Our Heritage, a Sacred Trust

Members of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church were gathered in their meeting place, a two-floor building at Peachtree and East Wesley Roads. The temporary flat roof above them was level with Peachtree Street where some had parked their cars; many had come by streetcars which plowed the steel tracks between downtown Atlanta and Buckhead. Excitement, expectancy were in the air this 20th day of November, 1932, for the people had come together for the first worship service of their merged church.

Merged was a strange word in Baptist tradition. The congregations who united that fall day had sprung from a conflicting principle, divide and multiply, one they had practiced by sponsoring mission stations and churches throughout Atlanta. Now that worthy course was altered by circumstance: the city’s burgeoning commercial expansion had caused downtown residents to migrate to the suburbs; the Great Depression called for economic practicality; and, through it all, God’s plan for Second-Ponce de Leon Church was underway.

To understand our church heritage is to trace the history of three merging churches. In the dedication of our forebears to God, we can discover new inspiration for our own commitment to Him.


Ponce de Leon Avenue Baptist Church purchased the Peachtree-Wesley property

Ponce de Leon Avenue Baptist Church was constituted October 9, 1904 when Atlanta’s First Baptist Church recognized the need for a new Baptist church in the northern section of the city. First Baptist voted to release any of their own members who would transfer their commitments to the new church, and invited Baptists from other congregations to join the undertaking. Of the 115 charter members, 84 came from First Baptist Church, 19 from Second Baptist Church, and several from other Baptist congregations. A site for the church building was selected on the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Piedmont Avenue, and a pastor was called: Rev. Junius W. Millard.

For more than a year the church worshiped in a temporary tabernacle across the street, erected on land offered free of charge by Mr. Edward C. Peters. On September 9, 1906 the first service was held in their classic new building; its total cost, including the lot, furnishings, and organ was over $60,000.

Under the leadership of several great pastors and a dedicated laity, the church grew in membership and service through the next quarter century. Following World War I, commercial development pushed further out Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue, encroaching on the residential area served by the church. Members became widely scattered, particularly to the north. On June 21, 1929, the church authorized purchase of a lot 254 feet fronting on Peachtree Road and 300 feet down Wesley Avenue (later called East Wesley Road) for the sum of $31,750. They began to raise funds for building there, selling the Ponce de Leon Avenue location to Central Congregational Church. A contract was awarded for the first two floors of the Sanctuary Building, which was completed and occupied August 3, 1930.

Second Baptist Church, oldest of the churches, consolidated with Ponce de Leon

From 1854 Second Baptist Church was located in downtown Atlanta. It was begun by 19 members of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church who took their church letters in order to constitute a second Baptist work in the city. The venture was harmoniously endorsed by the parent church.

Meeting for the first year in the home of a member, Dr. B.F. Bomar, the church secured a $1,000 loan in 1855 with which to purchase a lot at the northwest corner of Washington and Mitchell Streets. After a sudden windstorm ripped off the metal roof over their basement structure, they proceeded to build the first brick church in Atlanta, the first with a steam heating plant, and the first to have a baptistry within the building.

Dedicated in 1858, its approximate cost was $14,000. Beyond their use for worship and Sabbath School, the facilities were used to meet community needs.

A Missionary Society was established in 1861, a strong arm throughout the history of Second Baptist Church and its antecedents. Initially a women’s organization, it began numerous new churches and mission stations, largely through the zealous Young Men’s Missionary Society.

With the coming of Sherman’s army in 1864, many church members were evacuated. Their building was saved from heavy shelling and fire by Father O’Riley of the neighboring Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. A friend of General Sherman, he pled for Second Baptist and Central Presbyterian Churches to be spared as was his church’s building. There are no records of any church meetings from July, 1864 until April, 1865. The building was used as a storehouse for drygoods and furniture, some of it belonging to church members.

