When James Edward Pierce was called to preach at Grace Baptist Church in Bradenton in 1949, there were just a handful of people worshipping in the Odd Fellows Hall on 14th Street.
Last February, Pierce celebrated 60 years of preaching at the church, at 509 26th Ave. E. in Bradenton.
“It’s kind of unheard of for any pastor,” said Frank Alderman, who has known Pierce for 56 years of his career. “I’m sure there are others, but it’s rare.”
Pierce’s story is not just one about longevity with his church, but one of a man who is deeply loved by his congregants and profoundly devoted to God.
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“He is a dying breed of pastor,” said Jim Burnham, who has served as an assistant under Pierce. “He hails back to the days of the old-fashioned Baptists, when they would erect a tent, beat the bushes and hold big tent revivals. He’s somewhat of a John Wayne character; larger than life.”
Sixty years ago when Pierce was called to preach at Grace Baptist, he had been working as a fabricator for the American Can Company in Tampa, according to Burnham. He quit for a chance to make a difference in people’s lives, he said.
“When the Lord called him to preach, he had a good job,” said Burnham, who also is Pierce’s son-in-law.
In his more than half-century career at Grace Baptist, Pierce has had the chance to go to other, larger churches, but chose to stay, said Alderman.
“When the Lord calls you to preach, he’s made you a shepherd of the sheep,” said Alderman. “That’s your job. It’s his business to do what he’s been called to do.”
That job hasn’t always been easy, said Pierce, now 86. When he came in 1949, members didn’t even have their own church. They worshipped at the Odd Fellows Hall.
“They didn’t have a building; they didn’t have any land; they didn’t have anything,” he said. “They had $50 to buy something.”
With Pierce’s help, they used their $50 to purchase two lots for $300 at 509 26th Ave. E. Pierce bought an old U.S. Army barracks in Tampa once used by army chaplains to bless soldiers before they went to war for $200. He dismantled it and brought it back to Bradenton to use as a church.
Aside from additions and enhancements, the core of the building is still in there, said Burnham. It’s kind of emblematic of the kind of ministry Pierce has had, he said.
“He’s doggedly and determinedly tried to stick to the truth of the Bible and not abandon the sound Biblical principles,” said Burnham. “That’s really the benchmark of his ministry.”
In the early years of the church, Pierce was often paid in change and supplemented with groceries for his family, according to Pierce’s oldest son, Jim.
Times were never easy for the family of a small church preacher, but they survived, he said.
“He depended on the Lord to take care of us and he did,” said Jim Pierce, now 63. “We didn’t starve.”
Pierce, who according to friends and family does not like to “be in the limelight,” not only took care of his wife and three children, but over the years the many members of his church. He helped roof people’s homes, dig septic pits, or do other handy work to help people get by.
Everybody was in dire straits back then, said Pierce.
“We made it work,” said Pierce, who because of health issues turned over the pastoring duties to Burnham this year. “Our people were so poor.”
Those tough times built strong relationships, said his son.
Generations of families have walked through the doors of Grace Baptist Church. Pierce has baptized many and preached the message of salvation to hundreds.
“I married their children and I buried their dead,” said Pierce. “There’s a lot of memories; a lot of good memories.”
Grace Baptist was a special place where visitors were always treated with the best regard, often being served first at the regular Sunday dinner following worship, said Jim Pierce. His father always believed it was the decent thing to do, he said.
“He always said ‘it’s always right to do right, and never right to do wrong’,” said Jim Pierce.
One of nine children whose father committed suicide during the Great Depression, Pierce often went to school barefoot, said Burnham. He taught himself everything, including the Bible.
Those childhood years contributed to Pierce’s determination, wisdom and his undeniable faith in God, said those who know him.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” said Alderman. “He’s a very easy-to-understand preacher. He gives you the Scripture.”
Grace Baptist Church is an independent fundamental Baptist church based on the 18 articles of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, according to Alderman.
The church has more than 100 members, and averages a Sunday attendance of about 80 people.
“There’s more emphasis on the message,” Alderman said. “We preach the church and stand for it.”
Over the years, Pierce has led the church in several missions, such as helping children at Oneco Community Christian School, the Jim Sloan ministry for the deaf, and outreach to the Jacob Garden House, a Jewish mission, according to Alderman.
Around 1958, Pierce started a radio ministry, said Burnham. He continued preaching live on the air for 50 years, until a few years ago when it was sold because it was no longer economically feasible to keep it going.
Reflecting on his father’s career as pastor of Grace Baptist Church, son Jim Pierce called him a “special gentleman,” with some of his biggest accomplishments being the relationships he built with the congregation and the community.
“The Lord has blessed him,” he said. “They don’t make men like my daddy anymore.”