Central Baptist Church History 1901-2001
In 1858, just ten years after the founding of Carthage, the first Baptist Church was organized in the Panola County seat. Long known as the Missionary Baptist Church, the congregation suffered a conflict in August 1901, when a proposal was made to channel missionary money through the recently organized Missionary Baptist Association. For years the church had been affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and R. W. Priest requested that instead of the suggested commitment each member remain free to give the Association of his or her choice. When the motion carried anyway, Priest promptly called for his letter, and was followed out of the church by Mrs. Bettie Collins, Mrs. Nannie Neal, Mrs. J. W. Gillaspie, and several others.
On Thursday night, September 26, 1901, a presbytery was convened at the Christian Church and conducted by four area preachers: W. T. Tardy, W. H. H. Hays, W. H. Hendricks, and P. N. Bently. The announced purpose of the meeting was to organize another Baptist church, and a leader of this movement was Rev. H. E. Harris. Harris had served as pastor of the Missionary Baptist Church from 1898 to 1899, and he stated his unreadiness to forsake the work of the General Convention for that of the Missionary Baptist Association. Rev. Tardy then preached a message entitled, "The Power of a Heroic Life," and following these appropriate remarks seventeen people, including four men and thirteen women, formed a congregation. Presenting their letters were Rev. and Mrs. Harris, Miss May Harris, Miss Maud Harris, Mrs. M. D. Butler, and Dr. and Mrs. C. C. Comer. Coming on promises of letters were Miss Carror Gillaspie, Mrs. J. W. Gillaspie, Mrs. Jennie Kirkley, Miss Kate Kirkley, Mrs. F.E. Collins, W.L. Nelson, Mrs. M.C. Nelson, Mrs. Nannie Neal, and Mr. and Mrs. F. M. Bowman. In addition, Richard Kirkley was accepted as the church's first candidate for baptism. The new congregation voted to call themselves the "First Baptist Church of Carthage," but that name was soon deemed inappropriate and changed to the "Central Baptist Church of Carthage."
The next Sunday afternoon, September 29, the Central Baptist members again gathered at the Christian Church (which was rented for a lengthy time, until the Baptists could enter their own building). R.W. Priest was received by letter and appointed to the pulpit committee, joining Dr. Comer, F. M. Bowman, Mrs. Kirkley, Mrs. Gillaspie, and Mrs. Butler in the search for a pastor. A Sunday School was then formed, with Mrs. Gillaspie teaching the Primary children, Miss Carror Gillaspie heading the intermediate class, and Miss Katie Kirkley leading the Young People. Sunday School literature was obtained from the American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia.
The first prayer meeting was held on Wednesday night, October 2, 1901, in the home of Mrs. Gillaspie. That same evening the Ladies Aid Society was formed, and a turkey dinner and a bazaar of handmade items were planned for Christmas. The bazaar was to remain the primary source of income for the ladies during the church's early years, although for a time the "Cotton Patch Committee" was in charge of securing a farmer for $150 per season to grow a cotton crop on a 10-acre patch to produce revenue. Another profitable idea was the "Measurement Party: a member brandishing a tape measure at a church social would check waistlines, and all present would contribute 1 per inch. In November 1906, the Society purchased 100 songbooks at 8 apiece and presented them to the church. Programs enjoyed by the ladies at various times included: "Why Baptists Do Not Accept Infant Baptism," "Why Do Baptists Immerse?" and "Cuba and the Canal Zone," and on one occasion a missionary performed "Jesus Loves Me" in Chinese. In 1916 the Ladies Aid changed its name to the Women's Missionary Society.
The pulpit committee called Rev. A. P. Collins of Fort Worth to the church, but after an inspection trip to Carthage he declined. In December 1901, however, the church invited Rev. J.M. Wright of Rockwall to be the first pastor, and he began his Carthage ministry on January 12, 1902. Initially the State Mission Board agreed to pay $50 per month to the pastor and its congregation was to furnish $25 per month, but the early members could never raise the entire amount on time. Shortages ranged from $3.40 in December 1902 to $19.95 the following November. Over that twelve-month period the shortage totaled nearly $80, more than 37% of the local salary. A pastor at the turn of the century had to be literally a servant of the Lord!
On a Friday in mid-February 1902, a railroad chapel car named Good Will arrived at the Carthage depot. The American Baptist Publication Society sponsored these cars, and the Good Will was manned by Rev. G. B. Rogers and his singer, Hugh L. Heitt. The Central Baptist congregation enthusiastically advertised the Good Will, and all available seats were rapidly filled. C.D. Lacy generously offered his brick opera house for the meeting, and the church promptly appointed him to the building committee -- even though he and his wife did not join the congregation until 1903!
