Crescent Hill Baptist Church, An Historical Overview -- Timothy George
Crescent Hill Baptist Church was organized on January 12, 1908, when some 43 members of Clifton Baptist Church decided that there was a need for another Baptist witness in this section of Louisville. In fact, as early as 1890 Dr. T.T. Eaton had alerted the Long Run association to the potential for church-planting in the Crescent Hill community. The decision of the 43 charter members was promoted in part by controversy within the Clifton church (est. 1893), including the dissatisfaction of some members with the pastor. Begotten in the squabble, Crescent Hill could not have had a more genuinely “Baptist” beginning!
The first service was held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. N.C. Shouse. On this occasion the congregation adopted the much used “Church Covenant” from J. Newton Brown’s Church Manual as well as the “Philadelphia Confession of Faith”. The first sermon was delivered by the Rev. J.T. Sampson on the text, I Cor. 15.58. For two years this fledgling congregation met in the lower floor of a hardware store (corner of Frankfort and Hite), rented begrudgingly by the owner for $15.00 per month. Among the earliest actions taken by the church was application for membership into Long Run Baptist Association, and the calling of a pastor. In August, 1908, John F. Griffith, a Seminary student, was called as the church’s first pastor at an annual salary of $1,500. By September, 1910, Sunday enrollment was averaging in the 250’s (attendance in the 170’s); the first B.Y.P.U. was organized in 1912. From its earliest years the church was concerned with missions. Regular offerings for both Foreign and Home Mission ministries were collected.
Although the church grew under the ministry of the Rev. Griffith and his tenure was marked by the erection of the first building on the present site, it was also rent by internal strife. The pastor’s sermons against “dancing, card-playing, pool-playing, and such Kindred Worldly Amusements”, as well as his opposition to all interdenominational contacts, were opposed by a sizable minority of members. He resigned in 1912 and was succeeded by the Rev. Oscar M. Huey who served from 1913 to 1918. During Huey's pastorate, cut short by illness, the church repaid a large share of the church’s indebtedness and expanded mission concerns. Many of the church's sons marched off to WWI and one would die in 1919.
Dr. Charles L. Graham was pastor of Crescent Hill longer than anyone else, for 22 years to be exact. He preached his first sermon as pastor on November 10, 1918, the eve of Armistice Day, and resigned on March 1, 1940, just 10 months before the United States entered World War II. During these years between the Great Wars, Crescent Hill experienced some of its most glorious and its most trying days.
Having liquidated the outstanding debt, the church soon undertook plans for a new sanctuary. The completion of the new building was timed to coincide with the opening of the adjacent new campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The corner stone-laying exercises were held on Sunday afternoon, August 22, 1926. The sermon for this occasion was delivered by Dr. J.B. Weatherspoon, then pastor of Highland Baptist Church. The new building cost around $350,000. The first service in the completed sanctuary was held on May 1, 1927, the Sunday School attendance on that day was 767. Across the years Crescent Hill Baptist Church and Southern Seminary developed close but informal ties of mutual support and friendship. Seminary faculty members often supplied the pulpit; likewise, seminary students were an integral part of the life of the church. For many years commencement exercises and other special convocations such as the Mullins lectures were held in the Crescent Hill sanctuary. In the course of these events many of the finest preachers in the world spoke from our pulpit.
In the late twenties and early thirties Crescent Hill was the center of a bustling growing community. Sometimes worship services were interrupted by noises outside: it was reported that a train went by every twenty minutes, and streetcars more often. In 1926 the church led an effort to oppose “the Moving Picture Show remaining open on Sunday”. (Already in 1913 the church had protested a “Vaudeville” show being presented in the same building which now houses the Crescent Theatre!) This was also a period of inter-church cooperation. Crescent Hill joined with other congregations to sponsor the Anti-Saloon League, the Billy Sunday revival, and flood relief for victims of the great Louisville flood of 1927.
Crescent Hill has always been a generous congregation. In the twenties, the church contributed significantly to the 75 Million Campaign, the forerunner of our current Cooperative Program. Special mission offerings and local benevolence funds were also given high priority. With the onset of the Depression, however, the church faced its toughest financial crisis. Only by extraordinary commitment from dedicated members, including salary reductions for the ministers and for some even the mortgaging of their homes, was threatened foreclosure on the church property averted.
When Dr. Graham resigned in 1940, the church along with the nation was passing out of one era into another. Having never married, Dr. Graham held rooms in Mullins Hall where he continued to serve as mentor to a generation of theological students, not the least of whom was Carlyle Marney. He retained membership in Crescent Hill until his death in 1953.
During the turbulent and heady years of World War II Crescent Hill continued to grow and expand its ministries. A persistent emphasis during these years was on debt retirement, as can be gauged by the slogans: “Debt Free in ‘43” and “Owe No More After “44”. During this period the church was pastured by Dr. William C. Boone, fifth generation Kentucky Baptist preacher and descendant of the famous Daniel Boone. He led the church in strongly supporting the war effort. In all some 123 members of Crescent Hill served in the Armed Forces, three of whom lost their lives. In September, 1944, the church took the unusual action of authorizing war chaplains who were church members to Baptist converts and commend them to membership in any Baptist church of their choice.
The post-war years at Crescent Hill witnessed sustained growth and consolidation of earlier gains. Dr. Rollin S. Burhans served as pastor from 1946 to 1960. While the Korean War and the McCarthy hearings held the attention of the nation, Crescent Hill developed dynamic church organizations and outreach ministries. During these years under the leadership of W.L. Wigginton, the Sunday School program was strengthened and expanded. The success of this effort resulted in the building of a new educational facility. Evangelistic outreach through revival services brought new people into the church. On February 21, 1960 Sunday School attendance reached 1,007. During these years Crescent Hill also provided leadership for associational and state Baptist mission activities.
The decade of the sixties was marked by the outstanding pulpit ministry of Dr. John R. Claypool who was pastor from 1960 to 1971. In a period of violence and social upheaval, Dr. Claypool addressed the deepest concerns of the world outside as well as the integrity of faith for the individual Christian. In particular, the racial crisis was a focus of concern both within the congregation and in the community. Also during these years the church staff was expanded to include new emphases on social ministry and counseling.
Dr. John E. Howell served as pastor from 1973 to 1978. These were years of introspection and re-evaluation as the church sought to define its role in a changing community. The by-laws were rewritten in an effort to move closer to the New Testament ideal of the church. Dr. Howell was much beloved for his deep compassion of the people and his gifts for pastoral care.
Following an extended interim period, Crescent Hill welcomed Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker as pastor in May, 1981. A mood of rejoicing, hope, and renewed commitment marked the church’s embrace of the new pastor. The “Crescent Hill Hymn” written by two church members expressed the feelings of the entire congregation.
We, O God, unite our voices,
Raised in thankful praise to Thee.
Thou, unchanging, safe hath brought us
Through the ever-changing sea.
Days of calm and days of conflict,
Nights of darkness prove Thy grace.
Hands beneath us, arms around us,
And, above, They shining face.
Through many struggles, hurts, and difficulties God has sustained the fellowship of believers known as the Crescent Hill Baptist Church. A sense of divine providence pervades our history. May we ever be faithful to our Lord whose name we bear and in whose steps we are determined to follow.
Much of this sketch is based on Dr. Leo T. Crismon’s “History of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church.”
[Dr. Timothy George wrote the above history in 1983 for a brochure celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the church. Only minor changes have been made by this editor (jwa)]
CRESCENT HILL BAPTIST CHURCH
2800 Frankfort Avenue
Louisville, Kentucky 40206