Lasting Faith

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For 150 years, First Baptist of Lebanon has been a center of worship

By Stephen Lega

Deacon John King stepped to the front of the church to welcome the congregation.


"As we always say, it's good to be in the house of the Lord," he said.

It's easy to imagine that similar sentiments have been expressed for more than a century and a half by members of the congregation of First Baptist of Lebanon.

The church was founded in 1860 by a group of slaves, according to the church history prepared by Lillie King, Deacon King's wife. It was originally known as the Lebanon Colored Baptist Church.

The founding members first met on Baptist Alley, and later on Water Street (which today is ML King Avenue). Eventually the church was renamed First Baptist, but through all the changes, the faith of the members has remained steadfast.


The Sunday before Christmas, the congregation opened its service with "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Another deacon, Jerry Evans, encouraged everyone to join in the singing.

"He's not going to grade us on how we sing," Evans said, "but on how faithful we are."

Lillian Brown, 90, is an example of that faithfulness. She has been a member of First Baptist for 45 years.

"I love this church," she said. "I've always loved this church."

She remembered thinking that the congregation had many older members when she first joined after she married her husband, Thomas. She has enjoyed coming back for many reasons, but she recalled how she felt welcomed from the moment she walked through the doors.

"They showed love," Brown said.

Today, visitors will find copies of the King James Bible next to The New National Baptist Hymnal in the pews.

After a few more songs and a prayer by Evans, the pastor, Rev. Tommy Calhoun, stepped to the podium. He led the church in reading a passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 39-48. In this passage, Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits Elizabeth, who was herself pregnant.

"Let us not only be hearers but let us be doers of God's holy word," Calhoun said after finishing the passage.


Mary Cowherd, 51, has been a member of First Baptist for five years. The congregation has meant a lot to her, especially as she dealt with some health issues recently.

"Everybody has been wonderful," she said. "The whole church family takes care of one another."

The church has survived some difficult times as well. Calhoun shared a few anecdotes that he'd been told by his predecessor, the Rev. W.M. Calvin, who served as the pastor for 60 years.

At one point, the church burned to the ground. According to Calhoun, it is believed that a church member started the fire following a particularly heated business meeting.

The current church building was constructed in 1924 under the leadership of Rev. D.B. Dudley. Originally, the building had a dirt basement, a coal stove, outdoor restrooms and wood steps. Church members had to visit a neighboring house for water.

During the construction, the church also received donations from the community at large, and one of those donations was surely a surprise. According to Calhoun, the Ku Klux Klan brought a love offering to the church after it was rebuilt.

"They marched in, left their offering on the altar and walked out peacefully," Calhoun said he was told by Calvin.

The church has been updated considerably since 1924. Air conditioning is in place, and a furnace has replaced the coal stove. The pews are padded, and members enjoy indoor plumbing and restrooms. More recently, the church added a pastor's study and two Sunday School rooms, and the baptismal pool has been relocated.


After a reading from Luke, Deacon King called to mind a passage from the book of Isaiah, where it was prophesied that a child would be born who would be called

"wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

"All of those characteristics fit Jesus Christ," King said.

Calhoun resumed his place in the pulpit following a few more songs. He reminded the congregation of what had happened to Mary. She had been visited by an angel and been told that she would give birth to God's son.

"Mary did not doubt what the angel said," Calhoun told the congregation.

He also stressed that they would do well to follow her example.

"The problem with a lot of us grown-ups is we doubt God too much," he said, later adding, "With God all things are possible."

Calhoun also pointed out another aspect of the story. God had used children (Jesus, and Elizabeth's son, who became known as John the Baptist) to teach lessons, and according to Calhoun, he can use anyone for his purposes.

"God used these babies. He can use senior citizens, too," Calhoun said.


Deacon James "Jimmy" Graves, 66, joined First Baptist when he was 8 years old.

"It's a loving church," Graves said. "It's a church for everybody."

That sense of togetherness extends to activities at the church as well.

"When things go on in the church, everybody pitches in and helps out," he said.

During the service, Calhoun pointed out a group from the Marion County Youth Center that would be singing during the church's Christmas service that afternoon. Earlier, Calhoun said he hoped to live a life that led young people down the right path.

Near the end of the service, he reminded everyone how to do that, by keeping the faith and trust in God, just as Mary and Elizabeth had done.

"God is good," Calhoun said at the conclusion of the service.

The congregation replied, "All the time."