by Tim Gilmore, 9/28/2019
1. Walls Come Tumbling
The news is hard to fathom. A power once inevitable and invincible has withered and those of us who’d looked away missed it.
In lovely paradox, the heavy stone structure of the church seems airy, the rusticated blocks, like squares all circled, the steeples sleek and slender and straight. Most of the stained glass windows are boarded over. The space between this oldest block of First Baptist Church and City Hall across the street must be scorched from the long charge of historic political power.
This city block, fossilized in the Florida silt and sand, has received perhaps more love and more hate than any other location in the city.
If you knew Jacksonville, but weren’t keeping track of First Baptist Church’s financial woes and plummeting attendance, news of its new pastor’s recent announcement arrived as once did those ancient rumors, chronicled in the Old Testament Book of Joshua, that trumpeters had blown down Jericho’s walls. First Baptist would seek a $30 million loan, but only after selling off 90 percent of its downtown compound.
2. Birthplace of the Miracle
First Baptist Church was the second Baptist church in Jacksonville. Its official history states otherwise. First Baptist dates to the start of the Civil War, when white members of Bethel Baptist Church failed to evict black church members. Bethel had begun in 1838 with a congregation of four white members and two of their slaves. Just after the Civil War, a court ruling permitted the church’s black majority to keep the church name and property, so whites seceded, forming a separate church in 1866. They called it Tabernacle Baptist until reasserting dominance over then all-black Bethel by calling themselves First Baptist in 1892. Since then, First Baptist has claimed Bethel’s birthyear, 1838, as its own.
The headlines said, “Jax Preacher Welcomes Klan.” On June 18, 1923, with 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan present in full regalia, W.A. Hobson preached his last sermon. Hobson had been pastor when the church rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1901, hiring the young architect Henry John Klutho to refine the pastor’s own ideas for its Romanesque design.
As The Tampa Times reported, “When two hundred robed and hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan filed into [the] tabernacle last night to hear the farewell sermon of Dr. W.A. Hobson, for 23 years pastor of the First Baptist Church, many of the approximately 2,000 present mounted the benches to obtain a better view.”
When Hobson finished his sermon, Reverend A.C. Shuler rose and “expressed pleasure at the attendance of the Klan members,” telling the congregation the racist terrorist organization was not “antianything except hell and the devil.” A quarter century later, in 1949, Shuler, then pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, would out Florida Governor and former Jacksonville City Councilman Fuller Warren as a former fellow Klansman.
Through the 1920s and ’30s, First Baptist burned through preachers and dollars, amassing increasing debt, until Homer Lindsay became pastor in 1940. His son Homer Lindsay, Jr. took the pulpit in 1973. When First Baptist’s largest church auditorium opened in the late 1970s, city residents critical of the church disparaged it as the “Homer Dome.”
While churches like Jacksonville’s Trinity Baptist called themselves “Independent Fundamental Baptist,” standing apart from the “too liberal” Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant organization in the nation, Homer Lindsay, Jr. and Associate Pastor Jerry Vines worked hard to assert fundamentalist leadership over the SBC.
Their actions led toward a showdown in 1986, with some Southern Baptist pastors referring to that year’s annual meeting as “Armageddon at Atlanta.” A Baptist Press News Service press release dated January 17, 1986 was titled “Conservatives’ Rally Lashes ‘Liberal Deceit.’” If it’s unclear what “conservative” and “liberal” might mean within an organization like the SBC, a February 22nd United Press International story said the fight concerned “civil rights and property rights,” while the BPNS press release noted the “liberals” admitted the possibility of more than one interpretation of the Bible and advocated discussion over “the woman’s role in the church.”
Vines decried the “liberalism” of seminary instruction and preached, “College professors […] rape the faith of their students through liberal teaching.” Vines had a penchant for making such incendiary remarks. Two years after Lindsay’s death on Valentine’s Day, 2000, Vines made national news as pastor of First Baptist when he called the Prophet Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile.”
