First Missionary Baptist Church celebrated its 150th anniversary this month with a weekend full of events, including the dedication of a bell.
First Baptist Church – which became First Missionary Baptist in 1963 – was founded in 1866. The Rev. John Davis was its first pastor.
Like many churches in the rural South, First Missionary Baptist grew with its community, from worshiping one Sunday a month to every Sunday starting in the 1940s. Tragedy struck when fire destroyed the original church in March 1961, but the congregation rebuilt, holding its first service in the new sanctuary at 403 Caswell St. on July 14, 1963.
At the time, the church had a bell, which survived the fire and found a home on the grounds of the new sanctuary. But at some point, the bell vanished; some figure the church might have sold it. A search by Todd Johnson of the Johnston County Heritage Center traced the bell to the Coats Country Museum near McGee’s Crossroads, which has an assemblage of bells it uses to ring in its July 4 celebration.
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Rather than take the bell back, First Missionary decided to buy a new one. The cast-iron bell, with a 30-inch diameter, comes from Brosamer’s Bells in Brooklyn, Mich. The bell, which cost $13,300, now rests in an encasement designed and built by Durwood Stephenson’s construction company.
Church members Carolyn Ennis took on the task of raising the money, inviting people to donate in memory of a loved one, in honor of someone or in thanksgiving “for God’s favor received by them,” she said. Names of donors and honorees will be recorded in the second edition of the church’s history and on a plaque at the church entrance.
“The bell will serve to augment the acoustic sphere of the church, embellish and heighten the solemnity of the rites celebrated therein and allow for expansion of our artistic outreach to the immediate community and the world,” Ennis said.
The honor of ringing the bell for the first time fell to Stephenson, who rang it seven times while the congregation waited inside. After the final ring faded, the church burst into song: “Don’t you hear the bells a ringing/ Can’t you hear the angels singing/ this glory hallelujah jubilee/ In that far off sweet forever/ just beyond the shining river/ when they ring those golden bells for you and me.”
During the dedication ceremony, church members wore matching teal T-shirts highlighting the work the First Missionary has done in the community, including:
▪ Operation Inasmuch, in which First Missionary joins First Baptist Church in service projects.
▪ The Peter Taylor Community Garden, which promotes healthy eating and increases food access in the community.
▪ The “To Go” Food Program, which provides food to those in need.
The church also welcomed its new pastor, the Rev. Robert Carlton Walker-Smith, and his wife, Tiamesha, who come to First Missionary from Rochester, N.Y.
Walker-Smith said he had come to the Triangle for a secular job but heard First Missionary was looking for a pastor.
“I was blessed enough that they selected me as their pastor, and I look forward to many years together,” Walker-Smith said. “I’m in awe of the history here and the good people who do such good works.”
The new pastor and his wife live in Fuquay-Varina.
For more information on the church, find it on Facebook or go to www.fmbcsmithfield.com.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett