West End was born when members of Suffolk's First Baptist Church were granted letters of dismissal and a mission to form a new church in March 1929. Worshipers had to meet in the Suffolk High School auditorium until the former Gum house could be renovated, but the young church hit the ground running. In March, 110 members were enrolled in Sunday school.
By April, the church had formed a Ladies' Aid Society, Missionary Society and junior auxiliaries. In July, members moved out of the high school and held their first worship service in their own auditorium - which was once the house's kitchen and dining room. In September, West End called the Rev. Edwin Carl Dean of Burlington, N.C., to be its first pastor. And in 1931, despite the ravages of the Great Depression, West End had paid off the $11,000 it owed for the church property.
During these years, a church orchestra serenaded worshipers. The day before Thanksgiving, members ate a bountiful meal together with ham, turkey and all the fixings, served on makeshift tables made from boards and sawhorses. In the winter, the first to arrive had to start fires in the wood and coal space heaters. In warmer months, members met in front of the church for lawn parties - complete with homemade ice cream, cakes and elaborate decorations - that served both as celebrations and fundraisers. The building was crowded year-round: The pastor's study doubled as a young ladies' Sunday School classroom, a meeting room for deacons and a space for marriage ceremonies.
At the end of 1935, West End's first pastor left, to be replaced by Dr. R. Pendleton Downey in April 1936. Congregants soon said farewell to the original building as well. On Dec. 4, 1938, members spent nearly the entire day celebrating the dedication of a new church modeled on Williamsburg's Bruton Parish. A newspaper report on the celebration said that in the packed church, "many comments were heard from members and visitors alike on the beauty and dignity of the interior which is said to be among the most beautiful places of worship in the South."
The 1940’s also brought some landmark moments. A new pastor, Dr. Samuel Tilden Habel, Jr. of Enfield, N.C., took the reins in March 1940. In December 1941, the church tolled its bells for a full 15 minutes to celebrate a record offering that wiped out the debt on the new church just three years after its completion. A fund was started for a new education building; a parsonage was bought in 1942; West End's first Vacation Bible School was held in 1943; and Dr. Thomas W. Fryer of New Bern, N.C., was named the church's new pastor in 1949.
The 1950s brought new faces and a new building. The education building designed by the same architect as the church, Alexander Du Pre Breeden, was completed in January 1952, bringing class members more space and much-welcomed modern plumbing. Rev. Fryer resigned and Dr. Julian H. Pentecost was called to fill the pulpit in April 1953. Mission work in the Oak Ridge area, overseen by Rev. Pentecost, led to the establishment of Hillcrest Baptist Church in April 1957. That same year, the Rev. C. Bailey Jones was called to be West End's next pastor. Jones, who remained pastor until June 1965, started West End's tradition of holding baby dedication ceremonies.
In the mid-1960s, the Rev. Donald Dunlap joined West End as its new pastor. Air conditioning was installed in the sanctuary - but it wasn't until the 1970s that new cushions were added to the pews. Other work on the buildings included air conditioning for the education building, paving for the parking lot bought in the 60s, and a renovation of the chancel. Fellowship Hall was renovated in 1984, and soon afterward, the parsonage was sold.
But the work done to the church facilities wasn't nearly as sweeping as the other changes that arrived in the mid-1980s. After Rev. Dunlap's resignation, Dr. Roger M. Collier came to West End in the fall of 1985. Following his departure, the Rev. T. Floyd Irby, Jr. was called to the pulpit at West End in 1986 - adding a family of seven to the church's membership rolls. Earlier that same year, organist and choirmaster R. Dean Kershaw also joined the church.
By 1985, the issue of female deacons had also made a splashy arrival, prompting church-wide debate. Although the women initially included on a 1986 slate of proposed deacons withdrew their names, church membership later voted by a narrow margin to allow female deacons. The change was tabled for several years, but in 1993, West End's first two women deacons began serving their terms. By the end of the decade, the board of deacons had also chosen its first chairwoman.
This change contributed to another one, as the church dealt with debate in the denomination about women's roles and other issues. In 2000, West End voted to cut its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention and later adopted a new mission statement to describe its direction: "West End Baptist Church is an evolving moderate missionary Baptist church seeking to provide a service to God by informing and teaching the community about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior."
West End Baptist Church once had Sunday School classes broadcast by a local radio station; now it has a web site. Central heat and air conditioning have replaced finicky coal and wood space heaters, and a majestic organ has taken the place of the orchestra that once accompanied services. Although the building where the founding members worshiped is long gone, the spirit that drove them to raise a church on this site remains. As a church historian wrote when West End marked its 25th anniversary, dates and statistics tell only a small part of the story: "Underneath are those intangible things that make up the very essence and spirit of the church."
We thank Caroline Luzzatto for compiling and editing our historical information.