BROOKSVILLE — Not long after Hernando County came into existence in 1843, First Baptist Church of Brooksville was forming as well.
While the official date on the marker outside the church on Howell Avenue says the congregation was established in 1852, about 10 years ago the church's historical committee determined that it may have begun as early as 1847.
According to a book put together by the committee in 2002, the church — initially called Union Baptist Church — may have been given that name because it had brought together two congregations: Bethlehem Baptist and Bethesda Baptist.
Church historian Betty DeBusk provided additional information about the church's early days.
"Our church was named Union Baptist Church until Feb. 2, 1889, and after that was known as the First Baptist Church of Brooksville," said DeBusk. "The first service was held at Pierceville. Our minutes only go back to 1856, when Rev. James Henry Breaker joined the church. If the church started in 1852, there possibly was a pastor before Rev. Breaker."
Whether 1847 or 1852, the church has officially accepted the later date and therefore will celebrate its 160th anniversary this month. There will be a special social gathering for church members on Oct. 20 and a service to which the public is invited Oct. 21.
Tracing the church's history was a five-year project for DeBusk, who initially intended only to compile information about the church's pastors. By the time she had finished visiting former pastors and reading numerous historical documents, the project had evolved into a complete church history and included information and photos about the county's history from 1847 through 2002.
"I went through every newspaper I could find for Hernando County, and then I went through the Florida Baptist state paper," DeBusk said about some of her sources for the 561-page history, noting that her friend, Marie Cassini, who is now deceased, and the historical committee helped compile the tome.
While there are some years for which church minutes are missing, the minutes that exist indicate that First Baptist has had at least 36 pastors, including the Rev. Matthew Ellis, who has been the senior pastor since 2006.
The oldest living members include Katherine Hardy, born in 1920, and June Subka and Bob Smith, both born in 1921. Notable positions held by members through the years include a newspaper editor, a professor, a county school superintendent, college principals, mayors, lawyers, county commissioners, a judge and the 18th governor of Florida, William Sherman Jennings.
While the congregation may have initially met in a wooden building that doubled as a public school, there have been at least four dedicated church buildings. Two were on Jefferson Street, including a brick structure that was rebuilt in 1900 after a fire, and two at the current site on Howell Avenue. The current sanctuary, which seats 500 people, was dedicated in 1974. Since then, a fellowship hall, an educational building and an office building with a library have been added.
DeBusk said that throughout its history, the church has placed an emphasis on missions.
Ellis said his congregation is still mission-minded.
"We've taken several international missions trips, all of which assisted in orphanages," Ellis said, referring to trips taken to Ecuador, Haiti and Guatemala since he became pastor.
Northcliffe Baptist Church in Spring Hill and Masaryktown Baptist Church were begun as missions of the Brooksville church.
"We have a very compassionate congregation," Ellis said. "For instance, our deacons lead a ministry in which they and other members regularly visit widows from the church who need assistance with maintenance like house painting, mowing lawns or cutting overgrown trees, all free of charge."
Another compassion ministry is the church's clothes closet, which operates from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays, distributing clothing at no cost to those in need.
A seasonal project that Ellis especially likes is Operation Christmas Child, where members pack shoe boxes with items to be given to children in Third World countries at Christmastime. That effort will begin Sunday.
"We'll show videos each Sunday of how to pack a box and how these boxes help children," Ellis said, noting that First Baptist also serves as the collection hub for other area churches. "We hide the boxes in a closet so nobody knows how many we've collected. On Nov. 18, the children from our Children's Church will go to the closet … and bring all the boxes up the center aisle while Jesus Love Me is being played on the piano. Everyone is always surprised to see how many we actually collected. People in our church love it."
Despite its long history, the "best is yet to come" at First Baptist, the church's website declares.
"Ultimately, First Baptist should be a place where the Lord is glorified and where we are absolutely committed to his word," Ellis said.
The church should also be a place with a healthy sense of family, the minister said.
"We should enjoy each other, realizing that our common denominator is our love for Jesus," he said. "We're there for each other and hold each other accountable and encourage each other in our individual pursuit of holiness. But we're also here to minister to the community through sharing the Gospel and meeting tangible needs. That's pretty much why we are here and what we see as our purpose."