A tiny gathering under a live oak tree on Fifth Avenue in Conway in 1866 sprouted roots for a church that today is home to a membership of 600.
Growing from humble beginnings, Conway’s First Baptist Church now covers several city blocks and is celebrating its sesquicentennial with a full slate of activities on Sunday that will include tours of its Heritage Room, a showcase of historic items, and Wall of Memories, a special series of old photos depicting the church’s history and membership.
Senior pastor Robert “Bob” Guffey said as the church prepares to celebrate its 150-year history, treasures from the past help inform the character and spirit of the present.
“Like people, churches have a kind of DNA of character and spirit,” Guffey said.
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Sunday will be a day of celebration and remembrance, starting with an 8:15 brunch with two living former pastors, the Rev. Steve Hadden of Kentucky and the Rev. Andy Bass of Greenville. Many former members are expected to return for a blended worship service at 10:30 a.m. featuring music from a pipe organ and a Hammond B-3, from which sprang the expression ‘pulling out all the stops.’ Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy will share the message time with the current pastor.
Church member and former deacon board chair Bill Long has many good memories of church life at First Baptist. Long’s late aunt Alma Long and her daughter Mary Ann Long Stalvey started the Heritage Room, protecting and displaying items like the original deed to the land where the church now stands and the communion set and pulpit used in the first wooden church in 1882. The project initially got started during the church’s centennial and was officially opened in 1968. Bill Long said a group of the church members have been working to “keep it going” since the death of the original curators.
At 89, Bill Long said he can recall participating in many activities at the church where he has attended since age 12 except for time away from home to attend college and serve in the Navy. He sang for many years in the Chancel Choir and played the hand bells. He said his relatives have played an important part in building up the church and he has stayed to keep up the tradition.
“The church has a good future. It has a good staff. I love the people there and the fellowship,” Long said, adding he has had three granddaughters who were married in the church.
Fran Summerall serves as co-chair of the heritage project today, along with Jeanne Sasser. The two have continued the work begun so many years ago guarding the records, photos and items that are a tangible reflection of the church’s past. Recognized in 1973 by the South Carolina Historical Association as one of the best and most complete heritage rooms in the state, the project provides for “a journey into the living presence of the past captured before it tarnished.”
Following a morning of celebration, the Sunday evening activities will include some reminiscing sprinkled with a lot of laughter.
Longtime member Avery Jones who defines himself as an “amateur humorist” has incorporated the church’s history into a play filled with satire. The play, along with other stories related to the church history, will be presented following a dinner on the lawn that begins Sunday with a blessing at 4:45 p.m.
The original works, Jones said, is “about 90 percent humor and 10 percent actual history.”
The son of John and Janet Jones, the 63-year-old grew up in Conway and has spent the greater part of his life attending services as a member of First Baptist where his great grandfather was a pastor.
“It was my family church and I’ve never been a member of any other church,” he said. He said the play will point out some of the changes the church has gone through over the years.
“I am proud our church has always tolerated different and opinions,” he said. “We’ve always agreed to disagree.”
A sample vignette of the play will feature a competitive baptism where a sports caster will do commentary on the pastor baptizing sinners.
“So, we are just having fun with it,” he said. More seriously, Jones said both social and religious factors have kept him at the church where his faith has grown as he learned from other members and grew to appreciate the church’s willingness to accommodate different styles.
Each Sunday, First Baptist offers both a contemporary (more casual) service at 8:45 a.m. and traditional worship service at 11 a.m., with Bible study for all ages conducted between the two services. The two worship styles are combined each fifth Sunday of the month.
As the church has grown through the years, it has helped establish four mission churches, the first of which was Homewood begun in 1945. They also include Langston Mission that later became Langston Heights Baptist in 1953, named for Avery Jones’ grandfather, L.W. Langston, who was a missionary to Brazil before returning to Conway. Jamestown was established in 1948 and North Conway in 1956.
Guffey said the church has had “some common strands, a spirit that serves today.” He called it an “inclusive church” that has “majored on what is important.”
“The most controversy we have is Clemson versus Carolina football,” Guffey said, tossing out a little humor himself.
Outreach has been a building block for the church and community. Guffey said aside from helping establish the mission churches, First Baptist has been heavily involved with an orphanage and school in Haiti and has assisted with numerous local community programs.
“The pastors and church never thought this had to be ‘the’ thing,” Guffey said, emphasizing the word the in reference to church services.
Reaching back into the church’s history, Guffey said former pastor Dr. S. George Lovell (pastor from 1954 to 1981) was very involved in and remembered today for his support of civil rights. On Guffey’s first Sunday preaching at the church 10 years ago, a delegation of retired African American preachers sat in the congregation, a tradition they observe each time a new pastor joins the church.
“That got my attention,” he said. “Dr. Lovell reached out as a leader from the white community during civil rights. He had himself and the parsonage threatened. His story is told in a video done near the end of his life. He set the high water mark for love, sense of community and outreach.”
Guffey said First Baptist of Conway is the most diverse church he has ever served in in terms of economics and vocation.
Church growth, currently with an official membership of 600, has stemmed from many retirees and families with more than four generations of membership. The church buildings now cover several city blocks flanked by numerous moss-draped oaks and include Lovell Weekday Ministry, a childcare program that offers care for some 90 children ages 6 weeks to 4 years.
“Over 50 years ago, Dr. Lovell saw cultural change as women began to leave the home to work more often and he wanted to be sure there was quality child care,” Guffey said.
Guffey said today’s church features a strong female membership who are “partners in ministry.”
“I guess we are not your typical Baptist Church,” he said, referring to the Baptist tradition of allowing only male deacons and church leaders. He also said the church has broken from the long ago traditional of frowning on dancing.
“One thing we do for outreach is we teach shag dancing. Many years ago, a woman was let go from the church because she was caught dancing. The irony of things,” he said.
Freelance reporter Angela Nicholas can be reached at email@example.com.
Anniversary Sunday schedule
8:15 a.m. | Juice/Java and donuts
9:30 a.m. | Sunday School/Bible Study
10:30 a.m. | Combined Worship Service
4:45 p.m. | Blessing
5 p.m. | Dinner on Beaty House Lawn
6 p.m. | Play and stories in Sanctuary