The beginnings of First Baptist Church, Cleburne, can be traced back to the beginnings of Cleburne itself. Founded in 1867, the city of Cleburne was established as the county seat of the newly formed Johnson County. The town at conception was populated by two log-cabin stores and shelters for the Cowboys who were driving cattle on the nearby Chisholm trail.[i] A large part of the land given for Cleburne was set aside for use by the Alvarado Baptist Association for the establishment of a college, and it was on this site that 16 members met under a brush arbor for a protracted meeting on May 5, 1868.[ii] A pastor from nearby Hill County, Reverend W. A. Mason, conducted the revival meeting, and after it concluded the First Baptist Church was organized. The group of 16 continued to meet under the brush arbor until October 1, 1868, when they began to meet in the temporary building for the Cleburne Institute. [iii]
The Institute was the passion of Rev. Mason, who wanted Cleburne and North Texas to have a college that was similar to Baylor in Independence. [iv] The Alvarado Baptist Association was skeptical of Cleburne, as it allowed the sale of alcohol, so Mason moved the community to suspend the law allowing such sales. When the community pledged to ban alcohol, the association supported the school, which opened in 1868 with 70 students and quickly grew to 110 by the next year. The church continued to meet in the temporary building and continued to grow, with attendance especially large on cold days because the building housed the only wood-burning heater in the village.[v]
Four years later, the permanent, brick building for the Cleburne Institute was near completion and the church moved to the more permanent structure under the pastorate of J. R. Clark, who succeeded Mason in 1868 as both pastor and principal. While the ties between the church and school were numerous, the church sought to build a structure for its own. They secured land on the corner of Caddo and Willingham streets and built a red-brick structure to house 350 members. This site, which remains the physical location of First Baptist today, was completed in January, 1878. The foresight to build a separate facility proved valuable, as the Cleburne Institute closed its doors the same year. Though unable to complete the vision of Rev. Mason, the institute was instrumental in the success of Baptist work in Johnson County, as it brought many settlers to Cleburne and greatly increased the influence of the Baptist congregation.[vi]
The red-brick church in Cleburne continued to grow under the pastorates of W.B. Beverly (March 1880 – October 1884) and A. M. Simms (January 1885 – January 1890). Under Beverly, the church organized its first women’s ministry and a community aid society.[vii] He also led the church to build its first indoor baptistry, as the congregation had previously used the nearby Buffalo Creek and Nolan River for such occasions. Simms organized the first of what would become many missions endeavors in Cleburne, a Sunday School on the east side of town. The church was incorporated in July, 1885 as “The First Baptist Church of Cleburne, Texas”, and more members were added under his ministry than at any previous time. During Simms’ pastorate in 1888, the church hosted the State Baptist Convention.[viii] Simms left First, Cleburne, to become pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, in 1890, and was the predecessor of George Truett in that pastorate. Under his ministry, thousands of visits were made, 246 members were added, and he baptized 101 people into the Kingdom of God.[ix]
After attempting to call J. M. Carroll as pastor, the church eventually called Dr. C. D. Campbell as Simms’ successor in 1890. Dr. Campbell died while serving as pastor in1892, and remains the only pastor to die while serving the church. Reverend George W. Baines succeeded Dr. Campbell and served for seven years as pastor. His pastorate was characterized by the systematic organization of the church for the work of the gospel. He was the first to implement standing committees in the church, the organization of the deacon body, and the B.Y.P.U.[x] They divided the town into districts and were told to find out every person who was not a member of a church and ask them to join, to minister to the sick, and to find out the needs of the community. Reverend Baines also served as the director of the State Convention Board several times during his pastorate, as he had been the first general missionary appointed by the board in 1867.[xi] Under his missionary leadership, the church was led to form Sunday Schools in the east, west, and north areas of Cleburne. These works later became East Henderson, North Cleburne, and Field Street churches, which still minister to the community today. It is for this reason and the many other churches that First Baptist has organized in Cleburne that First Baptist is recognized as the “mother congregation” of Cleburne.
