The History of First Baptist Church Huntington
First Baptist Church is located at 801 Sixth Avenue in the downtown section of Huntington, West Virginia. Six persons under the advisory leadership of Reverend William Bryant organized the church in 1872. They worshiped in a log cabin on Norway Avenue, approximately four miles southeast of the present site.
In the early days. Huntington was populated by the Negro Migration from Virginia. The expansion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad quickly transformed farmland into a striving city. Huntington was founded in 1872 with a population of approximately 6,000. However, by 1892 the city had grown to a population of over 31,000 people, 3,000 of which were of the “colored population”. The railroad brought a diversity of industries, opportunities and people to the area. In the midst of this splendid growth the development of the “colored population” also prospered in labor and support service jobs. The influence and involvement of “Negroes” in the tri-state area predates the city of Huntington and First Baptist Church.
In 1841 a slave master, Pap Twyman set thirty-seven slaves free in Virginia and gave them $10,000 to settle in Ohio. They settled in Burlington, Ohio just across the river from Huntington where a Negro population had already put down roots. In the early years, prior to 1872, the “colored population” worshiped at Macedonia Baptist Church in Sybene, Ohio, established in 1837.
One year after First Baptist was organized, the congregation called its first pastor, Reverend Nelson Barnett. According to a handwritten note of Bette Barnett, wife of Reverend Barnett, and his obituary (February 28, 1909) from the family files of a grandson, Nelson Barnett, Jr., the family moved to Huntington in 1873. Shortly afterward Barnett was ordained to the gospel ministry and became the pastor of First Baptist Church here in Huntington. The church membership numbered less than twenty-five members.
Reverend Barnett’s pastorate lasted about ten years and was succeeded by Reverend Williams E. Simpson. In 1888, Reverend I.V. Bryant was called for one of two different calls as pastor. The first lasted three years, 1888-1891. He returned for a second pastorate in 1906 and served until 1923. According to an article by Constance Cunningham, presented and published February 1980 at the First Annual Convention of Southern Conference on Afro-American studies in Houston, TX, Reverend Barnett was a well-educated preacher who had pastored a church in Washington D.C. He attended Howard University while being principal of two different schools, one of which was Grimes Academy in Washington, D.C.
In 1892 the congregation called Reverend Dr. William R. Brown, a graduate of Virginia Union. He led the congregation to construct a seven hundred-seat edifice and a parsonage on adjoining property. This land was purchased from the Central Land Company of West Virginia for $1350.00 in 1891. The new facility was equipped with a fellowship hall, a fully equipped kitchen, a meditation chapel, classrooms and a pipe organ. Brown’s ministry was followed by Reverend C.H. Payne before the congregation issued its second call to Reverend Bryant.
Records between 1900 and 1937 are sparse or non-existent. Between 1923 and 1937, there were three pastors. They were Reverend J.D. Coleman, J. Thomas Reid and P.W. Cook. In 1937 the congregation called Reverends Charles Emerson Boddie who would later become President of the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville, Tn. Under Boddie’s leadership the church developed a strong ecumenical and social actions thrust.
There were several integrated services between First Baptist and the other downtown churches. The church under Reverend Boddie’s leadership protested the execution of a Negro at Moundsville State Prison in 1940. In 1943, Rev. Boddie resigned the pastorate and accepted an administrative position with American Baptist Convention.
Later that same year the congregation called Reverend W. Temple Richie, a recent graduate of Howard University School of Divinity. The church under Reverend Richie swelled to its largest membership of 1,300. In June 1959 Reverend Richie died of Leukemia.
Again, the congregation called a young visionary, Reverend Charles H. Smith, a recent graduate of Virginia Union in Richmond, Virginia who led the congregation spiritually and to new economical heights. By the end of his twenty-first year, the church was engaged in economic endeavors; a grocery store, fish market, restaurant, credit union, low-income housing and state supplemented day care. Today only the HUD housing project remains as a reminder of that era of economic expansion.
In 1965 the old church was structurally damaged by fire and was demolished. Approximately one year later the congregation marched from the Jewish Temple, five blocks away, where they worshiped during construction, to the new church. The 15,756 square feet facility cost $250,000.00. It contains a sanctuary with 350 seats, a fellowship banquet hall, classrooms, choir room, meditation chapel and administrative office space. Reverend Smith resigned in 1980 to become the National Field Director of the NAACP.
Reverend Wilbert H. Goatley, a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University and Southern Theological Seminary became the twelfth pastor in 1981. Reverend Goatley's pastorate ended in 1984.
Again, the congregation called another Virginia Union graduate as pastor, Reverend Joseph Martin, Jr. of Pittsburgh, PA who served for one-year from 1985-1986.
On May 10, 1988, William F. Buchanan became the fourteenth pastor. During Reverend Buchanan’s tenure at First Baptist, he was instrumental in implementing “A Feed the Hungry Project” on Thanksgiving Day and involving community and civic organizations. He also connected First Baptist with the Downtown Churches and through that our Mission Ministry was involved in helping to build a home for Habitat for Humanity. During his ministry he established the Deacon Family ministry. Reverend Buchanan promoted outreach work at the City mission and the A.D. Lewis Community Center. Under Reverend Buchanan a Christ Fund Endowment was established. On June 12, 1994, Reverend Buchanan resigned his pulpit to become the pastor of another church in Nashville, TN. Dr. Buchanan passed on May 15, 2016.
