The year was 1847. The Industrial Revolution had made its way from England to the United States and the sewing machine, a variation of which later became so important to Dalton, had just been invented. Cross Plains was a small village in Murray County, formerly Cherokee Indian territory. The railroad was coming, and settlers were moving in to build homes and start businesses. They wanted churches in which their families could worship.
So, on November 29, 1847, a small group of Baptist worshippers gathered to constitute a church. The charter members numbered nine, one of whom was Rev. George Selvidge, the first pastor. In that same year, Cross Plains was renamed Dalton. Under the direction of the early Daltonian, Ainsworth Emery Blount, a wood frame chapel had been built just south of our present courthouse (probably somewhere in front of the post office). This building was used alternately by Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist congregations. This arrangement continued until 1851, when Baptists and Methodists built their own churches on land acquired from Edward White, one of Dalton’s founding fathers. The Presbyterian congregation purchased the chapel. In 1851, Whitfield County also came into existence on land separated out of Murray County.
The history of First Baptist could be written about buildings. There have been four. First there was the chapel used by three different congregations; then in 1851-52 a white frame building replaced a log schoolhouse on the corner of Selvidge and Waugh Streets (currently the Krystal Restaurant). It was arranged to house a school on the ground floor and a church on the second floor. Since this church was badly damaged by use as a hospital during the Civil War, a third building was begun in 1874, but was not completed until 1887 because of the physical and financial difficulties of that post-war era. With several renovations, the third building was occupied until 1959, when the present home of First Baptist on Thornton Avenue was completed. The first addition to the 1959 building was constructed in 1970 to provide more Sunday school space. The Family Life Center was constructed in 1981. The most recent changes in First Baptist facilities began in 2005 with planning for an extensive renovation of the entire campus. Plans were adopted by the church in January, 2006. The project, which provides state of the art children’s and youth facilities and also more open greeting and fellowship spaces, was dedicated on September 21, 2008.
Buildings, however, are only a part of the story of a church. Organizations and mission endeavors speak volumes about a congregation. Since formation of a Sunday school in the early days of the church, Bible education and spiritual formation have assumed central roles at First Baptist. Programs for youth and children were soon included as important components of Christian education. Bible study is still a key part of First Baptist’s identity. Excellent music is also important to worship and Christian education. Choirs exist for every age group, and church members have given pianos, organs, and hymnbooks for the use of our people in singing God’s praise. In 1981, with the opening of the Family Life Center, a program of activities was begun to include physical and fellowship events in addition to spiritual disciplines. Mission activities are carried out all over the world. First Baptist’s primary partner in missions is Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but partnerships are also maintained with Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist General Association of Virginia, and other local and state organizations.
The church began a kindergarten program in 1958, which has evolved into the present-day Children’s Learning Center, serving the entire Dalton community. Another community ministry, The Christian Counseling Center of Dalton, was begun within the church facility in 1984 by Dr. Billy Nimmons, pastor at that time. Its continued growth prompted renovation and dedication in 2002 of a nearby building for the sole use of the center. It now employs four licensed therapists.
Many committed lay people and consecrated pastors have led the church in being faithful to minister in Christ’s name. Forty-four pastors have served First Baptist, several more than once during periods of difficulty such as the Civil War. A church, in the final analysis, is more than buildings, cherished artifacts such as bells or old communion sets, or even long-standing organizations. Church history is the story of people and their commitment and devotion to God, on whom they call for direction in their journey. Throughout its great history, First Baptist has been a church of vision, missions, spiritual growth and leadership. A strong church fellowship has been the foundation for an outward turn toward ministries in the Dalton community and throughout the world.