My friendship with William Watson, Pastor of Historic First Baptist Church, began with a telephone conversation in the Fall of 2011, and the partnership between our two churches began soon afterward. But, truth be told, that’s not really where this story begins. No, this story actually begins long before William Watson and I were even born. It begins in the 1800s, and it begins with one First Baptist Church in Jackson, not two. Let me explain.
What prompted my phone call to Pastor Watson in 2011 were two lines I read while trying to learn more about the history of First Baptist Church. We were in the process of preparing for our 175th Anniversary (to be celebrated in 2012). And being new to the church at the time, I wanted to learn as much about our past as I could. So I began researching, and in the process of reading about our history I came across two lines that stunned me as I read them. In fact, I remember exactly where I was when I read them for the very first time.
The two lines I’m referring to, which are dated 1866 and tucked in between a reference to the War Between the States and a pastor’s resignation, were these: “Members now totaled 90, with 49 whites and 41 blacks. However, in 1867, the black members withdrew by letter to organize a church of their own.” Now this may have been common knowledge to some people, but to me it was a surprising discovery. I had no idea that this was a part of our history. I had no idea that the reason there were two First Baptist Churches in Jackson, one predominantly black and the other predominantly white, was because there used to be one church with that name, with both white and black members.
Of course, the history book didn’t need to provide any commentary or explanation as to why this reality existed. It was obvious. Slavery was the unspoken reason. Realizing this, there were two thoughts that immediately came to my mind as I pondered what I had just read. The first was sadness. I grieved over the fact that this was a part of our history, and I realized that one of the things we needed to be upfront about as we celebrated our past during the 175th Anniversary of our church was that there were parts of our past that we’re simply not proud of, this being chief among them.
But the second thought that came to my mind was opportunity. I wondered if this might be an opportunity to seek reconciliation. I wondered if our anniversary celebration might not be an appropriate occasion for the two churches to come back together in some way. From everyone I talked to and from everything I read, there was no evidence that the two churches had ever come back together for any event or any occasion since their separation in 1867. I wondered if that time had finally come.
And that is why I picked up the phone and called “the other First Baptist Church” in Jackson. At the time, I knew nothing about their church; I had no idea who their pastor was or even if he would be willing to meet with me and discuss all of this. But at the very least I wanted to explain what I had just learned. And on behalf of our congregation I wanted to speak words of repentance and remorse for the sins of racism and slavery that our former members committed against their former members.
And, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure who or what I expected on the other end of that phone call when I dialed the number. But I can tell you this, who and what I heard on the other end far exceeded all of my expectations. I quickly realized that I was talking to someone who was not just going to be a colleague but a friend. I was talking with someone who also shared a heart for reconciliation and unity. I was talking with someone who was humble and gracious and willing to partner together in service and ministry. And before long that initial phone conversation led to a face-to-face meeting, which led to another, which led to planning a joint worship service together, which eventually led to a service that we called “The Reconciling Power of the Gospel” on January 29, 2012 (the exact date of First Baptist Church’s founding 175 years earlier).
What a sight it was to see our two congregations come back together after such a long separation to celebrate our common faith and to proclaim together that there truly is power in the gospel of Jesus Christ to unite us. And what a sound to hear our combined choirs and combined congregations singing together, “When We All Get to Heaven.” It was an experience I will cherish as long as I live.
But we didn’t want that to be just a one-time occurrence. We wanted that to be the first of many such experiences. We wanted there to be true fellowship and partnership between our churches. So we had another joint service later that year at Historic First Baptist in conjunction with their anniversary celebration. And we have continued to have joint worship gatherings ever since then, with another one scheduled this coming Sunday, March 29, 2015, at Historic First Baptist at 10:45 A.M. Pastor Watson and I have preached for one another, and our churches have partnered together in our city on different ministry and service projects.
All that to say, this is an ongoing work. And it’s more than just a friendship between two pastors, though it certainly is that. It’s a partnership between two churches—two churches that used to be one in name only, but two churches that now are striving to be one in the Spirit.
How thankful I am that God saw fit to make my path cross with the path of William Watson. And though the paths of our two churches split for over 140 years, how thankful I am that God has seen fit to make them come together again for the sake of His name in the city of Jackson.
Justin Wainscott is the Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jackson, and Pastor William Watson of Historic First Baptist Church assisted in authoring this piece.
tags Jackson TN, Tennessee, pastor, church, First Baptist Church, Historic First Baptist Church, baptist, race, reconciliation, history, diversity, unity, Christianity, Christian, worship, gospel, preach, anniversary, friends, friendship, change, racism, fellowship, partnership, ministry, event, service, Black History Month