans were made and quickly executed to build a beautiful brick building in the Gothic style on the corner of South King and Meeting Street, which was dedicated on July 14, 1895.
The new church cost $6,526.70, a great expense that caused much consternation among the members. But again the congregation and Reverend Patton rose to the occasion. On July 13, the day before the dedicatory service, Patton and Church treasurer M. P. (Uncle Pink) Hildebrand apparently mortgaged their homes in order to ensure that sufficient funds would be available to pay off the debt the next day. R. L. Patton, Jr., has recalled that his father, Pink Hildebrand, and Sam Huffman “made a compact to pray on Saturday night that sufficient funds be raised the next morning before the dedication. Rev. W. R. Bradshaw was here to speak and spent the night in Hildebrand’s home. He told me that Pink Hildebrand prayed in a closet under the stairway most of the night. He heard him in his intercession.”
Uncommonly inspired by these sacrificial acts, the congregation did the rest, and the money was raised on July 14. So moved by the Holy Spirit, and by the spirit of the people, was the general contractor for the project, Sid Zimmerman, that he was the first to be baptized in the new building. The annual meeting of the Association was held there in October 1895. The annual meeting of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina was held there in November 1896. The terrible fire of 1893 had turned out to be a remarkable blessing!
Not that some in the town of Morganton did not still find Baptists a contemptible curiosity! Maud Patton Anthony, who was baptized in the Catawba River sometime between 1895 and 1898 (the existence of a baptismal pool in the new building apparently did not entirely end the practice of outdoor baptisms) remembers that “Joe [her brother] and I thought long and hard about taking that step. In those days it was a real trial and tribulation, for grown boys from out it town would stand on the Catawba River Bridge, spitting and jeering while baptizings were taking place below.”
Undaunted, the members of First Baptist pressed on into a new century, refusing to find comfort in the status quo. In 1899, the membership had eclipsed 200. By 1908, the number stood at 306. But not wanting to horde all the Baptist sheep, in October 1910 First Baptist began the process of assisting the Association and the Reverend J. P. Hagaman, then pastor of Mount Home, in founding the Second Baptist Church the very next month. In 1915, that organization was renamed East Morganton Baptist Church, and in December 1925, upon occupying its present site, it came to be known as Calvary Baptist Church.
As First Baptist continued to grow, in 1916 the Church formulated plans for adding a wing to the north side of the sanctuary. The members began talking about building a parsonage, which finally was accomplished in 1922. An Estey pipe organ, donated from funds provided from Andrew Carnegie’s estate, was installed in the sanctuary in late 1916 or in early 1917. In late January and early February 1916, an evangelist named Dr. J. H. Dew held a stirring revival meeting at the Church and throughout the community, preaching (among other places) at Lazarus Brothers Store and at Morganton Hardware. And the Church continued to increase in size and in spirit.
The Church had come a long, long way in 30 years. The commitment of the people to the cause of Christ was unflagging. One final image from these early years (or shortly thereafter) reflects the members’ faith and determination. The image is that of Uncle Pink Hildebrand, a charter member of the Church, crawling on his hands and knees up a slope from his home on Valdese Avenue to the Church on a snowy, icy Sunday morning in order to fulfill his weekly duty of lighting the stove so that the building would be warm in time for Sunday School and worship. It was such a great faith, manifested in such sacrificial deeds, that produced (with the Spirit’s help) such a substantial Church.
II. From Faithful Flourishing to New Beginnings: 1920-1972
Any casual student of American history knows that the five decades to be described in this part of the essay were characterized by extraordinary upheaval and progress socially, politically, economically, and scientifically nationally and worldwide. In this country, the group that Tom Brokaw has called “the Greatest Generation” survived and thrived in spite of the Great Depression, World War II, the controversial interventions in Korea and Vietnam, widespread racial tension and general social unrest, the “breakdown” and near redefinition of the traditional family, and dizzying technological progress.
True to form, during these years at First Baptist the membership faced tremendous challenges but repeatedly rose to the occasion. While the Great Depression seemed to affect Morganton somewhat less than it did other communities, especially those centered around agriculture, it still left its withering mark. But despite the great stock market plunge of October 1929, the growing Church was able to complete construction of a three-story educational building the next year. And despite the gathering winds of war in Europe throughout the 1930s, the Church was able to serve the cause of peace, focusing as never before on children and youth through Sunday School, Training Union, and musical programs. In 1939, Miss Ila Hensley was hired as the Church’s first Minister of Education, formally initiating what would become a great tradition of discipleship training and spiritual formation at First Baptist. Boy Scout Troop 184 was established in 1935, and a Scout hut was constructed on the Catawba River a few years thereafter. Maud Anthony and other “old-timers” attest to the fact that the Church bell rang faithfully through all the incredible events of that time, summoning people to worship and to other activities and ushering in each new year.
