Making a Difference for 200 Years
The Early 1800s
At the end of the 18th century, Jacob Bishop came to Hampton Roads to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and to start a Baptist church. The church grew, reaching people on both banks of the Elizabeth River. By 1805, the members who lived in Norfolk organized their own congregation. Continuing to reach men and women from all races, the Norfolk church came to a crossroads in 1816, when 25 members formed a new congregation known as the Cumberland Street Baptist Church. Cumberland Street Baptist Church grew as the church continued to march on mission for Christ. In 1827, God drew 137 people to faith in Jesus Christ and believer’s baptism. In 1832, another spark of God’s movement spread through the church, and 104 people followed Christ in believer’s baptism. Cumberland Street Baptist Church rejoiced that they were shining the light of Christ into Hampton Roads.
A Season of Challenge and Change
In 1855, however, the landscape of Norfolk changed. Yellow fever found its way to the harbor of Hampton Roads. Within days an epidemic erupted throughout the region. During the months that followed, half the population of Norfolk had fled the city and two thousand people died in the wake of this plague. The church suffered greatly as well, losing one-third of the members to the disease. The church limped through the next six years. In 1861 the Civil War brought new challenges to the already burdened church. By the end of the war, only 82 names remained on the church membership roll. The road to rebuild the congregation was long and arduous. The Cumberland Street Church sought to catch once again the passion for God’s purpose, but the financial struggles and post-war landscape of the city threatened to topple their resolve. By 1883, the average attendance of Cumberland Street Church was only 63 people. The church was embroiled in confusion, uncertainty, and division when Dr. Tiberius Jones accepted God’s call as pastor. Pastor Jones sparked once again God’s passion in the heart of the church. During his pastorate the church grew to 272 members, and the congregation became known as First Baptist Church of Norfolk.
A Church on the Move
As the church continued to grow, the Cumberland Street building became increasingly inadequate. God blessed the church with a wonderful opportunity to move in the direction of the city’s growth, and the church purchased a recently-vacated Methodist house of worship on the corner of Granby and Freemason streets. Although the church had virtually no building fund, they pressed forward to meet the opportunity that God had given to them. Through their sacrifice, the members united in a spirit of excitement! They pledged their resources for the new building. Even though the times were tough economically, the courage of obedience and the conviction of God’s provision led the members to purchase, renovate, and retire the entire debt before the turn of the century. And God blessed their faithfulness. Because they moved forward in faith, God doubled the membership of the church in a few years. But God had even more in store for the First Baptist Church, and He led one of His choice servants, Dr. Calvin Blackwell, to lead the church forward for His glory.
Pastor Blackwell came to pastor First Baptist Church in April 1903. As the ministry grew, experience and prayer prepared Dr. Blackwell for the next step for First Baptist. He was sixty years old when he came to pastor the church, and God used his spiritual wisdom and life-time of service to see the need for the church to make another move. The city continued to grow westward. Pastor Blackwell advised the church to look to the future and move with the growth of the city. In 1906, First Baptist once again seized the opportunity that God provided and purchased property in the growing area of Ghent at the corner of Westover and Moran. In 1909, George Perryman of Knoxville, Tennessee answered God’s call to pastor First Baptist. On June 21, 1910, the church dedicated a new gothic-style house of worship to the Lord. During the next six years God added over 500 new members to the church. God continually prepared First Baptist to meet new opportunities with obedience, and by 1918 church membership had grown to 800 people. For the next few years the church continued to grow as the God fueled the passion of First Baptist to reach Hampton Roads with the Good News of Jesus Christ. The influence of radio broadcasting was increasing, and the church embraced this technology for outreach. In 1927, First Baptist launched a radio ministry that expanded the church’s reach to the entire community. And they came, filling the 600-seat sanctuary to capacity.
When God called Dr. Broadus Jones to pastor the church in 1936, the congregation once again embraced the opportunity to reach the community. First Baptist built a new three-story education wing. Answering obedience with blessing, God grew the church by 700 people in five years. For the next decade, First Baptist Church embarked upon ministry to the entire region.
