When J.T. Polk was running his canning business in Greenwood during the Civil War era, he attended church on Sundays in the town’s First Baptist Church.
Other town founders in Greenwood, including the Craigs and Jenningses, also were members. Descendents of the Bass family — who donated the church’s original property — are members today.
First Baptist Church of Greenwood will celebrate its 175th anniversary July 19. Its history can be traced from its official beginning on July 17, 1839, to when the original one-room meeting house was finished in 1844 near what is now Madison Avenue and Main Street, to the current 20,000-square-foot structure at 99 W. Main St., which was completed in 1971.
The original location of the church is now the site of Greenwood’s splash pad.
“According to church records, there were baptisms done in the creek,” said the Rev. Tom Bridges, pastor of First Baptist Church of Greenwood.
The church is planning celebrations this month to mark the anniversary. One will be the dedication of a bench at the splash pad to celebrate the church’s continuation into the 21st century.
What began with a handful of people led by an evangelist from Ohio has grown into a church with a congregation of 400 active members, with more than 200 attending services on Sundays.
One member, Rosemary Cooley, came to the church with her parents as an infant. She began teaching Sunday school in the 1950s and continued in Christian education until she retired in 2005. Cooley was in charge of curriculum selection for Sunday school classes and coordinated countless children’s activities throughout her life, including camps for first- and second-grade kids near DePauw University. She also performed weddings and a funeral after she was ordained in the 1990s.
The friendships she’s made over the years are what have kept her at the church throughout her life, Cooley said.
“I began going to the church when I was 2 weeks old,” Cooley said. “So I’ve been an active member for about 77 years.”
Today, she’s still an active member and recently updated the church’s history, using business meeting notes and church records.
“When I see the Grafton Peek ballroom — and then I read in the history that Grafton Peek was a member of the church, it gives me a feeling that we had been some very intelligent and influential people in the church.”
Like any organization, the church had its ups and downs — periods where membership was low or when the congregation itself was divided, she said.
“During the Civil War, some of the (church members) were for the South and some for the North. Most people were from Virginia or Kentucky,” Cooley said. “But they seemed to be able to get over those things and keep going.”
Over the years, the church has maintained a strong community outreach ministry, including helping Franklin College as needed in the past. Members would donate money through the church, a practice that has continued, Cooley said.
The church has taken on challenges, such as a volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and natural disaster relief efforts. Senior citizens at the church volunteer at Isom and Northeast elementary schools. The church also donated money for first aid supplies and other items for the schools.
The church’s mission fund today has an endowment valued between $300,000 and $400,000. The endowment funds mission trips to Thailand and other projects that come up through the year, such as money needed for Habitat for Humanity building projects, Bridges said.
As the early founders of the church did, the current congregation is looking to the future and potential growth. The church recently purchased 12 acres of property at Stop 18 and Averitt roads, across from Freedom Park. If the church continues to expand, it might move to the property in time, Bridges said.
He added the location would be ideal because of its location near Worthsville Road, which is planned as a new entrance into the city after a new Interstate 65 interchange is built.
“I think, like most of our (Baptist) churches today, we recognized that one of the challenges for all of us is to be a church where people of all ages and diverse groups can find spiritual support and grow in their relationship with God. That’s the key of how we try to shape our ministry ... to provide a place where people can learn and grow and where people can find sanctuary in the midst of a world with many spiritual challenges,” Bridges said.