Another hallmark of First Baptist has been the ability of former and current pastors to work together. At no time was this more evident than when the Reverend John D. McCready, who had served the Church since 1939, responded to the call of his country in 1944, entering the Army as a chaplain for a two-year tour of duty. In Reverend McCready’s absence, a retired pastor, the Reverend F. A. Bower, who had served the Church from 1917 until 1925, fulfilled the pastoral duties from 1944 until 1946. Reverend McCready returned in 1946 and pastored the Church for ten more years. Then Reverend Bower came back on board as interim one more time in 1956-57. Other examples of such trust and cooperation among pastors could be cited, but this kind of collaborative effort was particularly necessary during this era.
Upon his return, Reverend McCready helped to set in motion two processes that would bear rich fruit for the Church. One was the hiring in 1946 of Miss Elisabeth H. Turner as the Church’s first full-time Minister of Music. A graduate of Westminster Choir College, Miss Turner built upon an already distinguished tradition of sacred music at the Church that had been fostered and nurtured by Mrs. E. M. Hairfield, Mrs. Clifford Walker, and many others. The second, and even more significant, phenomenon that Reverend McCready helped to bring about was a careful, honest assessment of facilities needs and a gradual recognition of the inevitable merits of relocating the Church. Apparently almost as soon as one final major renovation to the existing sanctuary and annex was completed in 1949, progressive Church members began to dream of a new setting that would accomodate the thriving Church family and allow for significant future growth.
On March 29, 1953, after much careful planning done under the leadership of Deacon Chairman R. O. Huffman, the Church voted unanimously to purchase the John H. Pearson homeplace on West Union Street. On November 22 of that same year, again guided by exceptional pastoral and lay leadership, the Church voted (again unanimously) to buy the A. M. Kistler home and property, which was adjacent to the Pearson estate. The Kistler home, long recognized as historically significant with its distinctive Federal Revival architecture, was to be preserved, but the Pearson home eventually would be torn down. The note for these two properties was paid off on December 30, 1957, with a total expenditure of $91,500 in principal and $7,060.93 in interest.
By this time a new pastor, the Reverend R. Knolan Benfield, was in place. Having previously pastored the First Baptist Church of Hickory, and having led that congregation to construct their present sanctuary and educational facilities, Reverend Benfield was well-qualified to work with R. O. Huffman, Sam Freeman, W. T. Berry, C. C. Harrell, and other excellent lay leaders to flesh out this dream.. One final real estate purchase, that of the H. L. Milner homeplace (remembered by some as the Nolan property), just west of the Pearson lot, was made on January 1, 1962, and that note (in the amount of $20,000) was paid off on October 7, 1963. Shortly thereafter, the Church voted to proceed with construction of new facilities on West Union Street. F. Arthur Hazard, a distinguished architect who had designed many churches throughout the South, was selected to draw up plans. Having seen many beautiful examples of Colonial church architecture in his many travels northward over the years, R. O. Huffman persuaded the Building Committee, chaired by C. C. Harrell, and the Church that such a design would be most appropriate for the new setting. Construction began on November 4, 1964, after the project had been awarded to W. R. Patton Company. A formal groundbreaking ceremony was held on November 22, 1964, ironically eleven years to the day after the Church had voted to purchase the Kistler property.
One can only imagine the wide range of opinions that Church members must have held about this momentous decision. But everyone knew that the First Methodist and the First Presbyterian Church had already built spacious new sanctuaries and educational plants. And everyone knew that First Baptist was bursting at the seams in its grand but thrice-renovated facilities at the corner of South King and Meeting Street. The realization that that property would soon be sold and that the beloved old structure would thereafter be demolished must have given some folk pause, but the vast majority of Church members resolved to do what their spiritual forbears had done after the great fire of 1893, and what Uncle Pink Hildebrand had done on that icy morning not so many years later when he went to light the stove--they decided to trust God and move forward.
Local folk still talk about the construction of the massive new sanctuary and three-story educational building. Some have said that, at times, it was the “best show in town.” One of those times was the day that the huge steeple was craned upward and lowered into place just above the roof line of the sanctuary. A large crowd gathered to watch this process. During the final stages of the project, when the brick were painted white, people marveled at the resplendent beauty of the building. (Though accounts differ somewhat about the origin of the white brick, there is an implicit understanding from that day to the present time that the brick will always be painted white.)
