Greater First Baptist Church has existed for 114 years
By Rochelle Alexander
Special to the Tribune
First Baptist Church was established in the 1900s and was located in Needmore near Raymond Purdom's Grocery.
After acquiring a parcel of land on Fifth Avenue, the members marched from Needmore to the new location where the one-room building housed the members and the Rev. Miller every other Sunday. The building used coal and wood as its heating source, and there was also a small steeple that held a bell used to indicate the beginning of Sunday School.
During the 1900s several ministers served as the Church's Shepherd. They were Rev. Miller, Rev. Riley, Rev. Smith, Rev. Evans, Rev. Blackman, Rev. Hall and Rev. Malone.
In 1941 the Rev. Willie Payne Johnson was called to pastor the Church and remained its pastor for 57 years.
Under the leadership of Pastor Johnson many changes took place, both spiritual and physical. In the beginning of his leadership he only had six members, all women. Through prayer and faith the congregation increased and although there were still only a few men, there were several deacons. The church services increased from twice a month to every Sunday. Several departments were organized under his leadership such as the Baptist Young People's Union, the Missionary Society, the Usher Board and a choir.
From 1959 to the mid-sixties the church underwent another renovation, adding a Sanctuary and Choir Loft, along with indoor plumbing. There was also an increase of male members. In 1984 and 1985 the Church was expanded and the name changed to Greater First Baptist Church.
The Rev. Johnson had the privilege of ordaining a number of men who had been called to preach the Gospel, many who went on to pastor their own churches. They were the Rev. William Dukes, the Rev. William Wray, the Rev. Michael Pigg, the Rev. Keith Davis, and his own son the Rev. William H. Johnson.
In 1994 and 1995 more renovations took place. A ramp was added to the back entrance and to the sanctuary to accommodate the handicapped. Tile and carpet were added to the back foyer, the choir and ushers' room. The bathrooms were also remodeled.
In 1997 Pastor W.P. Johnson's health began to fail. He stepped aside and became Pastor Emeritus while his son, the Rev. William H. Johnson became the interim pastor until the congregation voted him in September 1997.
Under the leadership of the Rev. William H. Johnson the membership has continually increased. The membership is somewhere around 300 and many ministries have been established.
The Praying Wives and Husbands Ministry, Bus Ministry, Crown Ministry, Youth Ministry, TV and Audiovisual Ministry, Men's Ministry, Disciples In Prayer, One Hour Prayer Ministry, Prayer Line Ministry, Grant Writing Ministry, Noon Day Bible Study, The Praise Team, The Anointed Steps of Praise and the Male Chorus, The Footsteps of Grace, The Male Mimes, Financial Management Ministry, and Constitution and By Laws are just a few ministries that have been established under his leadership. Through these ministries the church has grown spiritually, physically and financially.
Several other annual events have been established under Pastor William H. Johnson's leadership. They are the Married Couples Retreat, The Rose of Sharon Youth Camp, Senior Citizen Appreciation, Family and Friends, Unity Week, Senior Appreciation (High School), Men's Youth Retreat, Men's and Women's Retreat and treating students with grades of As and Bs to a day out.
Pastor Johnson has ordained many Deacons under his leadership: Deacon John Edmundson, Deacon Joe Harris, Deacon Barry Mayes, Deacon Gregory Pigg, Deacon Will Taylor, Deacon Roderick Tears, Deacon Larry Thomas, Deacon Donald Webster, Deacon Jeff Anderson, Deacon William Brown, Deacon Carlton Dudley Jr. and Deacon Jeff McLean.
He has also ordained several ministers: Minister John Conner, Reverend Donald Coney, and Minister Valoria Johnson, the first female to be ordained in the church's history on July 16, 2006, Minister Carletta Webster, Minister Larry Thomas, Minister Donald Webster and Minister Tamara Eskridge.
In 1999 Pastor Johnson shared The Vision to build a new church upon the hill with the congregation. With the aid of the Deacons, Financial Ministry and the Congregation the plan was set in motion. Due to the failing economy and other unforeseen circumstances the building project has been delayed but by prayer and faith we will make it to the hill top. Although we have not broken ground, we have continued to renovate the existing building. Recently two new cooling units were installed and the parking lot was paved.
Today as we celebrate the 114 years of the church's existence, let us be grateful for how far we have come, for the struggles and for our forefathers who made this day possible. Let us have the faith to believe that God will take us where He wants us to be only when He is ready for us to be there and that the church will continue to grow spiritually, physically and financially. Remember with God all things are possible if we just hold to His unchanging hand.
Rochelle Alexander is the secretary of the Marshall County Branch NAACP.