In 1998, church leaders expressed regret they’d not erected a steeple atop its newest auditorium. So First Baptist stuck a working lighthouse on the corner of one of its phalanx of downtown parking garages. This replica of the St. Augustine Lighthouse included its own working beam, which lit up bedrooms in the historic neighborhood of Springfield every few seconds from six to 10 o’clock at night.
Springfield residents called the light “extremely obnoxious” and “ridiculously horrendous.” Church leaders said the lighthouse needed a functioning beam because the church was the “spiritual lighthouse of the city.”
By 2012, Jacksonville City Council had killed two Human Rights Ordinance bills to expand protection to the LGBT community. In 2016, First Baptist Pastor Mac Brunson held private meetings, bused anti-HRO church members to pertinent events and packed City Council meetings. As much the fault of the rest of Jacksonville for its pathetically low voter turnout, First Baptist supporters have often jammed city elections and have elected their share of church members to City Council. The HRO expansion finally passed in 2017.
In 2019, when First Baptist’s brand new pastor Heath Lambert announced a plan to sell off nine of the church’s 10 square blocks downtown, refocusing energy on the church’s oldest auditorium, now renamed for W.A. Hobson, he called “The Hobson Auditorium […] the birthplace of the miracle of downtown Jacksonville.”
3. The Watchdog
The First Baptist Church Watchdog blog infuriated Mac Brunson, the pastor who followed Vines to the pulpit. Of course it did. On February 16, 2008, the watchdog titled his blog post “Its Time to Know the Salaries” [sic]. The post began, “Why don’t we know the salary and benefits package of Donald M. Brunson and family at FBC Jacksonville?”
The watchdog argued that little innovation had occurred in the church, that attendance hadn’t grown, that Brunson shamed his congregation every service for not giving enough, but “for Team Brunson,” he wrote, “what a two year ride it’s been!” The blogger noted the Brunsons had received a $300,000 land grant from a church donor, immediately building a 6,000 square foot house in a gated community. As construction continued, the blogger alleged, the Brunsons lived “rent free in a multi-million dollar condo on the Atlantic Ocean an hour outside of Jacksonville.”
The watchdog called for a tithe boycott. What if large numbers of the congregation withheld their tithe, generally defined as ten percent of a church member’s income given to the church, until First Baptist gave its congregants “full salary disclosure”? The blogger, a longtime church member, understood “the average church member […] was happy to see their pastor living large.” It felt good, he wrote, to serve God by helping “God’s man” and his family live well.
Brunson was angry. The FBC Watchdog quoted Brunson’s sermons regularly in his blog. It must have driven Brunson half mad. Of the thousands of attendees on Sunday mornings, which one took such assiduous notes? On the first of October, 2010, the watchdog posted an image of an angry first-pounding Brunson and quoted him accusing his congregants of “living in fear because they are not giving.” Why was Brunson so upset? Wasn’t he living comfortably enough? Which Sunday morning churchgoers gave the least?
First Baptist Church’s dire financial situation raged through its pastor’s sermons and the watchdog mocked him for it. “What are we going to do with this auditorium?” the watchdog quoted Brunson as saying. “Next Sunday morning, we will have depleted all of our building fund money on the renovation that has about a million dollar’s worth to go! We’ve got to finish this! We’re under contract! We can’t legally get out of completing the work, but what do we do if God’s people don’t give?”
In 2012, Baptist News reported the watchdog’s defamation lawsuit against First Baptist Church “settled under confidential terms.” On April Fools’ Day, 2012, Mac Brunson issued a formal apology from the pulpit to longtime church member Tom Rich, “the formerly anonymous blogger” Brunson had called, likewise from the pulpit, “obsessive compulsive” and a “sociopath.”
Whatever the confidential settlement terms, Brunson told First Baptist, “I regret making those statements. I want to apologize to Mr. Rich and his family. I also want to apologize to you and the church.”
The court found that Pastor Mac Brunson had broken the law by hiring a police detective who also served as part of First Baptist’s security detail to subpoena Rich and his wife and “vote them out” of church membership. Though members of Rich’s extended family had attended First Baptist for more than two decades, the church filed trespass warnings against them.
Two years before, reported the Baptist News, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had paid the watchdog a $50,000 settlement, attesting the JSO’s investigation on behalf of First Baptist Church had violated the First Amendment.
