Mission Lab

First Baptist Dallas turns 150

August 1st, 2018 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

DALLAS  First Baptist Church of Dallas (FBCD) celebrated its 150th birthday on Sunday, July 29—one day early—with decorations, cake, gifts, guests, songs and praise.

Festive balloon archways and banners decked hallways. Churchgoers sang “Happy Birthday” and balloons floated from worship center rafters at the conclusion of the 10:50 a.m. service and sermon by Robert Jeffress, the church’s fifth pastor since the legendary George W. Truett.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott read a congratulatory proclamation from the State of Texas at the start of the service. Abbott called FBCD “a pillar of faith in Dallas” and “an example to all Texans of God’s faithfulness,” before praying.

Dallas was a frontier town in 1868 with a population of a few thousand and a reputation for lawlessness when eight women and three men gathered to form the first Baptist church to survive in the city.

“One of Jesse James’ sisters-in-law used to be a member of our church,” Jeffress remarked in his sermon.

Identifying “commitment” as one of three FBCD foundations, Jeffress referenced Isaiah 51:1-2, explaining that God told Israel to “look back” at milestones in her history, reminding congregants that First Dallas was the product of “faithful men and women who went before,” some famous, many unknown.

Jeffress described the 1867 arrival in Dallas of Col. W.L. Williams, a 32-year-old lawyer, with his wife, Lucinda, 23, and their infant daughter, “devout Christians” and Baptists seeking a church.

In July 1868, evangelist W.W. “Spurgeon” Harris rode into town on horseback, renewed a friendship with Williams and preached a two-week revival held in the Masonic lodge at the corner of Lamar and Ross. The revival culminated in FBCD’s founding, with Harris serving bi-weekly, a “half-time” pastor.

In 1872, Lucinda Williams mobilized churchwomen to encourage the hiring of a long-term pastor and construction of a facility. By summer’s end, FBCD women had raised $500 to pay for the foundation of a building, Jeffress said.

Newly-called pastor Abram Weaver proclaimed at the fall 1872 dedication of the foundation, “It is a day when we tell the people of Dallas that the Baptists are here to stay,” adding that the “women of our church must be reckoned with.”

In 1890, the church’s historic sanctuary at Ervay and Patterson was built. Now home to FBCD’s contemporary Day One service, the sanctuary was expanded during Truett’s tenure, 1897-1944, as membership soared from 700 to 7,000.

Calling the gospel a second foundation of FBCD, Jeffress presented the plan of salvation from Scripture, recommending “urgency” in evangelism with 152,000 dying each day, most facing a “Christ-less eternity.”

Such “urgency” prompted Lucinda Williams to go door-to-door seeking support for the fledgling church, led Truett to preach the gospel to World War I troops overseas and inspired W.A. Criswell to expand outreaches for five decades.

Jeffress announced a campaign beginning this fall to enlarge the Horner Family Center education complex.

Calling the Bible the “most important” FBCD foundation, Jeffress urged continued reliance on inerrant Scripture rather than the “shifting sands of culture” or “denomination.”

For 150 years, FBCD has prioritized not just the Word of God, but also community outreach.

Truett helped found Texas Baptist Memorial Hospital, now Baylor Scott & White. Criswell, pastor from 1944-1990 and a leader of the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, pioneered over 20 missions, including the Dallas Life homeless shelter, First Baptist Academy (FBA) and Criswell College.

Today, FBCD ministry partners include FBA, radio station KCBI, broadcast ministry Pathway to Victory, and anti-abortion initiative Involved for Life, with pregnancy centers in downtown and uptown Dallas. Members volunteer with numerous ministries, including the now-autonomous Dallas Life. Long before the horrific shooting of Dallas police officers in 2016, the church established strong ties with Dallas PD.

Current membership is 13,000: racially and economically diverse, multigenerational and evangelical.

Since no party is complete without cake and presents, families attending services July 29 received a commemorative Bible, a book about the church’s history by Rose-Mary Rumbley and a kid-friendly book on the church for every child. Cupcakes were served in the Criswell Center.

Pam Merryman, FBA graduate and Prestonwood Christian Academy English department chair, described the celebration as light on “nostalgia” and focused on the future, with a noteworthy emphasis on the importance of women in the church’s history.

Merryman, whose parents were married by Criswell in 1957, said she remembers the church’s centennial when she was six. Her family history is bound to First Dallas. Her grandfather was Truett’s paperboy. Her husband’s maternal grandfather mentored Criswell in Oklahoma. Her husband and father are deacons.

Merryman’s dad, Dallas realtor Charles Hollingsworth, joined the church as a high school senior in 1954.

“We owe so much to our church staff and other workers who helped us make [our two daughters] the godly women they are today,” Hollingsworth told the TEXAN. “We could never repay First Baptist for what it has meant to our family.”

Dallas native Mark Smith, now of El Dorado, Ark., grew up at FBCD. Upon hearing of the celebration, Smith and his wife shifted the itinerary of their thirtieth wedding anniversary trip so they could attend.

“It was absolutely the right thing for us to do,” Smith said. “When you grow up in a church, it always feels like home. I made a commitment to Christ at age six while Dr. Criswell was preaching. He baptized me at 12. He married us.”

Near the end of his sermon, Jeffress reminded the congregation of Criswell’s favorite verse, Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord shall stand forever,” a fitting coda for a celebration of 150 years of ministry.