On April 23, 1995, First Baptist Church called its fifteenth pastor. Reverend Joseph Norman Evans came to the church from the Second Zion Baptist Church of New Orleans, LA. He served that congregation as associate minister. Reverend Evans, a graduate of West Virginia Institute of Technology. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He was also pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Homiletics and Rhetoric. During his ministry here at First Baptist, Reverend Evans became actively involved in cultivating Christian, academic, social and economic awareness.
As a public theologian, Evans served as president of the Huntington Black Pastors Ministerial Alliance and Convener of the Downtown (Huntington) Churches Association.
Through his leadership the church started a computer literacy program through a partnership with Mission West Virginia and acquired a public parking space. He made the pulpit of First Baptist Church an influential and prestigious forum by inviting such luminaries as Calvin O. Butts, H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., John Kinney, Matthews McGary. Sr., W. Franklyn Richardson and the prominent Gardener C. Taylor. Jesse Jackson preached at First Baptist twice. In 2001 Reverend Evans resigned to pastor a church in Washington, D.C.
While searching for its sixteenth pastor, Reverend Everett Knight, ordained in 1958 by the late Reverend W. Temple Richie and First Baptist Church Associate Pastor, who had been a faithful servant to First Baptist and a number of previous First Baptist Church pastors, took to the pulpit as interim pastor, Reverend Knight was a devoted member of First Baptist for over fifty years, and was a significant part of the rich history of First Baptist. He passed away June 13, 2006.
Our most recent pastor, was one of the sons of the First Baptist Church ministry and a graduate of West Virginia State College, Institute, WV, School of Theology, Virginia Union University, Richmond, VA and Marshall University Graduate College, Paul F. Willis, Sr. accepted the opportunity to became interim pastor at First Baptist in 2001. Reverend Paul. F. Willis, Sr. served for nearly one year as interim pastor, and in August, 2002, the congregation voted to accept him as the sixteenth pastor of First Baptist Church. It was under the pastorate of Rev. Charles H. Smith, Paul Willis, Sr. started his religious education. In 1968 First Baptist sent Paul off to seminary school. One year after graduation, Reverend Willis entered the United States Air. Force as a chaplain. He spent twenty years on active duty, served in four foreign countries, and five bases in the United States. Retired in 1992 as a Lt. Colonel, Rev. Willis was called to pastor St. John Baptist Church, Montgomery, WV, from there he was called to First Baptist in 2001. He implemented a Summer Work Program for our youth in 2002 through 2004, he has been active in the ongoing project of refurbishing the interior and exterior of the church, he is an active participant in community affairs and a member of numerous organizations and boards. Rev. Willis was a beacon in very challenging times at First Baptist, and we were blessed to have had him as pastor. Reverend Willis retired in July, 2009.
In 2009, First Baptist was once again faced with searching for a pastor, and in November, 2010 the congregation voted to accept a young man by the name of Rev. Donté L. Jackson as its seventeenth pastor. Rev. Jackson, a native of Rand, WV began his ministry in July, 2000. He attended Marshall University and West Virginia State University. Rev. Jackson resigned in July, 2018.
On October 13, 2019, the congregation voted to accept Rev. John Matthew Porter as the eighteenth pastor of First Baptist Church. Rev. Porter comes to us from Jacksonville, AR with his wife and four children. He is a graduate of Slidell Baptist Seminary, Slidell, LA and Arkansas Baptist College, Little Rock, AR. Rev. Porter preached his first sermon in late November. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic shut everything down and we were forced to postpone his Installation Service until August 8, 2021. Rev. Porter resigned in July, 2022.
On August 14, 2022 the congregation voted to accept Anthony J. Stradwick as its Interim Pastor.
During the church’s rich history, it has been blessed with a number of supply pastors: Reverends P.W. Matthews, A.W. Fulter, Robert A. Woodson, A.D. Lewis, Vernie Bolden, William R. Murrell and Everett D. Knight.
First Baptist Church has been instrumental in preparation of “Sons of the Church” to preach the gospel. They are Reverends H.R. Ray, F. Carol Dorcus, Henry C. Burnette, Walter L. Parrish II, W. Temple Richie, Jr., Vernie Bolden, Wendel Wright, Paul F. Willis, Sr., John Kinney, Roy Terry and William R. Murrell.
Martha Nicolas Edwards retired on Easter Sunday, 1997 as the Minister of Music of First Baptist Church, having served faithfully for 52 years. Sister Edwards passed away September 1, 2022.
First Baptist Church is proud of its distinguished list of former members Joseph A. Slash; Carter G. Woodson; Memphis Tennessee Garrison, Revella Hughes and Marie Redd included on the “Wall of Fame” at Big Sandy Civic Center Arena in Huntington, WV.
Truly, our history is one to be proud of and cherished. The Lord has blessed First Baptist in many ways. Let us continue to feed the growth and carry the torch of our historical church.