SHARON – Standing next to the altar at First Baptist Church in Sharon on Sunday, Rev. John Trojak pointed to the building’s walls and ceiling.
“This isn’t the church,’’ Trojak said to his congregation. “You are the church.’’
As its pastor for the past 30 years, he helped the congregation celebrate its 215th anniversary at a special Sunday morning service. Based on its records, First Baptist believes it’s Mercer County’s oldest church.
Settlers began arriving in the Sharon area in the late 1790s. During that era residents found themselves on the extreme western edge of the United States. Ohio didn’t become a state until 1803.
First Baptist can trace its origins to that year. As was the practice at that time, the congregation held services at a member’s home.
By 1807 the first physical church was created in a small log cabin on Sharon’s West Hill. Pioneer William Budd gave the Baptists land for a church and a graveyard on the south side of West State Street, according to the Sharon Historical Society.
“They called it the meeting house,’’ Trojak said. “I like that term. I’m fairly certain other churches would meet in the Baptist meeting house.’’
Budd later gave the Methodists adjoining property, and it became Sharon’s community burial ground. The graveyard was southeast of Logan Avenue and West State, stretching to the current Baptist church. The number of those buried at the location was estimated by one account at 700 graves.
The remains were eventually dug up and moved to Oakwood Cemetery in the 1870s and the land sold for houses.
First Baptist became a recognized institution with a handwritten charter bestowed on the church in 1830. The church still has the charter document.
As the local population and congregation grew, the log building was torn down in 1844 when its new wood-frame church was completed on A Street, Historical Society records said. That structure better resembled a classic church and was painted white on the outside, Trojak said.
In the 1883, construction began on the current church along West State Street. It was dedicated on June 28, 1884.
“Sharon at that time looked like a western town,’’ Trojak said of the city’s rugged look. At the time West State Street was still a dirt road.
In 1893 the Luse Chapel was built adjoining the church’s sanctuary, thanks to the generosity of the Robert Luse family who were longtime workers in the church.
When the dawn of the 20th century hit and for years after that the church continued to grow and was a bedrock of the community. The Luse Chapel proved far too small and was replaced in 1960 by the church’s current educational building, church records said.
Other improvements were made at the church, such as its organ that is prized by many local musicians and continues to be used.
“It has 917 pipes, and a lot of them are made of wood,’’ Trojak said.
Yet, the church also has embraced 21st century technology. A large viewing screen shows song lyrics and beams other parts of the service using computers. Also, a sophisticated sound board can broadcast songs and can be adjusted to better hear sermons.
Like many local churches, First Baptist has seen a drop in its members, which can be attributed in part to the decline of the local population. Trojak said the church currently has around 100 members.
A number of the church’s oldest members attended Sunday’s service.
Dorothy Reiter, 92, has been a church member since she was born and might be the longest living member of its congregation.
“We have a lot less members now,’’ Reiter said. “We had close to 400 members when I was young.’’
Now 86, Alice (Bennington) Lyth said she began attending the church since she was 6.
“We had a lot of wonderful Sunday school teachers back then,’’ Lyth said.
Mel Morgenstern, 92, said his father began attending the church at birth in 1903.
“I was born in 1927 and I got baptized here,’’ Morgenstern said. “That’s something you don’t forget.’’