History

The Auburn First Baptist Church: 1838-2013

Beginning the week of 12 January 2014, paperback copies of The Auburn First Baptist Church: 1838-2013 will be made available to the church. One free copy will be available to each church family. Additional copies will be available for $10 each.

On Thursday (16 January) copies will be available outside the Coleman Fellowship Hall at 5:15 p.m. Copies will also be distributed before and after Morning Worship on Sunday (19 January) at a table in the front Vestibule.

Copies will be regularly available during normal, weekly office hours. Contact the church office for more information.

Also, complimentary downloads of the book (in PDF format) are available to all using the link below.

Download PDF File
 
This publication, which is a project of the 175th Anniversary Committee, is made possible, in part, by the Claude H. Moore Trust Fund of Auburn First Baptist Church.

“Brother John,” Dearest Jeanette

Church histories often focus on measurements of success more appropriate for a corporation than a church: large building projects; budget increases; growth in church membership. But if current Auburn First Baptist members conducted a referendum, they probably would select the team of Jeffers and Jeffers the most successful co-pastors ever.

John and Jeanette Jeffers

That outcome defies conventional wisdom. Although John led a renovation of the recreation building at AFBC, made possible by a large bequest from the estate of Miss Willie Huguley, he planned no major construction efforts despite the longest pastorate in church history (28 years, from 1958 until 1986). The church budget expanded steadily but slowly, reflecting the prosperity of the four decades during which he served. Because of changes in the church’s relationship to the Baptist Student Union, rapid growth by its mission churches, the church’s more transparent record keeping (a purge of “nonresident members” who had long since moved away from Auburn), and increasing conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (in which AFBC was considered a heretical “moderate” congregation), membership actually declined from a record high of 1,500 members to slightly more than 500. The active, resident membership remained fairly constant though the names and backgrounds changed. More were moderate Baptists or drawn from a variety of denominational backgrounds.

In the absence of these traditional “success” markers, what made the Jeffers beloved? Auburn folk referred to them by a variety of names. The most common for him was simply “Brother John”, an indication that he was not a man of degrees who flaunted education or erudition to distance himself from his flock. As a team, no term fit them better than the frequently heard “Mutt and Jeff.” Based on “two mismatched tinhorns” created by cartoonist Bud Fisher in 1907, the cartoon featured one extremely tall, lean figure, the other short and rotund. It was literally true that when John held his arms straight out, Jeanette could walk under them without touching either. Standing six-and-a-half feet tall, John towered above his below-five-feet tall wife.

Born in Glencoe, Etowah County, Alabama, in 1921, to working class parents, John’s family moved early in his life to Tarrant City, an industrial Birmingham suburb. His father worked in a plant, and when John graduated high school in 1939, he also began factory work at American Cast Iron Pipe Company. Tall in any generation, he was a veritable giant as a teen-ager in the late 1930s. Raised in a conventional, devout Baptist family, he early felt called to preach and gleefully accepted a modest basketball scholarship to the little Baptist college in nearby East Lake.

For four years John majored in economics while playing forward for the “Battling Bulldogs” of Howard College. As the team’s tallest player, he enjoyed a solid freshman season in 1939—the team’s 16-10 record included victories over Mississippi State and Loyola—and they won second place in the Dixie Conference with a 13-1 record. John had an even better sophomore year when Howard defeated API in Auburn, 37-33, led the University of Alabama for three quarters before falling 39-32, beat the Dixie Conference champs, and lost by only five points (45-40) to the traveling Boston Celtics. John never talked about his stellar college basketball career, even when fanatical basketball fans at church pressed him on the subject. In truth, he was never a team “star”. He spent his time like he spent his life, as a quiet team player, a thoughtful man who led by example.

Their return to Alabama brought them to pastorates in Collinsville, Hartford, and Andalusia, as well as the directorship of the state Baptist Training Union. But their tenure at AFBC nearly didn’t happen.

