The church has a rich history starting with its establishment in 1862, just after the start of the Civil War, said Pastor Julie Pennington-Russell. Throughout the years, the church has advocated for racial and gender equality, she said
In 1957, former Pastor Dick Hall was part of a group of 80 Atlanta pastors who signed what became known as a manifesto on racial beliefs.
“Back then, it was a pretty radical document that was calling for tolerance in a time when the state leaders were planning to close public schools rather than admit black children,” Pennington-Russell explained. “It was a voice of reason and calm and inclusion rather than exclusion.”
First Baptist has also been progressive regarding its inclusion of women in leadership roles since the 1970s, she added.
The church is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, where female pastors are openly accepted. The more conservative Southern Baptist Convention removed the church from its affiliation in 2009, two years after Pennington-Russell became pastor.
Commemorating its 150th anniversary, First Baptist is selling a book detailing its history. The church also decided to celebrate the milestone by dedicating the year to mission work.
“We began this year committing that we wanted our community to be better because we’re here,” Pennington-Russell said.
Following that charge, church members have volunteered at homeless shelters and helped build a Habitat for Humanity house. The church established an assistance ministry to help those struggling through hardships.
“The heartbeat of our church right now is connecting with our community,” Pennington-Russell said. “We absolutely love the city of Decatur.”
Although the church books list about 2,600 members, roughly 400 to 430 regularly attend weekly services. When Pennington-Russell became pastor, one of her intentions was to strengthen the church’s connection to the community.
In addition to members’ service work, First Baptist opens the doors of its facilities to dozens of community groups for meetings, programs and functions.
“It was important to us not just to have a big, beautiful campus but something that’s actually doing some good in the neighborhood and in people’s lives,” she said.
The church’s 12-acre location at the intersection of Clairemont Avenue and Commerce Drive will be the site of its 150th anniversary celebration Sunday. Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest School of Divinity, will be the guest speaker during the combined 10:30 a.m. worship service, and a luncheon will follow in the gymnasium. John Manning, an Atlanta attorney and former First Baptist member, will be the luncheon speaker.
If you go:
What: First Baptist Church of Decatur’s 150th anniversary worship and celebration luncheon
Where: 308 Clairemont Ave., Decatur
When: Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
Contact: (404) 373-1653