The Baptist Praying Society was established in Augusta, Georgia in 1817. There were 18 men and women gathered for the initial meeting. After adopting a covenant, the group congregated in the town’s court house until the church was formally organized in 1820. W. T. Brantley was selected as their first pastor. He undertook the task of building a brick church designed by architect John Lund at a cost of $20,000 on Greene Street. Members dedicated the first building in 1821. Perhaps the most significant event in the church’s history occurred in 1845, after serious friction arose in the National Triennial Convention, 327 delegates from 8 southern states and the District of Columbia met at the church to form the Southern Baptist Convention, eventually becoming the largest Protestant denomination in the world.
Another early pastor at First Baptist Church of Augusta was Joseph G. Binney. A native of Boston, Binney had served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Savannah before going to Burma as a missionary. He returned to the states due to his wife’s health and became First Batist of Augusta’s pastor, but later went back to Burma. Before doing so, however, he was instrumental in establishing a college in Richmond, Virginia for the training of African-American pastors after the Civil War. In the 1870s, Chinese immigrants and their descendants were brought to Augusta after the completion of the Continental Railroad to help widen the Augusta Canal. The first language work beyond Indian missions in Georgia was a Chinese Sunday School class at the First Baptist Church that targeted these workers.
At the turn of the 20th century, a new church building inspired by the Church of Madeline in Paris was constructed and dedicated at the site after the congregation had outgrown the previous church. When the original Classical Revival style church was replaced by the present monumentally Beaux-Arts building, no expense was spared in building a structure that would express the significance of the site. Designed in 1902 by an accomplished young Atlanta-based architect, Willis Franklin Denny, and decorated with the widely popular work of New York’s Tiffany Studios, the First Baptist Church of Augusta was indeed an impressive addition to the growing city. The church is considered a significant example of the Beaux-Arts style and features many of the characteristics indicative of the style including decorative garlands, floral patterns, and a symmetrical façade. The imposing copper dome on top is a crown to the massiveness of the entire building. The exterior features a heroic portico with six modified Corinthian columns.
In 1967, a weeklong sesquicentennial celebration was held at First Baptist Augusta to mark the original formation of the congregation, complete with a service of consecration with Billy Graham. The church purchased land in west Augusta in 1969, and the congregation moved to its present location in 1975. The new church contains several of the original stained glass windows from the Greene Street building. The glass was created in Europe in the early 1900s before the completion of the church and is inscribed “Tiffany Studios, New York.” A few stained glass windows remain in disrepair.
After the church moved, the property changed hands multiple times but never found a permanent use. The Southern Baptist Convention erected an identification marker on the grounds in 1984, noting the founding of the convention. By 2003, the building was owned by the Southern Baptist Restoration Foundation and the fledging Southern Bible Seminary began using the building to hold classes. The seminary only occupied the educational section of the church, leaving the rest of the building vacant. In 2005, about 30 pastors from around Georgia joined together and created a non-profit known as the Southern Baptist Landmark Association. The group created a fundraiser centered on participants purchasing personalized clay bricks for $100 that would create a walkway lining the church. The large space proved to be difficult for a small non-profit to maintain. The building was condemned in 2015 after an inspector discovered homeless people sleeping under the portico, along with plaster falling from the ceiling. In the rear of the church, he found a small prayer group gathered using a propane burner for heat.
After decades of distress, the former church building is being saved. Over the next couple of years, the new owners plan to renovate the building in phases. Phase I will include the rear two-story portion being converted into executive office space as well as an overall of the building and grounds. The front sanctuary will be renovated as part of phase II. There are no firm plans for the sanctuary portion at this time, however, multiple proposals are being considered.
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