Construction was completed in early June 1967. The first worship service in the new sanctuary was held on June 18. A splendid new three-manual Reuter pipe organ, donated by Mrs. Minnie Huffman Reddish and designed by Dr. H. Max Smith, who had served as Professor of Music at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and who would go on to a distinguished teaching career at Appalachian State University, filled the room with sacred songs of praise. The very next Sunday the cornerstone was installed with a formal ceremony.
Within less than five years, the entire cost of the project--approximately $1,250,000--would be paid. On January 9, 1972, a formal noteburning ceremony was held. W. T. Berry, who had made the first and the last of 26,000 contributions to the Building Fund, held the plate containing the note as R. O. Huffman struck a match and set fire to it. A guest speaker that day, the Reverend Jack R. Bagwell, a former member of the Church who then was with the Church Architecture Department of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted in his remarks that if the debt had been paid off in fifteen years, it would have been “most commendable”; in ten years, it would have been “exceptional”; but to pay it off in less that five years was, in his view, “nothing less than miraculous.”
But God had wrought many miracles during the first 93 years of the Church’s life, and He had (and, we trust, still has) a few more in store at First Baptist.
III. From Modern Marvels to Postmodern Piety: 1973-2009
In 1973, the Church noted two very significant events. One was the retirement of the Reverend R. Knolan Benfield on June 30. Reverend Benfield had distinguished himself as a highly proficient spiritual leader and administrator in shepherding the flock through the massive building program and in inspiring them to pay off the debt in such a short time. The other event was the observance, on November 15, of Jack Campbell’s fifteenth anniversary as Minister of Music. Called as Minister of Music and Education in 1958 (he served in both capacities until 1964), Jack Campbell endeared himself to the Church and to many in the community as a faithful servant of Christ. He was named Morganton’s Man of the Year in 1969. Possessing in his own right remarkable pastoral skills, Campbell greatly enhanced not only the music ministry of the Church but also its various ministries of compassion and outreach until his retirement in 1980. Jack’s wife Martha, a minister in her own right, helped to start in the mid-1960s what is now known as the First Baptist Preschool/Afterschool program, a five-star early childhood educational facility (the highest rating given by the state of North Carolina).
In July 1973, the Reverend Wendell Guerry became pastor. During his eight-year tenure, worship, programming, and staffing at the Church were all enhanced. Wednesday night “Church Family Night” meals and Bible studies were initiated. Ground-breaking decisions by the church affirmed women in ministry in a new way. The membership of the Board of Deacons was expanded to include women (the first female deacon was Elizabeth Walker), and the ministry duties of Deacons received new emphasis. On June 29, 1980, Judy Hogshead (now Jordan) became the first woman ordained to the Gospel ministry, and she has gone on to have a fruitful ministry, especially in the area of music, particularly among Moravians in Winston-Salem.
During Reverend Guerry’s years a sound system was added to the sanctuary, and several now perennial worship traditions, including Maundy Thursday observance, were begun. Church facilities were opened up more regularly and more fully to community groups, to this day a vitally important outreach and service ministry of the Church.
Perhaps most significantly, two extremely valuable members of the ministerial staff were hired within a few months of each other in 1980. In March, the Reverend William E. Rotan came as Minister of Music, replacing the now retired Jack Campbell. Over his almost three decades of service, Reverend Rotan has built upon the great tradition of sacred music at First Baptist, introducing handbells to the Church and leading many memorable, large-scale Christmas and Easter concerts--among many other accomplishments. In more recent years, he has also distinguished himself as an excellent Administrator, seeing to the day-to-day business operations of the Church, managing the maintenance and physical improvements of the facilities, and helping to enhance in many ways the delivery of various types of services to the Church and to the community at large. In addition, he has developed an outstanding travel ministry, leading summer and autumn trips all over the United States and overseas.
In September 1980, the Reverend Fred Schuszler, who had grown up in the Church, came on board as Minister of Youth and Education. During his now almost 30 years at the Church, he has developed an outstanding, full-scale ministry to children and youth (now headed by the Reverend Kelly Sasser). Reverend Schuszler also has facilitated growth in enrollment, quality, and variety in Sunday School. He has assisted with, and now coordinates, the various mission activities of the Church locally and internationally. In 1995, he established Women and Men United in Missions, and in 1998 he began the Church’s once-a-year missions blitz of the community known as “Mission: Morganton,” which in recent years has expanded to include several partnering churches in the community. In September 2009, First Baptist will for the twelfth consecutive year observe and lead “Mission: Morganton.” Perhaps Reverend Schuszler’s most significant accomplishment at the Church in recent years has been to envision, flesh out, and refine a state-of-the-art discipleship-training program called the Center for Spiritual Formation, which features multiple courses, support groups, and other learning experiences on Wednesday and Sunday evenings throughout most of the year.
