First Baptist Church of Covington, KY
A Church That Pioneered Other Baptist Missions
Pieces of the Past
By Jim Reis
First Baptist Church of Covington, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1988, has undergone some dramatic changes over the years.
Covington's oldest Baptist church once had about 1,200 members, but a typical Sunday service now draws 65-70 people.
The church building - its labyrinth of classrooms and halls is mostly unused - was once the center of a thriving downtown neighborhood. But today its neighbors are the Internal Revenue Service, the Professional Arts Building and the Union Light, Heat and Power Co.
Even the church's address has changed. Although the church faces a section of Fourth Street, its address is Brent Spence Square. The street honors the former congressman, who was instrumental in bringing the IRS to Covington.
Redevelopment, the flight to the suburbs and time have taken their toll on First Baptist.
Many of the records of the church were lost in the 1937 flood when water reached a depth of three feet on the first floor.
But from what church members have pieced together, the congregation dates to March 10, 1838, four years after Covington was incorporated.
On March 10, 1838, members of four other Northern Kentucky Baptist churches - Dry Creek, East Bend, Four Mile and Licking and two in Cincinnati - Ninth Street and Enon - met in a schoolhouse at the northeast corner of Fourth and Scott streets in Coving-ton to form a new congregation.
Exactly where the congregation held its early meetings is not clear. Evidently some meetings were held in a pork-packing plant on Greenup Street between Second Street and the Ohio River. It was not until 1842 or 1843 that a building to house the congregation was constructed on the present site.
A newspaper story described that first building as a modest, one-room structure.
By 1850, the congregation had grown large enough to host the first of several state conventions of the Baptist General Association that were held in Covington.
The Covington Journal mentioned the convention in a story on Oct. 19, 1850, noting that some of the most eminent ministers in the state were attending.
The building was renovated during the sum. mer of 1855. A June 2 Covington Journal story said, "Our Baptist friends are giving their house of worship a thorough repairing and making some valuable improvements to it."
The writer added that church buildings are "like an ornament to a city or town and credible to its inhabitants."
In 1857 First Baptist lost 43 of its members in what was termed an amicable separation. They left to form the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Covington.
The Civil War divided many churches and First Baptist was no exception. The church went through lean financial years and was without a pastor for about a year. When Rev. W. Pope Yeaman was finally selected in August 1862, he found conditions not the best.
An account of the state Baptist General Association convention in 1863 included an observation by Rev. Yeaman that "a great spiritual dearth prevails in Covington."
Covington again hosted the state General Association in 1865, and Yeaman served as convention secretary. But because of the Civil War, the turnout was small.
In 1869 the church held a revival that brought in 40 members. A subscription drive to build a church also was initiated.
A Covington Journal story on April 24, 1869, said that about $20,000 was pledged and that as soon as the pledges reached $25,000 construction would begin.
By October of the next year, the Covington Journal reported that plans were unveiled to tear down the building and construct a new one on the same spot.
Because of the church building program, however, a mission for Covington's German immigrants was dropped. The mission was started in 1870 but dropped because of the financial commitment to the building fund.
The Covington Journal noted on Feb. 18, 1871, that the actual demolition of the old church building was under way. The construc-tion coincided with the building of the First Presbyterian Church, which was also on Fourth Street.
During the two-year building project, the congregation met at the Franklin Library Hall in Covington. The building - the one still in use - was dedicated in December 1873.
The Covington Journal reported on Dec. 13, 1873, that Rev. W. H. Felix, the church pastor, preached the dedication sermon and two ministers of the nearby Presbyterian church participated in the service.
Rev. Felix holds the distinction of serving the longest period as pastor of First Baptist, from July 1870 to December 1884. He was the guiding force behind the new building. He not only organized the subscription campaign but also saw that construction costs were paid off.
The Daily Commonwealth reported in July 1883 that the church was free of debt.
In July 1889 First Baptist purchased a lot at 15th and Banklick streets in Covington. The lot became the Southside Baptist Mission.
In 1892, First Baptist again hosted the state convention. The Kentucky Post reported that more than a dozen churches - Baptist, Presbyterian, Christian and Congregational congregations - in Covington, Ludlow, Newport, Dayton and Cincinnati opened their pulpits. Some 33 Baptist ministers preached that Sunday.
First Baptist was back in the news on Jan. 21, 1908, when thieves ransacked the church. A Kentucky Post account said a crowbar, a hammer and an iron poker were used to break into doors and desks. Money was apparently the motive, and thieves took $4 in nickels and pennies from a tin bank in a classroom.
In 1918, First Baptist called another pastor, Llewellyn L. Henson, but a few months later he volunteered as a YMCA worker to minister to American troops in France.
Henson returned after the war and in October 1919, First Baptist took the lead in helping organize a $6.5 million drive in Kentucky for domestic and foreign missionary work.
Henson continued as pastor of First Baptist through May 1928.
During his ministry, the church purchased a building next door for an education building. The church also sponsored a basketball team that played in the Covington YMCA church league, which was made up of members of various churches in Kenton County.
Under Henson, church membership grew from 621 to 841. Then the 1937 flood damaged the church and the neighborhood. The flood came on the heels of the Great Depression. From 1931-37, contributions dropped from $10,000 to $6,000.
The 1950s saw an emphasis on the Sunday School and other educational programs. Sunday School enrollment grew from 308 in 1950 to 1,176 in 1959.
The church also began a drive in 1955 to build an addition for its education offices. A 40-room, $232,000-addition was dedicated on Oct. 13, 1957.
In the 1960s, membership peaked at 1,200, although only a third were active members.
The church seats 500 people and on some Easter Sundays during the 1960s the church was packed.
Changes in the neighborhood around First Baptist, however, hurt the church. The biggest changes were the construction of the IRS Center, which opened in 1967, and the ULH&P building, which opened about the same time.
[This document by Jim Reis first appeared in the Kentucky Post; then in book form as Pieces of the Past. The rights to it are with the Campbell County Historical Society Library, Alexandria, KY. Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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