The twin spires of Tabernacle Baptist Church have towered over historic Laney-Walker Boulevard for more than 100 years.
Since that time, the church has been a symbol of great strength and devotion to thousands throughout the Augusta area.
Founded by the Rev. Charles T. Walker and a group of about 300 black residents back in August of 1885, Tabernacle Baptist Church is proudly celebrating its 130th anniversary throughout the month of August.
“This church started 130 years ago in the heart of founder Dr. C.T. Walker and, today, we are getting close to 7,000 members,” said Rev. Charles Goodman Jr., who has served as senior pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church since December 2006. “Dr. Walker was considered one of the great preachers in the turn of the century. When he started this church in 1885, it was just incredible for the simple fact that an African-American male happened to lead a church that would be one of the largest churches in the Southeast.”
But Walker’s success didn’t come easily.
The pastor, who became known as “The Black Spurgeon” after inspiring British Baptist minister Charles Haddon Spurgeon of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, faced a great deal adversity throughout his life.
“Walker’s father died the day before Dr. Walker was born,” wrote Rev. Silas Xavier Floyd in the 1902 book, “Life of Charles T. Walker.” “His mother died when he was only eight years old. The first seven years of his life, he was a slave. Becoming an orphan one year after emancipation, the years of his youth and young manhood were years of great hardship and privation.”
One day after his father died of pneumonia, Walker was born a slave in Hephzibah back in 1858. It was an extremely rough life, but many slaves in Augusta turned to the church for strength, Floyd wrote.
“Richmond County, one of the large ‘Black Belt’ counties of Georgia, which had then a larger black than white population, was in no respect different in its slave customs and regulations from other slave communities, excepting possibly the religious privileges enjoyed by the slaves,” Floyd wrote. “They had their own churches and enjoyed for the most part the ministrations of colored preachers, such as they were. They had their own houses of worship, their own church officials, and held regular and stated religious meetings. This was true in only a very limited number of places in the South during the slave period.”
Not long after slavery was finally brought to an end in this country in 1865, Walker lost his mother and he was bounced around from one relative to another until he ended up working on a farm owned by his uncle, the Rev. Nathan Walker.
This is where Walker found his calling.
“While young Walker was hoeing cotton, he decided to seek the Lord,” Floyd wrote. “When he reached the end of the row, without saying a word to anybody, he jumped over the fence and went into the woods. Without eating or drinking, and without seeing anyone, he remained in the woods until the following Saturday afternoon, when he was happily converted. He had remained in the woods three days and three nights.”
At 15, Walker joined the Franklin Covenant Baptist Church near Hephzibah in 1873 and was baptized by his uncle, the pastor of the church.
He soon entered the Augusta Institute — which later moved to Atlanta and became known as Morehouse College— for seminary school.
While Walker was recognized for his youthful appearance behind the pulpit, he was also known for his passionate and fiery sermons.
By 1885, Walker founded Tabernacle Baptist Church, which actually began in a smaller, two-story brick building on Ellis Street. But the church quickly grew as word spread about Walker in religious and community circles.
By 1889, the church’s membership soared to 2,000 people, Goodman said.
“Tabernacle is unique because, as old as we are, we’ve had multiple growth spurts,” Goodman said. “Most churches our age are not thriving. You’ll hear most historic churches are dying, so it’s very rare to have a church our age that’s not a museum.”
It wasn’t until 1913 that Tabernacle sold the Ellis Street property and built its current church with its twin sanctuaries on Laney-Walker Boulevard.
The church was designed to accommodate 2,300 people and included plans to house a cooking school, a sewing school, an automobile school, a laundry department and a library. He also brought the Walker Baptist Institute to Augusta in 1898.
Several decades before many leaders in this country pushed for civil rights, Walker bravely called for the end of the second-class status of blacks in America.
During a speech in 1900 at New York’s Carnegie Hall,The Augusta Chronicle quoted him telling an audience of about 8,000 people that black citizens are “American citizens.”
“The amendment to the Constitution did not make us men,” Walker said in 1900. “God made us men before man made us citizens.”
Walker was also the first black theologian, post slavery, to take a three-month-long sabbatical to the Holy Land, which was paid for by Tabernacle’s congregation, Goodman said.
While Walker was pastor, Tabernacle was host to many national dignitaries including Booker T. Washington, John D. Rockefeller and President William Howard Taft.
Tabernacle soon became an Augusta landmark as the city’s black business district, known as the “Golden Blocks” in the 1920s, began to grow.
Walker, who died on July 29, 1921, was buried on the grounds of his beloved Tabernacle Baptist Church.
His obituary appeared in The New York Times with the headline, “Augusta Pastor Was Called Greatest Negro Preacher of His Time.”
