The church now known as First Baptist Church of Vidalia occupies an imposing structure that dominates the corner of Church Street and Highway 280. The history of the church can be traced to a rather modest attempt to provide a place of worship for a small group of people who lived in an area that was sparsely populated. The church was established less than ten years after the end of the Civil War during an era of profound change.
Many of the details of the early history of the church have been lost as a result of a fire in the early twentieth century, but the essential details that are known are briefly sketched here. On September 19, 1874 the Reverend Turner Smith of the Mount Vernon Association came on foot over a trail to the area that later came to be known as Vidalia. While Mount Vernon existed in 1874, the city of Vidalia was not established until seventeen years later. In the late nineteenth century the “New South” began to slowly appear. The “New South” was characterized by the emergence of many small towns that were located along railroad lines. These towns frequently attempted to attract industry in an effort to diversify the economy of the region. When Vidalia emerged and began to grow in the 1890’s, agriculture, turpentine and timber dominated the economy. The Baptist church was already established, and it would be ready to grow with the new town.
The church that Reverend Smith established was first called Gethsemane Baptist Church. The first building was a small log structure located in the middle of what is now Church Street and fifty feet south of the intersection of Second Street. There are sixteen known charter members of Gethsemane Baptist Church. Their names are listed elsewhere in this history. Mrs. Mary Herring is a current member of First Baptist Church of Vidalia. She is the widow of Richard Herring who is a descendant of two charter members, Mrs. A. M. McBryde and Mrs. A. J. McBride.
In 1890 the congregation voted to change the name of the church to the Vidalia Baptist Church. In 1893 the Daniell Baptist Association was established. The original log church was replaced by a two-story building that was used as both a school and a church. The construction of this building and the establishment of a school were significant projects for a young association in a community that had just been established. At the turn of the century, about a quarter of the population of the city claimed membership in the church. The population of Vidalia in 1900 was 503 and the membership of the church was 136 in 1903. A fire destroyed the church building in 1904. The membership responded to this challenge by erecting a larger building to replace the one that had been destroyed. This building was then used until it was sold to the local Primitive Baptist congregation in 1919.
The Reverend H. W. Williams (1917-1920) challenged the church to raise the money to build a new sanctuary. He offered to donate a $1000 toward the project if nine others would match his gift. When the challenge was not immediately accepted, he threatened to take his money and go elsewhere. The challenge was eventually accepted, but it would take several years to complete the project.
In 1920 the population of Vidalia had grown to 2860 and the membership of the church stood at 468. At this time the church met in a municipal auditorium during the initial period of construction of the new church. The basement of the new building was completed in 1921 and the congregation met there until the present sanctuary was completed in 1924. The first baptismal service was held in the new structure prior to completion. During this service the congregation stood because pews had not yet been installed. The floor had not been finished and windows had not been installed, but the baptismal service was held nevertheless. The original plan was to spend $40,000 on the building. It is unclear exactly how much was spent, but it appears to have been around $50,000.
The Reverend J.T.B. Anderson led the church during the construction. He left the church the year after completion of the task. Dr. J. C. Brewton agreed to serve as interim pastor in 1925. Dr. Brewton was one of the most prominent Baptist leaders in the area. He was a co-founder of Union Baptist Institute which was later renamed Brewton-Parker Institute and is now known as Brewton-Parker College. He was the first President of UBI, he returned to serve as President on two occasions, and he had been the minister of several area churches. On February 10, 1926 Dr. Brewton and his wife moved their membership to the church and he accepted the call of the church to become the full-time minister. Dr. Brewton clearly became one of the most beloved pastors in the history of the church. He announced his intention to resign on several occasions but was persuaded to withdraw the resignation. The church finally reluctantly accepted his resignation on July 3, 1935.
Records indicate that the deacons proposed a budget of $6800 for 1926. The budget was divided as follows: pastor’s salary $2000; debt retirement $2000; missions $1800; and general expenses $1000. Although early records are scarce, those that exist clearly indicate that the church had a history of strong support of missions as indicated by this budget.
