“Here is the church. There is the steeple. Open the door, and here are the people.”
I had folded my hands together and steepled my index fingers as I recited this nursery rhyme to my little sister, Pat, back in 1956.
“But Esther, our church ain’t got no steeple,” Pat protested in her little girl voice.
It was true. The First Baptist Church of Eatonton had no steeple back then. This steepleless brick church had replaced the original First Baptist Church of Eatonton.
That original church was built in 1897. It was a large wooden structure with an impressive tower extending seven stories up to a steepled, open belfry. The church was positioned to face the corner of Madison Avenue and Harris Street, with huge stained-glass windows above each of its twin entrances. A circular drive graced the front of the church with entrances on Harris Street and Madison Avenue. After this remarkable church had stood for only 43 years, the First Baptist congregation voted to tear it down. If only that lovely church had been preserved, it would be a show place today. Sheila Feagin and Tom Rossiter, if you had been around back then, I know you could have talked some sense into those people and taught them about historic preservation.
Actually, there was said to be quite a disagreement among the church members in the 1930s as to whether they should continue to maintain the beautiful building or whether they should tear it down.
Some people were in favor of keeping the old church and doing the necessary upkeep required, while others (possibly those charged with doing the actual upkeep work) wanted to tear down the old church and build a new brick church with no rotten boards to be constantly replaced and repainted and no fancy seven story bell tower to be climbed and kept repaired and in safe condition. The church also needed more Sunday school rooms, so an annex would have to be built if they kept the old church. A vote was taken and, as we previously stated, practicality triumphed over historic preservation. So, the demolition began.
The razing of First Baptist Church was the biggest event taking place at the time, so most of Eatonton and parts of Greensboro, Madison and Monticello turned out to watch. People came with lawn chairs, picnic baskets, children, dogs and probably a few cats and horses. Some watched in tears and mourning, while others cheered the workmen as they stripped off boards and debris piled up. Anyone 85 years old or older probably has memories of that time. I’m not that old yet, but my cousin Lewis Smith has fond memories of the old church and he was actually there standing watch on the day its tower came down. Many tears were shed as the beautiful edifice crumpled to the ground with loud sounds of ripping wood and a ground shaking “ker-plunk.”
After the debris was removed and the dust settled, a new brick church began to go up. It was dedicated debt free in 1942. Tall, white columns graced the front of the new brick church and lovely stained glass, gothic shaped windows on both sides bathed the sanctuary with brilliant color. The only thing lacking was a steeple. Some said the Baptist church looked more like a bank building than a church building. Since it was built debt free, maybe the money ran out before a steeple could be put on the church. Nobody I’ve talked to seems to know why the church remained steepleless, but it did. After a while all of Eatonton got used to the church that looked like a bank.
Unfortunately, the steepleless First Baptist Church stood for only 36 years. In 1978, an arsonist’s fire destroyed it on a cold winter night. Nothing was salvaged except the annex, which was severely water damaged. Three other local churches were damaged or destroyed by the same arsonist during that sad time in Eatonton. For a number of years, the First Baptist congregation met in the old Eatonton Grammar School (Which is now restored as The Plaza Arts Center, thanks to the foresight of dear Tom Rossiter). The 1978 church people quickly got over their sadness, cleaned up the burned ashes and began to raise money to build a new church.
By 1982 a sparkling new brick First Baptist Church was standing tall, but it was still steepleless. The attitude of some of the oldsters was, “Why pay a lot of extra money to put a steeple on this church when we got along fine without one before?” “Oh no. We want our church to have a steeple,” others said. “We want it to look like a church, not like a bank.”
A conference was called, and a vote was taken. A majority voted in favor of the church erecting a steeple. So, on Sept. 24, 1981 most of Eatonton again turned out to watch the new First Baptist Church steeple go up. It was an exciting day for all of Eatonton. The brand-new steeple had finally arrived, fully assembled and ready to be lifted by crane to its prepared, supported place atop the church. The steeple was four tiered and included a lantern decorated with small pediments and topped with a smaller copper steeple surmounted with a cross. Best of all, it was fireproof. From the ground to the top of its brandnew steeple, First Baptist Church of Eatonton now stood, and still stands today, 115 feet tall. What a dramatic example of a church that had risen from the ashes. In God’s word, Isaiah tell us that God comforts all who mourn and grieve and bestows on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes so that God can be glorified. God is good, and His mercy is everlasting. Amen.