The year was 1872. The “city” of Huntington had been recently chartered, and the fledgling municipality consisted of less than 3,000 hardy souls who navigated muddy streets and braying horses. There were no sidewalks or street lights, just a hodgepodge of simple buildings and businesses. The city was recovering from a smallpox outbreak, and the first public well had been completed on the corner of Third Avenue and 12th Street. Much of the land comprising Huntington had been purchased by the man for whom the city was named and placed in the Central Land Company for development, overseen by Colonel Delos W. Emmons, Mr. Huntington’s brother-in-law. Peter Cline Buffington had recently been elected as Huntington’s first mayor in December of 1871.
Collis P. Huntington had been elected as president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company in 1869, and he saw the city that would bear his name as a logical junction of the western edge of a railway from the east coast on the Ohio River. He employed Rufus Cook, a surveyor from Boston, Massachusetts, to lay out the city in a grid of intersecting streets and avenues. His survey map was filed on December 6, 1871. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad shops and two rows of company houses had been commenced in 1870 along Eighth Avenue, east of 20th Street, and served as the engine for the bit of commerce that transpired in Huntington at that time.
On August 10, 1872, Reverend A. M. Simms, pastor of the Guyandotte Baptist Church—which had been doing “missionary” work in the new city of Huntington to the west of Guyandotte—called a meeting to organize a new church in Huntington. On October 20, 1872, First Baptist of Huntington was organized with 15 charter members. The church operated under this charter until June 29, 1887, when the name was changed to Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in deference to the First Baptist Church organized by African-Americans at an earlier time. The initial charter members brought letters of membership from nine churches in five states: West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Vermont, and New York.
The first service of the new church was held in the chapel at Marshall College. Marshall College had been established in 1837 as a private subscription school by residents of Guyandotte. The name was changed to Marshall College in 1858 and affirmed in 1867 after West Virginia became a separate state. The early use of the chapel at Marshall by FAB served as the launching point of a long-standing linkage between FAB and Marshall.
By March of 1873, there were 100 Baptists of the 3,000 inhabitants of Huntington—and 67 of them had become members of Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. From 1874 to 1877, FAB had no pastor but conducted Sunday School sessions and home prayer meetings. The church struggled to find suitable meeting space.
A “God moment” in the early life of FAB happened in early 1877, when four men had a chance meeting at the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street. Elisha J. Eastman, James Newton Potts, Henry D. Stewart and Major W. S. Downer were among the early founders of FAB.
Major Downer was uniquely positioned to help lead the early efforts, having served as the major in charge of the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry at the time of John Brown’s famous raid. He became editor of the Huntington Independent on his move to Huntington, a newspaper that became a forerunner of The Herald Dispatch.
Mr. Potts was a Confederate army veteran who had moved to Huntington from Bath County, Virginia. He was a grocer when he came to Huntington in 1871, but he soon joined J. H. Cammack, another influential Huntingtonian, in the insurance business. He served as city clerk, judge of police courts, and humane officer in the community. He loved FAB and served in various roles in the church, serving as church clerk for 42 years. He served as moderator or moderator emeritus of the Guyandotte Baptist Association for 50 years. His contributions to his city and church were so numerous that City Hall was closed for the hour of his funeral in 1931 and flags were flown at half mast.
With the fate of the young church hanging in the balance, the four friends prayed, and Mr. Potts noted that Dr. William Parkinson Walker of Williamstown, West Virginia, was interested in coming to Huntington to lead FAB. The four friends elected Mr. Eastman as the chairman of the ad hoc pastoral call committee. Mr. Eastman presided from his perch on the sack of meal that he had been carrying. The four agreed to call Dr. Walker, and a telegram was sent to the West Virginia Baptist Association with the message: “Give Walker $200 and send him to Huntington. The life of the cause seems to depend upon it.”
By the time Dr. Walker answered the call in April of 1877, only thirteen of the original members remained. Major Downer died unexpectedly on the night before Dr. Walker preached his first sermon as FAB’s minister. The church services during this period were held in Lallance Hall, which stood on the corner of Third Avenue and Eighth Street. FAB met in a number of temporary spaces during the renovation of Lallance Hall, prompting one member to describe the return to the regular meeting space as one of “deep and exultant joy that comes to a congregation of earnest people who have wandered around homeless for a long time and finally…fall into a place of worship, which they may call their own.” This meeting space proved to be problematic, as the first floor of this space housed a saloon!
FAB became a member of the Guyandotte Baptist Association later in 1877 with 35 members on the church roll. H. L. Wright was the first member to join by baptism, performed by Dr. Walker in the Ohio River on October 3, 1877. During Dr. Walker’s first year of ministry, 59 members joined the church. The budget of FAB for 1877 was $699.06, with $44.78 paid to state missions, $13.80 to foreign missions, and $450 used to pay the pastor’s salary.
Photo: From 1881-1916, the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church congregation met on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, until even a second building (pictured here on a vintage postcard) was too small to accommodate the growing church. Photo courtesy of James E. Casto.