BRADENTON -- It's been 125 years since 12 pioneers led by the Rev. T.J. Sparkman established First Baptist Church of Bradenton in what was then called Braidentown , the new county seat of Manatee County.
The year was 1889, says Ruth Osganian, First Baptist Bradenton librarian, historian and archivist, and the dozen wanted their own place to worship after treks to Benevolence Baptist Church in Palmetto, which had been organized in 1868 and would later become First Baptist Church of Gillette.
"I am sure those 12 attended church in Gillette," Osganian said. "It was quite a distance. It would have been an overnight trip from Bradenton. They would probably leave on a Friday to get there in time for Sunday service. You would have to take a boat on the river and then you would face a 5-mile trek over land. So, they dreamed of setting themselves free with a church that was closer."
Those pioneer Manatee County Baptists and their descendents will be honored at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 8, when First Baptist Church Bradenton celebrates its status as one of Bradenton's three oldest churches.
A crowd of more than 1,200 is expected at the sprawling downtown campus at 1306 Manatee Ave. W., one those dozen original members could have scarcely imagined.
But that doesn't stop Osganian from trying.
"I believe they would not be that different from us in that they loved God just like we do and wanted their own place to worship Him," Osganian said.
History accounts do not indicate if Sparkman, who preached at Benevolence Baptist, was invited to Braidentown or went there on his own.
But what Osganian along with fellow church historian Arthur Schofield can verify is Sparkman preached March 10, 1889, to a group gathered at the old Gaar House at the northeast corner of 12th Street West and Fourth Avenue West.
"At the time of Sparkman's visit the Gaar House was used as the (Manatee) county courthouse," Schofield writes in his history book, "The First One Hundred Years of the First Baptist Church in Bradenton, Florida."
"This was the first known meeting of Braidentown Baptists, although there was a Baptist church at Palma Sola (Lone Palm) since 1887," Schofield states.
The first few pastors at the new First Baptist Church of Bradenton were from Benevolence, Osganian said.
Church dedicated 1892
After three years worshipping at the Gaar House, First Baptist in Braidentown members built their original sanctuary, a modest wooden structure with a large steeple at the corner of 12th Street West and Sixth Avenue West. It was dedicated in 1892.
The church moved to its second and present location along Manatee Avenue West in 1914, a brick structure with handsome Romanesque Revival architecture that featured stained glass windows wrapping around the sanctuary.
The old sanctuary is now used for weddings, funerals and special weekday services because in 1982, with membership swelling to its eventual 1,100, a new, modern, sanctuary was built west of the old sanctuary.
Memorable stained glass
"I love our stained glass in the old sanctuary," Osganian said, noting David Windham Construction brought the sanctuary to a gleaming correctness in recent years after a fire damaged it in 1945.
"In the morning, the stained glass is so bright with rosy light," Osganian said. "It gets subdued in the afternoon and takes on a totally different character at night."
Osganian is proud the church honors its past. It still has the original log book from 1889, which includes church minutes and membership.
"They saved up about $3 to order the book, which to them was like a computer today," Osganian said, handling the rare document with white gloves. "It came in by railroad, as everything did those days. You can see where some members are lined out because they died or left to another church."
Osganian took photographs of the logbook in a display, which will be one highlight of the 125th anniversary.
Pat Browning has been a member of First Baptist Bradenton since 1972. She said she is most proud of her church tradition of creating new churches.
"I think one of our greatest things is that we became the mother church that started missions in other parts of Bradenton," Browning said.
In 1963, West Bradenton Baptist Church, Island Baptist Church and Bayshore Chapel, all got started with help from First Baptist Bradenton, Osganian said.
Although the past is rich, Browning says the future can be richer because of the Rev. Rick Lineberger, who came to the church in June 2003.
"Rick is dynamic," Browning said. "He is true to Scripture. He cares about people and has a wonderful wife, Tracy, which I think is an important part to a pastor's ministry.
"People ask me, 'Is your church traditional or contemporary?' " Browning said. "I tell them, 'We're friendly and happy.' There is a joyous feel about our church. You can feel it in our praise band, praise team and choir. We have a lot of volunteers. Right now I feel our church is reaching out to the community more than since I have been there."
Lineberger calls the church's ministries, which include a Kids Live after school program at nearby Ballard Elementary and several free food programs for the needy of the downtown area, "exciting."
"Our church is outward focused," Lineberger said.
Each summer, about a week before children from Ballard Elementary return to school, First Baptist puts on "Day of Hope."
"We served about 350 students last year and had about 200 volunteers including hair stylists, nurses, dental professionals," said John Gregory, church worship pastor. "It takes about 200 hours to do all the things provided for them. They can have a meal while they are here."
"We want to be an engine in the community where we live and God has blessed us to do that," Lineberger said. "Our intent is to honor the past by continuing to develop these exciting new ministries for the future."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond