For this month’s Cornerstone article, we are continuing our look back with some interesting historical facts about the history of Harlan Baptist Church. Remember, the goal of history isn’t to simply find joy in discovering the past. Learning the history of our church gives us an opportunity to examine the good, the bad, the ugly, and the glorious of what all has transpired in the life of our church.
As we talked about last time, there isn’t much written about the church between 1912 and 1920, but the activity in and around the church was about to heighten to a fever frenzy in the 1920s and after.
As the population exploded in Harlan, so did the membership of the church. This brought on a need for a larger facility, and under the leadership of Pastor J.R. Black, the church constructed a new building, which was erected in 1924 on the corner of Main and Mound streets, the current location.
It’s recorded that at his first sermon, J.R. Black had 42 people in attendance with 218 members, but between 1920 and 1924 the church added 300 members.
The church was involved with many efforts to establish churches within the smaller, surrounding communities so that there would be a local church within each of them. These included, Sunshine, Golden Ash, Salt Trace, and Rex. From 1920 to 1927 the membership of Harlan Baptist Church grew from 218 to 1,294.
The first Vacation Bible School was planned and implemented by Pastor L.L. Henson in 1928.
The decades of the 30s and 40s were some of explosive growth for the community, and the church was carried with it. The population of Harlan County reached its zenith at 75,275 and the town of Harlan with just over 6,000 residents. There were 1,102 people who joined the church by baptism, and the membership reached 1,976 persons by 1949.
Dr. W. J. Bolt led the church through much of this growth. Seven missions were constituted as independent churches: Sunshine, Harlan Gas, Kitts, Bledsoe, Rosspoint, Baxter, and Straight Creek.
In the midst of this growth, tragedy struck. On the morning of February 23, 1947, a Sunday morning at that, the building that was home to Harlan Baptist Church burned to the ground.
This didn’t keep the church from gathering, and the church was able to use the Harlan Independent School building to meet while the new meeting house was constructed.
So much of the life of Harlan Baptist Church followed the culture and changing economy around it. During the 1950s and 60s, the population declined almost 40%. Despite some of these challenges, the church continued to influence the community through missional Sunday Schools and the planting of new churches.
The Grays Knob Mission became a church in 1957, and the same year, Harlan Baptist Church was the host of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
During this time, there were many changes in leadership, five different pastors in a matter of eighteen years. That would change when Earl S. Bell came in 1964 and remained here for eleven years.
The era of 1918-1968 is considered by many to be the golden years of Harlan Baptist Church. There were tremendous growth in numbers with the blessings of resources and organizational structures, but I think we might see something slightly amiss in the huge numbers.
Despite boasting of a membership close to 2,000 people, the church struggled to have attendance numbers that reached a quarter of that. Earl Bell records that even when you included the attendance of all the mission churches, average attendance was close to 600 for ALL of the churches combined. Why did so few members desire to gather with their brothers and sisters to learn and grow? There was a tremendous focus on growth and numbers and finances during this era, but did an increase in numbers relate to true growth in Christian maturity for all of the church?
One history of the church says, “No greater testimony of pastoral leadership can be evident than in the area of the financial.” I think this is sadly and dangerously wrong. Stewardship is undoubtedly a necessary qualification for a pastor, but is financial success a sign of health in a church? Legacies of faithfulness are often harder to see as we look at the past. It’s easier to count numbers or look at physical monuments than the spiritual ones. We are very much blessed by the financial sacrifice and generosity of those who came before us, but we must value a tradition of spiritual mission far more than a history of financial, material, and numerical success, and where we may have lost it, we must look to God’s Word to gain it back.
In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul prayed for the church to “be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”, to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord,” to bear “fruit in every good work,” to increase “in the knowledge of God,” to be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might,” and to give “thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
This was what was considered to be healthy; this is what Paul desired for the church. That isn’t to say there wasn’t evidence of that type of growth at HBC during the first half of the twentieth century. God clearly had used HBC for his purposes, and many people heard the gospel. But what can we learn from the past to be more faithful in the future?
Let’s not look just at numbers or be deceived by the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia. What does it look like to learn from the past and to then apply the truth of Scripture to our gathering here and now? What stories might we tell in the future of how God used our church for his glory?
How has God used HBC for his glory in the past fifty years? You’ll have to read next month’s Cornerstone to find out.