Since 1877, the Antioch Baptist Church North has stood in Atlanta as a beacon of hope and a place of refuge. For five generations, the congregational family has reached out and nurtured thousands of persons who have been counted among the least, the last, and the lost. As a Church Family, we celebrate our 133rd Anniversary with a renewed commitment to build upon the remarkable record of charitable Christian Service that has made Antioch one of God’s best churches. The journey from 1877 to 2010 has not been easy, but it certainly has been rewarding! Those rewards and God’s promise of eternal life, gives our ever growing congregation inspiration and meaning to continue the journey “to see what the end would be.”
The Congregation remembers those eight former slaves-who in search of a safe and secure place to praise God-loosely formed a prayer band that eventually evolved into the beloved Antioch Baptist Church North, an Atlanta landmark known nationally as a flagship church in the struggle for human dignity and the plight of the less fortunate and the unsaved. The Antioch Congregation’s earliest meetings and worship services were held outside under the stars or in shanty one-room structures that the founding brethren called home.
To fully appreciate the historical significance of the Congregation’s founding, one must remember all the unsettling circumstances that were happening in the South during the 1880’s when the Antioch Congregation was founded. President Abraham Lincoln had recently freed the slaves when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In 1864, General Sherman destroyed and burned every building in Atlanta during his vivid march across Georgia during the infamous Civil War. With their new freedom gained at the end of the Civil War, thousands of former slaves with only the rags on their backs emerged into Atlanta from the great south and central Georgia cotton plantations. Included in those numbers were the founders of our congregation. They all were traveling north searching for the new promise land.
One hundred and thirty-three (133) years ago, Atlanta was not the great city that she is today. The city was beginning to rebuild from the ravages of the Civil War. It was not a city too busy to hate. Atlanta merchants and builders took advantage of black people; knowing that they had worked as slaves with no compensation, would hire four to five blacks for the wages of one white person. As a result of this practice, Atlanta’s poor white citizens were resentful and began terrorizing these former slaves for taking jobs from them.
Adding to the confusing, the newly organized Atlanta newspapers began to distort and sensationalize feelings between Atlanta’s blacks and whites. As a result, black people became too frightened to travel distances. By 1877, black Atlantans had become isolated to individual living wards and areas called “colored quarters.” In the quarters that became known as Fifth Ward, there was not a single church to gather for worship and rejoicing. A trip across town, through the white quarters, to the nearest colored church was like putting one’s life into the hands of the devil.
Out of this fear and the need to serve God, Oscar Young, Miles Crawford, Jordan Beavers, Lem Wright and four other former slaves organized a prayer group, calling themselves the Bethursday Prayer Band-because the “meetin’ be on Thursdays.” As the meetings grew in regularity, so did the numbers of persons attending. The meetings moved from house to house until the group was able to use space in a butcher shop where one of the members worked. Eight years later in 1895, the members of the Bethursday Prayer Band borrowed $200 from the Southern Home Building and Loan Association and purchased its first property, a dilapidated basement structure at number seven Wallace Street. It was a stretch, but the group agreed to payback the loan at $1.20 per month. While many of today’s congregation members may get a tickle from this fact, it was an unbelievable amount of money to be entrusted to uneducated, former slaves without any collateral.
The initial loan to purchase the Wallace Street property was paid off in record time in 1899. The congregation then-more than a century ago-faced the same challenge then that the Antioch Congregation faces today. They wondered how would they address and serve the needs of their growing membership in a space that had become over-crowded and too small even though they had just purchased the property five years earlier. Their dilemma in 1899 was a cause of great concern as they questioned their preparedness for serving God’s people at the start of the 20th Century.
Today, the Antioch pastor, deacons, and membership face the same challenge and ask the same questions that the Bethursday Prayer Group asked. “How will we address and serve the needs of an ever growing membership in a space that has become over-crowded and too small even though we just built it a few years earlier?”
In 1899, at the dawning of this century, the Bethursday Prayer Band renewed that initial loan and remodeled its basement structure to adequately serve its members. In addition, they changed their name and identity from the Bethursday Prayer Band to Antioch Baptist Church and moved into the 20th Century with jubilant enthusiasm and great excitement.
The founders should be commended on their choice of the name Antioch. It was a fine choice for it was at Antioch that the term “Christian” was first given to converts to the new faith and it was Paul’s point of departure on his missionary journey.
By the early 1920’s, the Antioch membership had grown tremendously and now included a few property owners, skilled laborers, and a few other persons who had been exposed to education; some could even read and write. This was a time of rapid growth and expansion for our young congregation.
