Unity Baptist Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this weekend, complete with a party-like atmosphere after the Sunday morning service and a walk-thru of its storied history in the gymnasium.
Few know the story of the church better than Judie Little, who calls herself a “digger” who has become well known in the genealogical circles locally through her research of the church.
“I like to get the puzzle pieces and show the picture,” she said.
With the help of many in the community and the church family, she has searched out the deeds for the church dating back to the original property across from Pollard Church and a lot more. Her historical documents include copies of church bulletins from 1937 to 1951, countless photographs, detailed records of former pastors and church members, the names of missionaries sent out from the church and much more from what seems to be an endless supply of material.
Little, a member of Unity since the mid-1960s, has always had a keen interest in history and genealogy. She calls her research into Unity Baptist Church an “obsession. My family is so aggravated with me. My living room is a mess.”
Her living room is stockpiled with 23 bound volumes, 200 to 300 pages each and about four inches thick, of information that she has gathered and copied. There’s hardly an hour that goes by that she’s not either looking for new information or studying what has already been collected. When she has a restless night of sleeping, guess what she’s doing?
“It never ends,” she said. “There are so many loose ends to tie up.”
Dr. Floyd Paris, the pastor at Unity since 1998, said Little’s work will be profitable to the community for years to come.
“It’s really kind of a history of Boyd County,” he said. “We’ve been around 175 years, think of all the different things going on. You can almost track the economic growth through the church’s activities. It shows how the Great Depression impacted churches.”
Paris said he hopes other churches follow Unity’s lead in researching their own histories.
“We now have a permanent record that will be a blessing to churches to come. It’s a living testimony to God’s faithfulness to his people throughout the years and throughout the wars.”
Unity Baptist Church, the oldest in existence in the Greenup Baptist Association of Churches, has been around since the Civil War.
Jim Kettle and Jim Powers at the Boyd County Public Library have become friends with Little through her many trips to the genealogy department.
“If I needed to know what day an event happened on they would find it for me,” she said. “They’ve been so nice.”
Tim Moore, an engineer with the city of Ashland, helped search out deeds for her.
“I could have never found the deeds without the help of Tim because so many of the streets have been renamed,” she said. “I had a deed that said the church was on Adams and Blackburn. But he found out the street named had been changed. I made a copy of everything they had.”
Other researchers in the community, like historian George Wolfford, have supplied useful information, too. He gave her a copy of a map that shows the location of the Union Church from 1837.
Little said without the help of so many, including her own church family, the project would have never gotten off the ground. She began “digging” more than 30 years ago when she showed her husband’s grandfather that he was a descendant of John Young, one of the church’s three founders. “It meant so much to him,” she said.
Judie’s husband, Bill, died 11 years ago this coming November and her search for information has intensified, even providing a therapeutic relief.
It has been practically a non-stop “obsessive hobby” during the past 3½ years after gathering minutes and other documents from the church files. One finding led to another, then another and then another.
A fraction of her work will be on display in the gymnasium on Sunday for visitors and church members. Some of the bulletins from the time during World War II displayed soldiers on the covers. Some of them were church members and others were boys from the neighborhood. She made copies of the bulletins and had them enlarged.
Little has become a regular customer at Ashland Office Supply, where she has her copies made. She became good friends with the late Betty Burnette, who was as excited about her work as anybody.
“They teased me about being on the payroll there,” Little said. “I wish she were here to see all this.”
The bulletins are from a period when L.H. Tipton was the pastor and each week he would write something on the cover. “He wrote a history through the bulletins,” Little said.
The bulletins came from Jenny Dixon Corman, who was at one time the wife of Shirley Tipton, L.H.’s son and a missionary to Africa. She had every bulletin from 1937 to 1951 except for one year, Little said.
“Valuable, valuable information,” she said.
Help from members
Church members have provided precious photographs, including a binder full from Libby Dobyns, one of the church’s oldest members. She had pictures from the 1930s and later, including a parade from 1935.
“She let me borrow a picture book that was this big,” she said, showing about three inches of space between her thumb and index finger. “It’s amazing to me. The people at the church have always kept pictures.”
She has a sequence of photographs taken in 1955 when the steeple was being erected on the church’s current location at 2023 South 29th Street. It shows it from when the truck arrived to the completion of the project.
“That’s rare to have something like that from that time era,” she said. “Wonderful pictures. I wish I knew who took them.”
Her research goes back to the beginning of the church in 1837. Much of her information is on display boards that circle the gymnasium. Church members and visitors can take a walk back into time through the project.
Little’s aim was to give the church an accurate historical account that others can use for generations to come. The church is planning on dedicating a room to her volumes of research.
“I told Fred Boggs (a church member), who has been so kind and supportive of me and always tells me how much he appreciates what I’ve done, ‘I would have paid the church to do it.’ That’s how much it’s meant to me,” Little said.
Besides the church’s history lessons, there are activities all weekend culminating with an afternoon concert with The Talleys at 3 p.m. in the church auditorium. It is free and open to the public.
Paris said he’s humbled to be part of a church with such a rich history.
“To know that a church has this kind of history and tradition and prominence in the community, it’s a little pressure,” he said. “I don’t want to mess anything up. I don’t want to do anything to damage the reputation of the church.
“To be named in a list of pastors like Harold Cathey and W.K. Wood, that’s an honor right there. It’s a wonderful thing.”
On Friday night, former youth members of Unity are invited for a get-together and fellowship that begins at 6 p.m. and on Saturday night, from 5 to 8, former choir members are invited back to participate in a reunion choir that will sing in the morning service the following day.
On Sunday, following the morning service, there will be dinner on the grounds. Inflatables, face-painting and games will be available for the children while several other activities and entertainment are planned prior to the concert with The Talleys, a popular southern gospel singing group from East Tennessee.
Call the church at (606) 324-7157 for information.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.