The economic deprivation of Reconstruction days was met in part by apportioning expenses to the members through a system of pew rentals. When insufficient, Sunday morning collections raised the difference. The church had outgrown its building by 1867; various alterations were discussed, but the scarcity of money delayed plans until 1870. Then with $13,000 in Building Fund subscriptions, members voted to alter and repair the facilities at a cost not to exceed $17,500 including carpeting and upholstering the pews and pulpit. Growth in membership over the next 20 years again called for building expansion; in the decade from 1882 to 1892 alone, membership doubled. When further enlargement of the building was deemed impracticable, a subscription campaign was begun for a new church edifice on the same site. On the last Sunday of 1890, final services were held in the old church; a hastily built tabernacle nearby met temporary needs. The handsome new Second Baptist building was dedicated the last Sunday in October 1893. It was to serve a growing, missionary-spirited congregation over the next 35 years.

From about 1920, Second Baptist Church was affected by a membership migrating to the suburbs. The downtown location was surrounded by commercial development and a changing population. It was an act of Christian faith when the church called Dr. Ryland Knight as pastor effective June 1, 1931; a study committee expressed confidence in his wisdom and experience to bring the church through difficult circumstances.

Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church was proposed by an unselfish pastor

Dr. Luther Rice Christie, pastor of Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, invited the new Second Baptist pastor, Dr. Knight, to ride with him to Buckhead. He showed him the building at Peachtree and Wesley which Ponce de Leon Avenue Church had begun when commerce encroached upon their former location, and where Buckhead Baptist Church had joined them. Dr. Christie suggested that Second Baptist merge with them also; and, in a magnanimous gesture, he proposed that Dr. Knight should be pastor of the consolidated church.

Members of both churches, deeply affected by the Depression at this time, began to favor a merger. In a conference on November 18, 1932, agreement was finalized; and Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, with membership of about 2,300, met for worship the following Sunday.

Six great pastors have led Second-Ponce de Leon

Dr. Ryland Knight served as pastor until January 31, 1945. The church moved forward steadily, if slowly because of economic adversity. A significant beginning was that of weekly Church Night services on Wednesday, October 1, 1934; the initial cost of supper was 25 cents per plate. The Sanctuary building was readied for use by March 29, 1936 and was completed, furnished and dedicated October 10, 1937.

Dr. Monroe F. Swilley, Jr. was only 29 years of age when called from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to become Second-Ponce de Leon’s pastor on October 1, 1945. If his 23-year ministry could be reduced to a one-word emphasis, that word would be missions. New buildings provided growth in worship and Bible study, but a megachurch was never the goal. Rather, Second-Ponce de Leon fostered new churches, notably Wieuca Road Baptist Church in 1954 and Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in 1959. Properties for these and other mission churches were selected and purchased, and Second-Ponce de Leon issued church letters to more than 200 charter members of both Wieuca Road and Mt. Vernon churches.

Early in his pastorate, Dr. Swilley promoted a unified budget whereby financial goals of the church were combined in a single plan. Also, he challenged the membership to a 50/50 disbursement: matching every dollar spent for local purposes with an equal amount to mission causes of Georgia and Southern Baptists.

In 1950 the Atlanta Baptist Association appointed Dr. Swilley to lead a study of the need for a Baptist college in the Atlanta area. Convinced of that need, he was instrumental in acquiring a 562-acre tract of land on the East Expressway 12 miles from downtown Atlanta. Second-Ponce de Leon members heavily supported Dr. Swilley’s campaign to raise funds for the college. He resigned as pastor to become President of Atlanta Baptist College on January 1, 1969. Subsequently the college became a part of Mercer University; and the extensive campus, which includes McAfee School of Theology, has become Dr. Swilley’s legacy to Christian education.

On September 14, 1969, Dr. Russell H. Dilday, Jr. came as pastor from Tallowood Baptist of Houston, Texas, a 2400-member church which he had brought from a mission station of 60 members. His dynamic leadership continued at Second-Ponce de Leon and in the denomination where he served as President of the Home Mission Board and as a Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention. When a large group of capable, dedicated Baptists were seeking a new church home, it was Dr. Dilday who welcomed them into Second-Ponce de Leon and skillfully moderated their merging into a congregation where many continue to serve in leadership roles.

