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Sixty-five years of leading a community

First Baptist Church’s Rev. J.R. Manley. Photo courtesy of First Baptist Church

By Kevin Collins
Staff Writer
Upon first glance, it was business as usual at Chapel Hill’s First Baptist Church on Sunday morning. Throngs of familiar faces gathered in the dusty pews as they do every Sunday, eager to mingle with friends, sing their hearts out and give thanks for their many blessings.

Not much has changed at First Baptist in the past 65 years – not the preacher, at any rate. Dr. J.R. Manley’s bright, stoic visage and distinct Southern drawl have been a constant presence at the church for more than half a century. This past weekend, his parishioners were finally able to give back to the man who has done so much for them.

Members of the church celebrated Rev. Manley’s 65th pastoral anniversary in style Sunday with an appreciation sermon fit for a man of his accomplishments. One by one, the preacher’s friends, family and flock members expressed their gratitude for Manley, who has been a staple of Chapel Hill for as long as most residents can remember. It was easy to see the emotional impact these displays had on the beloved reverend.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a position that I’m almost speechless before,” Manley said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I don’t have words beyond those words. This day will live with me forever and forever and forever”

The sermon, combined with a special-appreciation banquet at the Sheraton Hotel last Friday, served as both a tribute and the start of a farewell tour. Manley will retire in January, leaving the church in need of a new leader for the first time in quite a while.

It is a position few in the fold can recall being in, but it will soon be a reality. With Rev. Manley largely ceding control of Sunday’s sermon to the appreciative masses, it is obvious that even when he moves on, his spirit will remain in the hearts and minds of his eternally grateful students. His teachings were reflected in their words Sunday morning, and it was clear he has taught them well.

Manley was joined by family members from South Carolina and Virginia, men of God from across the state and old friends from across the country. His widespread acclaim is a testament to the accessibility of his message. Dr. Charles Bullock, assistant professor of theology and ethics at Shaw University Divinity School, highlighted Manley’s notoriety outside the old walls of First Baptist Church.

“For his leadership style, he is known throughout Orange County, throughout North Carolina, throughout the United States and beyond,” Bullock said.

There were also plenty of personal stories shared by those who know Manley the best. Edric Cotton has been a lifelong member of First Baptist, and he relished the opportunity to celebrate the legacy of his longtime spiritual guide. He shared an anecdote about his young daughter, Priscilla, confusing Rev. Manley with a different holy figure several years ago.

“She said, ‘Daddy, there goes God,’” he said. “I told her, ‘Not quite, but pretty close.’ He’s been my God here on Earth my whole life.”

As it turned out, Sunday’s sermon was anything but business as usual at First Baptist. And considering their longtime leader will soon be moving onto another phase of his life, Sunday mornings just won’t be the same.

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