A mission of First Baptist Church was begun in South Raleigh in May 1884, under the leadership of John T. Pullen. It was organized as “Fayetteville Street Baptist Church” on December 28, 1884. The strong lay leadership in the early days included John T. Pullen (who often conducted services in the absence of a pastor), C.T. Bailey, George Ball, Sylvester Betts, T.W. Blake, W.E. Fann, and W.P. Baker. A series of short-term pastors (usually one to three years) included O.L. Stringfield and L.E.M. Freeman. Five days after the death of John T. Pullen on May 2, 1913 the congregation renamed itself “Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.”
The Church in Transition
Stability of pastoral leadership began with the coming of J.A. Ellis as pastor on August 6, 1919. Ellis was the first of Pullen’s pastors to make frequent application of the gospel to controversial social issues.
The congregation was already debating moving to a location in Cameron Park when its building was destroyed by fire on April 22, 1921. Two weeks later they began holding services in Pullen Hall on the campus of N. C. State College (now NC State University). On February 11, 1923 the congregation entered its new building on the corner of Cox Avenue and Hillsborough Street planning to minister to students at NC State, Meredith, and the Governor Morehead School.
The same year that they began to rotate deacons, 1927, the congregation also approved the election of women as deacons. In that year they chose four. No other women were elected until 1950.
After ten years at Pullen, J.A. Ellis resigned to go First Baptist Church in Sherman, Texas.
The Church Shaping Its Tradition
The church called E. McNeill Poteat, Jr. who began his work as pastor in September 1929. At the time he was a missionary-professor at the University of Shanghai. Musician, poet, and scholar, his major preaching emphasis was on what came to be called “Social Christianity.” With a spirit of ecumenism uncommon in Baptist churches, in April 1933 Pullen began to accept as “associate members” people who came from other denominations, giving them all privileges of membership except “voting and holding office.” Poteat took ecumenism a step further when he was one of three Baptist ministers who helped organize the North Carolina Council of Churches in October 1935. Poteat concluded his ministry at Pullen on September 5, 1937 to become pastor of Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland.
Lee C. Sheppard succeeded Poteat on November 6, 1937. Sheppard was a quiet man who did not like controversy, but whose forthright words on war and on race attracted attention beyond the church. It was he who led the church to adopt a covenant that, while in form resembled the traditional Southern Baptist Covenant, in content it was significantly different.
Geraldine Cate became choir director in February 1944, and held that position for forty-one years. Under her leadership the best in church music became standard for Pullen and Pullen’s worship service took on a distinctive character. Betsy Wooden, who had been a member of Pullen since childhood, became church secretary in the fall of 1948 and was a stabilizing force in church life, retiring in 1980.
Sheppard resigned in October 1947 to become pastor of First Baptist Church in Colombia, Missouri.
The Church Renewing Itself
E. McNeill Poteat returned to Pullen in November 1948. He and Geraldine Cate developed a new pattern of worship that incorporated litanies, prayers, and responses from the broader Christian community.
Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church of New York City delivered the sermon in the service dedicating the new sanctuary on October 29, 1950. The sanctuary evoked a new understanding of worship:
- The divided chancel called for a more liturgical service.
- The new organ (dedicated in October 1950) challenged choir and congregation.
- The stained glass windows (dedicated in December 1952) inspired reverence.
W. W. Finlator, called to be pastor in July 1956 after the death of Poteat, helped solidify Pullen’s reputation as a “liberal” church by his preaching on controversial issues and publicly taking unpopular stands-on race, organized labor, war, and capital punishment. He often spoke at denominational meetings and was active in the American Civil Liberties Union. A public figure, he was often quoted in the news media.
In a new constitution, adopted in April 1958, the church declared itself open to all people regardless of race, and affirmed the acceptance into full membership of Christians who transferred membership from other denominations. The latter action led to the unsuccessful efforts made in the early 1970s to oust Pullen, along with a dozen other churches, from the Baptist State Convention. A new denominational relationship was established in 1967 when Pullen joined the American Baptist Churches, USA. After several years of contact with Coventry Cathedral in England, on October 30, 1977, Pullen was designated a center of the Community of the Cross of Nails.
W. W. Finlator, pastor since 1956, retired in June 1982 and Mahan Siler became pastor in August 1983. With a background in counseling, he brought a new emphasis on pastoral care, which was reflected both in his preaching and in his personal relationships.
The Church Moving Into the Next Century
In December 1984, with an eye to the future, the church celebrated its centennial.
In the mid 1980s Pullen moved, with some difficulty, into the use of inclusive language in its worship services and educational programs.
A sister-church relationship was begun in 1986 between Pullen, an almost exclusively white congregation, and Martin Street Baptist, an almost exclusively African-American congregation in downtown Raleigh. In 1988 a sister-church relationship was established between Pullen and First Baptist Church of Matanzas, Cuba. In more recent years Pullen has established partnerships with progressive Baptists in Zimbabwe, the Republic of Georgia, and Nicaragua.
After lengthy discussion and prayer, Pullen endorsed unqualified acceptance of gay/lesbian Christians in 1992. Within the year Pullen was excluded from the Raleigh Baptist Association, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, and the Southern Baptist Convention.
While Mahan Siler served as pastor the needs of the church community continued to change and the church staff grew to include a minister to children, a minister to youth, a minister to the community, and a church administrator. Mahan Siler retired in June 1998.
Jack McKinney was named pastor in 2000. After eighteen months at Pullen he recommended that the church consider calling Associate Pastor Nancy E. Petty, who had been on staff since 1992, to serve alongside him in a two-pastor model of leadership. The congregation spent several months discussing the merits of a co-pastorate before voting on April 21, 2002 to make Nancy Petty its first female pastor.
Following Jack McKinney’s resignation late in 2009, the church voted to return to a single pastor model and affirmed Nancy Petty as its sole pastor.
For more information on the history of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, consult Our Heritage and Our Hope, a look at the first 100 years of the church’s history covering 1884 through 1984, and An Inclusive Church in a Time of Conflict, which updates the history of Pullen from 1984 through 1996. Both books are written by Roger H. Crook, former chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy of Meredith College and a member of Pullen for more than forty years of its history. Copies of the books are available in the church library.