The watchdog visited other churches, quoted other preachers, pointed out similar hypocrisies. In 2013, he quoted Robert Morris of Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, saying non-tithers were “thieves” in danger of “demon possession.”
Brunson resigned in 2018, handing First Baptist to the Reverend Heath Lambert, whose job it would be to announce to the city the church’s financial and institutional collapse.
4. Last Generation
I was born into the last generation. Christianity is dying in America!
So I heard throughout my childhood. The World was coming after Christians. We would be persecuted for our beliefs. We were “in the World, but not of the World.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist agent. Satan was coming for children through rock ’n roll. Churches were ordaining women to preach. America was in freefall and needed to get back to God.
Already, Christians had seen what The Government had done in Texas, raiding Dr. Lester Roloff’s Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi. Parents from across the South sent their troubled daughters to Roloff, who fought licensing requirements across most of the 1970s. After one former “resident” complained of one-inch welts left across her body by whippings she received for smoking a cigarette, Roloff scoffed, “I have no right to go by the Welfare Department’s little brown book,” referring to the state code of welfare regulations, “so long as I have the Big Black Book,” referring to the Bible. He lamented the current generation of “parent-hating, Satan-worshiping, dope-taking immoral boys and girls,” and quoted the Book of Proverbs: “He that spareth the rod hateth his son.” The resultant armed standoff between Roloff and Texas authorities fundamentalist Christians called “The Christian Alamo.”
Despite the imminent demise of Christianity, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” became one of the most powerful political action groups, telling Southern Baptist and Independent Fundamental Baptist congregations it was their Biblical duty to support particular candidates for office. Falwell preached at First Baptist, as had Billy Graham, who prophesied God would destroy Los Angeles like he had Sodom and Gomorrah and who led the fight for Congress and President Eisenhower to replace the U.S. motto, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one,” with “In God We Trust” in the late 1950s.
So when I hear that Christianity is dying in America, when I read in The Washington Post that “Americans are growing ever more secular, with well over 20 percent now identifying with no religion at all,” and that “Conservative evangelical churches have shrunk, too, but not as rapidly as the mainline denominations,” I can’t help but be skeptical.
Pew Research says that from 2007 to 2014, the number of “mainline Protestants” dropped by five million. Though 20 percent of American adults grew up “mainline,” fewer than half of them identify presently as such. Maybe so. But the fundamentalist Baptist churches and schools in which I grew up considered Catholics non-Christians and Lutherans, if we ever heard of them, little more than lukewarm Catholics. The Pope was going to be the Antichrist of the Book of Revelation.
5. Fall of Empire
Sometime in the 1970s, First Baptist surpassed Trinity Baptist as the largest fundamentalist Baptist church in the city and in Florida.
Trinity Baptist Church moved from the inner city to working-class Westside suburbs in the 1970s. The church grew exponentially. By the late 1970s, as the church sank into debt, its pastor, Robert Calhoun Gray, spoke to 12,000 congregants in Sunday morning services. The church’s “bus ministry” ran 56 routes cross-circuiting the city and picking up thousands of “stray children” each week. By the 1990s, Trinity’s Sunday morning attendance had declined to about 4,000 and First Baptist’s had risen to 7,000. The Southern Baptist Convention counted First Baptist the third largest of its more than 43,000 churches.
A number of commentators have blamed the decline and fall of First Baptist Church on two factors: secularization and suburbanization.
To take the first point, the Southern Baptist Convention has declined every year for more than a decade. According to The Florida Times-Union, First Baptist’s average church attendance had dropped from 4,700 in 2009 to 3,200 in 2018. The church operated enough ministry space for Sunday morning congregations of 23,000, 10 times more, Lambert said, than the church could currently handle.
But the decline of a church like First Baptist doesn’t translate automatically into secularization. Nondenominational churches in Jacksonville’s suburbs, churches with names like Celebration and Eleven22, have numbers like fundamentalist churches once attracted. As the Southern Baptist Convention’s membership numbers decline, new “prosperity gospel” churches have taken up the slack. Perhaps inflating its numbers, Celebration claims weekly attendance of 12,000.
Still, though prosperity gospel has existed since before the preaching of James Fifield, “Apostle to Millionaires,” in the Great Depression, perhaps today’s version, light on scripture and big on self-help psychology, reflects a secularization of Christianity itself. Eleven22 promotes the fact that it’s located in a former Walmart and takes its name from John 11:22. If the fundamentalists knew their scripture backward and forward, the new prosperity gospel can be summed up in the Good News Translation version of this one verse: “God will give you whatever you ask him for.” Forget the Jesus who said, in Matthew 19:21, “Go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and […] come and follow me.”
The second reason given for the church’s decline, suburbanization, also fails to bear out. Since the 1990s, urban cores, downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods across the nation have come back to life. As young suburbanites grew up longing for cities, Post World War II suburbanization, or “white flight,” was met by the opposite reaction of urban return. Most people moving back into cities, however, are comfortable with the pluralism and diversity of urban spaces. If fewer people are willing to attend First Baptist Church downtown, that’s a reflection of First Baptist’s demographics, not the demographics of the restrengthening city center.
Meanwhile, if fundamentalist and/or traditional religious institutions and congregations have taken a hit in recent years, it might be wise to note what might be the largest news story on earth. Its local focus centers on what happened at Trinity Baptist Church.
In 2006, Robert Calhoun Gray, longtime pastor and architect of Trinity Baptist Church, was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. The earliest allegations went back to 1949. Jerry Falwell, friend of Gray and Lindsay, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia, founder of Liberty University and Moral Majority, referred to the Gray case as “a bump in the road.” Gray told one little girl he molested that she was “God’s reward.”
Meanwhile, the worldwide scandal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church steamrolled forward. By 2004, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice listed more than 4,000 priests in the United States alone with credible allegations of child sex abuse and the story spanned the globe and kept growing. In Ireland alone, the most devout country of otherwise secular Western Europe, credible allegations against more than 1,300 Catholic clergy members existed by 2018.
Amidst this utter and worldwide religious catastrophe, enter: Donald Trump. In 2016, “Evangelical” congregations, including Jacksonville’s Trinity and First Baptist, were among the most fervent proponents of his presidential campaign. Because they believed he’d put anti-abortion judges on the Supreme Court (although in 2010, according to Bob Woodward, Trump asked Republican activist David Bossie what “pro-choice” meant), they completely ignored Trump’s rather unchristian behavior.
Not two months before the 2016 election, Trump’s vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, visited First Baptist and spoke of how he “gave [his] life to Jesus.” Meanwhile, Trump called women “pigs” and “dogs,” paid hush money to porn stars and said that when he encountered women he considered attractive, he liked to “grab them by the pussy.”
“Ye are the light of the world,” says the Book of Matthew.
The Klan no longer visits church services in robes and hoods. The Watchdog’s no sociopath, no demons possess non-tithers and the Pope’s not the Antichrist.
Says the Book of Matthew: “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
6. Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?
There’s movement up in the open-air windows. Not just the ferns and grasses that crawl in tufts atop the tower. Something moves when you avert your eyes. Is it one of those Klansmen, cloaked and hooded all in white, welcomed into Hobson’s farewell sermon?
I’d love to say the belfry’s my writing studio. Call me Quasimodo. From that perch, I look out over the city, scoop its secrets, capture its ghosts. I can write up here for 200 years. Or 2,000.
But it’s not me. And it’s not Mike Pence. And it’s not Billy Graham.
Surely it’s not Jerry Vines’s faith-raping college professor or demon-possessed pedophile. If it’s Jesus, good god, what have they done to him now? To whom have they auctioned him? To whom have they sold his soul? Emaciated, thorn crown, eyes raised, he’d cry, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but they do, but they do.
November. Raise the cross. It weighs one ton. 1974. Homer G. Lindsay, Jr. issues the ultimatum. “We are letting all of Jacksonville know.” More than 3,000 church members gather to sing the hymn, “The Banner of the Cross.” The cross stands 38 feet tall. “This is a group of people,” Lindsay declares, “who exalt and praise the Lord!” Amen.