The names of the very early ministers who nurtured the young Antioch congregation have been lost to memory and written records, but they are warmly remembered for courageously proclaiming the gospel and instilling within the young congregational family the basic tenets and benefits of Fellowship, Stewardship, Evangelism and the adherence to Baptist Doctrine.
In 1922, the Reverend Timothy Saine was called to Antioch and guided the young congregation through the l920’s. His leadership stressed the dignity of work and honest labor. He is especially remembered today for his leadership in building Antioch’s first sanctuary. In 1924, the congregation borrowed three thousand dollars to build its first sanctuary using its recently acquired properties at Wallace and Gray Streets as collateral.
Antioch’s first church building was no architectural wonder, but it was a fine example of civic architecture of the day wherein everyone in the congregation and community helped to build it. It was a stark clapboard structure housing the sanctuary atop a tall stone foundation that served as the first fellowship hall.
Having been trained at Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, Reverend Saine encouraged the membership to prepare themselves and their children for opportunities in teaching, railroad employment, carpentry and other skilled jobs. His teachings fostered at Antioch an atmosphere of encouragement and hope and accounted for a remarkable level of family solidarity and the upward mobility of the young church.
In 1927, Revered Timothy George was called to lead Antioch. He provided guidance and leadership during the Great Depression when large masses of the congregational family found themselves unemployed following the famous stock market crash as Atlanta banks, businesses, and manufacturing companies closed. It is seldom talked about, but the young congregation could not met its financial obligations and maintain the day-to-day financial operations of the church during this very difficult time. As a result, the church’s property was foreclosed upon and sold on the steps of the Fulton County Courthouse. That was a sad time in the Congregation’s history, but because of the membership’s determined stewardship and faithfulness and the effective leadership of Rev. George, the property was quickly recovered.
By 1940 when the City of Atlanta proposed building federal public housing in the community, Antioch had regained its anchor and its rightful position as the voice of the community. The Congregation was elated about the idea of decent public housing for the area, not knowing at the time that Herndon Homes would displace their church building.
By an act of easement, the Housing Authority of the City of Atlanta paid the congregation $8,300 for its Gray Street property. Not wanting to relocate from the area where the Congregation had been conceived, nurtured, and allowed to grow, Rev. George, the deacons and the trustees agreed to purchase available property beginning at the southwest corner of Kennedy and Lambert Streets for sixteen hundred dollars. Antioch moved its wooden sanctuary from its Gray Street stone foundation to a newly built foundation on Lambert Street. With the remaining funds, the Church made a few minor cosmetic changes to the building, but the warm spirited feeling of the congregation remained as it was.
Rev. George’s son, the charismatic and energetic, Rev. D.T. George served as pastor of Antioch during the l940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s. During his pastorate, the church facilities were drastically renovated. Instead of relocating the Congregation during the Northside Drive expansion as the State Department of Transportation had suggested, Antioch remained at its location, turned its façade from Lambert Street now called Northside Drive, to Kennedy Street.
While the building was raised for the current worship center, it is important to remember that Rev. George restructured the organization of the congregation because he did not want just a church full of Sunday worshippers. He organized a number of auxiliaries to ensure the maximum participation from all segments of the congregation. Many of those organizations are still in existence today and are important to the vitality of the Antioch Congregation. Included are the Deaconess, the Matronetts, the Fisherman Club, the Service Guild, the Nurses Aid, the Male Chorus, the Progressive Garden Club, and choirs numbered 2 and 3, and the D.T. George Gospel Chorus all of which have grown into the Antioch Choir. Rev. George was impaired by a stroke and retired in l963.
The Rev. W. Marcus Williams became pastor of Antioch in l963. He geared the congregation’s attention toward social programs that would benefit the membership. He organized a church credit union and a day care center. In l969, he resigned the Antioch pulpit and accepted a new challenge.
The Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander accepted the Call to Antioch in 1969. After 41 years of incredible service, his tenure as pastor has been the longest in Antioch’s history. Under his dynamic and visionary leadership, the congregation has grown from less than 500 persons to an ever-growing membership that currently exceeds 14,000. The Rev. Alexander has been the driving force in the congregation’s acquiring more than 87 separate parcels of land to facilitate the daily operations of Antioch and to enhance future growth needs. Antioch’s annual operating budget has grown from slightly more than thirty thousand dollars when he arrived as pastor to an access of 5 million dollars based not on raffles, bake sales and gimmicks, but strictly upon the congregation’s generous gifts, tithes, and offerings.
To maintain the many programs associated with Pastor Alexander’s ministry and his vision for Antioch’s future spiritual and economic development and growth, the Church staff has grown from the one part-time employee who worked when Pastor Alexander arrived to more than 60 full and parttime staff members. These employees manage church administrative services, plant operations, the transportation fleet, the Antioch Urban Ministries, and the other various outreach activities and services that Pastor Alexander has organized to service the needs of the membership.
