The organization of the First Baptist Church in Natchez occurred at the home of John Richards, on Jefferson Street, in 1817, the same year Mississippi was admitted as the twentieth State of the Union. This church of nine members applied for membership in the Mississippi Association. The Baptists of Natchez increased in number and on June 11, 1822, Governor Walter Leake approved an act of the Mississippi Legislature to incorporate the trustees of the First Baptist Church in the city of Natchez.
The small congregation of Natchez had difficulty in maintaining itself during the next few years. This was a period when the Indian lands of central and north Mississippi were being opened to settlement, and there was a heavy migration from south Mississippi into north Mississippi. It is probable that many of the members of the Natchez congregation joined in this migration.
An impetus was given to the development of Baptist work in Natchez in 1835 with the arrival of Ashley Vaughn, who came to the area in search of health. He and his wife, Eliza, joined the Clear Creek Baptist Church near Washington on December 12, 1835. They came from the First Particular Baptist Church, West troy, New York, and arrived at a time when their culture, talents, and fine qualities of leadership were most needed. He immediately became pastor of the church.
A few months after Vaughn began his ministry at the Clear Creek Church, Sarah Richards of Natchez became a member. Mr. and Mrs. John Richards were prominent citizens of Natchez and were leaders in the social and financial world. They befriended the Vaughn family in life, and he lies buried in a corner of their burial lot.
Vaughn was editor of the Southwestern Religious Luminary, which he had established. This was the first Baptist paper established in the Southwest and had as one of its principal aims to establish a state convention. Vaughn used his columns freely and associations suggested a meeting of representatives at Clear Creek Church in December 1836, for the purpose of organizing a convention.
The small group of Baptist leaders who met on the cold December days of 1836, to organize the Mississippi State Baptist Convention, were led by Vaughn. He presented a proposed constitution, which was adopted and remained the basic document in Baptist life. His leadership was recognized by his election to the presidency, a post that he held until his death.
Vaughn moved to Natchez in 1837 and undertook the reorganization of the First Baptist Church of Natchez in the Presbyterian Church on February 5. The church then began meeting at the city hall with Vaughn as pastor. In the same year, the nine member church applied for membership in the Union Association and was received along with Mount Bluff and Union churches.
The First Baptist Church of Natchez prospered under Vaughn's leadership. The church purchased a lot on Franklin Street between Commerce and Pearl Streets for $4,000 in hopes of building a church building. The deed was signed January 12, 1838. Vaughn did not live to see the realization of his dream, but he had planted the seeds which were to bear fruit. He died on March 29, 1839, at the age of 32.
From 1844 to 1846 the Natchez church enjoyed its most healthy growth to that date. The church was meeting in Institute Hall. However the church had many difficulties in the years that followed. The most serious of these was a controversy, which resulted in the division of the congregation and the resignation of the pastor and a number of members of the church. A new church, known as the Wall Street Baptist Church, was organized on April 14, 1850, by a group of 20 First Baptist Church members. The new church purchased a lot on the southeast corner of Wall and State Streets for $1,000 on April 20, 1850. By 1852 the church had erected a house of worship at a cost of $7,000. The building was paid for when it was completed.
The First Baptist Church of Natchez faded away in 1855 but the Wall Street Church continued to increase in strength and in service. In 1860, it had a membership of 159. The Mississippi State Baptist Convention recognized the importance of the Wall Street Baptist Church of Natchez by holding its 1860 convention in the city. The Wall Street Church was represented by its pastor, Rev. W. W. Keep, along with Thomas Kenny, B. Pendleton, R. Parker, Cyrus Marsh, R. Carkeet, and Thomas J. Gaw. These people took a prominent part in the convention and Keep served as one of the vice-presidents.
The political and economic difficulties that characterized the Civil War and Reconstruction period had their effect upon the church. The work languished and the church had great difficulty in maintaining itself.
In 1884, the church began to regain its former strength and position of leadership under the pastorate of Z. T. Leavell. There were 83 members at the time and the number increased to 139 the following year. The Wall Street Church was the second largest church in the association and very significantly went to full time preaching. Leavell continued his pastorate until 1889, when he resigned to head the Carrollton Female College at Carrollton, and to continue his historical writings. He is remembered today chiefly for his history of Mississippi Baptists and his other historical writings.
