Olive Drive Church formed in 1889 and has a long and diverse history. The following is a partial retelling from William Harland Boyd’s book “Bakersfield’s First Baptist Church: A Centennial History, 1889-1989.”
In 1889, Bakersfield residents were “justly proud” of their wide tree lined streets, tasteful business buildings, and comfortable homes. Saloons were far more popular than churches at the time, but four energetic pastors, (Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, and Baptist), took it upon themselves to begin to minister to the townspeople. The first Baptist services were organized in April of 1889 at George Wear’s Opera House located at the southeast corner of Eye and Wall Streets with Reverend J. Campbell Jordan, of Fresno, as Pastor. Services soon moved to the Kern County Courthouse and remained there until 1890 when the church constructed a permanent building on the northwest corner of 22nd and Eye Streets.
The First Baptist Church
In March of 1890, legal requirements were met to incorporate and officially become the “ First Baptist Church.” By May of that same year a Sunday School was established under Superintendent Charles E. Wright, and about fifty people were enrolled by December of 1892.
In January, 1893, the Reverend Carl O. Johnson began his eighteen month role as minister of the First Baptist Church. Johnson joined with other pastors in the city in 1894 to form the Ministerial Association that would work on religious and welfare projects. That same year, the first choir was organized and directed by George H. Taylor.
From 1894-1901, the First Baptist Church made do with several interim pastors. During that time, the struggling First Baptist Church was beginning to wonder if the church could find a minister let alone pay one. With the creation of the Improvement Society, the ladies of the church were instrumental in supporting the church at this time with their fund-raising efforts and it was later reported “only a handful of women…hold the fort” at the First Baptist Church.
In May of 1901, church members gladly welcomed Reverend William C. Whitaker of Tempe, Arizona. The booming Kern River oil fields were attracting workers to Bakersfield, and some of them were “working Baptists.” Walter A. Sloan helped rejuvenate the small Sunday School and Lloyed H. Esterly revived and directed the choir. There was a renewed hope and indeed some progress. However, due to poor health, Whitaker submitted his resignation and delivered his farewell sermon in April of 1902.The church went without a pastor until January of 1903.
Growing in Downtown Bakersfield
Reverend William M. Collins, a recent graduate from the pastorate at Pomeroy, Washington, somewhat fell into the job, but he was very effective. Within a year, the new members outnumbered those who had belonged during the preceding 5 years. In March of 1904, after deciding to build a new church, the old one was sold and services were temporarily held downtown in the First National Bank building.
A lot was purchased at the southwest corner of 20th and G Streets and plans were drawn up by architects Norman F. Marsh and Clarence H. Russell of Los Angeles. Construction began in August, 1904 and the completed church was dedicated in April of 1905. The First Baptist Church was flourishing when in April, 1906, Collins concluded his pastorate and went to a church in Orange, California.
In October of 1906, Reverend J. Fred Jenkins of Ocean Park, California, accepted the call to come to the First Baptist Church. Soon after his arrival he was elected vice-president of the Ministerial Association and was well known for his work on behalf of the young people in the children’s shelter. A busy schedule compounded by health problems culminated in Jenkins resignation in January of 1908. The First Baptist Church was again without a pastor from January to July of 1908, and although at times there were no services, the Sunday School continued to meet.
Reverend Lloyd C. Smith was a few weeks shy of completing his pastoral training when he was called to First Baptist Church. The church resumed full activities upon his arrival in July of 1908. Since Smith was a young man, his ministry appealed especially to young people. By April, 1909 the Sunday School enrollment had quadrupled, and a nursery was created. Smith concluded his 3-year pastorate in August of 1911.
In September, 1911, Reverend James S. West, of Bucyrus, Ohio, was called to the First Baptist Church which continued to grow under his leadership. He had a special appeal to younger groups with his enthusiastic “heart to heart” style of communication. Continuing with their support of the church was the Ladies’ Aid Society, (formally the Improvement Society), which was renamed yet again in 1914 to the Ladies’ Auxiliary. The choir also experienced growth and revival at this time. In July of 1915, West announced he was going to a pastorate at Tacoma, Washington.
Reverend Charles E. Griffin was a guest preacher at the First Baptist Church in July of 1916 and shortly thereafter was offered the pastorate position. The nation became involved in World War I early in 1917, but despite this the church continued to grow. After 3 years of successful service, Griffin announced that he was accepting a “hearty call” to a church in Boise, Idaho.
Several men filled the pulpit of the First Baptist Church while the search for a pastor was underway. A young enthusiastic Lieutenant Russell M. Brougher, who had recently served in Europe as an Army Chaplain, accepted an interim position until his planned enrollment in a theological seminary.
In May, 1919, Reverend Frederick W. Hatch, D.D., of Lansing, Michigan, accepted the call to the First Baptist Church. The church continued to grow under his leadership and in early 1920, property was purchased at the southeast corner of 18 th and G Streets for a new church. Although it was hoped construction could be undertaken within a year, a dozen years elapsed before any work was underway. And in fact, when construction did finally commence, a different site on Truxtun Avenue had been purchased. Reverend Hatch concluded a 5-year pastorate in June of 1924, when he went to a church in Santa Monica, California.
In June of 1924, the well known Reverend George E. Burlingame, D.D., came to fill the interim pastorate position and after 5 months went on to serve at a church in San Diego – replacing the minister that was soon to come to Bakersfield. In December of 1924, Reverend Frank O. Belden, D.D., (from San Diego) was at the helm. The emphasis on youth activities brought increasingly larger Sunday School enrollments and the need for more classrooms quickly became apparent. A house next door to the church was purchased in 1927 for just this reason.
