First Baptist Church History

Our Story

   First Baptist Church of Dayton was founded on May 29, 1824 – only 19 years after the city itself was incorporated – by a small band of Calvinist Baptists.  After three years of supply pastors, in 1827 the church hired its first regular pastor, D. S. Burnet.  The young (19 years old at the time of hire!) Burnet was a powerful preacher, and within two years First Baptist membership had jumped from 13 to 84, making it the largest church in the town (which in 1830 had a population of 2950).  Numerical growth notwithstanding, First Baptist was bucking dramatic changes in the American religious landscape.  It was the time of the Second Great Awakening, marked by an emphasis on evangelical revival and fierce opposition to Calvinism.  Alexander Campbell was one of the leading figures in the Awakening, and in the wake of  his 1829 visit to Cincinnati the Campbellite movement – which emphasized the right of each layperson to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, and which sought to replace denominational “systems” with the New Testament -- swept southwest Ohio.  First Baptist’s D. S. Burnet heard Campbell, was persuaded, and began preaching sermons at odds with the church’s statement of faith, in particular the Calvinist doctrine that redemption was only for the elect.  Most church members followed Burnet into the Campbellite movement.  This majority succeeded in instituting a new statement of faith that substituted the New Testament for the list of doctrines.  They were bitterly opposed, however, by eight members who were determined that First Baptist hold fast to Calvinist orthodoxy.  For their resistance they were kicked out of the congregation.  But while the Campbellite majority departed from the Baptists – and D. S. Burnet became a leading figure in the nascent Disciples of Christ – the “faithful 8” (as they are commemorated to this day on a plaque in First Baptist’s foyer) held onto the name of “First Baptist Church of Dayton.” 

  Interestingly, after having paid such a high price for their Calvinism this tiny band of loyal Baptists did not remain rigidly Calvinist.  Instead, in the five years after the split they began to incorporate practices more in keeping with the Second Great Awakening, instituting a Sunday School and actively supporting missions.  Both Sunday School and missions work were anathema to the hard-core Calvinists who dominated the Miami Valley Baptist Association.  As a result, in 1836, the First Baptist Church of Dayton (along with three other Baptist churches in southwest Ohio) was booted from the organization.   

  But as First Baptist increasingly moderated and eventually abandoned its Calvinist commitments its numbers grew dramatically (by the late nineteenth century the Sunday School had over 700 members) while the hyper-Calvinist churches struggled to survive. This determination to stake out a moderate theological course – better stated, this determination to navigate between theological extremes – sets the pattern for First Baptist’s history.  And it is not the only way in which the church’s early history prefigured what was to come.  From the very beginning, with D. S. Burnet, the First Baptist Church of Dayton has prized gifted preachers and strong leaders as senior pastors.  This point is underscored by the photos of the First Baptist ministers that currently line the hallway between the sanctuary and the Christian education complex, photos that go all the way back to Burnet (a photo which serves as a telling counterbalance to the plaque in the foyer honoring his opponents). 

  In the latter part of the nineteenth century that man was Henry Francis Colby, who pastored the church from 1868 to 1902, while also serving as president of the American Baptist Missionary Union, the president (for 22 years) of the Board of Trustees of Denison University, and the president of Miami Valley Hospital (19 years).  Colby cemented a third characteristic of First Baptist, that is, it has always understood itself as playing an important role in the city of Dayton and in the larger church.  This was clear in the hiring of J.C. Massee as senior pastor in 1912.  Massee had been pastor of First Baptist in Chattanooga since 1908, and in that time the church membership roll had increased by 500.  More than this, Massee was an internationally renowned evangelist – as First Baptist’s pastor he organized a number of revival meetings in Dayton, as well as continuing his larger evangelistic campaigns – who had published two books and had received an honorary doctorate from Mercer University.  He assumed the First Baptist pastorate just in time to shepherd the congregation through the building of a new church.  Ground was broken 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 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 First Baptist Church today.

  Massee was strongly committed to Biblical inerrancy and dispensational premillennialism.  Given his prominence it was not surprising that he was present for the first meeting of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in Philadelphia in May 1919.  Not coincidentally, in 1919 Massee also left First Baptist of Dayton for the more prominent pulpit of Tremont Temple in Boston; from this location he served as one of the major leaders of the emergent fundamentalist movement (although, in keeping with the Calvinists who founded First Baptist, he ended up being excoriated by fundamentalist leaders for not being sufficiently fundamentalist). 

  One might take from the Massee pastorate – which was clearly a great success – that by the early 20th century First Baptist Church of Dayton had lined up on the conservative side of the great divide in American Protestantism.  But as indicated above, First Baptist has historically resisted affiliating itself with one theological extreme or the other.  So but twelve years after Massee left for Boston – in 1931 – the church hired Charles Seasholes as senior pastor.  With a doctorate from Newton (now Andover Newton) Seminary, Seasholes was a charter member of the Roger Williams Fellowship, a liberal group in the American Baptist Convention that prized diversity of opinion on the denomination, and that was committed to the notion that “the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice” (which of course D. S. Burnet and the Campbellites proclaimed at First Baptist in 1829, much to the consternation of the “faithful eight”!)  Seasholes was also very involved in the ecumenical movement, even serving as a delegate to the initial meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1948.   At First Baptist Seasholes introduced the practice of ministers and choir wearing robes and organized Wednesday evening lectures on world problems and Sunday evening book review discussions.  He served on innumerable city committees and boards, helped bring Planned Parenthood to Dayton, and presided over Orville Wright’s funeral in January of 1948.

