"And Abram was seventy-five years old, when he went forth from Haran" (Genesis 12:4).
As the history was recorded, it was seventy-five years ago in March that twenty-one Baptist men and women gathered themselves together and organized the First Baptist Church of Covington. There is a suggestiveness in the number twenty-one -- the number of man's majority, his full-fledged manhood. The church was born full grown. Or if you please, twenty-one is the multiple of seven, and seven is in the Scripture the complete and perfect number. Those twenty-one Baptist pioneers were rich in faith if not in possessions. It was several years after the organization before the first meeting house, which stood on this very site, was erected. Down on Greenup Street, between Second Street and the River was an old pork packing house, and in an upstairs room of that structure, the Sunday school met, and our Bro. Thomas remembers attending it when he was a little boy. No doubt preaching services were also held in that upper room, but as early records are unavailable, some things can be stated as memory recalls them and as the stories have been handed down. When the first meeting house was built perhaps four or five years after the organization, only the lower story was completed and used for several years before the main auditorium was done. The early years seem to have been years of struggling to attain place and power. Covington then was not the aspiring city it is today, and though Cincinnati was not then what it is now, yet it overshadowed this more humble town on the Kentucky side. It is significant, however, that this church was not a weakling. It was not organized and then left without preaching and pastoral care, as is the case sometimes with some new churches. Rev. John B. Cook was the first pastor, remaining less than a year.
Dr. Joseph T. Robert appears to have been the first settled pastor, remaining a little over two years. He was a native of South Carolina, and a graduate of Brown University. He was afterwards pastor at Savannah, Ga., and Portsmouth, O., and the later years of his life were spent as President of the Atlanta, Ga., Baptist Seminary. Rev. Asa Drury became the next pastor, Under his ministry the church made great progress. The well known Dr. Ryland Dillard held a meeting here at which over 100 were added to the church. During this meeting the father and mother of our sister, Mrs. Ewing, brought their letters from the Ninth Street Church of Cincinnati, and her father, Jonas Shutt, together with Lewis Roach, Philip Bush and Isaac Cooper, father of our Bro. John R. Cooper were the first ordained deacons of the church. This Bro. Drury was a teacher in what was called the Institute, out of which was later evolved the Covington High School. Mr. Drury left in January, 1845. This was the year when the Western Baptist Theological Institute was located in Covington and that valuable property on Eleventh Street, where St. Elizabeth's Hospital holds forth its images and crucifixes, was then the property of that Baptist School. Alas, what might have been! It is not pleasant to talk about it, but suffice it to say that the short and unhappy history of that institution is one of the unfortunate legacies to us of the strife between the North and the South. Dr. B. F. Riley says that the school "had the misfortune to be an object of contention as long as it existed. Located on the border at a time when sectional passion was highest, it was destined to be short lived. It was a troublous course of ten years, when the valuable property was sold and the proceeds were divided between the irreconcilable elements." That eminent Baptist, Dr. Robert E. Pattison, became the President of this Western Theological Institute, in 1845, and supplied our pulpit for a number of months. He afterwards became a professor at Newton, then president of what is now Colby University, then professor in Shurtleff College and finally one of the faculty of the old Union Baptist Theological Seminary at Chicago. Rev. James M. Frost, father of our own Dr. Frost, of the S. S. Board at Nashville, was the next pastor. He baptized our sister, Mrs. Ewing, so that she has the honor of having joined the church over sixty-six years ago, and is its oldest member in length of membership. After a supply of Bro. Drury for six months, Rev. Samuel W. Lynd was pastor for nearly four years. It was during his pastorate that our Bro. Thomas was baptized.