This meeting proved quite fruitful, producing seventeen new members and nearly doubling the congregation. Presenting their letters were Rev. and Mrs. Wright, Miss Lydia Wright, Mrs. Texana Fall, Mr. and Mrs. F.D. Woodyard, Mr. and, Mr. and Mrs. W.F. Dry, Frank Dry, and Mrs. Bettie Bowers. Joining "by experience and baptism" were W.T. Bradberry, Miss May Frazer, Miss Nealy Butler, Miss Irene Harris, and Miss Mattie Atkinson; Richard Kirkley was baptized and T.C. Hoden united by statement. Another productive service was held in November 1903 at the Lacy and Ross Opera House: seventeen were baptized, seven were received by letter, three by "restoration," and two by statement.
At the close of the Good Will meeting in 1902 a building committee was appointed, including Dr. Comer, C.D. Lacy, W.F. Dry, and F.D. Woodyard. Jasper Collins and his mother donated the original lot and a subscription list was circulated, amounting to $1100. On September 1, 1902, ground was broken for the sanctuary, and by October the foundation was completed at a cost of $500. Further subscriptions and loans slowly brought construction to a point where the building could be occupied, whereupon membership increased rapidly, since various persons had been unwilling to join while meetings were being held in the Christian Church. It was not until May 1911, however, that the 250-seat brick auditorium was completed and dedicated.
In that same year a parsonage was secured. The Ladies Aid Society initiated plans to buy a house in December 1908, and in 1911, the church paid $1500 for a dwelling known as the "Old Tom Hull Place." It was located on an acre of land a block from the sanctuary at what is now 314 W. Wellington. The unpainted pine structure had an open "dog run" down the middle and three water wells, on the back porch and two in the yard. It was considerably remodeled by Rev. J. A. Smith (1915-1920), and when the church sold the house for $2500 in 1926 it was painted, there were six rooms, the dog run had been enclosed and the roof line changed. Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Voorhies purchased the house and made numerous alterations: today it has nine rooms and little resembles the original parsonage. One of Carthage's oldest homes, it has been moved north of town on Highway 59.
In the fall of 1911 Central Baptist hosted a conference with the Macedonia, Six Mile, and Pleasant Ridge churches, and the result was that Rev. J.L. Fields of Central was to be paid $1000 to serve all four congregations; the three visiting churches also agreed to assist in payments on Central's new parsonage. Central still found it difficult to furnish Fields with his remuneration; a September meeting in 1912 revealed that the church was behind $51.20 in pastor's salary, and a committee was appointed to collect his stipend. Two months later, however, he resigned.
The new pastor, Rev. L.L.F. Parker, was to receive half of his $1000 from the Carthage congregation and half from the State Board. In March 1913, Parker was responsible for changing the time of business meeting from the end of Sunday morning services to Wednesday nights. In 1916 the church staff was expanded by the addition of a pair of janitors: two local boys were hired to ready the building for Sunday services; they were to be paid a dollar each on Saturday nights. In 1919, after the resignation of Rev. Smith, the congregation determined to raise their annual salary contribution to a "full time" amount of $1500, although a proposal to pay the light and telephone bills at the parsonage was voted down.
By 1921 the Sunday School had grown to more than 100 "scholars," with attendance frequently exceeding 70. In that year, Rev. J. M. P. Morrow resigned, and when the vacancy was publicized in the Baptist Standard, a man from Wolfe City, Texas, addressed a letter informing the church about F. M. Ferguson. Ferguson had "been in the picture show business all his life" until his conversion eighteen months previously, and he soon began preaching to crowded audiences, often leaving "a large part" of his hearers "in tears." His most popular sermon was "The Tragedy of the Moving Picture," described as "A Frank, Free, Fair and Honest Discussion of the GOOD and the EVIL of the Moving Picture Industry, by F. M. Ferguson, the man who knows." Because of the enthusiastic recommendation he eventually assumed the Central pulpit, but he discovered that salary problems persisted. By late 1922 the church owed Rev. Ferguson nearly $100, and the treasurer recommended "that we be more punctual and thoughtful on paying our pastor's salary pledge…."
Nevertheless, Rev. Ferguson soon left Central, and the church became disenchanted with his replacement, Rev. H. E. Summers, apparently pressuring him to resign in 1925. Upon leaving the pulpit Rev. Summers stipulated that the church "will not suffer the defamation of my good name, or the name of any member of my family…" and he demanded that "it shall be expressly understood and agreed that I and my family are to remain residents of the Pastor's Home…." The Summers family lingered in rather sloppy fashion for a year, and the church finally informed them that if the house was not vacated by August 1, 1926, they would have to begin paying $25 per month rent. The Summers finally soon moved out, and Mr. and Mrs. Voorhies took up residence in their new home in November.
