History is about God who created it and the people who made it. The blessed history of First Baptist Church is more about God than anyone else. He is the one who has sustained this church for more than 125 years. He is the one who led and empowered the people who make up her history. As we hear the history of the church, let's remember to thank God for it. As we hear the names of the people (among many unnamed people) who make this history, let's remember that God was at work in these people's lives and that He deserves all the credit.
The beginning years of First Baptist Church are characterized by organizing and getting started. It seems that the church began as a result of mission work done by Elder William Tucker (the church's first pastor) for the Pine Bluff Association. The church was organized out of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church located on Hwy. 5 north of Bryant in 1884 and was first named Bryant Baptist Church. In 1885 the minutes of the Pine Bluff Association show that Bryant Baptist Church petitioned for membership in the association, and minutes of the same year show J.W. Dobbins as church clerk. Records show the membership to be 27 the first year.
It is not known just where the congregation met at the very beginning of the church's organization. Some of the men and their families that made up the early membership were: trustees W.T. Baldridge, J.Y. Mashburn, and M.C. Shepherd; J.W. Dobbins, the first church clerk; and Elder William Tucker, the first pastor. God had established a New Testament Church in the Bryant community to carry out His work. Only He knew the results of this beginning.
The Early Years
To some, the early years of Bryant Baptist Church might seem small and insignificant. But God was establishing a beacon of truth for the Bryant community. Preaching services were held once a month at the church, a practice common among churches in the 1800s and early 1900s, called fourth-time preaching. It was not uncommon for preachers to pastor four churches at one time. This practiced created some problems as travel was mostly by horse and buggy, but the preacher usually stayed in the home of a member of the church where he was preaching that particular Sunday.
One preacher's notes show that in the 1800s he was paid $10.00 annually, traveled an average of 25 miles per week, spent $25.00 per year on clothing and $5.00 for horseshoeing. The preachers in that era did not have an easy life, and had it not been for the fact that some were farmers themselves or were given food by members who farmed, they would really have suffered.
The old church building was situated west of the current church property, where the public school is now located. A storm in the early 1900s moved it from its foundation, and the building was relocated just north of where the church building now stands. The facility, which consisted of one room with wide board flooring, was at some time painted white and had a small entrance hall. It was a small, simple building that was lit with kerosene lamps and heated by wood stoves. In winter one person went early to the church and built the fire so that it would be warm when the service started. And he also rang the bell. Small and simple, yes, but the church wasn't the building. It was the people. And the church was growing steadily through the early years, both numerically and spiritually. By 1918, the church had 48 members.
Preaching was still on a fourth-time basis, although revivals were held from time to time. In addition to the men who pastored this church, other preachers passing through the area held revivals and/or preached sermons at the church. Among them were Joel Rushing and U.J. Newell, both from Sheridan, Arkansas. Many of the preachers in this location came from the Sheridan area, which was a nucleus for the Missionary Baptist faith in the 1800s and early 1900s. Missionary Baptists of Arkansas had built a college in Sheridan for the training and education of preachers.
Singing in the early years was without instruments except for a tuning fork, which enabled the singers to "find the pitch." Later the church had an old fashioned pump organ, and the old gospel hymns were the songs they sang. Not many people in the membership were trained singers or instrumentalist, but the singing was just as sweet to the Lord because the songs were sang to worship Him.
To us, these early years might seem small and insignificant. But God's work was being done in the small, farming community of Bryant, and God had many more blessings in store for His small church.
The Depression Years
We all have heard how difficult the Great Depression was on this country (and maybe some here lived to see it). The period from 1929 to 1935 was a hard time for Bryant Baptist Church. Farmers fared better, at least having a supply of food, but plant workers (such as Alcoa) were eventually reduced to a one-day work week. It was a hard time to make ends meet. But God sustained the church, and membership during this period had grown to 84. God often does His best work in the most difficult of circumstances.
The mode of transportation had changed from horse and buggy to cars, although not every preacher in the area was fortunate enough to own one. Some church members walked 3 or 4 miles to attend church services. One pastor during this period, C.C. Bishop, lived in Sheridan and would ride the train to Benton on Saturday. He would be met by one of the deacons of the church (Warren Kelley) and brought to his home to stay overnight. After services he would stay over another night with another member and be driven to the depot on Monday for the trip home. Thank God for the faithfulness of these early pastors and people of the church.
