Highland Baptist Church owes its founding in large part to Juliette Norton Marvin, a Norton family heiress who made an offer to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to pay for a church building in what were then Louisville’s suburbs – on the condition that the Baptists in the neighborhood would pay for the grounds. Her idea was that this would aid students’ missionary work. The Seminary entrusted Basil Manly with the work of bringing Marvin’s ideas to fruition. In 1891, Manly and his wife purchased the property at the corner of Cherokee and Grinstead (then known as Transit Ave.) as trustees. The congregation began forming at the same time, holding prayer meetings in homes and Sunday School classes in the German Baptist Orphans’ Home (near Cave Hill Cemetery).
On May 4, 1893 the 27 charter members of Highland Baptist Church held their organizational meeting in the home of William Pratt; the inaugural service in the sanctuary was held the following Sunday. Among the early members was Louise Tucker, who went to China in 1910 – Highland’s first missionary. The original sanctuary held 200 people; it was joined by a two-story educational building in 1908, which stands today as the oldest part of Highland’s structure.
Highland quickly outgrew its small sanctuary, and in 1913 began seeking pledges to support a new building. The current sanctuary building was dedicated in May 1915. When World War I came soon thereafter, Highland’s pastor, Paul Bagby, took a leave to lead the YMCA’s ministry at nearby Camp Zachary Taylor.
The 1920s were a boom time for Highland Baptist Church: in May 1915 when the new sanctuary was dedicated, the congregation numbered 590; by 1927, that number exceeded 800. When the Great Depression of the 1930s hit Highland as it did the rest of the country, we continued to contribute to mission work and to the poor in our own community. During the flood of 1937, Highland responded by sheltering 111 refugees, forming flood relief committees to help with everything from transportation to health and sanitation, and raising funds for flood relief throughout the city.
Like many churches, Highland’s congregation grew significantly following World War II. Even before the war ended, Highland had started a building fund, with an eye to expansion. On May 10, 1953 – the church’s 60th anniversary – we broke ground on the Educational Building on Cherokee Road. The building was dedicated a year later. By 1960, Highland’s membership totaled more than 1400.
In the 1960s, Highland’s neighborhood continued to evolve from a suburban area to part of the urban core. The young families were gradually replaced by apartment-dwellers who were often only temporary inhabitants. Highland’s membership, like that of many other urban churches, dipped in this decade. In this period, Highland was increasingly connected to the progressive wing of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which stressed the need for urban ministries. The leadership of pastor Nathan Cohn Brooks, a former president of the Carver School of Missions and Social Work, contributed to this emphasis, as well. In recognition of demographic changes in the community and in the congregation, the church began several new ministries, including hiring a social worker, in recognition of the aging of the congregation; sponsoring a coffee house on Bardstown Road in cooperation with other local churches; and turning the parsonage into the Highlander, a neighborhood activity center.
When Don Burke was installed as pastor in December 1970, he faced a somewhat demoralized church, with a wonderful but somewhat rundown building. Membership had dipped to 1,000. What followed was a period of both physical and liturgical renewal. In 1971, work began on the stained glass windows which grace the sanctuary today; they were dedicated on January 16, 1972. Other enhancements included the installation of a new, elevated baptistery and the “crowning” of the sanctuary building with a simple cross. In 1979, the old Pilcher organ was replaced with a new, 24-rank Schantz organ. Under Burke, elements of the liturgical calendar such as Advent and Lent gained new emphasis, and continue to do so to this day.
Highland in the 1980s and 1990s saw further changes. The character of the surrounding neighborhood began to change again, as its historic character came to be appreciated by a new wave of residents. In 1984, after much discussion and prayer, Highland ordained its first female deacons; in the late 1980s, the role of deacons began to change from a “board of directors” to a group of spiritual leaders. While Highland had, since its founding days, had a close relationship with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the 1980s and 1990s this relationship – and indeed, Highland’s relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention – began to grow more strained as the Seminary and the SBC took more fundamentalist positions on issues such as the ordination of women. Highland was involved with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship from its beginnings in the early 1990s, but maintained membership in the SBC until 2009.
In 1996, Highland Baptist Church called our current pastor, Joe Phelps. Under his leadership, the church has added a Friday evening worship service with a decidedly lively style and a close connection to the recovery community; conducted a major renovation to our sanctuary and fellowship hall; engaged in missions to Kosova and Morocco, and with the local Albanian community; began a tradition of placing crosses on the lawn every Advent to commemorate those whose lives have been lost in the previous year as a result of violence; and hired a Minister to Young Adults to focus more attention on this sometimes-underserved age group. On May 27, 2012, with the ordination of Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard, the church confirmed its support for all those called to and qualified for the ministry, regardless of sexual orientation.