“We’ve had great pastors throughout the years,” Goodman said, sitting in the church’s $4 million Family Life Center which was opened in August 2008. “Pastors such as the Rev. Leander Pinkston, Rev. Leon Lowery and, of course, Dr. C.S. Hamilton who was here for 40 years and left such an indelible mark. Dr. Hamilton started the church’s Child Development Center and Tabernacle’s Federal Credit Union.”
In 1960, Rev. Charles Spencer Hamilton organized the Tabernacle Federal Credit Union to allow church members to have a financial institution available that could help them overcome the inequities of the Augusta financial system.
The church’s Federal Credit Union enables its members to take out small, low-cost loans, Goodman said.
“Dr. Hamilton was also one of the chief leaders of the civil rights movement here in this area,” Goodman said. “Dr. Hamilton led this community to become integrated. His leadership came at a very crucial and critical time in Augusta. His ministry still stands.”
Many mass meetings during the civil rights period were held at Tabernacle and several civil rights leaders spoke from the church’s pulpit. including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Thurgood Marshall. Hamilton, who would later serve on the Augusta City Commission, aided Paine College students who worked to desegregate city buses and lunch counters.
After 40 years of service and leadership at Tabernacle, Hamilton retired in October 1996. He passed away shortly after in May 1997.
“A unique thing about our church is that we are very cognitive of our history and our legacy, but we are also really concerned about our future,” Goodman said, adding that Tabernacle works hard to stay connected to not only the Laney Walker neighborhood, but the entire community. “When you look at the demographics of our church, the average age at our church is 32, which is crazy. To see all walks of life that have come here is incredible.”
The church has an extremely youthful legacy, starting with C.T. Walker, but continuing with 36-year-old Goodman, who has been at the church for the past eight years.
Goodman is a graduate of Wake Forest University and received his masters degree from Emory University.
At 27, Goodman came to Augusta from Pleasant View Missionary Baptist Church in Alabama, but he now calls Tabernacle home.
“We are a church trying to make an impact. That’s really our motto,” Goodman said of Tabernacle. “That is our marching orders. We want to make an impact. So that means beyond just our church walls.”
Under his leadership, the church completed the construction of the Tabernacle Baptist Church Family Life Center and land has been acquired to enlarge the campus footprint.
The church has even expanded into Columbia County, with a new site at Evans High School called Tabernacle Baptist Church West, or TABWest for short.
“We are now one church in two locations,” Goodman said, explaining that Tabernacle just began its Columbia County services in January. “I’m very proud of the progress that is going out there. In just six or seven months, we average over 300 people at worship and 50 or 60 kids, so we are really excited to see where God is going to take that part of our ministry. Our long-term plans are to create and develop a campus there in Columbia County to continue to expand our reach to make an impact.”
Goodman’s passionate and youthful energy is similar to his predecessor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, who came to Tabernacle in July 1997 at the age of 26.
Following in the footsteps of pastors Walker and Hamilton, Moss built a national reputation for preaching powerful and transforming sermons.
In 1998, Newsweek called Moss one of “The Lord’s Foot Soldiers” of the 21st century.
The funny thing is, Moss almost decided not to come to Tabernacle.
Back in 1997, members of Tabernacle Baptist Church traveled to Atlanta to see Moss deliver a sermon. During that visit, the Tabernacle board members had no doubt that this young man had a strong connection to the Almighty.
“I was doing a youth revival and there was a storm that night that had knocked out the power,” Moss told the Metro Spirit back in 2000. “It was pitch black in the church and raining cats and dogs outside.”
Despite the bad weather, there was a strong turnout at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where Moss was a guest speaker.
He remembered seeing a small group enter the church who didn’t look like they quite belonged at Ben Hill, or in Atlanta for that matter. The cluster of people were representatives from Tabernacle.
“The emergency power lights were on and I had to preach with a miniature manuscript and a little flashlight,” Moss said. “So, I could see, but just barely.”
Not the most ideal conditions to try and impress visiting members of the church, but something happened that night that secured Moss’ position at Tabernacle.
“As I was talking and I made the statement, ‘God stepped out on nothing and nowhere and said, ‘Let there be light,’’” Moss said. “Suddenly, the power came on.”
Everyone in the congregation gasped.
By the end of the sermon, Moss was a top candidate for pastor at Tabernacle and had an invitation to come speak in Augusta.
But Moss turned the offer down.
At the time, he was a youth minister in Denver concentrating on gang violence prevention and working on his Ph.D. in religion. Moss had also been asked to take a co-pastor position with his church in Colorado.
So, he told the representatives from Tabernacle that he had too many responsibilities in Denver and could not consider taking the Augusta position. But they convinced him to come and speak anyway.