The pastorates of John M. Peck and S. L. Helm followed. During that of the latter what is now Madison Avenue Baptist Church went out, forty-three members being dismissed from this church to form the new organization. That was in 1857. It was an amicable separation, and as illustration of that fact Bro. Robert T. McGill, who still lives in our city, and was one of the forty-three dismissed and is still a member of Madison Avenue, was for sometime Superintendent of this Sunday school after he had gone off with the new church. Rev. William Price next had a pastorate of eighteen months, and then followed the six year's pastorate of Rev. Y. Pope Yeatman. Dr. Yeatman came of distinguished Kentucky ancestry, and was first a lawyer. He was afterwards pastor of the Central Church of New York City, then of the Third Church, St. Louis, Mo. He was a man of great prominence and influence in the State of his adoption. During his pastorate here Brother K. L. Hackathorn was elected a deacon, a position he has held ever since. Also at this time there were was some discussion about improving the meeting house, which it seems was much needed. It was determined at one church meeting that if it could be done for $3,500, then the pastor was to go ahead and raise the money. But the plan did not materialize. After Dr. Yeatman resigned, the church cast covetous eyes on Dr. W. M. Pratt, of the First Church, Lexington, Ky., but the negotiations failed. Dr. Yeatman then was recalled and he returned for a little longer. Early in 1868, Dr. W. H. Felix was called, but he declined, and in March, Rev. George F. Pentecost, then pastor at Evansville, Ind., came and held a very successful revival meeting. In April he was called to the pastorate. A very vigorous protest was made by the Evansville Church, but Pentecost came, and his sixteen months' pastorate was a time of much spiritual quickening and ingathering. He was very insistent in his demand for a new church building, but he unable to bring it to pass. So when the church was without a pastor, the courtship of Dr. Felix was renewed, and in July, 1870, he entered on his long and splendid pastorate of fourteen years. Things began to move at once. At a church meeting August, 31, 1870, it was resolved "that it is the sense of this meeting that immediate steps be taken to build a new church edifice." In February, 1871, the Building Committee was instructed to make arrangements to have the old building removed, and a temporary place of meeting secured. This house then and its furnishings, beautiful in its newness, and dignified and stately today, is Dr. Felix's great monument. The work he did was lasting, and his pastorate while the longest in the history of the church, was perhaps also the greatest. After Dr. Felix resigned Rev. W. O. Bailey, from Alabama, was pastor for nearly two years. Then came Dr. Davidson's first pastorate, when he came here from Marion, Ala.
Some years before Dr. Davidson came, in fact as far back as 1872, there was discussion about the wisdom of establishing a mission in the southern part of Covington. The stress of building this new house hindered the church from going ahead with the matter then, although it was agreed that it would be a good thing to do. It remained for Dr. Davidson to carry into execution this long-cherished plan of the church, and in July, 1889, the lot at Fifteenth and Banklick Streets was purchased, and you all know the subsequent history of the South Side Mission and Church. After Dr. Davidson resigned to go to Georgetown College, Rev. J. W. Lynch, of Danville, Ky., was called, but declined. Rev. I. J. VanNess, of Nashville, Tenn., was called and he also declined. So it came to pass that the church next enjoyed the eight years of the lovable and sweet-spirited Jones, then three years of the scholarly and polished Daniel, followed by two years of the vigorous and aggressive Wood. Then the uncommon thing happened, in the calling of a former pastor, when Dr. Davidson returned for another four years of service. It is sometimes said and it is sometimes true that a man's second pastorate of the same church is not as successful as his first. But it was not so in this case. I have no knowledge whatever nor have I ever heard of any man leaving his second pastorate of the same people with as much glory and praise and honor as Dr. Davidson when he left Covington. That is a great statement to make about him, and it is a great statement too, to make about this First Church.
I discovered that in the late 70's an effort was made by this church to start a German Baptist Mission in Covington. Nothing came of it, however. Work among Germans is not easy. They do not so readily take to the simple and plain principles of our Baptist faith, and I suppose that is the reason why this effort of ours was a failure.
I find nothing along the track of the seventy-five years that indicates even the slightest deviation from the Bible standard of truth. No loose or liberal theology has been either proclaimed or tolerated. One pastor after he left here pursued a somewhat erratic theological course, but I never heard that he stepped aside from the beaten track while he was here. This has always been a straight, square, all-round Baptist Church, holding fast to the faith once delivered to the saints. It has lived in a spirit of fraternity with other sects, but has never faltered in loyalty to Jesus Christ. When a neighboring church of another faith lost its house through fire, this church courteously offered the homeless congregation our house.