The crash of the stock market in October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930’s rocked the nation. Despite the grave economic crisis that was starting to unfold, the congregation decided to make a significant financial commitment. Sunday, March 30, 1930, was a significant day in the history of the church. On that day Dr. Brewton presided at a church conference that unanimously voted to purchase a pipe organ. The organ that was purchased from the Pilcher Organ Company cost $4370. During the conference the name of the church was officially changed to the First Baptist Church of Vidalia, and Brother V. B. Herring, a trustee, read a brief historical record of the church, which he had written. On that same day the new church was officially dedicated. Dr. Aquila Chamlee, President of Bessie Tift College, preached the sermon. Records indicate that the value of church property at the time of the dedication was $78,500.
Dr. Brewton was followed as pastor by Reverend Gower Latimer. Latimer was pastor from October 1, 1935 through December 31, 1945. He holds the record for length of service during the church’s first century and is second to Reverend Grady Roan in the entire history of the church. The population of Vidalia was 4109 in 1940, and the membership of the church was 588. In 1940 a committee was appointed to make plans for raising funds for the purpose of constructing a pastorium. The project was delayed due to World War II.
During the war years a large lighted sign in the shape of a cross was placed on the lawn. The sign proclaimed “Jesus Saves.” During this era chimes were added to the organ. The WMU made a service flag. A star on the flag represented each member of the congregation who was in military service. It should be noted that the church has benefited from an active WMU throughout its history.
Reverend Joe V. Springer became pastor on August 1, 1946. The pastorium project was revived. In the fall of 1947 Reverend Springer and his family moved into the home at the corner of Church and Fourth Streets. The post war years were a period of expansion of church activities. A young Adult Sunday School Department was organized in 1947. It met in the chapel of Murchison Funeral Home. Within two years a College Sunday School Department was added. In the spring of 1947, the Men’s Bible Class began to broadcast the weekly Sunday School lesson over the radio station now known as WVOP.
In 1948 a rotation system for membership on the Board of Deacons was implemented. The church budget for 1947-48 totaled $10,000. The pastor’s salary was $4200. The church continued to give a significant percentage of its income to various denominational and mission projects. That year Brewton-Parker College received $1000, the Cooperative Program received $750 and another $750 was given to special mission causes. By 1948 there was discussion of the need to construct an educational building. In September 1949 Mrs. Lucille Morey became the first full-time secretary employed by the church. In April 1952 Reverend Springer resigned in order to accept the call of the First Southern Baptist Church of Fresno, California.
Reverend O. L. Pedigo began a ten-year pastorate on October 1, 1952. Numerous changes took place during this era. Rather than holding spasmodic business meetings after Sunday morning service, the practice of holding regularly scheduled business conferences was initiated in 1953, a church calendar was adopted at the same time, a unified budget was adopted in 1955 and in 1956 the practice of electing a moderator to preside at church conferences was initiated. The need for an educational building continued to be discussed and the building was finished in 1955.
The April 9, 1959 issue of the Vidalia Advance reported that the mission minded congregation of First Baptist Church in obedience to the Great Commission had decided that Vidalia had grown to the point that a mission church was needed in the eastern part of the city. In August 1959 a parcel of land at the corner of Fifth and Smith Streets was purchased. A tent revival was held on the land. The church voted to go forward with establishing a mission, and construction of the building began in the summer of 1960. First Baptist Church supported the church and provided the early pastors for the mission. Smith Street Baptist Church was constituted on November 2, 1965.
The population of Vidalia was approximately 7500 in 1960 and the membership of First Baptist Church was 905. Reverend Pedigo resigned in November 1962. He became pastor of Stone Mountain Baptist Church. Pedigo later became Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Children’s Homes. He remained in this position until his death in a plane crash in 1981. Pedigo remained close to First Baptist Church and its members throughout these years. The year after his death the Pedigo Pavilion was dedicated on the campus of the Children’s Home in Baxley. The construction of the pavilion was a joint project of the alumni of the children’s home and First Baptist Church. Reverend Grady Roan, Richard Herring, Dr. Lamar Brown and Mrs. Pedigo participated in the dedication.