On October 3, 1909, the Wall Street Baptist Church began to call itself First Baptist Church. The eight-year pastorate of Dr. W. A. Borum, 1918-1926, was one of the most fruitful periods in the life of the church in Natchez to that date. It was during his ministry in 1918 that the church purchased a lot at Main and Rankin Streets. It was also during this period that the construction of a house of worship was undertaken. The program of construction, which was announced on April 18, 1920, contemplated the church raising $18,000, the State Convention Board donating $12,500, and the Home Mission Board lending $9,000 for the project. The actual cost of the building and its furnishings reached $75,000. Ground was broken for the construction of the church building on April 11,1921. The Building Committee members were James Alexander, Miss Willie Allen, Dr. W. A. Borum, W. H. Braden, Charles T. Brasfield, W. D. Deterly, G. M. L. Key, E. H. Ratcliff, F. H. Roberts, T. J. Seale, Mrs. McDonald Watkins, and L. A. Whittington.
The longest pastorate in the history of the First Baptist Church in Natchez was that of Dr. W. A. Sullivan, who became the minister in January 1927, and continued until 1952. The church building which had already begun was completed in 1930 and dedicated. Unfortunately, the debt of approximately $25,000 proved a heavy burden during the economic depression that was to soon burst upon the land. This debt was paid in full in 1945 with a dedication service on July 15.
One of the notable events of Dr. Sullivan's pastorate was the centennial of the Mississippi State Baptist Convention, which was celebrated at its annual session, held with the Natchez church in November 1930. It was fitting that Baptists should come to this historic section of the state to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the organization of the convention. Dr. Sullivan welcomed to Natchez 396 messengers. The messengers from the First Baptist Church of Natchez to the convention, in addition to Dr. W. A. Sullivan, were W. T. Mallory, J. R. Oliver, Tom Sudduth, and Mrs., McDonald Watkins. The major problem before the convention was the financing of its program in the depths of the depression.
The church began the $150,000 educational annex in 1948. The Building Committee members were Dr. W. A. Sullivan and L. A. Whittington, Co-Chairmen; H. B. Boutwell; T. B. Buckles; J. M. Jones; Mrs. Margaret McGehee; John A. Montgomery; Miss Waudine Storey; N. R. Drury; E. T. James; W. K. Pyron; Mrs. B. F. Rippetoc; Dr. Homer A. Whittington; and ex officio advisor and consultant, Charles T. Brasfield. S. W. Holder was the building superintendent. The construction was completed in 1951 and the church immediately experienced growth. By 1957, the building at 709 Main Street was purchased and converted into classroom space. The pastoral leadership of First Baptist Church of Natchez was E. Wayne Coleman, 1953-1956; D. Lewis White, 1957-1960; and Tom W. Dunlap, 1961-1973.
The church began to experience a decline in the late 1950's. This decline has been attributed to the lack of parking and the movement of the population of Natchez to other parts of the city.
The church made some very important decisions to turn the church from a declining to a growing and expanding church, On April 29, 1962, First Baptist Church of Natchez voted to purchase 48.6 acres of land on D'Evereaux Drive. The committee responsible for the purchase was composed of Richard Malone, Chairman; Roben A. Bonds; T. B. Buckles, Sr.; Carl B. Kendrick; William L. McGehee; Dr. W. W. Pearson; and Don Wenger.
Odean W. Puckett began his pastorate on October 15, 1973. The church approved plans on May 23, 1976, to relocate on the D'Evereaux property and to begin a "Together We Build" campaign. Ground breaking for a $1,500,000 Family Life Center and Education Building on the D'Evereaux Drive property occurred on April 10, 1977. The Building Committee members were Paul G. Green and Kelly Pyron, Co-Chairmen; Mrs. Jack Benson; Mrs. Eunice Holland; Kenneth W. Moss; and exofficio members Odean W. Puckett, J. Neron Smith, and Kenneth O. Miller. The first worship service in the Family Life Center was on March 11, 1979. The buildings were dedicated on April 29, 1979. First Baptist Church of Natchez approved plans on March 7, 1982, to construct a new colonial designed Sanctuary and begin a second "Together We Build" campaign. Ground breaking for the new $3,000,000 Sanctuary occurred January 16, 1983. The Building Committee members were Paul G. Green and W. Kelly Pyron, Co-Chairmen; Mrs. Stacy Adams; Mrs. Jack Benson; Mrs. Eunice Holland; Kenneth W. Moss; M. Frank Vaught; and exofficio members Odean W. Puckett, Daniel A. Wynn, and Kenneth O. Miller. The first worship service in the newly constructed Sanctuary was on August 12, 1984, and the facility was formally dedicated on September 9, 1984.
The move of First Baptist Church of Natchez to D'Evereaux Drive is marked as a turning point in years of growth and expansion.
Daniel A. Wynn