Religion

First Baptist Church celebrating bicentennial

When Dr. Edmund Taylor ponders the life of his great-great-grandmother Ann Wyche Taylor, he envisions her having a "marvelous life" in post-Revolutionary War Columbia.

Although her story may have been eclipsed by the more daring exploits of her husband and war hero, Col. Thomas Taylor, Ann Wyche Taylor claims her own piece of Columbia history - she was the first person baptized at what is now First Baptist Church of Columbia.

Ann Taylor's immersion, on Oct. 1, 1809, in the Congaree River, and the thousands of baptisms that followed over the next 200 years will be celebrated Sunday as the historic downtown church hosts a bicentennial that is expected to draw more than 2,500.

Edmund Taylor, a retired Columbia surgeon, will be there with other Taylor descendants, recalling his own version of events on that autumn afternoon.

"You know, the Congaree River at that time was not muddy," said Taylor, an Episcopalian who worships at nearby Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. When he imagines it, "I think of it as a nice, hot day with the water sparkling."

Ann Taylor, a mother of 12, was the first of five congregants baptized. The other four were African-Americans, three enslaved and one free person of color.

They would join eight others in founding a congregation that now boosts almost 6,000 members and sends missionaries and mission teams all over the world. First Baptist has planted the seeds for a half-dozen other congregations, and for 54 years has televised its services across South Carolina, a ministry that has an impact on thousands.

"There are lots of homebound people in South Carolina who watch that service every Sunday, so that is a great outreach," said church historian Harvey Teal.

Barbara Porter, minister of special ministries, has been a fixture for more than 50 years at the church, signing the service to deaf congregants. Photographs of Sunday School classes for the deaf in the 1920s testify to the impact of that century-old ministry.

"It started as a class outside the church but then moved inside the church," she recalled.

Since January, the congregation has been reminded of its storied past in all facets of church life.

"Every Sunday we have a history moment," said church spokeswoman Sylvia Rish.

A ROLE IN SOUTHERN HISTORY

At the turn of the 19th century, Baptists initially were regarded with suspicions in the largely Anglican South Carolina. Even Ann Taylor's husband apparently could not be persuaded to join, preferring to worship up the street at First Presbyterian Church, where he served as an elder. (Col. Taylor apparently contributed to the church, however.)

But through the centuries, Baptists have come to dominate the spiritual life of the state and now claim the largest share of houses of worship.

The legacy of First Baptist Church is a storied one.

According to the church's history, pastors included two college presidents, two seminary presidents, eight state convention presidents and three presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The church's first pastor, the Rev. William B. Johnson, founded the Southern Baptist Convention; the Rev. James P. Boyce established the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the first seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The congregation first met at the college and in the courthouse before building a sanctuary at Sumter and Hampton streets. It was completed in 1811.

In 1859, a Greek Revival building was erected that would become a prominent fixture in the minds of Southerners as the site of the Secession Convention in December 1860 just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

The church was chosen because it was the largest building in antebellum Columbia, but there was no doubt that the Baptists inside supported slavery and the Southern cause of independence.

According to the church's history, the pastor, the Rev. J.M.C. Breaker, opened the convention with a prayer: "We believe and are sure that our cause is safe in thy hands, for it is in accordance with the plain and unmistakable teachings of thy inspired word ..."

The convention was held for only one day at the church, the Ordinance of Secession, drafted on a marble-top table that is still in the church's possession, before moving to Charleston because of fears of smallpox.

Church legend suggests it was an African-American custodian who saved the 1859 building from destruction during the burning of Columbia by Gen. William T. Sherman. Holland Mitchell apparently diverted the federal troops by directing them to the Methodist church on Washington Street.

That building, renamed Boyce Chapel and placed on the National Historic Register in 1974, is nestled next to the current 3,400-seat sanctuary, which was dedicated in 1992.

A LASTING LEGACY

When parishioners gather to celebrate the church history, there will be no doubt be reminders of the past trials and triumphs.

But church historian Teal believes the long-lasting legacy of the church lies in its people, those who have fed and clothed the hungry, ministered to the homeless and the down and out, and preached the Gospel to people locally and internationally.

"The buildings are nice and all, but the church is not the building," Teal said. "The congregation is the church, and so it is far more important what we do inside the church and what we do outside in the community. The missions are important, and that is what endears me to this place."

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