Some changes were eventually made to the church building. Two sections on either side of the entrance were partitioned off with curtains creating two rooms for Sunday school classes. The sanctuary was also used for a Sunday school class. If the teachers of the classes did not raise their voices too much, the arrangement worked fairly well. Benches were hand made, not very smooth, and unpadded.
Through this difficult time, the work of God continued—preaching, teaching, witnessing, giving, and serving. Bro. T.L. Epton, a well known Missionary Baptist preacher from Howard County, preached two revival meetings during this period of time.
Around 1924 the Sullivan family moved to Bryant and joined the church. B.H. Sullivan was well educated, had a lot of knowledge of Bible doctrine, and owned a large library of reference books. He was also a very good teacher. He taught Bible classes and Sunday School classes, and some of the older members of the church owe their knowledge of the Bible to a great extent to his teaching. He also served as a deacon and at times moderator of the business meetings. It was during this period of time the name of the church was changed to Bryant Landmark Missionary Baptist Church.
Little money was to be had during this time, but the people faithfully gave to the work of God. Collection plates were never passed during church services. Instead, members handed their offerings to the church treasurer, usually after services were over. During the late 30s and 40s the church was supported almost solely by four or five families.
Though we owe much gratitude for these early members for their willingness to suffer through these difficult times, again God gets the greatest thanks. He provided for and protected the church giving her the ability to survive. Though it was the years of depression, God's people did not become depressed spiritually because He was with them.
The Later Years
God truly blessed First Baptist Church during the second half of the 20th century, and this period saw great growth and expansion of the church and her ministry in the Bryant community and even worldwide. Also during this period on November 7, 1962, the church voted to change the name from Bryant Landmark Missionary Baptist Church to First Baptist Church of Bryant.
By the middle 1950s the church building was inadequate, and in January of 1958 with Elder Dan Maloch as pastor, the church started discussing the possibility of erecting a new church building. Using materials from a building in Pine Haven (near Bauxite) that church members tore down and transported to the church site and with many hours of volunteer labor, much of the present building was erected. A ground breaking ceremony was held March 8, 1959, with Bro. Dan Maloch turning the first spade of dirt. For several weeks men and women of the congregation met and cleaned brick to be used in the new church building. Bro. Dan Maloch supervised the construction and did much of the actual work himself. Fellowship was especially good among members of the church during this building period with everyone working together toward a common goal. The move into the new building was made in the summer of 1960, and the old building was torn down in the fall of the same year.
The church also built a parsonage in 1962 that has housed many of her pastors, associate pastors, and youth directors through the years. Again the parsonage was built with volunteer labor of the church members. Over the years, the church's facilities have been remodeled and expanded, especially under the pastorates of Morris Cloud and John Owen. Presently, the church owns 17 acres of property on Hwy. 5 with plans to build a future church facility. The church also recently remolded her fellowship hall.
First Baptist is also known as a church for missions, and in May of 1961 the church voted to sponsor Bro. John White as missionary to Florence, Alabama. The church later sponsored his mission work in Australia, a work that has grown and prospered greatly. A mobile mission unit was purchased by First Baptist Church in December of 1964. The facility was loaned to young mission groups for a meeting placed until they were able to build a permanent church building. It was later destroyed by storms, and the insurance money is still being used as a Mission Loan fund that mission works can borrow at no interest. In November of 1981, the church became the sponsoring church of Bro. Travis Judkins as a missionary in Pueblo, Colorado, and continued his support for several years. After purchasing land and building a building (again many church members providing much of the labor), a church was established there. Over the years, First Baptist has sponsored and supported mission works in Arkansas, several states, and several foreign countries. Presently, the church is the sponsoring church of Stephen Lee in O'Fallon, Missouri, and also supports eight other missionaries.
One other work that should be mentioned is First Baptist's support of the Missionary Baptist Seminary in Little Rock. The church sends substantial financial support monthly and supports the student pantry with a variety of supplies. Also, the church has allowed four of her pastors to serve on the faculty of the Seminary.
The music program of the church also grew during this period. In September of 1961, T.O. Miller was called as Choir Director – the first regular, full-time director hired by the church. The music ministry became more organized and filled with trained singers and instrumentalists. Bro. Mike Paulk, who served as Music Director for over 20 years at First Baptist, deserves special mention because of the excellence he brought to the music of First Baptist Church. He led the church to purchase new instruments including hand bells and worked to train the young and old of the church to sing well. We are still reaping the results of his ministry here. Presently Doug Cunningham continues to work in this tradition of excellent, worshipful music seeking to improve the church's music ministry.