When Pedigo left First Baptist Church, Dr. Ted Phillips, President of Brewton-Parker College became the interim pastor. Phillips would serve both First Baptist Church and the Smith Street Mission in this capacity on several occasions. Reverend Milton Gardner became pastor on July 14, 1963.
In 1967 the church established its first library under the leadership of Mrs. Louise VanDyke. In the same year signs were placed on highways leading into the city, which proclaimed the First Baptist Church was “in the Heart of the City for the Hearts of the People.” In January 1968 a committee was appointed to study and plan for the construction of a new sanctuary. This project was eventually abandoned and a sanctuary renovations committee was appointed in its place.
Reverend Gardner resigned in order to accept the pastorate of the first Baptist Church of Thomasville on September 30, 1969. Reverend Irvin Northcutt became the next pastor in March 1970. Northcutt had previously served as a Southern Baptist missionary in South America and would return to a similar position when he left First Baptist Church in 1972.
Mrs. Morey retired after having served as Church Secretary for almost twenty-two years in June 1971. She remained as financial secretary until September 1979. Mrs. Glynn Collins served as church secretary from 1971 until April 10, 1972. Mrs. Marie Warnock assumed the secretarial responsibilities at that time. She continues to serve as church secretary. She has now held this position for more than forty years. This makes Warnock the longest tenured employee in the history of First Baptist Church.
Dr. Phillips again served the church as interim pastor following the departure of Reverend Northcutt. The church recognized his contribution when it hosted Dr. Ted Phillips Appreciation Day on October 29, 1972. On November 1, 1972 Reverend T. Noel Cooper became pastor of First Baptist Church. On September 16, 1973 the church celebrated Miriam Trippe Day in honor of Mrs. Trippe’s twenty-three years as church pianist on the occasion of her retirement. Mr. Don Moye who would later be ordained was called as Minister of Music and Youth on June 5, 1974. Moye has completed almost thirty-seven years of service. He directed music longer than anyone in the history of the church. In 2006 he became Executive Associate Pastor.
The centennial celebration of the founding of the church included a pageant directed by Margaret Taylor. Mrs. Wynette Bobbitt Cook was the chairman of the pageant committee. A host of church members participated. Mr. J. R. Trippe was the chairman of the Centennial Committee. Reverend Cooper preached during the morning service on Centennial Sunday (September 22, 1974) and former pastor Reverend Joe Springer preached that evening. Mrs. T. Q. Vann was the chairman of the history committee. Mr. Elmo Dunham wrote the history that was printed in the program.
During 1974 the church voted to install an elevator to make access to the sanctuary easier, and the project was completed in March 1975. Reverend Cooper resigned during 1975. In the fall of 1976 Reverend Grady Roan became pastor of First Baptist Church. He served the church until his death in 1994. Roan was pastor for almost eighteen years, by far the longest tenure of any pastor in the history of the church. He became known as a man with a big smile, a strong handshake, and a word that embodied his beliefs, Glory!
One of the most significant evangelistic events in the history of the church occurred in 1981. Reverend Jess Hendley was the evangelist during a revival in which a combined total of 84 professions of faith and believer’s baptisms were recorded. A total of 24 individuals joined the church by transfer of letter. Mr. J. R. Trippe had led the planning for this revival. He died shortly before it began.
In 1985 the church voted to sell the pastorium. The church continued to acquire additional property including that which had been occupied by Murchison Funeral Home, Cooper Auto Parts and Cecil’s Cycle shop. The church continued to struggle with the need for more sanctuary space. There had been discussion since at least 1968 about building a new structure or doing major renovation to the existing building. In 1990 the decision was made to begin the practice of having two Sunday morning services. In the same year the former Cooper Auto Parts was renamed the First Baptist Church Student Center. In 1994 the church voted to purchase a new organ.
