bold faith / General CBF

Faith-Filled Future: N.C. church celebrates 150th anniversary

By Laura Ellis

Rev. Emily Hull McGee, First on Fifth’s first female senior pastor, gives the benediction, closing the 150th celebration service.

The life of any church is affirmed on the faith-filled hope that came from those who paved the way, and that others will follow to carry the torch.

The congregation at First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem, NC, recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, believing that they are participating in part of a larger story by carrying the torch for a season.

“In every season” was the theme of the church’s anniversary service based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” First on Fifth has lived through a multitude of seasons, all the while remaining steadfast to their commitment to Christ, to one another and to their city..

To mark the occasion, First on Fifth created a special logo for the service—a tree with leaves of various colors to signify the changing seasons of the church. Peggy Haymes, who grew up at First on Fifth, wrote the words of a new hymn for the service. The final line of each verse repeats the words, “Here beloved in every season; what has been and yet shall be.” Then at the end of the service, everyone was given a copper Christmas ornament. Four years prior, the congregation had made the difficult decision to tear down a portion of the church facility and replace the copper domed roof. The copper was saved and used to make ornaments as a memento.

First on Fifth alumni who grew up in the church returned home for the 150th celebration

First on Fifth was founded on September 22, 1871 after an advertisement was placed in the paper by Alfred Holland, which read, “Are there any other Baptists in Winston? If so, they are invited to meet at my house next Saturday night.” In response, Holland and four women became the founding members of the church.

Emily Hull McGee, the current pastor, describes the founding members as people “who were seeking a place of belonging.” They found belonging by joining the community. As the church grew, First on Fifth’s congregation was populated predominantly by women and poor folks in its early seasons. Many congregants offered a tithe of homegrown produce or labor for the church.

In later seasons, the congregation built the first of its three buildings which have housed the church at various points over its 150-year span. Like any long-lasting institution, this community of faith has experienced seasons of growth and flourishing as well as times of tumult and trial.

The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the trials that First on Fifth has faced in recent years. When the anniversary service was planned for September of 2021, the congregation made the difficult decision to postpone the worship celebration. However, less than a year later, they managed to schedule the service for the final Sunday of the church’s 150th year.

First on Fifth Church celebrates the past, present and future during its 150th anniversary on September 18 in Winston-Salem, NC. The current congregation was joined by alumni for the service.

“It was just a lovely day. It was a celebration that was fitting of this moment, filled with hope and the possibility of what lies ahead—along with some recognition of the reality that we’re not the same church we were 150 years ago or 50 years ago or 10 years ago,” McGee said. “But God is always at work, changing us and inviting us into a deeper shape in our obedience for this season.”

The service and the days leading up to it were a beautiful time for the congregation to remember each season and celebrate God’s presence within their past, present and future. Many of the previous pastors and members returned to the church for the momentous occasion. McGee referred to these people as alumni of the church who returned home to celebrate. McGee moderated a storytelling discussion with some of the previous ministers to allow the congregation to hear stories of the past and to benefit from words of wisdom for the future.

First on Fifth’s alumni were also present as leaders and participants of the worship service, including previous pastor, David Hughes, who preached the first sermon. Paul Baxley, Executive Coordinator of CBF, is also an alumnus of First on Fifth. Baxley’s words appeared in the worship guide, “Over the years, you have played a transforming role in my life, faith and call to ministry.” Reflecting on the church that ordained him, Baxley wrote, “Through it all, you have sought to more and more boldly embody and extend the love of God in Jesus Christ. Christ has been at work in you, and the Risen Jesus is at work in you again.”

A group of former ministers host a panel to remember First on Fifth’s history and discuss their future

The commitment to be a church in the heart of the city shows the Lord at work. McGee describes First on Fifth’s members as having a “fire in the belly” to promote justice in their community. The church is responsible for starting at least 10 other congregations in addition to helping birth several community organizations.

Allen Joines, the mayor of Winston-Salem, told the congregation during the anniversary service, “Our community in Winston-Salem is such a strong community. We are a mosaic of efforts and programs and so much of it is impacted by this church and what you all have done over the years… Our community is better because of your work.”

Along with celebration and gratitude, the anniversary service was steeped in language of remembrance. “One of the central tenants of our faith is to remember,” McGee said. Beyond theological significance, McGee also sees practical value in remembering the life of the church. “It was really important for us to look back and see that the church has always changed… We’ve been a church in multiple seasons of our lives that has been full of change and even volatility, difference of opinion, growth, decline…it’s all been there.”

She continued, “It could be very easy to look around and see all the ways the church isn’t what it used to be. Yet by taking the long view, we remember that…we have been through hard things before, and we have what we need in order to bring faithful resilience and courage into this season.” Remembrance not only helps the congregation live in the present, but also to look to the future. “We look back and remember so that we can be equipped to move forward,” McGee said.

While celebrating the past, First on Fifth is moving forward and boldly envisioning its future. During the first sermon of the celebration, Hughes reflected on a 1990 brochure that was created in a difficult time of the church’s history. The final words of the brochure read, “The past instructs, the present challenges, the future beckons. With God’s help, First Baptist is pressing onward.” Today, First on Fifth continues to press onward. “We are carrying the baton during this season. We received it from those who came before and we will hand it off to those who come after,” McGee said. “We trust that our season of carrying the baton is not in a vacuum. It’s not in isolation. It’s not without the richness of the past that came behind us or the future that lies ahead.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s