In the summer of 1973, a church kindergarten was established and operated until the end of the 1983 school term. A public kindergarten program was scheduled to begin in the Bryant School System in 1984, and therefore the church kindergarten would not be needed. Through these years, many children were affected by the loving labor of Janice Hulsizer, Carolyn Kruse, Deb Dyer, and others. Some of those children are with us here today.
Another important aspect of the history and ministry of First Baptist Church is her deacons. The church presently has nine deacons: Richard Allder, Loyd Suggs, Fred Kruse, James Squires, Dusty Middleton, Doug Castleberry, Keaton Hearn, Jeff Mayfield, and Kenneth Bates. Calvin Winkler and Jerry Hearn recently resigned from active deacon work and were named deacon emeriti. Throughout the years, several men have served as deacons taking care of the church facilities, seeing to other needs of the church, and aiding the pastors in the work of ministry. Recently, the deacons have established a deacon's benevolence fund that is used to help church members and others in financial difficulties.
On May 8, 1994, the following was adopted as the No. 1 in our Doctrinal Statement: "We believe that love one for another as Jesus loves the believer manifests our discipleship, proves our love for God, and symbolizes our authority as New Testament churches. Love is therefore the great commandment of the Lord Jesus Christ, upon which all others are dependent." Under the leadership of Pastor John Owen, First Baptist proposed this doctrinal statement to the American Baptist Association, which was adopted as the Association's first Doctrinal Statement. And throughout the years, the church has sought to serve the Lord and others in love.
Speaking of Bro. John Owen, after 22 years of pastoring First Baptist Church, on November 30, 1997, Bro. Owen resigned as Pastor of First Baptist Church effective December 14, 1997. Bro. Owen served this church lovingly and sacrificially, and much of what First Baptist is today is the result of God's work through him. Not only is he still greatly respected within this church, he also is highly esteemed in the Bryant community. He is a big man with a big heart.
Also worthy of mentioning is Bro. Owen's father, L. H. Owen, who was a long-time faithful member and associate pastor of First Baptist. On January 5, 2000, Bro. L.H. Owen died. We still hear great stories of Bro. L. H. of how he taught and influenced the young and old of the church. Donations made to the church in his memory were used to cover the cost of having some of his writings reprinted in the Spanish language and distributed to other churches, which we still do today.
Much could be said of these years of expansion and growth in the history of First Baptist Church, but the number one characteristic of this time is "earnestly contending for the faith." This period in the church's history can best be characterized by a renewed desire and concerted effort to remain steadfast and firm in the doctrines which this church has always believed to be dictated in God's Word and to resist subtle pressures, so prevalent today, to compromise those fundamental precepts and teachings. This has been done by exposing error and promoting the truth of God's Word.
In recent years, we have seen more of the same: God's blessings on the church, continued growth, and remaining committed to the truth of the Word of God. As of 2009, the church has 390 members on her church roll and averages about 108 in Sunday School and about 120 for morning worship, and has an annual budget of about $197,000. The church recently has seen several staff changes with Bro. Phillip Miller being called as Pastor in June of 2006, Doug Cunningham being called as Music Director in September of 2005, and Zach Garrigus being called as Youth Director in September of 2009. Ann Russell remains as the church's secretary where she has served for over 33 years. The church is very thankful for her faithfulness. She has been a great help to the church and the church staff.
In January of 2007, the church paid off the loan for the 17 acres of land on Hwy 5 and is presently working with the Architectural Firm Jackson, Brown, and King, Inc. to develop the property and design a building plan.
In January of 2008, the church voted to sponsor Bro. Stephen Lee in his mission work in O'Fallon, Missouri. The mission church is called Friends in Faith Baptist Fellowship. First Baptist continues to be very mission minded and works diligently to see this work grow into a self-supporting, New Testament church.
No doubt there have been names not mentioned that should have been, and it is probable that we have a few dates wrong. But again, the history of First Baptist Church is more about God than anyone or anything else. It is about how He has seen this church through 125 years, how He has blessed, provided for, and used the people that make up First Baptist Church and her history. To God be all the glory!!! And may we continue to make His history here in this church until He comes.
Let me end this summary of the History of First Baptist Church with this passage about God:
Acts 17:24-28 24 "God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 "Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 "And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 "so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 "for in Him we live and move and have our being.