John married his high school sweetheart, Jeanette Thomason, while they were both at Howard College. She was one of nine children whose father had once been mayor of Tarrant City. They began their family as soon as they departed for seminary, which complicated already difficult economic circumstances. As a result, John never completed seminary despite attendance at both Southwestern and Southern and an honorary doctorate from Judson College that validated his description as “Doctor Jeffers.” In later years, John often spent his time in the presence of “Doctors” of theology, philosophy, education, and other credentialed religious leaders. Perhaps in the early years, the lack of a seminary degree made him uncomfortable, and when the pulpit committee from AFBC offered him the pastorate, he emphasized that he did not have the requisite seminary degree. It is a compliment both to the man and the church that it never mattered. As he grew older, he confided to friends that he thought the absence of the degree had been more asset than liability. Without a piece of paper to rely on, he had to read widely, study hard, think deeply, exchanging ideas not with teachers but with some of the greatest writers, theologians, and philosophers in the world. No one who knew him well doubted either his wisdom or his learning. The only person in whose presence he sometimes wilted was his diminutive wife, Jeanette. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Jeanette was a woman of strong opinions freely shared. As outgoing as John was reserved, she spent her early married years mothering five children.

Their return to Alabama brought them to pastorates in Collinsville, Hartford, and Andalusia, as well as the directorship of the state Baptist Training Union. But their tenure at AFBC nearly didn’t happen. As long-term member Bob Stevenson tells the story, he was a young member of the pulpit committee at Opelika First Baptist who visited Andalusia to hear the young pastor preach. The men on the committee liked him, but the older women rejected him because Jeanette had stayed home with a colicky baby instead of attending church that Sunday. Shortly thereafter, Bob and Frances Stevenson joined AFBC, which was also in a pastor’s search. Legendary layman, L. M. Ware, co-chaired the committee, which journeyed to south Alabama to hear the 37 year old minister. They were impressed despite the presence of a bird that flew in the window and soared around the sanctuary until John began his sermon, when the bird immediately roosted and went to sleep. Ware joked that the committee was impressed with his ability to tranquilize the feathered visitor with his sermon.

The arrival of the 7 Jeffers considerably enlarged the membership of AFBC and brought just the man for four stormy decades ahead. John’s excellent history of the church essentially contains his memoir of those years. His love of missions found fulfillment in the launching of Lakeview, Parkway, and West Auburn Baptist churches. His sermons cited not only theologians but also famous novelists. His criticism of an attempt to teach creationism in public schools and his growing resistance to fundamentalist take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention began his withdrawal from the SBC into the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Dale Peterson, John’s long term colleague, described John as “much a Christ-like figure as I have ever known. He had a pastor’s heart. On many controversial issues, he preferred not to press the issue to a vote, to wait, to expect people to change their minds. He told me that one of his professors at Howard College said, ‘Boys, be there when the people need you, and members will put up with a heap of poor sermons.’” Thankfully, AFBC never had to worry about that.

Auburn First Baptist and the American Civil War

OralHistoryProject_150

A lot of new families are pouring into Auburn, coming with great glimmer in their eye of the world that was aborning in the Blackbelt. And, some of those families were going to become really significance in the early history of the church.

Listen to Part 5 of our Thursday evening series on A History of Auburn First Baptist Church, using the link below:

Download MP3 Audio File

You may also listen to Part 4, “Auburn First Baptist and the Alabama Frontier”.

Oral History Project: Frances Stevenson

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On Saturday, 17 August 2013, Dr. Wayne Flynt sat down with Ms. Frances Stevenson, member of Auburn First Baptist Church since 1961, to record her history as it relates to AFBC.

You may download and listen to Frances Stevenson’s oral history, using the link below.

Download MP3 Audio File


The Oral History Project is an endeavor of the 175th Anniversary Committee in celebration of our Church’s rich history, and one which we hope will become an ongoing tradition. We believe it is vital to remember and emphasize that “The Church” is the people of the congregation, and that each of our individual stories is integral in binding us together as a dynamic Family of Faith.

Auburn First Baptist and the Alabama Frontier

OralHistoryProject_150

Back in the early part of the nineteenth century, when Alabama was just an infant state, people poured in this place—part of the great stream of immigrants pouring into America from all over the world, and part of the stream of poor people just coming farther and farther south and west until finally they wound-up on the Alabama frontier—it was a wild place with a lot violence, a huge amount of alcoholism and drinking (for which the Alabama frontier was famous), and there were eye-gouging matches and knife fights and gun fights.

Listen to Part 4 of our Thursday evening series on A History of Auburn First Baptist Church, using the link below:

Download MP3 Audio File

You may also listen to Part 3, “Baptist Identity: The Rise of Baptists in America”.