The new parsonage was a gray "boxed house" located near the sanctuary and purchased in 1926 from Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Carnes. This dwelling served Central pastors for over twenty years, and was torn down when the present sanctuary was erected in 1948. Dr. V. L. McKee arrived at Central that year and was provided a housing allowance to offset the expenses of the home he bought at 324 Brownwood. Since shortly before Dr. McKee's retirement after nearly two decades of service, the Central parsonage has been the spacious brick home at 400 Perry Place. In 1967 Central purchased a brick home at 1121cLynnwood, where various staff members have resided.
The prosperity of the 1920s was reflected in September 1926, when the church raised Rev. C. L. Vermillion's salary from $125 to $200 per month. The following March, Rev. Vermillion and Mrs. Skinner, the Music Director, were authorized to buy 100 new hymnals of their choice. Expansion continued in 1929 with the addition of six Sunday School rooms to the sanctuary.
But the affluence of the 1920s disappeared with the Great Depression, and when Rev. H. O. Malone was called to the pulpit in 1930, services had been cut to two per month and he was paid just $75 per month. In April 1931, it was decided to meet three Sundays per month, the first, second, and third, and the pastor's salary was increased to $100. In August 1933, it was decided to resume meetings on a weekly basis, but Rev. Malone's salary was to remain unchanged.
Throughout American history, in times of economic depression the people have turned in great numbers to religion, and despite understandable financial difficulties the church grew steadily during the 1930s. The WMU helped greatly to offset Central's monetary strain, raising over $1400 in 1934, the middle of the Depression. While the church struggled to meet property notes, membership expanded from 141 in 1931 to 176 in 1933, with attendance often approaching 100. By 1937 it was necessary to expand, and at a cost of $1000 a frame building was attached northeast to the sanctuary. The new rooms were to house Juniors and Intermediates, and construction began in October 1937. In that same year Pastor U. G. Garrett received a monthly raise from $110 to $125, and a Brother Murf was employed as song leader at $60 per month, with one week off monthly to hold meetings elsewhere. In 1939 church facilities were further enhanced by the purchase of a $1500 Hammond electric organ.
By 1942 the pastor's salary had been raised to $175, and church growth during the 1940s was so impressive in all areas that it was deemed necessary to build a new physical plant. The original sanctuary was carefully torn down and the materials were removed to Holland's Quarters where a church was constructed which still serves its congregation. The new building complex, dedicated in April 1949, has since been modernized and enlarged, and it was appropriate that in our 75th year a modern Activities Building was opened.
One of the most distinguished periods in the history of the church began in January 1948, when Dr. V. L. McKee assumed the pastorate. He served for nineteen years, and when Rev. Darwin Scott resigned late in 1972, Dr. McKee resumed his former position on an interim basis until Rev. Robert Griffin was called five months later. Rev. Griffin served four years at Central, conducting a 75th anniversary celebration in 1976 and organizing a summer mission building trip in 1974 that has become an annual tradition. Through the years volunteers from Central have journeyed to numerous locations to construct sanctuaries, Sunday School buildings and parsonages.
Following the resignation of Rev. Griffin, Dr. McKee again served as interim pastor for six months. In 1978 Dr. Charles Dodson became pastor, providing a continuity and stability for Central that has produced a tenure second in longevity only to that of Dr. McKee. During these years the 80th anniversary of Central was observed, the church staff was expanded, and a new $1.12 million sanctuary was completed in 1987 on the site of the original church building. Then a $1.25 million construction and renovation project for Sunday School and fellowship was launched. In 1997 Dr. Dodson concluded his twenty-year ministry, although his services continued to be requested on a frequent basis for weddings and funerals.
Calvin Wittman, who had served on the foreign mission field, became pastor in 1998. During this same period, longtime music director Phillip Sherrod retired. The church was fortunate to obtain the interim services of Dr. Harlan Hall, emeritus music director of First Baptist Church Longview. One of the most distinguished music ministers among Texas Baptists, Dr. Hall has served Central for almost four years, as of this writing.
Another noted Baptist minister, Dr. W. C. Everett, became interim pastor in 2000, following the departure of Calvin Wittman. Dr. Everett had retired, after serving as pastor of First Baptist Longview and Fielder Road Baptist in Arlington. But the Central Baptist congregation responded so deeply to Dr. Everett that he was persuaded to leave retirement in 2001 and again assume a full-time ministry. Blessed with the leadership of Everett and Hall, two of the most gifted ministers in Texas, Central Baptist Church approached its centennial with high expectation for a second century of Christian service.