In April 1982, the Reverend Dr. Bob D. Shepherd, a veteran North Carolina pastor who most recently had been Vice-President for Development at Gardner-Webb University, became Senior Minister at the Church. His twelve and one-half years saw the Church reach even greater heights of service to God and to humanity. Building upon the innovations of his predecessors, Dr. Shepherd led the Church to refine and enhance the Deacon Family Ministry plan, and he placed a great emphasis on the significance of ministering to all people and reaching many for Christ through intentional relational efforts and all other means. Many remember the Better Homes gatherings and programs in the fellowship hall during Dr. Shepherd’s years, which served to undergird families in the Church and to reach out to others in the community. Also during his tenure Ruth Clontz became the second woman ordained to the Gospel ministry.
Among his numerous other accomplishments, beginning in 1985 Dr. Shepherd led the Church to embark on what he called Faith Venture I, a major expansion of the physical plant, including significant renovations to the fellowship hall and kitchen--areas that needed to grow to accomodate a larger Church family and to facilitate community meetings, which were occurring with greater frequency. Almost half a million dollars were quickly raised and efficiently spent to execute these and related projects. Then, in 1986, the Church’s attention turned to Faith Venture II, the centerpiece of which was to be the building of a memorial chapel in between the Kistler House and the educational facilities. Robert Salsbury, later assisted by Donald Stuart, served as architect, and the contractor was Causby Construction Company. Plans were made to include fifteen stained-glass windows from the former Church building and to provide many other special features, including a tracker pipe organ, through memorial gifts and other means. Once again, several hundred thousand dollars were summarily raised and expended, and the chapel was dedicated on March 27, 1988. Since that time, the chapel has been used for numerous funerals, memorial services, and weddings, and since 1996 it has served as the weekly worship sanctuary for the First Baptist Church Deaf Mission. A third and final renovation process, this time of the educational plant, was planned and completed in the early 1990s.
The establishment of a Hmong Mission (in March 1987) and of a Deaf Mission (in December 1988) reflects Dr. Shepherd’s passion for reaching underserved groups. The roots of the Deaf Mission are very deep at First Baptist, reaching back almost as far in Church history as the establishment of the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton in 1891. For many years, deaf and hard-of-hearing congregants and members had their own Sunday School class (the Ephphatha Class), and they were a welcomed and vital part of Sunday morning worship services, where interpreters were provided. Increasingly, deaf members grew to desire their own worship setting and format, and the Church, aided by the Baptist State Convention and by the Association, provided this opportunity in 1988. In December 1988, David Turbeville was hired as the first pastor of the Deaf Mission.
The Hmong work grew out of a series of informal contacts and conversations between Reverend Shepherd, church staff members, lay leaders, and local Hmong. Structured less formally than the Deaf Mission, the Hmong Mission over the years has met in various sites, including in the fellowship hall at First Baptist and at the Associational building. Many Hmong were baptized at First Baptist during the Shepherd years. Collaboration and cooperation with First Baptist, Drexel, has been helpful, and for several years beginning in late 1996 local Baptist Hmong work became centralized there. In 1999, the Hmong group began meeting in facilities on Walker Road, and in 2000 they began the process of formally constituting themselves as a church, now known as the First Hmong Baptist Church and recognized as a full partner in the Catawba River Baptist Association.
Over the years, Dr. Shepherd has become widely known and loved as a leader in the community as well as in the Church. He has served on many prestigious boards and committees locally (not to mention his outstanding record of service and leadership to North Carolina Baptists) and has assisted in many ambitious, worthy community-building projects. Among the many accolades and honors he has received during his years in Morganton, in 1990 he was named Morganton’s Man of the Year. For his distinguished record of service to the Church, just prior to his retirement in July 1994, he was named Pastor Emeritus. He remains a vitally important and gifted community and Church leader.