Some twelve years after acquiring property, a house of worship in the Italian Romanesque style was designed by architect Charles A. Biggar. A nationwide depression, beginning in 1929, with a resulting widespread unemployment, made it difficult to raise funds. However, by January, 1932, enough money had been raised, together with pledges, to justify the beginning of construction. The cornerstone was laid in March and the building was dedicated in November, 1932.
Early in 1933 a long-awaited pipe organ with eleven ranks was dedicated. Late in the year Leroy G. Gates directed the newly-formed Messiah Chorus in singing George Handel’s classic, The Messiah. It became an annual performance under the sponsorship of the First Baptist Church.
The Reverend Belden had been at the First Baptist Church for nearly eleven years when, in October, 1935, he retired from the pastorate. By then he was seventy-one years of age.
Reverend Burton C. Barrett, D.D., of the Pennsylvania Baptist Convention, answered the call to serve at the First Baptist Church in October of 1935. He challenged the seven hundred and fifty members to join an effort to double the strength of the church, making it “stimulating and helpful in every way.” When Barrett assumed the pastorate he also assumed a heavy depression-time debt mainly due to construction costs. Women’s and Men’s groups alike got busy with various fundraising efforts, and on the twelfth anniversary of the completion of the building the mortgage was ceremoniously burned in 1944.
Expanding the Ministry
The growing demands of the church made it necessary to bring on additional staff starting in 1937 with the Reverend Everett S. Burket as Associate Pastor. Reverend Sam Kleinsasser became an Associate Pastor in 1943, and among other things, he organized a youth choir. The Reverend W. Lowell Fairley was called as the minister to youth in 1953 and later became the Assistant Minister. Reverend Henry I. Fox became the Director of Christian Education in 1956, and Reverend Harold W. Pollinger was chosen Assistant Pastor in 1958.
While the Reverend W. Lowell Fairley was the minister to youth, two children’s choirs were organized. Under the direction of James G. Rogers, Pauline Brigham, and David C. Sliger, the Sunday School outgrew its available space and subsequently purchased 3 nearby dwellings for use as a “Fellowship Annex.”
During this time the extension-minded Baptist church members helped to establish the Edison-Fairfax Baptist Mission in 1948, the Chester Avenue Baptist Church in 1949, and the University Baptist Church in 1957. In September of 1961, the Reverend Barrett concluded a twenty-six year pastorate, by which time the church had about seventeen hundred members.
In September of 1961 the Reverend John A. Lavender, D.D., of Chicago, Illinois, became the pastor of the First Baptist Church. Phillip C. Dodson, an organist, became the minister of music in 1962, and the music program was expanded to comprise several choirs ranging in age from children to adults. A Singing Christmas Tree program was presented for the first time in 1972. Working with Virgil Fox, a well known organist, Dodson labored several years to acquire the organ that was originally built for the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He would be successful and the organ was dedicated in 1988 in the newly constructed church on Olive Drive.
The first class for alcoholism, called Alcoholics Victorious, was started in 1969 by David Heil and a Community Counseling Center was opened in 1971. A daycare learning center was opened in 1970, under the direction of Carol Cook. Nearly a decade later, in 1979, the comprehensive Christian Life School would open in the newly completed buildings on Olive Drive.
Establishing the Bakersfield Christian Life Center
The congregation had been outgrowing the church facilities on Truxtun Avenue throughout the 1970s, (even though attendance at the evening services was declining), and a relocation site was acquired at the northwest corner of New Stine Road and Ming Avenue. Yet, late in 1976, it appeared the locale would not be adequate for the expanding needs of the church. Consequently, both the downtown and southwest properties were sold in favor of the 32 acre property on the northern outskirts of the city on Olive Drive. A ground breaking ceremony for the Christian Life Center, home of the First Baptist Church, took place in October of 1977.
The congregation moved to the new church in November of 1979, where the services were held in the Centrum, until the main worship center could be completed. Complications and budget problems seemed to plague the project, but happily, discouraged church officials, in the fall of 1984, became aware of a building team in Oregon (Gerald Bristol and Jerry Eaker). A contract was arranged and construction on the main worship center began in April, 1985. Two years later, in March of 1987, the long awaited consecration ceremony was held.
In the fall of 1987, a stewardship campaign was launched to liquidate the mortgage incurred. Church members contributed generously and the mortgage was burned in June of 1988, on Reverend Lavender’s last Sunday at the pulpit. This concluded a twenty-seven year pastorate.
A recent president of the American Baptist Seminary of the West at Berkeley, California, Reverend Wesley H. Brown, Ph.D., became the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in August of 1988. Throughout 1989 there was a year-long celebration of the centennial anniversary of the founding of the First Baptist Church with special events scheduled to cherish the heritage of the church and embrace the future. Brown tendered his resignation in early 1997, which led to a 2-year interim pastorate by Reverend W. Lowell Fairley while the Pastoral Search Committee looked for a new pastor.
A New Era and a New Name
Reverend Mike Popovich, D.Min., of Visalia, California, became the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in March of 1999. Pastor Mike and the Board of Elders presented a proposed name change to the congregation from the First Baptist Church to Olive Drive Church. The congregation voted on January 24, 2001 changing the official name of the church to Olive Drive Church. After serving faithfully for 12 years, Pastor Mike resigned in Jan of 2011.
We are currently in an Interim period with Pastor Bill Magsig, Pastor Joshua Kirstine, and the Elder Board taking on the leadership responsibilities of the church.
You can read more about our mission as a church under the Our Mission page. You can also learn more about our pastors by visiting our Staff page. For more information on the Elder Board and Biblical Eldership see the Our Elders page.