First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street was founded in 1866 with a flurry of prayers, songs and a celebration of spiritual and political freedom under the leadership of Chaplain Van Horne. During the following nine decades, the church sustained, never quivering in its faith that God had planted the congregation there for his purpose. Even when disagreements led to congregational splits -- even when fire significantly damaged the building -- the members reaffirmed that the church was not just a building, although they toiled together when needed to salvage the bricks and reconstruct the structure. They recognized that the church was the "body of believers" and believed that there was work to be done "in the master's harvest."
On March 5, 1954, the Rev. H.H. Battle was called to the church by a unanimous vote of the members. His Easter sermon, an acceptance of his calling, is still recalled by members who were small children then. On Monday morning, he began the work of strengthening the ministry of the church. In a history published in 1955, his first year was described as having created "an atmosphere of love and fellowship" that helped to increase the membership and unite "all factions" in service to God.
An interesting note always accompanies the story of Battle's call to pastorship. His competition for the position involved another young minister who would become a well-known leader: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Church members often remark that they saw promise in Dr. King, but Battle was ready to lead, while Dr. King needed a "bit more experience." Dr. King gained that experience, and he and Battle remained faith warriors and friends until King's untimely death in 1968.
Battle assumed the leadership of the church. He envisioned a spiritual and cultural center of the community, a meeting house where young people were exposed to opportunities for growth in faith and understanding. Older members assisted in guiding the young footsteps. Several college singing groups, including the Morehouse College Choir, performed at the church during the next years and found the congregation a "highly appreciative and responsive audience." Classes were designed to assist members with "real life" knowledge in addition to biblical and faith-based courses. Battle understood that families were facing societal upheaval and needed a refuge to help them navigate the changes and challenges ahead.
Additionally, the members joined together to refurbish the sanctuary, competing in teams focused on raising the necessary funds. And they did. In less than eight weeks, more than $12,000 was raised. Mrs. Valentine captained the team that raised the most money, $3,375. She was crowned "Mrs. First Baptist" and escorted into the sanctuary by Dr. W.A. Thompson, an honorary deacon and trustee.
As the congregation prepared for the Centennial Celebration in 1966, it organized a Centennial Rally. The membership was divided and assigned to 100 female members, who served as "captains." Each $25 raised earned the team one point, and the contributor was invited to the Centennial Banquet at no additional cost. When the drive ended six weeks later, more than $7,500 had been raised. Mrs. Ruth Wood, the winning captain, and her husband, Sam Wood, were crowned "queen" and "king."
The program for the 100th anniversary celebration recalls the names of prominent Chattanooga civic volunteers. The steering committee was chaired by George Key with assistance from Mrs. J.H. Patton, co-chair, and Mrs. Minnie K. Austin, secretary. Willis Vaughn and Mrs. Alma Battle co-chaired the program committee, while Robert J. Hardwick and Henry Jackson oversaw publicity.
Deacon board members included G.A. Key, chairman; Frank Smith, vice-chairman; C.C. Bond; J.C. Brown; U.S. Bynes; James Bynum; Percy Burrell; A.F. Carney; W.B. Davis Jr.; A.N. Fears; T.O Gordon; R.J. Hardwick; Sam Hill; R.I. Hinton; Clarence Jones; E.F. McIntosh; Alonzo Nelms; I.I. Ramsey; T.L. Scott; Willis Vaughn; J.W. Williams and Sam Worthy.
Battle would "labor in the vineyard" for many more years and serve the Chattanooga community as a member of the Chattanooga School Board. He also joined the boards of Model Cities, Boy Scouts of America, Metropolitan Council of Community Service, Family Services, literacy and many others. His ministry had extended beyond the walls of First Baptist, East Eighth Street.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, serves as secretary of the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council and honorary regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.