The church was founded August 12, 1845, and the first service was held in the Piney Grove School in West Durham near what is now Swift Avenue. In the beginning, the first church was called the Rose of Sharon Church.
The same year, 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was established on May 8-12 in Augusta, Georgia. Today the Convention (which exceeds 15 million) is the largest Protestant group in the country.
The first pastor of First Baptist was Rev. Jesse Howell, who served as pastor for 26 years over a period of three pastorates.
The small congregation established four churches very soon after its own beginning; Mount Herman in 1848, Berea in 1858, Hopkins Grove in 1878, and Yates Baptist in 1878.
In 1850 the Rose of Sharon Church moved near Prattsburg (the former name for Durham) after building the first church building near where the Union Railroad Station formerly was located. The church faced Pettigrew Street and was near Mangum and Roxboro Streets. Four years later the NC Railroad was constructed after a gift of two acres of land by Dr. Bartlett Durham. It was called Durham Station and the town became Durham and the name Prattsburg was lost. The railway right-of-way included a portion of the church property. The noise from the locomotives frightened the horses in the church yard and was a detriment to the orderly conduct of religious services.
The congregation decided to find a new location. A mounting stone used by the congregation for ladies to mount the horses is now at the present church on Cleveland Street near the Rose Garden. The church was given four acres of land on what is now Cleveland Street and the builder took in exchange the property near the railroad. The second church building was completed in 1854. In 1877 the name “Rose of Sharon” was changed to Durham Baptist Church. The year 1878 brought another change in location. The property on Cleveland Street was sold except for a portion of the property which is now the present site of the church.
The site selected for the new church was on Mangum Street near the center of the town of Durham. A brick structure was erected on Mangum Street at Rigsbee Avenue and Holloway Street at a cost of $12,000 and was paid for before the congregation moved. Later that same year the name of the church was changed to its present name – First Baptist Church.
The Church continued to organize churches and since those early days it has organized 19 churches; 8 were in cooperation with Mt. Zion and Yates Associations. In 1888 First Baptist organized Temple Baptist; in 1898, Angier Avenue Baptist; in 1894 West Durham (Greystone), in 1902 Edgemont; in 1907, North Durham (now Grace); and in 1923, Watts Street Baptist.
In 1924 First Baptist Church voted to build a new church on Cleveland Street. Connie H. Shipp was the general contractor and construction was begun in May, 1926. On September 4, 1927 the congregation worshipped in the new structure for the first time. The church was built for approximately $320,000 but it had a debt of $190,000.
In 1962 the corner stone was laid for a new educational building and expansion of the children’s departments into the lower auditorium. The cost was $325,000 and was completed in 1963.
The church has had 24 pastors, with Rev. Jesse Howell serving three different pastorates. Many interesting stories could be written about each pastor and their contribution to the First Baptist Church and to Durham. Only three former pastors are living today- Dr. R.F. Smith, Dr. Charles Harris, and Dr. Allen Moseley.
Dr. Andrew Davis became pastor of First Baptist in 1998. He is the 25th pastor. Under Dr. Davis’ leadership, the Church has continued to grow and see new vitality.
Elwood W. Bagwell
-originally written in 1995, updated 1999