The story of Central Baptist Church: A congregation once torn apart by near-disaster

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 11, 2018 at 11:18 PM

When a large fire swept through downtown Johnson City on May 5, 1905, some property owners began to think the district was a massive fire hazard.

This caused a split in one of the city’s oldest churches, Central Baptist Church, then known as First Baptist Church.

The church at 222-26 E. Main St. was relatively unscathed. Some members of the congregation saw the near miss as a miracle, but others decided it was too close of a call.

Those who felt the church’s location was unsafe joined a new church in 1907, where they met in an old school building at the corner of Watauga Avenue and Roan Street, an area that would later be the site of the Almeda Apartments. This church was known as Roan Street Baptist Church.

This split in the congregation lasted for about three years between those who thought the move was the right choice and the others who remained on East Main Street. With many buildings badly damaged and destroyed by the fire, it was easy for some to assume the condition of the building on East Main was a miracle.

According to church historian Wallace Britton, the split was initially between three factions — those who wanted a new church located in the north, those who wanted it in a spot to the south and those who wanted to keep the location of what was known as the “Little White Church” at the time.

“It was actually a three-way split in the church,” he said. “One faction favored staying at the present location and argued that the fire spared the building and that this was an omen from God that the church should remain there.

“The other two factions felt just as strongly that it should be moved, but they wanted it closer to their homes. Some simply wanted the church to move closer to their residences.”

He said the split was often bitter, and those who remained just couldn’t understand why those who split and moved to North Roan didn’t acknowledge the miracle.

But eventually, both First Baptist Church and Roan Street Baptist Church realized the split was a mistake when both congregations experienced financial problems. On April 6, 1910, a committee from First Baptist met with Roan Street to agree to reunification.

“In a way, they decided that the two churches formed were too weak financially, and that’s part of why they agreed to come back together,” Britton said. “It went over smoothly after all of that, because the two struggled and decided to come back together.

“There was a little stubbornness there, though, because each side had a different view or wanted it located near them.”

They agreed to build a new church located on North Roan Street and establish a new church board consisting of 12 members from both churches. The reunified congregation then purchased the current location’s lot for $5,000, and in the spring of 1912, construction began on 300 Roan Street.

The Church would be known as Central Baptist Church, which was incorporated on Sept. 3, 1912.

Next year, the church will be celebrating their 150th anniversary, commemorating the congregation's beginnings, when they met in various locations and a log cabin for years prior to the fire that almost tore the church apart.

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