Many pastors and churches in the Deep South struggled with the challenges of racial integration during the 1960’s, but few of them did so with more courage than Thomas J. Holmes, pastor of the Tattnall Square Baptist Church in Macon, Ga.
The Tattnall Square Church had been founded in 1891 on the campus of Mercer University as a congregation to serve faculty and students. The membership grew rapidly to nearly 2,000 persons by 1960, but soon thereafter, a series of demographic changes in the community led the church into steep decline.
Holmes, a Georgia native and Mercer alumnus, began serving the congregation as interim pastor in October 1964. As director of university development and alumni relations and assistant professor of Christianity at Mercer, he was well-qualified to lead the church to engage both the university and its changing community. By December, the church had extended a call to Holmes as full-time pastor, an assignment which began April 1, 1965.
The Rev. Douglas Johnson joined the staff as an assistant pastor for youth and students while Jack Jones, an instructor of music at Mercer, was named part-time minister of music. As improvements were made to the sanctuary and a plan for ministering to the community emerged, more and more students and young married persons began attending Tattnall Square.
Nevertheless, these changes threatened a small group of entrenched lay leaders. In his personal account of the crisis that followed, Ashes for Breakfast: A Diary of Racism in an American Church, Holmes would later write: “The real conflict began when Doug Johnson, Jack Jones, and I decided that we would challenge our people, not with sophisticated pastoral coddling, but with the imperatives of God’s Word. Not only was our program at stake at Tattnall Square, but our integrity as Christian ministers. We chose to preserve the latter if one of the two had to be sacrificed.”
Throughout the summer of 1966, Holmes preached a series of sermons from the Book of Acts, stressing the universality of the gospel. Yet, when two black teenagers participating in an Upward Bound Project at Mercer attended the Tattnall Square worship service on Sunday, June 26, a storm of protest ensued.
At the next deacons’ meeting, a motion was made to dismiss Johnson and Jones–perhaps under the assumption that if the two assistant ministers could be fired then the pastor could as well. Next, a special committee on racial policy recommended closing the doors of the church to Negroes. The deacons adopted the report and sent it to the church for action.
On Sunday, July 24, Tattnall Square Baptist Church voted 289-109 to close its doors to African-Americans. Then, after months of standing on Christian principle, Tom Holmes had the painful duty of explaining his congregation’s actions to the press, as well as to Mercer officials and black church leaders in Macon
John Jeter Hurt, editor of the Georgia Baptist newspaper The Christian Index, asked Holmes for a statement, which was published in the Aug. 4 issue. He wrote: “I have not and cannot be a party to closing our church doors to any person wanting to enter and worship. A pastor’s heart may be broken by a church action, but, for a time at least, he has a pastor’s responsibility to his membership. I must say no more at the present.”
At the deacons’ meeting on Aug. 15, a motion was introduced that “Tom, Doug, and Jack be asked to resign.” After spirited debate, the vote was 12-9 in favor of their discharge and the matter was referred to the congregation. At the next business conference, supporters delayed taking up the matter immediately and a decision was postponed until late September.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 25, Tattnall Square Baptist Church voted to dismiss all three of their ministers by a vote of 259-189. That same morning, Sam Oni, a Mercer student who had been won to Christ by Southern Baptist missionaries in Ghana and had been the first black admitted to the university in 1963, was effectively barred from attending the worship service. Both actions instantly became a national and then an international news story covered by three television networks, wire services, and hundreds of newspapers.
Holmes, Johnson, and Jones issued a statement to the press which said in part: “We can only feel sorrow at this action of the Tattnall Square Baptist Church in discharging us from our positions. Not sorrow for ourselves, but sorrow that a church with such a distinguished history of Christian service and with such a great opportunity for the future has allowed itself to be shattered over the issue of the seating of all persons who desire to worship in our sanctuary.”
All three ministers resigned their positions and a hundred members of the congregation left with them. Tattnall Square Baptist Church later called a new pastor, who was a member of the John Birch Society. Having lost its reputation in the community, the church eventually relocated to a more comfortable setting in the northern suburbs.
Tom Holmes received many accolades for his pastoral courage at Tattnall Square. He later served Mercer University in various capacities as well as the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, but the episode at Tattnall Square always remained his finest hour. Holmes died on Jan. 3, 1985, and was buried in his hometown of Sandersville, Ga.
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga.