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The choir and orchestra of First Baptist perform during the "Carols by Candlelight." Courtesy of First Baptist Church

JACK WEATHERLY — A mighty fortress holds forth with annual show

JACK WEATHERLY

[droand pcap]I[/dropcap]t is the best foot forward for the biggest Baptist church in a Baptist-dominated state.

“Carols by Candlelight” is First Baptist of Jackson’s extravagant yet humble yule show that just marked its 49th year.

It is unquestionably the biggest event of the season in the Jackson area.

It is comparable to the Mormons’ annual extravaganza in Salt Lake City.

All five performances over the weekend of Dec. 7-9 were “sold out,” meaning all the free tickets were distributed, and used.

We attended the last performance Sunday night, and the cavernous sanctuary in the gothic revival edifice was packed.

The 250-member choir and full orchestra can hold their own in high company, with the Ballet Magnificat troupe adding to the sophistication of the production.

Southern Baptists have a strong tendency to be culturally conservative, and also socially and politically.

I should know. I was raised Baptist, though my spiritual journey has led this too-often unwise man east to Orthodoxy.

All those bells, smells and icons? Hardly a low-church Baptist atmosphere.

But as a former Baptist and lawyer, now a Greek Orthodox priest, once told me: “If the Baptists knew about Orthodoxy, you couldn’t keep them out with an army.”

Exactly how my mother felt about being a Baptist.

Oh how she loved to sing in the Christmas cantata at our Baptist church in Memphis.

The pastor loved her “high C,” though she would lament in private: “I never had any formal training,” the demands of family and job limiting her creativity.

The First Baptist production compares favorably with seasonal stagings in New York City, from what I’ve seen on television. With one major difference. The First Baptist production unashamedly only celebrates the high holy day.

Since we’re sitting in judgment on the culturally wealthy, let’s just say that New York and some other metropolises tend to try to have it both ways, mixing God and mammon. And, as the Gospel says, they neutralize each other.

The service, as that is what it was, ended with an “invitation” to meet Christ, just as it has for hundreds of years in the denomination.

The exquisite Quimby pipe organ was played superbly by James Arrington Goff, organist for the church. With that rumbling, soaring sound, the church could put on a creditable staging of “Phantom of the Opera.”

But that is another, dark world and the immense granite blocks of the temple would surely crush those who blasphemed the house of worship.

Ricky Skaggs, the bluegrass legend, was a different case.

Bobby Ray, current chief financial officer of the church and steel guitar picker in his spare time, recalls when he was in charge of the deacons-and-wives banquet and got Skaggs to perform at the event.

Shades of Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the shrine to country music’s Grand Ole Opry, and a former gospel tabernacle.

Rest assured, there is no sign that First Baptist is moving from its 4,500-member home with its 3,000-seat sanctuary.

It’s hard to imagine that the neo-gothic campus that covers two square blocks in downtown Jackson could be anything but a mighty fortress, as Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn.

Especially with the 50th anniversary of “Carols by Candlelight” next December.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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