In 1992 the church again responded to an opportunity to support a mission enterprise. The church accepted the challenge of the Daniell Baptist Association to sponsor a ministry to the growing Hispanic population. Mr. Tommie Williams who served as Chairman of the Missions Committee was the most important link between First Baptist Church and the Hispanic mission during this period. The mission began meeting in the student center. First Baptist Church and the Daniell Association contributed funds to support the pastor. On November 16, 1997 the Hispanic mission now known as Primera Iglesia Bautista moved to a facility in Lyons.
Dr. Kenneth Keene was called as the twenty-seventh pastor of First Baptist Church in October 1995. In 1996 the church voted to hold church conferences quarterly rather than monthly. In 1996 the church voted to establish a Vision Implementing Committee. As a result of the work of this group the church voted the following year to spend $10,000 to fund the development of a master site plan. In 1997 the church initiated a local AWANA chapter that has engaged in a mission outreach to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Vidalia.
The one hundred twenty fifth anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church was celebrated in 1999. The scriptural foundation of the celebration is found in Hebrews 12:1 and Philippians 4:13. Those verses remind members that as,” we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” and in so doing we continue to, “press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”. A host of saints have labored in this place since 1874, and that tradition continues.
The church undertook a major commitment when the membership voted on March 5, 2000 to purchase property that previously housed Piggly Wiggly and other commercial property. The former Family Dollar Store was renovated and occupied by several Sunday school classes on January 28, 2001. The building was renamed Education Building #2.
Pastor Keene resigned effective September 30, 2000. Following in the tradition of Rev. Pedigo, Keene accepted a position with the Georgia Baptist Convention. Keene became a consultant in the Department of Church-Minister relations. Following Rev. Keene’s resignation, the church discontinued the practice of holding two Sunday morning services. Rev. Scott Morrison became Pastor to Students on January 3, 2001. Rev. Scott McHugh became Interim Pastor on July 1, 2001.
Rev. Bucky Kennedy became Senior Pastor on October 5, 2003. Philip McQueen began work with children’s ministries on May 8, 2005. He became Minister of Music and Senior Adults Pastor in 2006 at the time that Rev. Don Moye became Executive Associate Pastor. Terry Randle became Children’s Pastor and Missions Pastor in July 2006. Following his resignation, Tracy Todd was called as Children’s Pastor on April 6, 2008.
Under the leadership of Rev. Kennedy, the church experienced significant growth and again began to hold two Sunday morning worship services. Even with two services, the historic sanctuary no longer provided adequate space for the existing membership and membership continued to grow. The congregation sought the leadership of God, and as a result began renovation of a building to be used for the new worship center on property adjacent to the former Piggly Wiggly Building. Renovation of the new worship center was completed and services were held in the building on February 12, 2006. The historic sanctuary continues to be used primarily for youth activities.
Another former commercial property was renovated and this building, now called the Administration/Library Building, opened on January 2, 2007. During 2007 renovation of the former Piggly Wiggly Building was initiated. This structure, named the Children’s Ministry Building, had an open house on May 31, 2008. This building will house the nursery as well as spaces for Time for Tots, Awana, Discovery Cove, Sunday Celebration and other children’s activities.
In November 2007 the long tradition of providing leadership to Georgia Baptists continued when Rev. Kennedy was elected to serve as President of the Georgia Baptist Convention. He was reelected to a second term in 2008.
Early in his pastorate, Rev. Kennedy expressed his desire to see a crisis pregnancy center in this community. He asked Jan Holt to take the lead in researching the possibilities of having such a ministry in Vidalia. In January 2009, Rachel’s House was established under the auspices of the Daniell Baptist Association. In January 2010 Katy Sammons became the first executive director. Under her leadership, the center opened on August 5, 2010. The mission of Rachel’s House is to equip people with the truth and give them hope for the future.
The First Baptist Church of Vidalia, which traces its origins to a period in which the city of Vidalia did not exist, has a long and impressive history. The church has consistently been a center for the proclamation of the Good News. It has consistently supported missions in Vidalia and throughout the world. As such it has been and continues to be a source of salt and light in Vidalia and throughout the world. The church remains committed to lifting high the Lord Jesus Christ and claiming the promise that in so doing people will be drawn to Him.