In 1871, the Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention answered the call of the Great Commission and sent Rev. I.L.D. Hillyer as a missionary to this area, even before it was named Birmingham. By the spring of 1872, he had led a small group of people to the Lord and baptized them in a pond that was located near the L&N Railroad Station. This was the first baptismal service conducted in Birmingham. Rev. Hillyer and his small group were joined by Rev. D.W. Gwin in their early work and established The First Baptist Church on June 21, 1872.
On July 28, 1872, the Elyton Land Company gave the land site on 6th Avenue and 22nd Street to the small congregation, and they soon built their first building which was only 60 by 30 feet. At the end of 1872, the little church had 22 members and had pledged five dollars for Association purposes.
In 1877, Rev. John H. Hendon accepted the call to be pastor and soon became affectionately known as “the Pastor of Birmingham.” When the first revival was held under his leadership, hundreds received Christ, and more than 100 were added to the membership.
In 1882, just ten years after First Baptist was established, Rev. D.L. Purser became the temporary minister due to the illness of Rev. Hendon. In August of that same year, Dr. Purser took charge, but wasn’t called to be full-time minster until February, 1884. Being a man of great vision, Dr. Purser led the church in the task of organizing the community churches of South Avondale, North Birmingham, West End and Southside Baptist. From its beginning, First Baptist continued to be a mission-minded church. A second, more elaborate building was erected and dedicated on the fourth Sunday in February 1886.
As the church grew, Rev. A.J. Dickinson (1901-1919) led the church to erect an even larger sanctuary built of Bedford Stone. Nearly 2,000 people attended the dedication on Easter Sunday, April 25, 1905. At the end of the day the remainder of the money had been raised to pay for the building. It was this sanctuary that first housed the beautiful stained glass windows which we still enjoy today.
Because of the great need for additional education space, Dr. J. Randolph Hobbs (1919-1938) led the church to build a seven-story education building on an adjacent lot. The building was dedicated on Sunday, November 19, 1926 and housed the church offices and Sunday School rooms on the first four floors. In order to help defray the cost of this facility, the top three floors were rented out to the Birmingham Baptist Association, Liberty National Life Insurance Company, and the Internal Revenue Service, among others.
By 1927, the Alabama Baptist State Convention authorized the opening of a Baptist Book Store in Birmingham, in cooperation with the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The first book store was housed on the first floor of First Baptist’s education building until 1945 when it was moved closer to the center of Birmingham’s business district.
Dr. Hobbs has been called the father of the hospital program of Birmingham Baptists. He conceived the idea of establishing a Baptist Hospital and in 1921 was appointed chairman of a commission of the Birmingham Baptist Association which put Baptists in the hospital business with the purchase of West End Hospital (now known as Princeton). The Baptist Health System of today stands as a memorial to the foresight of Dr. Hobbs.
When Dr. Hobbs resigned because of ill health, Dr. John L. Slaughter (1928-1952) was called as pastor. At the time, the church faced some financial difficulties because of the Depression, but this didn’t stop their dedication to missions. In the 1940’s when the nation had healed from the Depression, First Baptist began to prosper both in membership and finances, and on May 23, 1946, the church was debt free.
In the 1980’s, when AmSouth Bank approached the church to buy the downtown property, the decision was made to relocate. Dr. Andrew W. Tampling led the church in its move to the present location on Lakeshore Drive in the Homewood area. The church was able to buy the land where the President’s home of Samford University had previously been located.
During construction of the present sanctuary, First Baptist met for worship at Shades Cahaba School on Sundays and had Wednesday services at the Kopper Kettle restaurant. The first service in the new building, held on Easter Sunday, March 30, 1986, was followed by a Spring Bible Conference and a dedication service on Sunday, April 6, 1986. In 1991, because of the rapid regrowth of the congregation, the church enlarged the sanctuary and added an education wing.
In February 2007, Dr. Stan Lewis came to First Baptist as the senior pastor. At the beginning of his ministry at First Baptist, he guided the church through a time of racial reconciliation for the wrong attitudes expressed on behalf of the church during the time of segregation and unrest of the early 1970’s. During Dr. Lewis’ tenure, the church experienced stability and new growth, as they received a pastor who cared for the congregation and helped build confidence among the members. In May of 2012, Dr. Lewis answered the call to return to his home church in Florida.
First Baptist continues to be mission-minded by contributing generously to the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board through the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings.
First Baptist Church of Birmingham has experienced God’s faithfulness throughout the years. Our congregation today is poised to meet the needs of the coming generations. We are excited about moving forward and growing spiritually in the grace of God under the leadership of our Senior Pastor, Dr. Jim Cooley.