Baptist Identity: The Rise of Baptists in America

OralHistoryProject_150

Tonight, I am going to begin the first of a number sessions where we’re going to talk about Auburn First Baptist Church. This is the last session where I’m going to embed that in a much larger—and I think more more important—story. And so, from here on out, I’m going to be talking more about our church, less about the context.

Listen to Part 3 of our Thursday evening series on A History of Auburn First Baptist Church, using the link below:

Download MP3 Audio File

You may also listen to Part 2, “Baptist Identity: Principles, Theology, and History” and Part 4, “Auburn First Baptist and the Alabama Frontier”.

Oral History Project: Bob Stevenson

OralHistoryProject_150

Earlier this afternoon, Dr. Wayne Flynt sat down with Mr. Bob Stevenson, member of Auburn First Baptist Church since 1961, to record Bob’s history as it relates to AFBC.

You may download and listen to Bob Stevenson’s oral history, using the link below.

Download MP3 Audio File


The Oral History Project is an endeavor of the 175th Anniversary Committee in celebration of our Church’s rich history, and one which we hope will become an ongoing tradition. We believe it is vital to remember and emphasize that “The Church” is the people of the congregation, and that each of our individual stories is integral in binding us together as a dynamic Family of Faith.

Baptist Identity: Principles, Theology, and History

OralHistoryProject_150

The question of what “Baptist identity” means is bound-up in a whole series of issues that began right at the first of our history, and I want to go back to England and the fact that England had a state church. And, as a consequence of that, people who did not believe that religion should be coerced—that religion was a matter of personal freedom, and no one had the right to tell you what you had to believe or where you had to attend church—felt restricted within the Anglican church in the 17th century.

Listen to Part 2 of our Thursday evening series on A History of Auburn First Baptist Church, using the link below:

Download MP3 Audio File

You may also listen to Part 1, “Why We Call Ourselves a Baptist Church, and What That Means in 2013″ and Part 3, “Baptist Identity: The Rise of Baptists in America”.

Why We Call Ourselves a Baptist Church, and What That Means in 2013

OralHistoryProject_150

It is very important for you to understand historical context. So, if I start with Auburn First Baptist Church, you have missed the whole point. Because, Auburn First Baptist does not simply pop up. It is part of a very long tradition which defines it and which helps explain why First Baptist Church is the way it is.

Listen to Part 1 of our Thursday evening series on A History of Auburn First Baptist Church, using the link below:

Download MP3 Audio File

You may also listen to Part 2, “Baptist Identity: Principles, Theology, and History”.

All in the Family: The Golden Age, 1945-1960

When asked to name Auburn First Baptist Church’s golden age, long time members often mention the years from the end of World War II to the 1960s. America’s most formidable global economic competitors lay in ruins. People discovered new and profound meaning in their families. They sought religious renewal. Baptist evangelist Billy Graham launched a world wide revival. The modern Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy. The Women’s Movement, jolting cultural change, the Baby Boomer generation, all were on the horizon but had not yet matured.

Missions dominated the congregation’s vision. API was second among state colleges only to Baptist Howard College in number of graduates who entered missions.

These would transform Auburn in the 1960s. Until then the town seemed to be in a time warp. Auburn First Baptist Church was the only option for white Baptists. Alabama Polytechnic Institute claimed to be the largest Baptist University in the world: in 1947, 2,300 of its 6,300 students belonged to that denomination. API president Ralph Draughon was a prominent layman. Though some students had fallen from grace, those who had not either returned home to worship or attended AFBC. Church membership broke new records nearly every year. Not coincidentally, so did enrollment at API.

The G.I. Bill, perhaps the most transformative development in higher education since the Land Grant Act, unloosed an avalanche on the town. Winter quarter enrollments soared from 1,778 in 1945 to 3,498 the following year, to 6,311 in 1947. API staff and faculty grew from 411 to 899 by 1955. City limits more than doubled from 4 square miles to 9. With 6,000 Baptists living within the city limits by 1955 and only one white Baptist church to serve them, church growth needed no guru: just open the doors, get out of the way, and welcome hordes of new comers. On the first Sunday of Fall quarter in 1948, 102 students crowded into the aisles to move their membership (records do not record the number of verses of the “invitational” hymn the congregation sang that October morning to accommodate the response or even where so many found a place to stand). Pastor Howard Olive baptized 45 in 1951 and 53 the following year. By 1953, the church had to add an 8:30 a.m. service because of overflow crowds. Shortly thereafter, the church installed air conditioning and an auxiliary speaker system so members listening in a large auditorium could leave the main sanctuary for visitors and new members. In 1945 membership stood at 847 (300 of whom were non-resident, probably students who had graduated without moving their membership). By the mid 1950s, membership reached 2,178, with 312 in WMU and 89 in Brotherhood. Contributions reached an unprecedented $71,000 plus $23,000 in mission gifts.

