The First Baptist Church celebrates 100 years of tradition.
By Brian Sharp
Situated in downtown Dayton at 111 West Monument Ave. stands a gothic structure whose place is a pillar among the religious institutions inside the city of Dayton. That structure is home to the First Baptist Church of Dayton—celebrating 100 years in its current location this June.
Originally founded in 1824, First Baptist Church is marking 100 years in its current sanctuary building with special celebrations. First Baptist’s current church building was under construction on the south bank of the Great Miami River when the Flood of 1913 filled its new foundation and first floor with gravel and mud. Despite the difficulties that the church and its members experienced in the aftermath of the flood, the new sanctuary building was completed and opened for the first worship service on June 26, 1915.
“We believe that the perseverance and courage of our members who survived the 1913 flood and aided in rescue and rebuilding efforts in the city, and their vision for going forward with a magnificent sanctuary on the river, deserve to be commemorated,” said Rev. Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy, lead pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dayton since 2002.
The sanctuary building, designed by Dayton architectural firm Schenck and Williams, is a simplified Gothic structure with colorful stained glass windows depicting Jesus and his apostles, designed by George Green Studios of Shields, Pa. The building’s cornerstone indicates that the building is the fourth church building of the First Regular Baptist Church in downtown Dayton. The other three sanctuary buildings were built on different sites in 1827, 1840 and 1862 as the church’s membership grew. From May 29, 1824, when the first meeting of the new church was held at the home of William Huffman, and for nearly two centuries leaders and citizens from all walks of life in the Dayton region have been active members of the First Baptist Church.
The Pastor J.C. Massee was hired in 1912. He assumed the First Baptist pastorate just in time to shepherd the congregation through the building of a new church. They broke ground just three months before the devastating March 1913 flood that swept the city, killing 360 people (and swamping the standing First Baptist building with nine feet of water, as well as the foundation for the new church). But Massee expertly guided First Baptist through the crisis; when the floodwaters abated, and the city had begun to recover the building resumed. The cornerstone was laid on May 31, 1914; on June 26, 1915, the magnificent Gothic structure opened its doors, the back of the building abutting the Great Miami River, and its grand entrance—befitting its understanding of its role in the city—proudly facing Dayton’s downtown. This beautiful edifice remains the home of the First Baptist Church today.
By the 1920s First Baptist had a membership roll of 1,600 that contained some of the most prominent members of the community. First Baptist holds a rich history in the Dayton community and was the location of Orville Wright’s funeral. While the membership is nowhere near that today—the focus of the church is different because of its location and presence in the downtown community—this is no longer an elite congregation but rather a congregation that believes in being a vital and important part of the community. First Baptist is a growing congregation. Kennedy says, “We have taken in more than 225 new members. Our mission is to improve the well-being of Dayton.”
First Baptist is no longer a conservative Calvinist congregation, but rather an affirming, accepting congregation in the heart of the city. First Baptist has been an historic leader and is in the right place at the right time doing the good work today. The ministers (specifically the lead pastor, who by design is to be seen as a community leader), staff and congregation are involved in many inner city projects that include free voting rights, equality for all, women in ministry, and ordination of gays.
Today, the First Baptist Church of Dayton has a vibrant congregation that participates in a range of outreach and service activities to Dayton and the Miami Valley, as well as a special mission in El Salvador. The church annually sponsors a house renewal project through Rebuilding Together Dayton and plants an urban garden to donate produce to the House of Bread. Church members are involved with a number of social justice efforts, and the church provides financial support and donations to organizations including Homefull, LEAD, Prisoner Re-entry Ministries, the Salem Avenue Peace Corridor and United Theological Seminary. The church serves monthly dinners for Positives 4 Positives and lunches for homeless neighbors.
First Baptist Church is a member of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A. and supports numerous ministries of the denomination.