Pastor Alexander also provided visionary leadership in the planning and the execution of the most ambitious building program in Antioch Congregation’s history. During the late 1970’s, he led the Congregation in purchasing 28 acres of beautiful, wooded land in Southwest Atlanta in the Adamsville Community. It was to become the site of the Congregation’s new worship center. However, God directed Pastor Alexander to keep the Antioch Congregation where it was within the inner city.
To the surprise of many and especially to the Atlanta business community, the Pastor and Congregation demolished its old building, purchased more than 42 single parcels of land surrounding the church facilities and built its current multi-million dollar worship center and adjoining administrative wing at its same location at 540 Kennedy Street. Eventually, the land that was purchased in Southwest Atlanta was sold and became a subdivision.
Most congregations experience membership decline during large building and acquisition programs, but under Pastor Alexander’s guidance, the Antioch membership quadrupled causing him to expand his outreach ministries ten-fold to meet the needs of new members and those continually coming to Antioch for help and for directions.
Inspired by the six ministries in the Book of Matthew that outline the Church’s responsibility to the less fortunate, Pastor Alexander established Antioch’s Urban Ministries in the early 1990’s. In 1991, as Chairman of the Board for AUMI, Pastor Alexander provided leadership in acquiring the 12-story Walton Hotel in downtown Atlanta. Valued at more than 15 million dollars, the hotel was transformed into apartments for the working homeless and persons with noninfectious tuberculosis. It has been renamed the Madison House as a fitting tribute to the pastor whose middle name is Madison.
In 1992, the Ananias House was opened as a temporary home for recovering addicts and in l994; Ruth’s Place was opened for women dealing with similar problems. Also in l994, Matthew’s Place was opened as a home for those who are HIV-positive. Pastor Alexander provided the leadership for the establishment of Project Redirection and Project Youth Redirection as alternatives to incarceration for first times offenders.
In 1997, Pastor Alexander led the Congregation into purchasing the Selig business plaza located adjacent the worship center to house the offices and administrative staff for the Antioch Urban Ministries. In addition, the old Danzig Motel that was located in Northeast Atlanta on Chapel Road was purchased and renovated as the new home for Matthew’s Place to better serve more persons who are HIV-positive.
In 1999, again under Pastor Alexander’s leadership, the Congregation purchased eleven acres of property and a multi-purpose building at 590 North Avenue. Known to the Congregation as “the 590,” the building hosts a variety of congregation events and is used most frequently for youth activities.
In 2001, Pastor Alexander provided leadership in the Congregation’s purchase of eleven “prized” acres of land located between Simpson Road and Kennedy Street. The purchased was considered a prize inasmuch as several developers wanted the property. Also, four additional adjacent acres were purchased from the CSX Railroad. These acquisitions will certainly keep the Congregation from becoming land locked in an area that they have called home for almost 13 decades.
In 2004, Antioch celebrated the opening of the wonderful Gateway Apartment Community, a neighborhood development partnership opportunity spearheaded by the Congregation’s Bethursday Development Corporation. The apartment community provides 261 units of quality affordable housing on the Antioch campus fronting Northside Drive. The complex is welcomed as the precursor for continued and aggressive development of the English Avenue Community. Complementing the apartment homes is a 400 car parking deck, an 8,000 square foot retail component, full sized swimming pool, and interior courts with wonderful green spaces. Earlier this year, the Bethursday Development Corporation broke ground and is building 36 for sale townhomes on Elm Street.
While many congregations as old as Antioch often split and its members and leadership reorganize because of anger, under Pastor Alexander’s leadership, Antioch has successfully established six missions, four of which have become strong, thriving congregational churches. These new church congregations serve as living testimonies that Antioch’s commitment to Christian Service is as strong, as dedicated, and as much needed today as it was in l877 when eight former slaves came together for the first time in what would eventually evolved into the beloved Antioch Baptist Church.
Today, no one can predict all the challenges that the Antioch Congregation will face during the 21st Century. But as members of the body of Christ known and loved as Antioch, the Congregation will use the observance of its 133rd Anniversary to reflect upon its past and make a collective pledge that the membership’s hearts will remain warm and their minds receptive to the move of the Holy Spirit. The entire congregation will also continue to pray that Antioch will remain anchored to the traditions of her founding brethren in its spirit and in its commitment to God’s word and to Christian Service. As a congregation, we will all work aggressively to keep Antioch as a symbol of hope and a place of refuge and a living testament to the greatness and goodness of God. In so doing, we will continue the journey and build upon a legacy of strong Christian Service worthy of continued emulation and a very special place close to our Savior’s throne.