By Pastor Bart Barber and Wyndi Veigel
Looking back 150 years, the landscape of the Farmersville community has changed tremendously. What hasn’t changed is the value of a church that is turning 150 years old, First Baptist Church of Farmersville.
The church got its start in the aftermath of the Civil War at a time when the economy and the civil infrastructure of the South was in ruins.
This period witnessed significant migration westward into places like Texas. As the people moved, so did the churches.
Not all kinds of churches seized the opportunities equally well. More hierarchical denominations required bureaucratic decision-making structures to grant approval and process formal assignments for credentialed ministers before they could establish congregations on the rapidly expanding frontier.
For the less structured denominations, self-appointed church planters and lay-preachers fanned out across the widening map and planted new churches as they willed, not seeking anyone’s permission and often not even bothering to notify denominational structures until after the fact.
These frontier church-planters were the nimble front-line troops of the Christian gospel. The founding father of Collin County, Collin McKinney, was a lay preacher in Barton W. Stone’s “Christian” movement of the Second Great Awakening. Methodist circuit-riders crisscrossed the plains preaching the gospel and planting churches.
John Crumpler Averitt, who lived from 1818 to 1895, was the church’s first pastor.
He was a frontier church planter of this type, although he held more distinguished credentials than many. Averitt was a native of North Carolina. He completed Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from Wake Forest and then moved west in 1855, escaping the coming war.
From 1857 Averitt devoted his efforts to the establishment of Baptist churches in the emerging communities of East Texas, encouraged in his work by fellow North Carolinian Henry Lee Graves, former president of Baylor University.
Eventually Averitt chaired the organizational meeting that founded Howard Payne University and served on the school’s first board of trustees.
In May 1865 Averitt rode into what is now downtown Farmersville and constructed a “brush arbor”—a temporary shelter constructed from rough trees and irregular lumber with a thatched brush roof—in which to hold a series of evangelistic meetings.
On May 14, 1865, 14 attendees joined with Averitt to organize the First Baptist Church. Averitt served as the founding pastor only until the next year—there were more communities without churches, and he was determined to keep pace with the growing population.
In its earliest days, the congregation met under the brush arbor when weather permitted, or in private homes when necessary. Edward Frederick Tatum, the second pastor, also served from 1867 – 1868, only a year before he left Farmersville.
He eventually settled and died in Bethlehem in Upshur County, Texas. Tatum had been one of the founding members in 1865, along with his cousin Greenberry B. Robinson.
Indeed, the Baptist Church didn’t even have its own home, but met instead in the Masonic Hall.
The third pastor was W. D. Chapman, another of the founding members. Chapman served for a much longer term from 1869 to 1875 in a part-time, bivocational fashion.
Unlike Averitt and Tatum, Chapman was not a semi-itinerant church planter. He was the first long-term Farmersville resident to lead the church.
Members of his family still reside in the Farmersville area, and some remain within the membership of First Baptist Church. Chapman is buried in the Huson Cemetery just west of Farmersville.
Church gets a building
In the aftermath of a “union meeting”— a joint evangelistic crusade held in Farmersville by the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists in the community, Chapman led the Baptists to pursue the construction of their own meeting house.
For $30 they acquired the property upon which the old brush arbor had been constructed. In its place they erected a wooden building, painted inside and out, and complete with a steeple and bell. The congregation now consisted not of 15 members but 67.
Victorian manners influenced the construction of the building: A three-foot railing separated boys from girls, men from women, in worship.
Stately and ornate, this facility was not completed until after Chapman had vacated the pastorate of the church, but having been championed and supported by him, its construction remains a part of his legacy as an early leader of the congregation.
A series of short-term, part-time pastors served the church throughout the 1880s. Some of them, like J. A. Mansfield, were prominent leaders among Baptists in Texas. None of them remained at the Farmersville congregation for long, as the congregation did not enjoy the size or the resources to settle a full-time pastor.
As the post-Reconstruction “New South” period dawned upon North Texas, Farmersville began to experience prosperity and burgeoning growth. Both the First National Bank of Farmersville and The Farmersville Times came into existence in 1885. Farmersville established a public school in 1890.
The town began to take shape in something resembling its present form.
The First Baptist Church enjoyed growth alongside the community. The congregation called its first full-time pastor in 1893.
Although T. B. Pittman only remained in Farmersville for a year before he moved to another church and was elected Corresponding Secretary for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the brevity of his tenure did not prevent the church from moving forward.
In 1895 the congregation bought the land upon which the Masonic Hall had stood and constructed there in 1900 the house of worship that the First Baptist Church uses to this day.
The church sanctuary, constructed in the Prairie Gothic style, features twin steeples flanking a central curved front. The original bell from the 1877 building occupies the belfry.
Total costs of construction were approximately $20,000.
Moving into the
The congregation continued to grow throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. This was an era in which Southern Baptists were emerging from their denominational adolescence, trying to consolidate their gains and develop a better organizational structure.
FBC Farmersville played an important role.
When Dallas pastor George W. Truett was raising money to establish Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Farmersville graces the pages of his ledger with a generous donation.
During the 1920s Southern Baptists conducted their “Seventy-Five Million Campaign,” led by Lee R. Scarborough, leader of the new Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
As a part of this plan, Southern Baptist leaders canvassed congregations seeking pledges for a combined offering that would fund the entire panoply of Southern Baptist efforts in the world.
At this time, those efforts included educational institutions like Baylor University, mercy ministries like the Buckner orphanage, and missionary efforts across North America and around the world.
The pledges far exceeded the desired goal, but before the actual collection of the funds could take place, the agricultural harbingers of the Great Depression cast a dark pall upon the Southern economy.
Few were the churches that met their pledged amounts, but Scarborough recorded a story that reflected well upon Farmersville.
He came to Farmersville to speak and to collect the pledged funds. A member of the congregation, seeing that First Baptist Church had not fulfilled its pledge, rushed into town and sold a piece of family jewelry.
He tendered the funds to Scarborough and the church fulfilled its promise.
The succession of short-term pastorates ended when the church invited Matthew Mueller to shepherd the congregation. Mueller remained in Farmersville for 13 years from 1930 to 1943, becoming the second-longest tenured pastor in the history of the church.
Stories about Pastor Mueller—the youthful vigor with which he pursued his ministry, his evangelistic zeal and the effective winsomeness and intellectual clarity with which he presented the gospel—persist to this day among those who knew him personally.
Under Mueller’s leadership, the congregation added an education annex attached to the north face of the existing sanctuary. These modifications featured indoor restrooms and two stories of classrooms.
Impacts for Christianity
Mueller’s most enduring and influential impact upon the history of Christianity in Texas may have been a visit he made to share the gospel with a local businessman.
- O. (Bunk) Baker decided to become a Christian in response to Mueller’s presentation and joined the First Baptist Church.
His sons, Dick Baker and B. O. (Bo) Baker, later participated as leaders of a spiritual awakening in which students from Baylor University and other institutions were leading enormous evangelistic crusades throughout the nation.
The Baker brothers both played the trumpet. Dick was a songwriter; Bo was a preacher and poet. They led in the revivals as a team.
After the revivals subsided, Dick became the Music Minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas and Bo became the pastor of the Plymouth Park Baptist Church in Irving. Both lived to see the 21st century.
After traveling the world and sharing the gospel on many continents, they made their final joint appearance and Bo preached his final sermon at FBC Farmersville.
They both traced the beginnings of their ministries to the ministry of Matthew Mueller.
Mueller’s ministry at the church ended during World War II. In the post-war period the congregation added a parsonage on Jouette Street, where the current pastor of the church still resides, and a detached education building to the south of the church sanctuary.
In a fleeting brush with the national spotlight, the congregation was one of two to host funeral services upon the death of Audie Murphy in June 1971.
Since Mueller’s precedent-breaking tenure, brief pastorates at First Baptist Church have been rare. Meredith E. Wyatt served five years from 1944 to 1949.
Travis Berry served four from 1950 to 1954.
- L. Lofland remained for eight years from 1955 to 1963.
Maurice Martin pastored the church for seven years from 1963 to 1970.
Woody Jackson led the church for the preponderance of the 1970s from 1971 to 1980.
Milton Magness served for three years from 1980 to 1983, followed by Jim Wicker from 1984 to 1991 and Jeff Lethco from 1991 to 1998, both of who served seven years.
Under Pastor Lethco the congregation constructed a large addition featuring a full-size basketball gymnasium and two stories of educational space for preschoolers, children and youth.
The congregation’s weekday preschool education program, popular with area parents, occupied the new facility, as did many of the church’s other ministries. Pastor Lethco also led the congregation, in response to rapid growth, to launch a second worship service on Sunday mornings.
The current pastors of the congregation are Tracy Odneal, who has served the congregation as Student Pastor since 1996; Bart Barber, who has served as Lead Pastor for the 16 years since 1999; and John Foster, who has served as Worship Pastor since 2001.
Pastor Foster is taking a new assignment at the church to work in the area of Pastoral Care and Senior Adults, and the congregation has recently elected James Cheesman to serve as the new Worship Pastor.
Deidra Klemm directs ministries to children and preschoolers for the congregation.
In the early 2000s the congregation, in partnership with the city of Farmersville, constructed the inaugural block of Farmersville Parkway between Washington and Johnson Streets.
On the south front of the street, the congregation built “The Warehouse,” a separate facility devoted exclusively to youth ministry.
The First Baptist Church also conducts an Upward Sports Ministry, through which children from all area churches—or from no church at all—are able to participate in Christian-based athletics with an emphasis upon cultivating good sportsmanship and strong values.
The congregation also sponsors new chapters of American Heritage Girls and Trail Life USA, which are Christian-based outdoor adventure programs.
In 2003 the congregation ended its century-long affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and joined the new Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
The church has enjoyed a strong leadership role in this statewide family of Southern Baptist churches.
The ministries of First Baptist Church have a worldwide reach. In the 21st century alone, the congregation has been involved in strengthening and planting churches by sending members to Cuba, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Guatemala, the United Kingdom, Senegal and Ecuador.
Within the United States, the congregation has assisted in evangelistic and church planting efforts in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Bozeman, Mo., and Franklin, Kansas.
Disaster Recovery and construction teams from the congregation have responded to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike; the Joplin, Mo., tornado and the December 2013 ice storm here in Farmersville.
Disaster Relief volunteers from the congregation have ministered to disaster victims as varied as a tsunami in American Samoa, a lava flow in Hawaii, an explosion in West, and a surge of underage immigrants in Laredo.
The church’s facilities house the Farmersville Food Pantry.
The First Baptist Church has also played a key role, together with other sister churches in the community, in providing financial assistance to citizens of Farmersville who are unable to pay their utility bills.
Last month the First Baptist Church voted to establish a new not-for-profit corporation dedicated to providing assistance to needy families in Farmersville, funding the new organization with a $25,000 grant from the church’s general fund.
As a new generation of young Christians emerge and take the helm at FBC Farmersville, the church looks back on fifteen decades of faithful ministry in Farmersville that has brought many residents into the Christian faith, has encouraged them to treat their fellow citizens according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, has drawn them out of their comfortable lives in Farmersville and has engaged them in worldwide ministry to meet physical and spiritual needs, and has helped to shape the community.
The church has every reason to hope that the past has set the trajectory for the years yet to come.