For these two Sundays leading up to our 150th anniversary next Sunday, I’ve been focusing on what it means to be Baptist and what it means to be Baptist here at First Baptist Church. So last week I made the audacious claim that Baptists are ahead of our time. I don’t know what will happen to denominations in this 21st century, including Baptist denominations, but I am confident that our Baptist ideals of Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom and Religious Freedom will be more and more attractive to modern Christians in this still new century.
Today I am tightening the focus from Baptists in general to us Baptists right here on the corner of Nash and Park, for if Baptists in general are ahead of our time, we Baptists in First Baptist Church of Wilson are called for THIS time.
In the Book of Esther there is a wonderful story about how a young woman was called for her own time. It was a time of crisis for her people. Israel had lost a war, its people exiled away off in Babylon, which in turn was conquered by Persia. The King of Persia was displeased with his queen and deposed her, and then conducted a search for a new queen, a nationwide beauty contest. And the winner was a young, beautiful Jewish exile named Esther. The king did not know where she came from, but he made her queen.
Meanwhile, an evil character named Haman is plotting to exterminate all the Jewish exiles. An older cousin of Esther who’s like a father to her, Mordecai, sends a message to her up in the royal palace, saying, “Do something, or we’re all dead!” But Esther replies, “You don’t understand the way things work up here. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who enters the king’s court uninvited, risks a death sentence, even me.” But cousin Mordecai is not put off, and says in Esther 4:14:
Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
In other words, yes you may indeed die. But maybe that’s why you came to this position, to save your people, even if it means your life. So Esther enters the king’s court. The king does not kill her but dotes over her, and to make a long story short, Esther comes clean about her identity and her people and pleads for their lives to stop the genocide, and her people are saved. Of all people, God picked a young Jewish exile girl to save God’s people. For such a time as this, Esther risked her own life, and her people were saved.
Now, what’s this got to do with First Baptist Church and our anniversary? Consider that phrase: “For such a time as this.” Time and time again in the history of our church, the most unlikely people have been tapped by God for such a time as the urgent times they faced.
Last Wednesday night I came to church with Roger Bullard’s brand new history of our church in hand, and retold some of the great stories of the early leaders of this congregation. As I was telling those stories, I was asking those listening to identify what strengths of our church back then still empower this church today. But by the end of the evening, the real “takeaway” from those stories had nothing to do with the strengths of First Baptist Church. What we came away with was an overpowering sense of awe at how God has been at work with this church, awe at God’s amazing knack for raising up the most unlikely leaders who turned out to be exactly who the church needed “for such a time as this.”
The person who helped start our church in 1860 was the last person anyone would have ever picked to do it. Needham Bryan Cobb thought religious people were bigots and had contempt for the idea of inspired Scripture. Yet this well-educated young adult was haunted by God’s call. He went to a Methodist revival just for fun to meet pretty girls, but by the end of the meeting he found himself at the front being prayed over by the preacher. But he soon returned to his previous cynicism. By the late 1850s he was an attorney in Greenville. Another man who was renting in the same hotel: Henry Petty, pastor of the Baptist church. N.B. enjoyed debating religion with him. But the more they talked, the more Henry made sense. So N.B. asked his friend to baptize him there in the Tar River. And thus N.B. Cobb became, of all things, a missionary for the Pamlico Baptist Association, traveling across eastern North Carolina spreading the word and starting churches. In 1860, he gathered a cluster of believers in Wilson, who started a church on May 6. Their first official act that evening was to ordain N. B. Cobb. He did not become the church’s pastor, but continued spreading the word across eastern N.C. Then the Civil War came, and N.B. Cobb found himself preaching to troops at Fort Macon, and at Gettysburg, and at Bentonville. He was a most unlikely missionary, but God tapped him for such a time as that.
After the war, the first full-time pastor of our church was someone just as unlikely. William Hooper was an Episcopal priest in Fayetteville. He was also well-educated: two degrees from the new public university in Chapel Hill, one theology degree from Princeton. His grandfather was a Signer of the Declaration of Independence. One Sunday he was baptizing a two year old boy, and the kid cussed him out! Roger Bullard writes, “This shook Father William up, and he began rethinking his position on the sacraments and on church governance.” (The Life and Times of First Baptist Church, p. 52) Hooper moved on to Chapel Hill to teach rhetoric, logic, and ancient languages. And while he was there, he joined the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. What an unlikely Baptist! God called William Hooper to give his life to the work of Baptist education. He became the president of Wake Forest College, and later the president of Chowan Female Institute, which is now Chowan University. Later still, at the age of 75, Hooper came to Wilson to lead a school for women, and this church, still very much struggling to recover from the war, called him to serve as its first full time pastor. This most unlikely Baptist was placed in Wilson…for such a time as that.
