The History of Wingate Baptist Church 1810-2009: ‘Saturday Before the Second Sabith’
Part one by Carolyn Caldwell Gaddy and Part two by Jerry L. Surratt
A review by John D. Pierce, executive editor, Baptists Today, Macon, Ga.
WINGATE, N.C. — With rare exception, books are designed to be read from beginning to end. But the two-part, 200-year history of Wingate Baptist Church near Monroe, North Carolina, might be better suited to a different approach.
Just in time for the town-‘n-gown congregation’s bicentennial celebration, a lovely hardback edition of the church’s history has been produced with former Wingate University professor and dean Jerry Surratt picking up the story in 1985. The earlier history of the church — presented as the first part of this combined volume — has been well documented by Carolyn Caldwell Gaddy.
A suggested approach is to begin reading at page 187 where Surratt acknowledges the good work of Gaddy and gives an overview of her findings. Then the reader can benefit more so from the first part of the book that is filled with membership lists, governing documents, reports of the Baptist association and the emerging school (now the adjacent university), and a recounting of the visionary and faithful people who brought the congregation (called Meadow Branch Church until 1931) into life and sustained its ministries through thick and think over 175 years.
Gaddy’s earlier work was greatly enhanced by the discovery of “lost” church records — due to a church split between pro- and anti-missions factions — in the Baptist archives at Wake Forest University. She paints an honest and inspiring picture of a church that held fast to the faith despite challenges from within and without.
As Gaddy concluded in her look at the first 175 years: “Meadow Branch-Wingate Baptist Church has withstood many difficult times and encountered serious obstacles, all of which cannot be recounted. What can be said with certainty is that through these years this comparatively small group of believers has left a heritage of strong convictions, great loyalty to their faith in God, and tradition of lending a helping hand to all who are in need at home and abroad.”
A congregation’s story is never lived out away from the stage of broader historical events. So it is fitting that, in part two, Surratt (to even a greater degree than the earlier writing) sets the church’s history in the story of the larger Baptist movement as well as national and world events.
He also noted the societal changes on the local scene where the congregation carries out its daily ministries: “North Carolina continued to attract new residents to expand its population to [more than] 6.5 million in 1990, increasing 21.3 percent in the decade to 8 million in 2000. As textile production moved to emerging Asian nations, new financial capital sought to replace lost textile jobs… Likewise, tobacco production and processing fell precipitously…”
Also, Surratt does not gloss over the more trying times the congregation has encountered in recent decades. He ‘fesses up to fact that between the popular pastorates of Dewey Hobbs, who left in 1964, and Mitch Simpson who came in 1986, three pastors left in conflict with lay leadership.
“The early eighties for the Wingate Church was a time of retrenchment, doubt and difficulty,” Surratt states bluntly. “It has been portrayed in large part as an extension of the surrounding secular culture where economic problems were formidable and leadership was uninspiring.”
Such honest assessments make the writer’s stories of high moments more believable and enjoyable. He tells of an enduring church moved by vibrant leadership to face every challenge with spiritual preparation and passion.
New approaches to worship, ministry, mission and cooperation unfold from a strong willingness — even eagerness — to live in the present tense.
The church’s relationship with Wingate University cannot be overlooked as an important part of the congregation’s identify and mission. But their concern for higher education preceded the 1896 founding of the neighboring school with which they share a name and town.
“The congregation supported Wake Forest College from its establishment in 1834, took pride in its accomplishments, and encouraged young men to at attend this North Carolina Baptist institution,” Surratt noted.
The congregation was strong in advocating for the Wingate School that was named for a popular former Wake Forest president, Washington Manley Wingate. Through the years the church and school (which began offering college courses in 1923) have benefited from shared proximity, personnel and priorities.
In recounting the congregation’s most recent quarter-century of history, Surratt gives careful attention to the ways Wingate Baptist Church has dealt with its middle name (Baptist) while its once-comfortable denominational home moved away from its historical moorings.
He recounts the congregation’s struggle with its denominational identity and its shift into new Baptist partnerships in light of the Fundamentalist Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) during the 1980s and ’90s.
Surratt credits consecutive pastors Mitch Simpson (1986-1990), Jim Somerville (1991-2000) and Derrill Smith (2001-present/pictured at right) with helping guide the church in understanding the ever-changing Baptist landscape and making new connections where its long-held commitments to Baptist freedoms could be affirmed and its mission and ministry contributions honored.
A congregation’s bicentennial recounting and celebration always call for a look backward. Gaddy and Surratt have enabled the Wingate congregation and others to do so more clearly and thoroughly with this research and writing.
However, it is equally clear that the 200-year-old church is not keeping its glance to the rear. Current pastor Derrill Smith, according to Surratt, has called the church in recent years to respond to the important question: “Who and what is the Spirit of God calling Wingate Baptist Church to be and do in this 21st century?”
The answer to that question will emerge in days and years yet to come as the venerable congregation faces the challenges and opportunities ahead with the same kind of vigor and faithfulness of those who preceded them.