  Charles Seasholes was pastor from 1931 through 1965.  He presided over First Baptist’s glory years, the memory of which remains strong among some at First Baptist today.  Of  course, it is no accident that First Baptist’s glory years correspond with the decades in which mainline Protestantism dominated American religion; even more to the point for this urban church, the Seasholes years were the same years that Dayton – an industrial powerhouse for the first half of the twentieth century -- was booming, with a vibrant downtown and a population of 262, 332 in 1960.   But corresponding with the fracturing of mainline Protestantism and the hard times besetting Dayton – the 2010 census revealed a population of 141, 527 in what is now understood as a “Rust Belt” city – the church endured a time of decline, punctuated by a scandal in the 1990s involving the pastoral staff.  By the early years of the 21st century the once-glorious First Baptist Church was down to 15 families rattling around in the large Gothic structure in the middle of a city struggling to survive. 

  But these families had not surrendered.  In 2003 the First Baptist Church of Dayton called Rodney Kennedy to be senior pastor.  Even in its diminished state First Baptist was determined to have strong preaching from the pulpit.  It was a master stroke.  A refugee from the fundamentalist-captured Southern Baptist Convention, with a Ph.D. in rhetoric from Louisiana State University, Rod Kennedy fits very well the profile of a First Baptist Church senior pastor.  As you will see in the sermons that are to come, he is a fabulous preacher who can not be – and does not want to be -- pegged as liberal or as conservative.  More than this, Rod has a prominent local profile, thanks to five books, a blog, and numerous columns in the local newspaper; membership on innumerable community boards and involvment in a variety of civic reform efforts; and, a leadership role at the local United Theological Seminary (which includes the establishment of a Baptist Studies House) and an ongoing teaching gig at the University of Dayton Lifelong Learning Institute (where his classes attract an outrageous number of loyal students).

  Thanks to Rod’s preaching and leadership, the work of a dedicated pastoral staff, and a good number of energetic laypersons, in the past ten years worship attendance has risen from the depths to over 200 on an average Sunday morning (and this while Rod and his colleagues aggressively eschew anything that looks like the stereotypical “church growth” strategy.)   In keeping with many mainline churches, the congregants are a remarkably diverse lot.  Almost the entire theological spectrum is represented (which various folks find disconcerting on one occasion or another).   Ditto for the political spectrum: a number of folks are very conservative politically (a few would identify with the Tea Party movement); another group has deep loyalties to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in particular and the military in general; others are theological pacifists and politically liberal or leftist.  Economically, there are some wealthy members, which is in keeping with the early twentieth century, when First Baptist was perhaps the elite church in Dayton – but this is certainly not the norm.  It is fair to say that a good number of professionals attend the church; unlike many Baptist congregations, First Baptist has a good number of M.D.s and Ph.Ds, as well as a healthy contingent of graduate students from the University of Dayton.  Finally, while the church remains quite “white,” over the past five years it has started to become more racially diverse. 

  In keeping with many or most historic downtown congregations, the First Baptist membership is spread across a vast geographical area, thus making it a substantial effort for many members to make the trip to church once a week.  During the Kennedy years the church has moved to more liturgical worship (Baptist-style), which includes the use of a common lectionary, but which also includes an invitation at the end of the service. While the Lord’s Supper is celebrated once a month, a few years ago an optional communion service was established, held every week after the regular worship service in a small chapel off the sanctuary.   

  First Baptist is not really a church of “small groups” – unless one counts choir, Sunday School, and the like – and even these activities are understood as voluntary, in the sense that one shows up only if one wants to.  Of course, there are “heroic” members – often, but not always, women – who do an enormous amount of labor to make the church run.  On the other hand, church members are great givers of money – even in times of economic hardship.  Even more striking, virtually everyone pitches in one way or another to do social justice, be it packing sack lunches (600 per month) for the homeless, participating in the annual renovation of a poor person’s home, attending civic and political rallies, and/or advocating for the various marginalized in the city.  Put succinctly, it is striking how many First Baptist members who live outside the city understand that they have a responsibility for Dayton.  The church steps still lead directly into downtown.

  We hope that the notion of “sermon” is a little clearer: A sermon is a performative speech act that brings an occasioned but ongoing, conversation to bear upon a canonical text. As you’ll discover, some of the sermons in this volume have an academic feel, complete with footnotes for further study. Others have an impressionistic force that might be compared to the paintings of Monet or the music of Debussy. Some paragraphs are tightly woven philosophical argument. Other paragraphs pile sentences moving in opposite directions on top of each other in ways vaguely akin to poetry. Perhaps the best advice we can offer is that you as reader work to imaginatively inhabit 111 West Monument Avenue, Dayton, Ohio, remembering the liturgical season and envisioning your own elbows rubbing with those of fellow worshippers. Then listen (more than read) to the Voice that speaks through these sermons.

Excerpted from the Foreword to Preaching from Mind and Heart: Sermons for Academy and Church by Rodney Wallace Kennedy (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Books, 2011)

Brad J. Kallenberg, Associate Professor of Theology
William Vance Trollinger, Jr., Professor of History
The University of Dayton

To learn more about Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy's book take a look at this historical narrative excerpted from the Foreword to his book by clicking here. You can also find his book at the Wipf & Stock website by clicking here.

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