One more unlikely story: the next pastor of this church was a man who was saved by mistake! Up in Louisa County, Virginia, a preacher named William Hatcher was holding a revival. During one service, someone pointed out to William a young man in the congregation who needed to find the Lord. So after the sermon, William went down the aisle and spotted the man and urged him to accept Christ. What he didn’t know was that he had gone to the wrong man, to someone named Carter Lindsay, and Lindsay would have none of it. But Hatcher twisted his arm:
Go home to-night, get your bible, lock yourself up in your room, turn to the Fifty-first Psalm, get upon your knees and talk with God about your future and your duty. If, after you have done this, you find yourself decidedly unwilling to hear the call of God, take your bible and write across its blank page, “Resolved, that I will never, never be a Christian,” and then take your Bible and burn it. You will have no further use for it. If, however, you are willing to hear the voice of God and to follow Him, then write on the blank page, “Resolved, that from this hour I give up everything in this world for Christ, and give myself to Christ.”
(p. 79, Bullard)
Carter Lindsay just rode off without a word. A few days later, the doorbell of Hatcher’s home rang before daybreak, and there stood Carter Lindsay. He had become a Christian, and more, he had answered the call to the ministry and was on his way to seminary! When Carter was 30 years old, Wilson Baptist Church called him as pastor. Sometimes the church didn’t know what to make of his progressive ideas; but they loved him deeply. And all this from a man who was saved by mistake!
What a motley crew: an attorney who thought Baptists were ignorant fools, an Episcopal priest and professor of ancient languages, and a reluctant believer who was saved entirely by mistake. They were no more likely to become a Baptist pastor in Wilson than a Jewish exile named Esther was likely to become the Queen of Persia. But that’s exactly what God did with them, and called them to pour out their lives in Wilson, for such a time as theirs.
What a motley crew, and what a mysterious God. What a divine knack for pulling the most unlikely people and events together, just in God’s good time. But that’s how God works — in our past, in our present, and in our future – always calling people forward to step up to their time. And, like Mordecai said, who knows, perhaps we too have been called for such a time as this?
These are interesting times in Wilson in 2010. Back in 1860 the religious leaders in central North Carolina looked down east and shook their heads at the scarcity of believers and churches and said, “What a mission field.” Do you know that they say the same thing today? Across eastern North Carolina there are fewer believers and churches than in the rest of the state. What a mission field.
And what a time this is in Wilson: with the Great Recession still echoing through our economy, and yet the restaurants full of diners; with such bone-crushing poverty in Wilson, and yet such wealth and luxury here too. And what heart-rending spiritual poverty is in Wilson, where the skyline is punctuated by church steeples, and yet half of the people in the city are estranged from God. Have you and I been called for such a time as this?
Stand on that corner of Nash and Park, or any corner of this block, and you’ll see that we stand right next to numbing, depressing poverty; and we stand right next to grand old homes restored by retirees and young professionals back to their former glory. And from this mix children stream to us on Wednesday nights, hungry for supper, yes, but also hungry for more. Thank God for Wednesday Night ROCK and for our other Children’s Ministries. Has not God called us for this time, to be a part of this crazy mixture of people around us, and to share the Christ life with them?
Stand on any corner and you’ll see our growing Spanish community. Our Spanish Mission is strong and growing in numbers even while they have been hit the hardest by this recession. Has not God called that mission forth for such a time as this?
Look down Nash Street that way, and see downtown on the rise, with a banking center for one of the largest banks in the nation, with a new generation of business people starting up new businesses. Has not God called us for this time, to be part of the downtown renaissance, to get involved in the life of the downtown community, and share our experience in Christ with them?
Turn around and look in the opposite direction up Nash Street. Look in the direction of Barton College. It too is on the rise. Thanks to Daniel and Steve and others, our support of ministries to students there is strong. But what about the faculty and the staff? If there’s any church where a Barton faculty or staff member would be able to grow in faith as a thinking person, would it not be here? Has not God called us for such a time as this?
Look even further up the street, toward the new families that are moving into first homes on Anderson and Kenan and Broad and Cavalier. Are they not looking for exactly the kind of ministry to their children that this congregation practices? Has not God called us for such a time as this?
Look even further, further, to the ends of the earth, and see a world that is desperate for peace, desperate for hope, desperate to connect with Almighty God. Like the Macedonian church that cried out to Paul, “Come on over and help us,” are not those people crying out? Are they not praying that people like us might catch a global vision of the world’s need? Has not God called us for such a time as this?
If God can turn an exiled girl into a Persian Queen,
If God can turn a scornful attorney into a dedicated missionary,
If God can turn an Episcopal priest into a Baptist pastor and educator,
If God can turn the wrong guy into a beloved shepherd of souls,
Then is there anything God cannot do with us?
Has not God called us for such a time as this?
— Douglas E. Murray
April 25, 2010