Marietta’s First Baptist Church celebrating 200th year

Photo by Michael Kelly First Baptist Church at Putnam and Third streets in Marietta will celebrate its 200th anniversary during the second weekend in September, coinciding with the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival.

MARIETTA — While Marietta celebrates its history as a river city the second weekend in September, the congregation of First Baptist Church will mark a milestone in its own history as a part of Marietta.

On Sept. 8-9, the church will hold an open house, a combined worship service and a free concert to invite the community to help acknowledge its 200th anniversary.

The church was founded on Sept. 5, 1818, when five people signed the articles of faith. Its first building was dedicated in April 1836.

The massive, dressed limestone church at Third and Putnam streets that is now the congregation’s home dates back to 1907.

Pastor Chad Mugrage has been the church’s spiritual leader for six years. The church, he said, is conscious of its long and rewarding past but also looking ahead.

Photo by Michael Kelly Pastor Chad Mugrage and custodian Tom Hamilton talk outside First Baptist Church in downtown Marietta. The church, celebrating its 200th year, bears a plaque detailing its history on the wall by the main entrance.

“We honor our rich history, but we need to remain vibrant enough to move into the modern era,” he said. “We want to be around for another 200 years.”

Last year, Mugrage began holding two Sunday services, one traditional and one contemporary, to accommodate the preferences of both long-time members and younger people. The congregation has grown from about 100 to 150 who attend on an average Sunday.

The building, although it retains the commanding architecture outside, has been extensively renovated inside over the past few years.

Walking through the children’s area in the basement, where natural light flows in through glass block windows, Mugrage points out walls covered with murals of biblical scenes executed in a kind, unthreatening, cartoon-like style, including a bright recess at the back painted like the lion’s den from the book of Daniel, with friendly creatures protecting the prophet.

The main entrance got an extensive remake in the past few years, with new windows and doors opening into a casual coffee shop setting, with tables and chairs and a bar, backed by a room-width, intricate bas-relief of cast ceramic pieces depicting the church, its setting in Marietta, and, as a sign reads, people going in to worship and out to serve.

Photo by Michael Kelly Pastor Chad Mugrage and custodian Tom Hamilton examine a room-width bas-relief mural in the entrance of First Baptist Church in Marietta. In early September, the church will celebrate its 200th anniversary.

“I especially like the clouds,” he said, pointing to the sky over the church. “Look closely, and you can see the faces of those who have gone before us.”

The sanctuary was remodeled in the 1960s in a style Mugrage describes as “church in the round.” Rather than an amphitheater arrangement, the stage is a peninsula out into the pews, giving the vast room a sense of intimacy and bringing the pastor closer during sermons.

“It was cutting edge then, and it still feels that way now,” he said.

Tom Hamilton’s membership in the church started in 1953, when he was 2 years old.

“My mother brought me and my brothers and sisters to Marietta from St. Marys (West Virginia), and she met a woman at a rummage sale who invited us to church here,” he said.

Hamilton has been the church custodian for 32 years.

“What do I like about this church?” he said. “I like all the people, worshiping God. I’ve had a lot of good teachers here.”

He recalls at age 6 or 7 being fascinated by the bell tower at the church, which was off-limits to the younger members of the congregation.

“Little did I know that one day I would be ringing that bell,” he said.

The church’s place in the community, Mugrage said, is to be a partner and an asset. First Baptist supports the Gospel Mission Food Pantry rather than trying to start its own. It’s also formed partnerships with the campus ministry at Marietta College and Marietta City Schools.

The church’s logo, he said, is among those shown as partners in education at the MCS administration office.

The church hosts breakfasts for teachers two or three times a year and at least once a year holds an appreciation meal for first responders, including city fire and police staff and sheriff’s deputies.

The church has been through trials, he said, including a fire that destroyed the first building in 1855, flooding in the 1930s, and a catastrophic boiler explosion that killed four people in 1971.

“If I had one word for this church, it would be ‘resilient.’ In its 200 years, it has always come back up,” Mugrage said.

The 200 anniversary celebration begins with an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 8, then continues Sunday with a combined service at 10:30 a.m. and a free concert featuring the Buckeye Travelers Band in the sanctuary starting at 6 p.m.

Another item on the agenda is the sealing of a time capsule.

Mugrage said a newspaper article from May 29, 1906, disclosed that a copper box time capsule had been buried with the church cornerstone during construction.

Mugrage said he obtained one that can be sealed in a way that won’t allow it to be opened for 50 years, eliminating the need to seal it in stone.

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First Baptist Church of Marietta

* Founded: Sept. 5, 1818 by Ephraim Emerson, William Churchill, John Thorniley, Bain Posey and Mary Chase.

* First building: Church Street, 1836-1855 (destroyed by fire).

* Second building: Near City Hall, 1853-1907 (it was being built at the time the original church burned).

* Current location: Dedicated Sept. 22, 1907.

* First pastor: The Rev. James McAboy.

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