For more than two hundred years, the people of First Baptist Church have been worshiping God and working to build His Kingdom not only in Wilmington but also to places in need all over the world. As early as 1690, Baptist work began in Wilmington. Our congregation was first known as Front Street Baptist Church as our church building was located in a house at Front and Ann Streets on Baptist Hill. This historic house still stands today.


Since 1870, our congregation has been worshiping and serving in its present location, 411 Market Street. Land for the present church building at Fifth and Market Streets was purchased in 1858. Construction of the current sanctuary began in 1860; the Civil War delayed completion, and the building was not dedicated until May 1870. Our sanctuary was designed by Samuel Sloan, an architect from Philadelphia.

The building is an example of early English Gothic architecture, with pointed arches and two narrow spires. The spires, originally made of heart pine, were joined with wooden dowels; the taller spire rises 197 feet. Winds from Hurricane Fran in 1996 caused the steeple to be blown from its original support structure. The congregation voted immediately to rebuild the steeple to its original height and look. The sanctuary foundation holds tons of ship ballast discarded from sailing vessels that once crowded the Cape Fear River. A portion of the exposed ballast rock foundation can be seen in the basement of the Education wing. The bell in the tower weighs 2,106 pounds; the tongue weighs 47 pounds. Some of the metal in the bell is probably over 200 years old.


The present “art windows” were installed in 1903. The pews of the lower level of the sanctuary, like the grille work on the front of the balcony, are handmade and originally cost $3.00 each. At one time, the church was financed by renting pews. Fees ranged from $5.00 to $500.00 per year and were based on location and size of the pew. The renter had exclusive use of the pew for morning worship, prayer meetings, revivals and business meetings. The pews are still divided into sections and are numbered. In the past century, our facilities have expanded to include most of the block on which our sanctuary sits, with the addition of an education building, the historical Sidbury House (now being used for Sunday school space), and the WLI building now serves as the location of the main offices for our church.


Expanding Our Reach

In the mid 1970’s our church opened a separate facility on Independence Boulevard. Renovated and expanded in 2008, our Activities Center includes a gymnasium, a high-tech multi-purpose room for kids and teenagers called The Cove, as well as multiple classroom spaces utilized by the First Baptist Church Preschool and by the rest of our church for meetings, small groups, bible studies, and book studies.

We open the doors of the Activities Center to a variety of outside organizations as part of our mission of serving our community.


In 2005, our church purchased and renovated the former New Hanover County Law Enforcement Center. Renamed the Jo Ann Carter Harrelson Center, our vision for this building was an innovative non-profit whose mission is to serve as a hub for other non-profit organizations in our city. Meeting the needs of the community in areas such as safe and affordable housing, education, employment, health care and family support has expanded our mission footprint in ways we never dreamed possible. The Center recognizes the critical needs of others and seeks to encourage, uplift and assist them in rebuilding their lives.


Of course, our church’s heritage goes far beyond the historic architecture you see at the corner of Fifth and Market. Music has been an important part of our heritage at First Baptist Church. As early as 1844, a hymnbook was adopted and a “gallery” was approved for singers. Not until 1936 was a paid quartet replaced by a volunteer choir. The first Minister of Music was hired in 1942. A power-driven pipe organ installed in the 1890s was one of the first in eastern North Carolina. The organ in the sanctuary today is one of the finest instruments in the state: it has four keyboards and 2,793 pipes ranging from the size of a pencil to 32 feet in length.

In 1994, our church began a concert called Christmas at First Baptist. Combining the musical talents of our Chancel Choir and members of the Wilmington Symphony as well as other local musicians, Christmas at First Baptist in many ways is the Christmas concert not just for our church but for our entire community.


Our Church Today

In 2005, our church took a bold step for an historic downtown church. We added a modern worship service at 8:50 a.m. in addition to our traditional service which continues to meet at 11:00 a.m. Led by a band and vocal team, our modern worship would feel both exotic and informal to the people who first gathered for worship more than two centuries ago, but we believe it is in keeping with our church’s historic commitment to serve our community in ways that are contextual and relevant, just as those who first worshiped two centuries ago were doing.

Our church has a history of partnership with other churches. First Baptist was instrumental in organizing nine other churches in the greater Wilmington area. Additionally, we have been a significant partner and charter member in a variety of Baptist bodies over the centuries including the Southern Baptist Convention, North Carolina Baptist Convention, and Wilmington Baptist Association in an earlier era. More recently our church has partnered with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.

 


We are proud of our heritage as a congregation.  We believe we stand on the shoulders of those who contributed mightily to our community and to our world. We also believe that the best way to celebrate our heritage is to meet the needs of our community and our world today in ways that are creative and relevant and that point others to the love and hope found in a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. That is the legacy of mission and ministry that we have received from previous generations and the one we hope to pass on to future generations.