It has been a church singularly devoted and loyal to its pastors. Do you realize that that is a great thing to say after seventy-five years? You can look at some Baptist churches not nearly so old, and you cannot say that of them. It is, of course, true that among the various pastors of the First Church there have been diversities of gifts. Doubtless some have been more loved than others, and there is nothing unusual or remarkable about that; it is only natural. But I read nothing, nor do I hear anything of any real trouble or friction between the church and pastor. There has not been here the disgraceful spectacle of a pastor fighting the church or the church trying to force out the pastor. Of course, there have been sometimes ripples on the surface, but no great clash or controversy or storm that has put the church in disrepute, in the eyes of the community. Loving its pastors the church has known how to follow their leadership. It has always been responsive to the pastoral appeals. Some brethren here today could tell great tales of heroic burden-bearing in the years now gone. The church has inspired the pastors because it thus demonstrated love and loyalty. It is no wonder that your pastors have loved you.
It is now, at seventy-five years of age, a family church. Members in it today point back with pride to their ancestors who were members here. There are children in the Sunday school, who, when they shall be converted and baptized into our fellowship, will still further emphasize that fact, and when the centennial sermon of this church is preached I hope that fact, more glorious then than ever, will be specially set froth, as the children count up the generations that were before them in the membership of the same old First Church. It is always a delight to me to think of one church having the same family in it, coming down generation after generation. And that is a lesson of this anniversary that I would like to impress on our younger people. Give in first your supreme allegiance to Jesus Christ, and then your unswerving fidelity to the church to which you belong.
Our age then gives us dignity and standing in the community where for these seventy-five years we have let shine forth the light. I do not mean by dignity that false pride or that foolish arrogance that some ignorant people regard as synonymous with dignity. The character of our work has fixed our reputation in the city of Covington. The very architecture of this house speaks eloquently of what we stand for. No one looking at either outside or inside of this building can possibly mistake what it is. The spirit of reverance [sic] comes perfectly natural when we enter this room, so stately, so dignified, so churchly. And then with a service in harmony with the physical environment, we cannot easily forget that we are in the house of the Lord and in the very presence of Him whose glory covered the camp of Israel. Not for any cold formality or ultra-ritualism do I plead. I do want that always we shall remember that the Lord is in His holy temple, and we are to draw near like Moses when the voice from the burning bush said "take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."
Such worship must be dignified. God keep both pastor and people from flippant irreverance [sic] and undue familiarity with holy things.
But we are not facing the past, but the future, as we stand in the present. All down the centuries there have existed the forces that have weakened the church's power in the world, and each one has contributed its share of injury, the heretical Arianism of the Fourth Century and the Socianism of the Sixteenth Century as well as the corrupt Sacerdotalism of the Middle Ages. And in all these centuries the church has faced then what it is facing now, the sneering doubt of the unbeliever and the contemptuous indifference of the scoffer. Jewish malevolence and Roman persecution were not to be wondered at in the days of the Apostolic pioneering, and the Pentecostal church strode on to triumph, because it proclaimed the doctrine of a new life. It challenged all the antagonisms of sin's powers, and it grew in proportion as it remained pure and unsullied. We are facing no new condition or problems, only new positions and restatements of the old. The divine demand for enthusiasm is just the same as when the messages of John from the Lord went to the seven churches of Asia Minor, and there was held up before them the glorious inspirational promise, "to him that overcometh." The conquest of the world is not yet, the divine commission is not yet carried out. It is no time for the folding of hands and resting on rusted swords. Much has been said and truly, about the motive of the preaching, and we need today what might be called an insurgent ministry, but another word, needs to be said about the motive of the preaching, so that the insurgent ministry must be supplemented by an aggressive church and these two co-ordinated forces fully consecrated and wisely directed, will yet shake the world, and put to silence all cavil and criticisms. What is the lesson then for the First Baptist Church of Covington as it stands at the completion of seventy-five years? This it is, as I give you now this text in Gen. 12:4, "And Abram was seventy-five years old when he went forth from Haran." God had called Abram to go forth to be the founder of a great nation It was the day dawn of his great opportunity, and he obeyed and went forth. Do you see what it means for us? Shall we say, Lord, we are ready? Then follow the gleam, and go forth to our greatest glory!
[From Publications of the Kentucky Baptist Historical Society, No. 3., 1913, pp. 39-46; via the Kenton County Public Library, Covington, KY. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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