Missions dominated the congregation’s vision. API was second among state colleges only to Baptist Howard College in number of graduates who entered missions. Many began their mission careers as students, working at one of three African American Baptist churches in Auburn, or serving Summer mission terms. During the Summer, 1956, Walter Porter and Dwayne Beckett worked with the Tentmaker program in California. By that year, BSU, located in the church, enrolled 600 API students. Many BSU members departed for graduate school, then returned to teach at their alma mater, where they rejoined the church (Dwayne and Lois Beckett, Walter Porter, Oyette and Brenda Chambliss, Tom and Linda Powe, Betty and Paul Smith), giving the BSU and AFB family a multi-generational flavor. J.C. Grimes, chair of the Search Committee for a new BSU director in 1951 as well as of the Trustees, described enormous opportunities: “I believe that the First Baptist Church… is a part of the Divine Plan. I believe that it will continue to do in the future what it has done in the past; that it will grow and will expand its facilities and resources to meet the spiritual needs of a growing student body and an expanding community.”

In 1955, the church established a Missions Committee to study the need for a new Baptist church in Auburn. L. M. Ware, chair of Deacons, described in the new church newsletter, The Auburn Baptist, “A Church Vision” to sponsor new congregations in a town where only a quarter of Baptists attended AFB. Members voted to buy a lot and began plans for what would become Lakeview Baptist. The timing could not have been worse. Ware joked that the congregation was without pastor, minister of education, music, organist, choir director, and chair of the Nominating Committee, “all of these at a time when everyone seems to be on vacation, when a student body is about to descend on us, when officers and committees are about to change, and when many of our key men and women are out each Sunday trying to find a new pastor. Will you do just a little more than your part while this emergency lasts?” They did, and in September, 1959, Lakeview was chartered with 186 members from AFC as its core leadership.

Although the church was blessed with fine pastors during these years, they served short terms. The three between 1945 and 1958 averaged only four years. So, lay leaders filled the void, as they had so many times before.

Familiar names appear in critical leadership positions: Leland Cooper; J.C. Grimes; Felton Little. But one layman seemed to fill the most key roles. Lamar Mims Ware, referred to simply as “Professor Ware” by generations of church members, was born in Marshallville, Georgia, on August 20, 1895. He attended API for his BS and MS degrees before leaving for additional graduate work at Michigan State. He returned in 1923 as instructor of Horticulture before moving to Mississippi State in 1928. He returned to his alma mater and became chair of the Department of Horticulture and Forestry in 1932. He founded the new School of Forestry in 1947 but remained chair of Horticulture until retirement. He became nationally known for his research on sweet potatoes, headed the Southern Region of the American Society of Horticulture, was voted 1960 “Man of the Year” in Service to Agriculture by Progressive Farmer, and joined the ranks of those honored in American Men of Science and Leaders of American Science. But in his biography at the Auburn University Archives, he especially delights in describing himself as “a faithful member of First Baptist Church, Auburn, Alabama.”

Rightly so. He served as chair of deacons, trustees, and most strategically, of the Building Finance Committee. Shrewd with his own money (at the end of W.W.II he built a men’s dormitory behind his house to rent to veterans) he was also a meticulous accountant and financial whiz who wrote a little remembered book, A History of Church Buildings, Properties, and Capital Assets of the First Baptist Church, detailing the church’s financial history. He devised the strategy that allowed the church to spend hundreds of thousands for missions by utilizing the 1945 Clifton Jones bequest of land on College Street to guarantee loans or for revenue.

On the bottom of the title page of Ware’s history of API’s forestry program, he quoted a passage from French novelist Victor Hugo which could just as well have described his role at Auburn First Baptist: “We build the Road: Others Make the Journey.”

© 2013 Auburn First Baptist Church | Members