In 1843, enslaved people in Kentucky could only dream of the emancipation that would arrive more than 20 years later, after a bloody civil war. However, a group of African Americans in Richmond, who had responded to the gospel's promise of redemption, organized themselves as a Christian congregation.
Led by a charismatic black preacher named Madison Campbell, they erected a house of worship made of logs on the slope of a hill overlooking downtown Richmond from the east.
This weekend, the spiritual descendants of that first faithful group will celebrate the 175th anniversary of what came to be known as First Baptist Church on Francis Street.
The celebration, first announced in May, will begin with a formal, black-tie banquet Saturday evening in Eastern Kentucky University's Perkins Building. It will be followed by two worship services Sunday. The events will include addresses by three of the many men either licensed or ordained into ministry by First Baptist Church.
The Rev. Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, pastor of St. Stephen's Baptist Church and president of Simmons College of Kentucky, both in Louisville, will be the banquet's featured speaker.
A 1980 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, Cosby attended First Baptist on Francis Street while a student and the church licensed him to preach.
Under Cosby's leadership, membership of St. Stephen's Church has grown from 500 to about 14,000, according to the church's website. It has a 1,700-seat worship center and a $4 million inner-city family-life center in Louisville, plus a 1,000-seat worship center in Jeffersonville, Ind. EKU awarded Cosby an honorary doctorate in 2003.
The Saturday banquet will begin with a reception and red carpet photo hour from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. Seating for the 7 p.m. banquet will begin at 6. Cost is $30 per person or $250 for reserved table. For tickets or details, call Donna Kenney at 859-979-1346. Details also can be obtained at fbcrichmond-francis.com.
The sermon for the 11 a.m. Sunday worship service will be delivered by the Rev. Mitchell E. Brown, pastor of Pleasant Run Baptist Church in Lancaster, who was ordained by First Baptist.
Brown is a retired Kentucky State Police trooper as well as a former ranking officer and chaplain of the Richmond Police Department.
For the 4 p.m. Sunday worship service, another pastor who was part of First Baptist while an EKU student and licensed by the church will preach. The Rev. Dr. Wilbert H. Goatley Jr., pastor of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Mo., followed both his father and a grandfather into the ministry.
In addition to its influence on local families and individuals who have set examples of Christian service in Madison County and far beyond, an even farther-reaching influence of former EKU students who were part of First Baptist during their college years may sometimes be overlooked.
However, that outreach is being recognized as distinguished pastors who trace at least part of their spiritual development to First Baptist will return to help celebrate its 175 years of service, said Deacon Otis Ballard, who has helped organize the events.
First Baptist also was instrumental in the formation of other churches in Madison County communities, including at New Liberty-Bobtown, Kirksville, Otter Creek and elsewhere, according to the church's history posted on its website.
Although nearly two centuries old, First Baptist has had only nine pastors, including two who served relatively short tenures.
Madison Campbell, First Baptist's first and longest-serving pastor, 38 years (1858-1896), also was instrumental in the founding of Simmons College, of which Cosby is now president.
The current pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert R. Blythe, has served for 36 years, beginning in 1981. Under his leadership, the church erected its current building in 1995. Great care was taken to preserve the stained-glass windows and pulpit furniture from the previous structure on the historic site. A church trustee refinished the furniture with his own hands, Blythe said.
The new building's mortgage was retired more than 17 years early, with a mortgage-burning ceremony conducted in 2008. A time capsule was buried then for future generations to discover.
Blythe succeeded his mentor, the Rev. A.C. Goodloe, who pastored the church for 26 years (1955-1981). Goodloe was a leader in the Civil Rights movement and served on the Foreign Missions Board of the National Baptist Convention. Blythe has continued traditions begun by Goodloe, including the Easter sunrise service and an emphasis on youth programs.
In an interview with The Register, Laura Gilbert and Mary Mitchell Adderton, two current members who grew up in First Baptist, recalled how Goodloe and lay leaders of the church's programs shaped their spiritual development in conjunction with their parents and grandparents.
Michelle Estelle, director of the church's middle school fellowship, can point to six generations of involvement in First Baptist Church. Her father, Eugene Estelle, is a deacon, as was her great-grandfather, Mitchell Maupin.
Gilbert and Adderton were both baptized into the church as children, Gibert in 1952 and Adderton four years later, both at the conclusion of the church's spring revivals.
In the first year of his pastorate, Goodloe baptized her and others during an Easter Sunday sunrise service. Goodloe held a shepherd's staff as nearly 30 baptismal candidates in white robes followed into the waters, Adderton recalled.