Following Dr. Robert Lamb’s distinguished ten-month tenure as interim pastor, the Reverend Dr. Thomas A. Bland, Jr., became Senior Minister on June 1, 1995. Several new staff members, and a number of new programs--all designed to build upon the great ministerial heritage of the Church--have been introduced since. In February 1996, the Reverend Tom Lineberger, who had been pastor of a deaf group meeting at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, became pastor of the First Baptist Deaf Mission, causing the two major deaf ministry groups in the county to combine. In September 1997, the Reverend Kelly Sasser, a recent graduate of the new Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, began his work as Minister of Youth and Family Life and continued in that position until September 2003. The Reverend Hal Mitchell served in the same capacity from February 2004 through April 2008, and Reverend Jeff Prince occupied this position throughout most of 2009.
In October 1999, Mr. Mark D. Silvey, RN, MSN, became the Church’s (and the county’s) first Parish Nurse, as the Church, in partnership with Grace Hospital and the Duke Endowment, boldly embarked upon a new kind of practical and spiritual ministry particularly designed to help its growing senior adult population. This very significant health care ministry lasted until 2006, when Mr. Silvey took on new work for Blue Ridge Healthcare System.
In another attempt to combine health concerns with Christian ministry, the Church established the Mimosa Christian Counseling Center in March 2004. Coordinated by longtime Church member and licensed clinical psychologist Jane Rawson, Ph.D., the Center has served the needs of hundreds of men, women, and children, very often at greatly reduced cost. Dr. Rawson and her staff have succeeded in merging traditional counseling of individuals, couples, and families with Christian concern, commitment, and content. The Center has been at its present location (220 Burkemont Avenue) for the past several years.
Ongoing mission partnerships with churches in Brannockstown, Republic of Ireland, in Bistrita, Romania, in southern Italy, and right here in Morganton (New Hope in Christ Baptist Church and the River of Life Hispanic Mission) have been initiated or extended in recent years. The local television broadcast of Sunday morning worship, begun during the Shepherd era on a taped, one-week-delayed basis, has “gone live” through the use of new technology and equipment. In 2008, with the extraordinary guidance and assistance of longtime member Dr. Howard Blair, the Church significantly updated and improved its website (www.fbcmorganton.org), which had first been established through the great expertise of longtime member David Brown in 1995. Among many other updates, the enhancements to the website now provides for delayed rebroadcast of services through the worldwide web. The outreach of First Baptist has never been greater!
Meanwhile, the ministerial role of Deacons has changed somewhat to focus on the presence and use of the various gifts of the Spirit, a new emphasis that gradually is becoming congregation-wide as the Church encourages and equips the profoundly talented laity of First Baptist to heed and to fulfill the calling of God upon their lives. The Church continues to explore new ways to minister in Jesus’ name to an increasingly large and diverse community in these early years of the 21st century and of the third millennium A.D.
In 2006, the Church embarked upon an ambitious renovation and building program called “Turning Dreams into Deeds.” Despite a greatly weakened local economy, brought on primarily by the outsourcing of industrial jobs overseas beginning around 2000, Church members have continued to be very faithful in stewardship. As of the summer of 2009, very significant renovation work had been completed in the fellowship hall and the Kistler House. The Kistler House roof, first installed in 1927, when Mr. A. M. Kistler built the home, finally had to be replaced in 2008, along with the chapel and bell tower roofs. Extensive repairs have been done to other parts of the facilities. Enhancements in the sanctuary as well as at the west entrance of the educational building are currently planned, along with the construction of a youth ministry area on the third floor of the educational building. Mr. Bill Lennon, a native of Morganton who returned to the city after living for many years in the Atlanta area, has served faithfully has Building Committee Chairman since 2006. Mr. Bob Henderson, Mr. Steve Bailey, and others associated over the years with the Church Properties Committee, have also been instrumental in planning and implementing these improvements.
Having recently begun his fifteenth year of service as Senior Minister, Dr. Bland, in the tradition of all who have gone before him, has remained active in civic and community life. In 2004, he was recognized as Morganton Man of the Year, the third minister at First Baptist to have received this honor (the Reverend Jack Campbell and Dr. Bob Shepherd having been the other two).
And so, as always, now in its one hundred and thirtieth year, First Baptist Church faces a future that is, of course, uncertain with regard to specific details, but the Church does so certainly and clearly grounded in the Word of God and in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. The stirring words of Maud Patton Anthony, taken from the Epilogue of her 1956 history of the Church, provide a fitting conclusion to this essay and highlight the wondrous potential yet to be fulfilled: “All this, that we may keep alive the altar fires of our yesterdays--that they may burn more brightly in our glorious Present, and that their ever-increasing glow may light our Tomorrows with a flame which, please God, shall never grow dim!”