Moss had heard a lot of things about Tabernacle growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, where his father is a pastor. Moss’ family roots are in Georgia. His father was born in La Grange, while his mother is from Atlanta. Moss himself attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“I knew Tabernacle was connected to the civil rights movement and was very progressive, but I also heard that it was very conservative in some ways, too,” he said. “They did not have a large population of people my age there. But I heard just nothing but wonderful about the leadership of Dr. C.S. Hamilton, who was the former pastor for 40 years.”
Moss came to Augusta, had a successful sermon, and returned back home to Denver, where he informed his wife that he was going to pull his name out of the running for pastor at Tabernacle.
Not because he didn’t like the church, but he just didn’t feel prepared to leave Denver.
“I wrote a letter to the church asking if they would take me out,” Moss said.
Before he sent the letter, he wanted to make sure that was his final decision. Unfortunately for him, it was going to have to be entirely his decision.
That weekend, his wife had gone on a trip to the mountains with children from the church and his parents were vacationing in West Africa.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone,” Moss recalled.
So, he decided to talk to God.
He drove 40 minutes outside of Denver to a place called Mother Cabrini Shrine, where he climbed up along path leading to the top of a mountain approximately 7,000 feet high. At the end of the path stands a large statue of Christ.
“I was sitting there, using my prayer journal, and as I was writing, it just came to me,” Moss said. “I decided, ‘If the church calls me, I am to go.’ Next thing I knew, they called.”
For almost a decade, Moss served as pastor of Tabernacle, attracting more young people to the church and organizing a $550,000 renovation project to refurbish the aging sanctuary.
By May 2006, Moss grabbed national attention again after he accepted the position as pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. This was once the church of President Barack Obama.
“My predecessor, Dr. Otis Moss, did a great job,” Goodman said. “He continued to take us to national heights and to national levels.”
Goodman is also known throughout the region as being highly energetic and having the ability to capture the hearts and minds of his congregation.
“I think honestly, as a preacher, my role is to convey truth in a way that can resonate from the oldest to the youngest member,” Goodman said. “So I take very seriously the opportunity to proclaim the gospel and I try to present it in a way that is palatable for all of those who hear.
“I hope and pray that every Sunday everyone leaves with something. I think that’s what’s needed. And I think people look for that,” Goodman added. “They look for realness.”
In a year that black communities across this county have been shaken to their very core following tragedies such as the violent shooting deaths of nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston or the rioting in cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, Goodman said many people have sought guidance from the church.
“With so much that is going on, I think this is our opportunity to really partner with people and say, ‘Hey, we can agree to disagree, but we all are covered, we are all graced through our relationship with Christ,’” Goodman said. “And, being an African American church, there are certain things that we do take on because we are very sensitive to a lot of cultural things that are happening. We want to speak to those things.”
Tabernacle Baptist Church refuses to ignore the world around it, Goodman said. Instead, the church addresses those issues, head on.
“When each situation has occurred, like with the Black Lives Matter movement and especially now with Sandra Bland and with Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, these things are sensitive to our culture and our community because we see them as our children,” Goodman said. “We see them as our brothers and sisters. They could have been us.”
For churches like Tabernacle, the congregation goes beyond simply having a service to discuss such matters.
“This is a reality,” Goodman said. “You have to at least validate the fact that this is a real reality for a segment of people. I’ve had my own run-ins and I can really emphasize with those who have had to go through that struggle. So, we address it.”
But the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last month was something that no one was truly prepared to handle, Goodman said.
“The sacredness of the sanctuary had been sabotaged,” Goodman said. “When I heard about it, I experienced just extreme sadness, to the point even now, I still struggle to grasp the verbiage to really comprehend that kind of malice and hate.”
But when the families of the nine victims stood up and forgave the shooter, Dylann Roof, Goodman said he was at a complete loss for words.
“I have to be very honest, my humanity at that moment, thinking of losing someone in that way, in such a senseless act, stretched me to say, ‘Now, could I really have been that forgiving at that moment?’” Goodman admitted. “I’m not saying that I would not have forgiven at some time, but this is still a point of closure. It is still fresh. And my heart goes out to that community, that church and those family members. My heart goes out to everybody involved.”
But that is the power of the church and that congregation’s faith in God, Goodman said.
When a church like Tabernacle takes the time to discuss and address these serious matters facing our country, the entire community grows, Goodman said.
“We are not running from any issue,” he said. “We want to address it, talk about it and say why this is happening.”
That is an important mission of the church, Goodman said.
“God has done some incredible things in our 130 years,” Goodman said. “But we believe, as a people, that we haven’t seen our best days. We believe the best is yet to come. And we want the entire community to celebrate with us.”
Tabernacle Baptist Church will be celebrating its 130th anniversary throughout the month of August with a series of events, which are free and open to the public. This includes the UnityFest on Saturday, Aug. 15, at Evans Towne Center Park and the 130th Anniversary Worship Service on Aug. 16 featuring Dr. William Holmes Robinson of Olivet Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. For a complete list of events, visit tbcaugusta.org.