Tracing back the beginnings of First Baptist Church of Meridian involves delving into the birth of Lauderdale County itself.
Lauderdale County, named for Col. James Lauderdale, emerged in December 1833. In its infancy, families moved here and churches began to spring up across the landscape. In July of 1839, Oakey Valley Baptist Church — the first name of First Baptist Church of Meridian — was among those to form with the early settlers of the new county. The church began its mission in the Bonita area, near the south end of the reservoir. That location was near where the entrance of Willow Ridge Apartments off Highway 19 is today.
The first pastor of the church, Elder W.P. Carter, also served as a state senator.
That history will be celebrated this summer as First Baptist Church of Meridian invites the public to join them as they honor the 175-year history of the church. The church has scheduled several activities for July 12-13 to celebrate the milestone. An Open House will be held on Saturday, July 12, beginning a 2 p.m.; a program called "How We've Changed" will begin at 3 p.m. and will include a bus tour of Meridian. Reservations will be needed for the bus tour. They can be made at www.fbcmeridian.org. You can also call the church office at 601-484-4600.
On Sunday, the church will offer coffee and donuts at 9 a.m. and after the service at 10:30 a.m., a Sunday lunch will be held. Reservations are needed for that event as well.
"We invite the entire community — along with former members, family members and neighbors — to join us for this historic occasion," said Dr. Raymon Leake, who was served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Meridian since 1995.
The early history of the church at Bonita was a good — but quick — one. As it grew, change was needed. Due to the growth of the congregation, the elders of the church decided to relocate to the hub of the area — the City of Meridian. They chose a plot of land near the present McLemore Cemetery on Fifth Street. The cemetery was named after the first settler of Meridian, Richard McLemore. During that time — from 1856-1859 — the church was led by Elder N.L. Clark, whose namesake later became Clark College in nearby Newton.
In 1859, the church changed its name to Meridian Baptist Church.
After the Civil War, the church moved one final time to its current location on 26th Avenue, which was at that time named Mississippi Street. At this location, the church has occupied four different houses of worship.
The first one was quite unique. Church members and volunteers moved a building from nearby Marion to downtown Meridian. In 1871, a two-story brick building with a steeple and bell tower was constructed. But it didn't last long either, as a fire destroyed the church in 1892. Church members quickly recovered. Before the end of 1892, a new one-story structure, also with a bell tower, was built.
The building wasn't the only thing that changed after the fire. After the new church structure was complete, the name was changed to First Baptist Church. Additions were made to the building between its initial construction until 1948. During that year construction began on a new educational building, which members eventually occupied on Mother's Day 1949.