In addition to the example set by the church's deacons and senior members, the Sunday school was a huge influence in their formative years, both Gilbert and Adderton said.
Gilbert said she has sung all her life, but was reluctant to join First Baptist's legendary adult choir. After her older sister, who was a choir member, and an older friend encouraged her more than 30 years ago to join the choir, Gilbert said she prayed about the decision and then joined the choir.
In addition to singing in the choir, she now directs the church's senior adult fellowship and teaches its senior women's Sunday school class.
Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Adderton said her fondest years were spent in First Baptist Church. It "protected us from all of the evil that was going on around us. Regardless of how bad things might be out there, when we came into this church, we had dedicated women and men who trained us to be leaders," she said.
She sang her first solo, gave her first speech, went on her first date and wore her first formal dress at First Baptist, said Adderton, who became a teacher and school administrator in Virginia after graduating from EKU.
Inspired by the nationally known singers Wings Over Jordan, Goodloe organized a youth choir for the church in the late 1950s. And while Adderton was a member in 1961, Goodloe took them by bus with another group from Louisville to Houston, Texas, where they sang for the National Baptist Convention.
She remembers the trepidation group members felt as they passed through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana at a time of segregation, and when civil rights advocates often were met with violence. Their bus driver told them to sit below the windows as they passed through St. Charles, La., crossing into Texas, Adderton recalled.
At one restaurant, when group members were told they could be served only outside, Adderton said she responded by singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty."
The youth who grew up during Goodloe's pastorate were trained to go forth and be leaders in their communities, wherever they lived, Adderton said. They didn't "get bruised, wounded and angry," because of the strength and faith instilled in them by their parents and their church, she added.
After graduating from college in 1968, Adderton married and went to Virginia with her husband. She moved back to Richmond eight months ago after her husband passed away.
Although her sister in Lexington and her daughter in Louisville wanted her to move to their cities, Adderton said she chose to return to her hometown and her home church. She grew up with Pastor Blythe, who played at her wedding. And his brother was one of her high school classmates.
Adderton said she also is happy that many others she grew up with are still part of the church. But she is happiest of all to again be in the First Baptist Church choir, as well as its Sunday school and the senior adult fellowship.
"This church takes care of its seniors," Gilbert added.
"I love the Lord, and he is not finished with me yet," Adderton said. "The gifts and talents that He gave me, gifts that were developed in this church, I want to give back to Him."
In Virginia, Adderton was the forensics coach at her school and church. Her first role back in Richmond may be as mentor to the First Baptist youth group's public speaking team. "I want to see them bring home a trophy," she said.
Adderton's daughter also graduated from EKU and as a college student got to be close to her grandparents, Franklin and Naomi Mitchell. And Adderton said she will be in Richmond for her granddaughter when she follows the family tradition by attending EKU.
Estelle was married at First Baptist, perhaps the last wedding in the old building, but became a member by letter 18 years ago after living for several years in Colorado. However, both of her children grew up and were baptized in First Baptist Church. As she reminisced with Adderton and Gilbert and looked at old documents and photos, Estelle pointed to a photo of her father singing in the First Baptist youth choir.
"This is home for me," Estelle said, who added that both of her children, ages 18 and 23, consider First Baptist their home church. Her son, who recently enrolled at Union College, made sure to be home for the annual church picnic, Estelle said.
She also is involved in the church's young adult fellowship, its Relay for Life team and its food bank and homeless shelter ministries.
Although many First Baptist members have longstanding family connections at the church, it remains a welcoming, inclusive congregation, Estelle, Adderton and Gilbert all emphasized.
Adderton said that principle was stressed by A.C. Goodloe, perhaps more than by previous church leaders. "It didn't matter who you were or who your family was, under Rev. Goodloe, you were welcomed at First Baptist Church." And leadership roles also were open to newcomers, she added.
After being away for 50 years, Adderton said she found that same positive spirit was still strong when she returned.
"We are blessed to be what some call a wonderful inter-generational congregation," Pastor Blythe said, noting that many churches struggle to keep young people involved.
Celebrating First Baptist's 175th anniversary is an opportunity to tell younger generations "who they are, based on their history as it came through this church," he added.
The celebration's steering committee has taken care to involve every age in the congregation, Blythe said. That also includes three church members who are older than 100. One of them, Bernice Baxter, will turn 105 on Oct. 3. Several members are in their 90s.
One way First Baptist keeps teens involved and develops their leadership skills is to have them work with younger children, the pastor explained.
"Children know they are loved and that they are safe here," Blythe said, something which Gilbert and Adderton said was true when they were young.
"We have, thanks to God himself, everything we need in this congregation," Blythe concluded.