Greater Tulsa Reporter
SINCE 1897: Downtown Tulsa’s First Baptist Church is a landmark. It is seen here from the Detroit Ave. entrance with a dramatic skyline towering above. Dr. Deron Spoo is pastor and he invites anyone to come explore Christianity.
DANIEL C. CAMERON for GTR Newspapers
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a long series featuring Tulsa-area places of worship, including a review of their history and beliefs. Please call (918) 254-1515 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like your place of worship recognized.
First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa has a history that coincides with the earliest days of the city, when Tulsa was a small Indian Territory trading post on the banks of the Arkansas River and known affectionately as “Tulsey Town.”
Today, the church is situated at Fourth Street and Cincinnati Avenue in a complex of several buildings and has a congregation of over 3,000. It originated as “Missionary Baptist” in May of 1897. The Reverend W.A. King, district missionary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, a revival team and 12 others were the founders and first members. In her book about First Baptist’s history, “The Story of a Church: Highlights of the First Hundred Years,” author Alice Heath describes the church’s first services, which were held in the Mowbray Furniture Store and Undertaking Parlor on South Cincinnati Avenue between Second and Third Streets.
Within four months, the congregation had grown to 76 members. A year later, the church members had managed to construct their own building on Cincinnati Avenue between First and Second Streets, thus allowing the members to relocate from the furniture store and undertaking parlor. Although they had a new building they did not have baptizing facilities, so new members continued to be baptized in the Arkansas River.
As the town grew so did the church and by statehood in 1907, according to Heath, “Tulsa Baptist” as it was then called, began steadily evolving into First Baptist and the church it would become today.”
The first few decades of First Baptist’s history were punctuated by financial difficulties, a common problem among new and growing churches. Despite initial struggles in the beginning years, the church continued to grow steadily and in 1927 opened a new sanctuary with enough seating for 2,200 people. Things were rosy until January 1929 when Pastor Dr. William Anderson tendered his resignation in order to follow a calling to a church in California. Anderson was succeeded by Dr. Robert Bateman, whose first year as Pastor coincided with the Great Depression.
Though presented with a series of challenges over the years, First Baptist continually developed its outreach programs and by 1942 opened a new education building. By the church’s 50th birthday in 1947, church membership numbered 5,000 and at least 2,000 worshipers a week were attending services. Church programs continued to grow. The Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) was the largest in the Southern Baptist Convention with projects including a scholarship to Oklahoma Baptist University, support for a Children’s Home, a missionary in China and Hillcrest nursing students. Students in Vacation Bible School numbered over 600.
In April 1957 Dr. Warren Hultgren of Trinity Baptist in Lake Charles, La., arrived in Tulsa to succeed interim pastor Dr. Boyd Hunt as pastor of First Baptist. Dr. Hultgren would serve as pastor for 35 years, retiring in 1992. Deron Spoo, today’s pastor, says, “Warren Hultgren was a fantastic pastor and much loved in the community. Part of the strength of the foundation we are on is due to his leadership, integrity and pastoral care of the church.” He adds, “When Warren Hultgren retired he was replaced by Sam Shaw. He was also a wonderful pastor. We have been fortunate to have excellent, committed leadership. This is evident when you consider that over the past 70 years First Baptist has had only four pastors.”
Spoo, a native Texan, came to First Baptist in May of 2000 after serving at a church in Alabama. When asked how First Baptist has changed since his arrival he says, “Realizing that many churches are stuck in the 18th or 19th centuries, we have made, and continue to make a concerted effort to reach out to the next generation of Christ. Part of this ongoing effort included starting our 8:30 a.m. contemporary service for those who want a more modern feel in worship, and in praise music.”
Spoo says the efforts have been successful. Over the past ten years the younger membership of the church has grown more than 50 percent. “On any given Sunday we have about 1,500 people attending church,” Spoo says. “About 500 will be children in our Sunday School curriculum and children in our preschool ministry.”
Another change that has occurred over the past several years is First Baptist’s outreach into downtown Tulsa through the Caring Center ministry and other programs, an outreach to the underserved.
First Baptist’s purpose is evident by its mission statement, “To glorify God in all we do.” “We do this by serving others,” says Spoo, “Over the past several years I’ve seen a wonderful development in how we are perceived in the community. When I first arrived I’d receive complaints that we weren’t friendly to the community. That rarely happens now.” Spoo says,
“We’ve seen this positive development because at First Baptist we don’t get embroiled in fights and we don’t get sucked into controversies. Our emphasis is on following Jesus and continually learning what it means to be a follower of Christ. We’re doing what we should be doing; growing in the Lord, reaching out, getting involved and focusing on serving the needs of others.” He offers, “And for people who are looking for a church, or just thinking about it, everyone is welcome at First Baptist. I encourage folks to drop in any Sunday. We’d love to have you visit us.”
When asked if there is anything else he would like to say, Spoo answers, “Yes. I’m a Southern Baptist but I don’t scream and yell in my messages; and I love to dance with my wife.” He adds, “Dancing is not a sin; but dancing poorly is.”
About First Baptist Church: located at 403 S. Cincinnati Ave., Tel., (918) 587-1571. Worship times: Sunday 8:30 and 11:00 a.m., Adult LIFE Groups, Sunday School and Elevate at 9:45 a.m. www.tulsafbc.org.