MARIETTA — As its sanctuary remains hidden behind stories-high scaffolding as part of a $5 million church campus renovation, members and leadership from First Baptist Church Marietta came together to reflect on nearly two centuries of their congregation’s presence in the city.
The group gathered at the Marietta Museum of History for one of the museum’s bimonthly Remember When Club meetings. The club features a panel of speakers who share what life was like in Cobb County during various periods in history, according to museum staff.
Before the four-person panel of longtime church members gave the crowd a history lesson and shared their personal stories, attendees gathered around tables of historic photos of the church’s early leaders standing in front of log cabins or meeting in the church’s first buildings.
First Baptist Marietta: A history
Panelist George Crissey began discussion with a history of how First Baptist Church Marietta grew into its 1,640-person congregation with a historic campus down the street from Marietta Square.
Crissey, 81, said as a child, he remembered only the chapel, which was constructed between 1892 and 1897, stood on the campus between Dobbs and Lemon streets, along Church Street.
First Baptist Marietta traces its lineage in the city back to the 1830s, when Crissey said Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists may have shared a log cabin church building at the crest of a hill off Powder Springs Street, where the Marietta City Cemetery now sits.
Crissey said the Methodists built the church in 1833, and when the other two denominations organized two years later, “there was still only one place to meet.”
“It was a long way from a water source, and Powder Springs Street was a lot steeper then than it is now,” he said.
Soon after, all three congregations sought to build their own churches, and by 1839, Crissey said he believed they had done so. He said the Methodists built a church at the intersection of Whitlock Avenue and Polk Street — just south of the Marietta First United Methodist Church’s sanctuary today— and the Presbyterians built their church at the corner of Lawrence and Waddell streets.
But, Crissey admitted, most Baptists don’t know where their congregation ended up during that time.
“We only have a clue that it was near the male academy. (And) we don’t know where the male academy was,” he said, prompting laughter from his fellow church members.
Crissey said he believed that “male academy” to have been located in an old building on Lawrence Street, just east of Haynes Street. He said, growing up, the older residents in his neighborhood told him the old house had been a boys’ school until the historic Waterman Street School was completed in the early 1890s.
But, in 1848, Crissey said historical evidence of the Baptist church’s early location becomes more clear. That year, he said the Baptists built a church on Kennesaw Avenue.
The congregation held baptisms at springs near Kennesaw Mountain, but later constructed a system of gutters that redirected rain water from the roof into a baptistry on site. When that system proved unsatisfactory, the congregation dug a well for water used in baptisms.
Crissey said though the church has photos of the Kennesaw Avenue building, which was used as hospital for Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War, the baptistry doesn’t show up in those photos.
“So it must be behind the church where you can’t see it,” Crissey reckoned.
After former Gov. Joseph M. Brown’s donation of land in the 1890s at the corner of Lemon and Church streets in downtown Marietta, Crissey said, the First Baptist congregation got to work building the chapel that still stands just off the Square.
Crissey, who was born in 1937 in the Marietta Hospital at the corner of Cherokee and Dobbs streets, a stone’s throw from the chapel, told the crowd that the rest of the campus grew up around him, from the sanctuary in 1962 to the welcome center nearly 40 years after that.
FBC congregation welcomes with open arms
Reid Brown, who served as the principal of West Side Elementary School for 22 years, elected not to use a microphone during his portion of the panel, saying he’d use his “principal voice,” instead.
Brown said he joined the church in 1962, after his wife was asked to come play the organ there. He told the crowd he was most proud of the church’s missions throughout the years, which resulted in the founding of many of the other Baptist churches in Cobb.
But another point of pride, he said, is that through the church’s history — even through the 1800s and the Civil Rights era — the congregation always welcomed attendees from all backgrounds to worship.
“In the beginning days of our church, the practice of slavery had been instituted, but our church sought to minister to all races,” he said, noting that in 1836, just a year after its founding, the church had its first black member and that through its history, there were many years when the church had more black members than white. “And over a period of time, the officers of the church reflected several black deacons.”
Brown also told the crowd that, after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the church also welcomed many new Cuban members and established a Cuban ministry.
He told the audience that when Benjamin Valdez, a Cuban minister whose wife, two sons and two daughters immigrated to the United States and became church members in the ’60s, arrived in Marietta after being imprisoned for several years in his home country, “the whole congregation rose and gave a big hand of thanks to Lord for releasing him.”
“In the 184 years of history of our church, we’ve sought to be the presence of Christ in Marietta, Cobb County and across the world. We seek to obey the command of Christ as he ascended into heaven: ‘Ye shall be witnesses to me, both in Jerusalem — Marietta — in all Judea — Cobb County — and in Sumeria — United States — and to the outermost part of the Earth,’” Reid said. “This is our mission that we seek to do.”
Panelists Martha Scott and Tracie Guckian shared stories of the church’s influence in their own lives.
Scott provided the Remember When meeting attendees with plenty of laughs as she told stories of what she said was her 90-year membership at the church.
“I’ve been accused of being here when our church started,” Scott said as she stood at a lectern at the front of the Marietta museum’s meeting space. The crowd roared.
Reid took his opportunity to get in a quick jab.
“She was here when Columbus discovered America,” he said, walking back to his seat after handing Scott a microphone.
Scott said she grew up on Lemon Street, steps from the First Baptist Church’s chapel and was too young to remember her first Sunday in 1929. Everything that has happened in her life, Scott said, has been influenced by the church, beginning with her Sunday school education in the basement of the chapel.
She said in her young adult years, she and the other young people would go out for hot dogs or hamburgers and “just sit around and have a good time.”
“That meant so much, because we just loved each other and all that,” Scott said, adding that she met her late husband of 62 years — a WWII veteran and former prisoner of war — at the church, and taught Sunday school for years there. “The church was the center of our life. We planned everything around Sunday.”
Scott still volunteers at the church’s welcome center.
For her part, Guckian, whose family lived in east Cobb, chose to join the church in the early ’70s because of then-Pastor Earl Stallings’ sermons and what she said was the moving music they’d heard during worship that day. She said she believed that music occurred the day they’d visited for a reason.
Guckian said, as she grew up in the church, she’d never known anything about its history. That changed when she moved into a house on the former site of Gov. Joseph M. Brown’s home.
“I became a part of the Square community because of this church,” she said, noting that she moved to the home in the Oakmont community in 2005. “I knew all those Marietta Blue Devils, and now I am one. ... So now, this young lady, who wasn’t the least bit interested in history in high school can’t get enough of it.”
Guckian said her story and the history of families like Scott’s are like so many others in the congregation. She said families join and remain at the church because of the congregation’s dedication to its community, its history and the warm welcome it offers to so many.
“What a really cool thing it is that God’s hands have been involved in the whole process — in every change that’s happened,” Guckian said.