While the church was busy organizing ministry efforts in the community, its own membership had doubled under the leadership of Baines. This led the church to build a new church on the property adjacent to the red-brick structure, and this church was completed under the pastorate of J. A. Hendricks in 1901. The new church was dedicated in April, 1901, with Dr. George W. Truett conducting the service.[xii] The new building was overflowing, with over 1200 estimated in attendance. The church then realized that while worship space was adequate, they had not build any additional space for Sunday School. This remained a problem until 1929, when the current educational building was erected.
Under the pastorate of Hendricks, the discipline of erring church members was of prime concern. Many of the church business meetings were due to charges brought against the members for such activities as drinking, card playing, dancing, participating in raffles, and swearing. If charged, a member was visited by the disciplinary committee, which reported to the church body of the person’s desire to repent. If a person did not repent, then their membership was considered to be not in good standing.[xiii]
Upon the resignation of Hendricks in 1902, the church embarked on a period of several short pastorates. Reverend Charles T. Alexander served from 1902 to 1905, and under his ministry he led the lone Chinese resident of Cleburne, John Lung, to Christ. Lung later led many Chinese-Texans to Christ, and a number of his group returned to China to become missionaries of the Gospel.[xiv] W. K. Penrod succeeded Alexander in 1905 and served until 1911, when he left to pastor in Gonzales. J. W. Loving served for nine years, with his greatest accomplishment being the retirement of the church debt. C. E. Wauford followed Loving and led the church through the difficult period of World War I. During his ministry the church had a membership of over 600 and greatly increased giving to both local and foreign missions, a tradition that is still strong today. Wauford also encouraged the church to adopt a resolution against “modern dancing”, and encouraged the membership to forbid the local youth from participating.[xv] The church also adopted a resolution that all teachers must abstain from “dancing, card playing, bridge, or any other worldly amusement.” S. B. Culpepper was pastor from 1927 to 1932, under whom the current education building was completed.
Culpepper was succeeded by Albert Venting, a Southwestern Seminary professor from Fort Worth. The Seminary was struggling to pay its entire full-time faculty and let the community know that many would be available to serve in a pastorate, and the church called him to live in Cleburne for a salary of $200 dollars per month.[xvi] Dr. Venting was very influential in the formation of the church as it stands today. He founded the Missionary Board of First Baptist Church in 1934, for the purpose of supporting a missionary currently on the field over and above the gifts to the foreign mission board. A Homecoming Week was held in October of 1936, in which the history of Baptists in Texas was discussed with the president of the State Convention and the future of Baptist work in Cleburne was planned within the membership. Dr. Venting’s greatest accomplishment, however, was the construction of the worship auditorium, which is still used by the congregation today. It was opened May 4, 1941, with a sermon by Dr. Truett, who had dedicated the earlier auditorium.[xvii] Dr. Truett pledged to preach again at the dedication of the building when the debt was retired. Dr. Venting led the church as many of the members were called into service in World War II, continuing to work to retire the debt of the new sanctuary in just four and one-half years.[xviii] The mortgage was paid in November of 1945, fifteen years earlier than expected. Because Dr. Truett had passed away, the pastor of First, Dallas, W. A. Criswell, preached the dedicatory service on his behalf. A Dedication Souvenir was printed for each family in attendance, with a church history, photographs, and current membership. The building was dedicated “For the Glory of God and the Good of Man,” which was inscribed on the cornerstone and continues to be a rallying cry for the church today.
[i] Earnest Guinn, “Formation of the County and Settlement of Cleburne” in History of Johnson County, Texas (Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1985), 8.
[ii] J. D. Goldsmith, The Golden Book of Golden Deeds: The History of First Baptist Church, 1868-1940; 1948, 1.
[iii] Goldsmith, 3.
[iv] Ibid., 5.
[v] Ibid., 2.
[vi] Ibid., 13.
[vii] Dedication Souvenir, First Baptist Church, Cleburne, Texas; 1945, 6.
[viii] Wilma Reed, “First Baptist Church” in History of Johnson County, Texas, 222.
[ix] Goldsmith, 22.
[x] Ibid., 29.
[xi] Ibid., 30.
[xii] Ibid., 37.
[xiii] Ibid., 39.
[xiv] Ibid., 45.
[xv] Ibid., 64.
[xvi] Goldsmith, 77.
[xvii] Dedication Souvenir, 8.
[xviii] Reed, 222.
----History written by Brett Lester