Widely recognized as a master in the field of homiletics, Dr. Dilday was author of numerous articles and books and was a contributor to the 1972 Broadman Commentary. When the Presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was vacated, Dr. Dilday emerged as the educator most qualified to become president of this, the largest theological seminary in the world. He resigned Second-Ponce de Leon to assume that office January 1, 1978.

Dr. C. Robert Marsh became pastor September 10, 1978, coming from First Baptist Church of Dothan, Alabama. Highlighting his 15-year ministry were strong, scriptural sermons in which he emphasized the need for kindness, forgiveness, encouragement. John 13:35 characterizes his ministry: “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, in that you love one another.”

For eight years Dr. Marsh served as a Trustee for the Foreign Mission Board during which he led eleven mission endeavors, often accompanied by church members who volunteered for realistic service on foreign fields. Locally, his initiative toward racial reconciliation was practically demonstrated through a partnership with Atlanta’s Summerhill community. The Family Life Center, built during his pastorate, continues to bless our mission of taking Christ to the community.

Following his last sermon on April 25, 1993, Dr. and Mrs. Marsh entered a period of study and renewal, then one of service through European churches and the Baptist seminary there.

Dr. James C. Denison was called from Midland, Texas, to begin his pastorate at Second-Ponce de Leon on June 26, 1994. He brought a philosophy that defined his ministry: to glorify God by seeking to evangelize the community and to join hands with other churches and ministries in taking Christ to our city, nation, and the world. He led an able staff to his own commitment, that of equipping all the saints for the work of ministry.

Brilliant and scholarly, Dr. Denison’s sermons consistently focused on the Bible, “the only word God has obligated Himself to bless.” Exploring ways to reach those unattracted to established churches, he began a 9:40 a.m. worship service in September, 1995, retrofitting the Family Life Center for a multi-media contemporary experience. With 9:40 attendance at some 700 persons, Sunday morning worshipers in the three services approached 2,000.

Dr. Denison initiated Atlanta Community Ministries, an ecumenical outreach by volunteers through 25 different programs. It was in place when some 10,000 visitors came to our campus during the cycling events of the 1996 Olympic games. Embracing an ongoing partnership with the inner city, Dr. Denison brought new meaning to reconciliation on Unity Sundays.

Upon accepting the call of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Denison preached his last sermon as pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon on March 22, 1998.

Dr. W. David Sapp was called to Second-Ponce de Leon on December 6, 1998, from Derbyshire Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to Derbyshire, Dr. Sapp was pastor of the First Baptist Church Chamblee (now Johns Creek Baptist Church). A Savannah native, he began his ministry as the sixth pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon on January 17, 1999. He was ordained at the age of 17 and has built a distinguished career as a denominational leader.

With a great love for people and with dreams to reach Metro Atlanta for Christ, to provide moral and spiritual leadership to Atlanta and to provide help for other churches, Dr. Sapp led Second-Ponce de Leon to discern God’s vision for its ministry in the new millennium. Dr. Sapp and his wife, Linda, were committed to and deeply involved as a part of Second-Ponce for 13 years — they were there in times of need, as well as times of celebration. Dr. Sapp inspired the congregation as spiritual leader and led the church in development of missions partnerships locally, as well as with China. Dr. Sapp was a key leader for the U.S. tour of The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China in 2006. He was Co-Chair of the Atlanta Regional Committee, where Second-Ponce served as a host city.

He led the church through two capital campaigns and three major restoration projects which included the complete renovation of the Sanctuary/Annex, the addition of a new East Entry to the Children’s Building and a complete renovation of the Chapel Building. Dr. Sapp preached his last sermon as pastor at Second-Ponce on April 8, 2012.

Dr. James Neil (Dock) Hollingsworth, Jr. joined Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church as Senior Pastor on September 1, 2013 after an 18-year career with Mercer University.