A New Beginning
By 1956, however, conditions in the church’s neighborhood of Ghent were in decline. Eventually, much of the congregation moved to Virginia Beach. The leadership of the church evaluated the possibility of a new location, but the church was unable to reach a decision. Although First Baptist still had more than 1,000 members, average attendance was less than 200 people each week. On October 2, 1970, everything changed. A fire broke out in that beautiful gothic building, reducing it to ashes. Dr. Paul Mims, whom God had called to pastor the church in 1967, was the right man for that time. His spiritual sensitivity gave him the courage and wisdom to lead the church to move forward, seizing once again the opportunity that God had placed before them. A spirit of unity and purpose directed the people as they made plans to rebuild at the center of the community’s growth. Even though they worshiped together in rented halls and borrowed buildings for the next four years, First Baptist embarked upon extravagant ministry. During those four years of challenge and opportunity, God increased the membership from 1,047 to 1,173.
First Baptist purchased the property on which it now stands, and on October 7, 1974, the members dedicated a beautiful new facility to God. It was a new beginning for the church. “The church has a sense of destiny about the fire,” Dr. Mims said shortly after the tragedy. “It is, I think, the rebirth of the church.”
Fulfilling God’s Dream
And what a rebirth! When Dr. Ken Hemphill came to pastor the church in 1981, the membership had grown to 1,600 people. Seeing a mission field at the doorstep of the church, Dr. Hemphill encouraged First Baptist to be constantly aware that they were God’s mission strategy in Hampton Roads. And the people heard the call! Everywhere they went, they invited people to worship and Bible study at First Baptist. Through a television ministry, a Christmas program of music and drama, an ongoing outreach ministry, an expansive ministry to single adults, and other creative ministries, First Baptist grew by record proportions. God blessed obedience, increasing the Bible study attendance from 460 in 1981 to over 2,000 in 1991. Over 2,900 people gathered each week for worship in 1991. God brought thousands of new people into the fellowship of the church. During this decade of divine favor, God used the church to lead 1,873 people to receive Jesus as Savior and to follow Him in believer’s baptism. The facilities were expanded several times, increasing the size of the sanctuary and the education space. In 1991, God called Dr. Hemphill to serve Him in broader fields of ministry at the North American Mission Board and then as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
God’s great movement continued in 1992 when God called Dr. Robert Reccord as pastor. Dr. Reccord led the First Family to move beyond the walls of the buildings to reach the region with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Sunday morning Bible study classes were held off-campus to make room for guests. A third worship service was added. And still more room was needed. From 1992 to 1997, God added more than 2,300 people to the church. First Baptist once again considered moving to another location. Through a miraculous movement of God, a prime location in Greenbrier area of Chesapeake became available, and the church voted to purchase it. The leadership began to develop a plan for extravagant ministry to Hampton Roads at a new location. Yet, God in His great wisdom called Dr. Reccord to serve Him as the president of the North American Mission Board.
Dr. John Powers accepted God’s call to pastor First Baptist in 1998. Although the church continued to grow, the financial distress on the church was great due to the explosive growth over the past decade. Through a season of prayerful deliberation the church determined that the property should be sold. The sale of the property helped the church experience financial freedom to pursue God’s passionate purpose in the years ahead. Dr. Powers led the church to embrace a new strategy, which included developing satellite campuses throughout Hampton Roads. The satellite campus in Chesapeake blossomed immediately. This satellite campus remains one of the leading strategies for the church in 2005 under the leadership of Dr. Eric Thomas, whom God called to pastor First Baptist in 2003.
Dream for a Decade of Divine Favor
Today, we continue to pursue God’s dream as He showers His favor upon our Family of Faith. Together, we dream of making a difference for God’s glory in our world, in our nation, and in Hampton Roads. As in days past, God will answer our obedience with His blessing!
Dream for our World…the sun never sets on our mission.
Pray for global missions
Reach, equip, and send out military personnel on mission for Christ
First Baptist volunteers on mission to every continent
Dream for our Nation…we are salt and light to our nation.
Pray for a spiritual awakening
First Baptist volunteers on mission to key cities
National equipping conferences
National media strategy to share the gospel of Jesus Christ
Dream for Hampton Roads… we lead Hampton Roads to become fully devoted followers of Christ.
Pray for spiritual awakening and the expansion of our current facilities
Regional media strategy to share the gospel of Jesus Christ (including the internet as a 3rd campus)
Satellite campus ministry (permanent facility in Chesapeake and strategic plan for growth)
Beyond-the-walls small groups, events, and ministries