Pilgrims through the ages
The First Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, was chartered on November 26, 1800, and soon thereafter the first meeting house was built on Franklin Square. The cornerstone of the present church on Chippewa Square was laid on February 2, 1831, and the building was completed in 1833. This Greek Revival structure is Savannah's oldest standing house of worship. The sanctuary was enlarged in 1839, improved from time to time, and completely renovated in 1921. The most recent renovations were in 1966, 1989-1990, and 1998-1999, and the truss strengthening in 2010.
The church was granted a perpetual charter on December 19, 1801, by Governor Josiah Tattnall, Jr., to "the Deacons of the Baptist Church in Savannah." The name has been the First Baptist Church since February 4, 1847. The Sunday School was organized on April 29, 1827. Henry Holcombe, first pastor of the church, edited The Analytical Repository, said to have been the earliest religious magazine in the South and the first Baptist missionary magazine in the nation. William Bullein Johnson, second pastor, became the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, after retiring as president of the Triennial Convention.
In 1828, Josiah Penfield, a deacon in the church, left a legacy of $2,500 to the Georgia Baptist Convention, which became the first money given toward the establishment of Mercer University, principal Baptist college of Georgia. In 1844, Joseph Binney left the pastorate of this church to go to Burma to become associated with Adoniram Judson, leader of the first Baptist missionary group to go out from the United States. This church was one of the very few Southern coastal churches that did not close during the Civil War. Pastor Sylvanus Landrum preached on Sunday to a congregation made up largely of Confederate soldiers, and the next Sunday he preached to one largely of Union soldiers, Savannah having surrendered during the week.
Three pastors of this church have become outstanding leaders in Baptist denominational life. W.L. Pickard became president of Mercer University, Norman W. Cox became executive secretary of the Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Arthur Jackson became the first secretary of the Georgia Baptist Foundation. Recent pastors have included Leroy Cleverdon (1942-1961), W. Forrest Lanier (1962-1969), Thomas D. Austin (1970-1988), Fred W. Andrea (1989-1993), and John M. Finley (1994-2017).
In 2000 CE, the church officially dissolved its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention after 155 years because of "differing views on the role of the pastor in church government, autonomy of local congregations, the priesthood of all believers and the Convention’s view that orthodox adherence to its view is prerequisite to full participation in Baptist life." Members of the church support the the Alliance of Baptists, the Baptist World Alliance, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.