Originally created 01/06/01

A rich history

Looking back at 125 years of history at Curtis Baptist Church, perhaps the most famous name on the rolls is Billy Graham's.

Ray Scarborough Jr. remembers the Sunday night around 1950 when one of Dr. Graham's lieutenants stood before the church's congregation to ask if the evangelist could be a member.

In Baptist fashion, those present voted with a show of hands to accept Dr. Graham. "It was unanimous, of course," said Mr. Scarborough, a teen-ager at the time.

Mr. Scarborough will join several others in chronicling Curtis' 125 years during anniversary services at 10 a.m. Sunday. Dr. Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee in Nashville, Tenn., will be the featured speaker.

The service will be followed by dinner on the grounds and singing, said the Rev. John Link, associate pastor for music and worship.

Dr. Graham never lived in Augusta nor preached at Curtis. According to Baptist polity, neither was required for him to move his membership from his Palatka, Fla., church to Augusta. He maintained his membership at Curtis until July 1953, when he moved it to First Baptist Church of Dallas.

Mr. Scarborough said he thinks Curtis' strong biblical stance appealed to Dr. Graham. And after joining, he had easier access to the pastor, Dr. Earll C. Sheridan, he said. Dr. Sheridan was known throughout the denomination for making a struggling Curtis into a flagship church.

About a year before Dr. Graham joined Curtis, the evangelist preached a revival in Augusta. Dr. Sheridan persuaded him to extend the crusade because it was going so well. Some 65,000 attended during the 16-day event. "Everybody in town went - it was big time," Mr. Scarborough said.

The 2,193-member church at 1326 Broad St. now occupies a city block down the street from Augusta's tallest commercial buildings.

Last summer, the congregation voted to stay in its urban setting, committed to ministry to the surrounding neighborhood and to the members who come from Warrenton, Ga., and beyond Aiken.

Its main campus includes a sanctuary, offices, fellowship hall, classrooms, a day care and an elementary school. A second campus at 2230 Broad St. serves Curtis High School.

The church started as a Sunday-school mission in the 1200 block of Broad Street in 1869. David Curtis, a benefactor, donated a lot in the 1300 block of Broad in 1871. Another $5,000 from a Curtis bequest gave the congregation independent status in 1876 and prompted its new name - Curtis Baptist Church.

The church weathered fluctuating rolls, tight finances and straying members through its first 47 years. When the 235-member congregation issued the call to the Rev. Sheridan, its mood was at low ebb.

The Rev. Sheridan, his wife and their two children came to Augusta in July 1919. The spindly minister was a man with a plan.

Within six months, the church was growing. Sunday-school enrollment nearly doubled, from 37 to 66. The congregation enlarged its sanctuary between 1920 and 1921 to accommodate 500 people, then built the present sanctuary in 1927 to seat about 2,000, big enough to hold Georgia Baptist conventions.

The 1927 sanctuary was equipped with five sets of acousticons to aid the hearing-impaired. A decade later, Curtis started a Sunday school for the deaf. The ministry has evolved over the years to include interpreters and communicators between doctors and patients, conferences, revivals, worship services and discipleship classes.

The church began broadcasting services over radio station WRDW in 1930.

The congregation also supported foreign missions and was instrumental in establishing several daughter congregations, including Hillcrest and Lake Park Baptist churches.

Curtis completed a $213,000 education building and dedicated it to the pastor in 1952.

Illness forced Dr. Sheridan to leave Augusta from time to time to recuperate. A lengthy illness finally ended his 35-year pastorate in 1954. When he resigned, Curtis' membership had climbed to 2,600, and its Sunday school attendance was about 1,500.

Various ministers served Curtis until 1960, when the church invited the Rev. Lawrence Bradley Jr. to be its pastor. Dr. Sheridan had died earlier that year.

Some milestones during Dr. Bradley's tenure included creation of a recreation center, the day school and TV ministry.

Curtis tore down the original church building with its three double doors in 1963 to make room for an activities facility. The new center had a four-lane bowling alley and a skating rink, novel approaches for a church to encourage family-centered recreation. The space was eventually converted to classroom use after the congregation's interest waned.

Curtis began broadcasting a weekly half hour of devotionals and music on WJBF-TV (Channel 6) in 1960.

The Board of Deacons outlined a plan for an accredited school for pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade in 1963, with opening day proposed for fall 1964.

The same month the cornerstone for the Bradley Activities Building was laid - February 1964 - the Rev. Bradley's daughter, Delaine, registered for the fifth grade. On opening day, Aug. 31, 1964, she was among some 225 pupils enrolled at Curtis.

Today, enrollment is 211 at the elementary school and 177 at the high school. There are 87 children in day care.

In 1965, Curtis had the fifth-largest membership among the 3,004 congregations in Georgia, with 3,602 on the rolls. By its centennial, membership was 5,038 and the church's property was valued at more than $3.3 million.

The church is very mission-minded, the Rev. Link said. It has helped start churches in Russia, Israel and Kenya, as well as New York and Chicago, he said. "I have been at churches twice as big who gave less than half (what Curtis does) to foreign missions," he said.

For more information, call 722-7348 or visit Curtis' Web site at www.curtisbaptist.org.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.


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