Our Story

Our history is rich and diverse. Erin Borders recently completed a documentary series that tells our story. We invite to watch and learn about the past, present and future of Wheat Street. As you watch these stories we invite you to join us to write the next chapter of our history. Something special is happening at Wheat Street as we look back in order to move forward. We are experiencing a revival in this Sankofa moment.

To God be the Glory for the renowned Historic Wheat Street Baptist Church for one hundred fifty (150) years of praising and worshiping God and serving as a beacon of hope and light for the Historic Old Fourth Ward Community seated adjacent to 

“The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District”. In 1869, a small group of parishioners of the First Baptist Church, (presently known as Friendship Baptist Church) grew weary of traveling across town. With the consent of their Pastor, Father Frank Quarles, they organized into a mission that was known as Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church with Reverend Andrew Jackson serving as Pastor from 1869-1874. Their first place of worship was located in the pastor’s yard on Howell Street where worship services were conducted under a “bush arbor”. Over a century, this historic church was blessed with seven outstanding shepherds serving in the following “Men Of God” – William Henry Tillman, Peter James Bryant, J. Raymond Henderson, William Holmes Borders, Sr., Michael Neely Harris, and Ralph Basui Watkins.

This Mighty Fortress has served as a vital spiritual, civil and social institution for the Sweet Auburn and Historic Old Fourth Ward Communities since its inception. One example of a major institution which began in the basement of the church, was the Butler Street Young Men’s Christian Association in 1894 by J.S. Brandon. The dominant activity for this organization during the early years was songs and prayers on Sunday afternoons. The present edifice, constructed in August 1921, replaced the original church building destroyed by 

“The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917” and represents a late adaptation of the Gothic Revival Style. The church contains twenty-two (22) classrooms and departmental rooms, vaulted ceiling, and a 2,500 seat capacity in the main sanctuary. This Mighty Fortress located at 359 Auburn Avenue, “Where The Doors Swing Back On Welcome Hinges”, as coined by Pastor William Holmes Borders, Sr., still remains a vibrant “Holy Ghost” filled house of God serving The Historic Old Fourth Ward Community, City of Atlanta, Nation and World. This sacred and beautiful sanctuary is a place of redemption, inspiration, rejuvenation, reclamation, consecration and confirmation for all who seek salvation and desire to embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.


Reverend William Henry Tillman

Reverend William Henry Tillman, Pastor from 1875-1897, was very strong and eloquent speaker and became our second Pastor following Interim Pastor Dunbar, who served for a short period. Under his administration, the church had prolific growth, which led to their finding a larger place, which was at the corner of Old Wheat Street and Fort Street, thus the name WHEAT STREET BAPTIST CHURCH emerged. During Reverend Tillman’s administration, the membership grew to one thousand members. However, during his pastorate, Reverend Tillman became physically weak and resigned. Reverend C.T. Walker – Reverend Walker served as our second Interim Pastor from 1897-1898.

Reverend Peter James Bryant

From 1898-1929, Reverend Peter James Bryant, a dynamic young preacher, accepted the call as the third Pastor. Under his administration, more than three thousand souls came into the fold. After perishing in “The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917”, the church sought another place of worship. They decided to settle at the corner of Yonge Street, (presently known as William Holmes Borders, Sr., Drive) and Wheat Street (presently known as Auburn Avenue), of which is the present location. Reverend Bryant conceptualized and designed the present edifice. He also finished the First Unit and outside walls of the new church. Unfortunately, he became ill and passed from labor to reward. When his work on earth ended, Reverend Louis Foster, whom Reverend Bryant had ordained, became our fourth Interim Pastor and led our worship services. For one year the church was without a pastor and during which time was the Great Depression. The church was heavily indebted, but it knew where to look and that was to God.

Reverend J. Raymond Henderson

Therefore, in 1930 God commanded a man to go to Wheat Street to see what he could do to help. that man was Reverend J. Raymond Henderson, our fourth pastor who served for seven (7) years. He saved many souls, raised eighteen thousand and five hundred dollars ($18,500.00), and cleared the church of debt. Reverend Henderson saw another vision and another vineyard with another flock of God and in 1937 tendered his resignation. Again, Wheat Street was left without a shepherd and began to search for another pastor.

Reverend William Holmes Borders, Sr.

In 1937, Reverend William Holmes Borders, Sr., the inimitable, charismatic, outstanding orator, lecturer, educator, civil rights leader, and humanitarian, took the reins and became our fifth Pastor. It was under his leadership that Wheat Street Baptist Church experienced the greatest growth in membership, finances, building, evangelism, community service and leadership in the civil rights movement. Reverend Borders led the congregation in completing the present sanctuary in nineteen months, and one week, at a cost of $87,000.00. Other accomplishments include the following: organizing more than forty-five auxiliaries, including two deacon boards, six usher boards, and seven choirs; purchasing thirty-two (32) acres of land bounded by Cain Street, Jackson Street, Old Wheat Street and Fort Street at a cost of $450,000.00 for the purpose of constructing a low-rent housing project; extending the church campus to include the Christian Education Building; Wheat Street Gardens Low-income Housing complex; Wheat Street Towers High Rise for the elderly; and Wheat Street Plaza Shopping Centers, North and South. The Christian Education Building was constructed in 1955 at a cost of $450,000.00. Wheat Street Gardens was the first low-income housing project, partially federally funded, and sponsored by any church anywhere in the United States of America. The Wheat Street Federal Credit Union, valued at $1,195,239.00 on January 31, 1982 was among the first church Federal Credit Unions established in the south. Rev. Borders was a pioneer evangelist via local Atlanta radio stations through 1972, and through television until he retired. The Bus Ministry helped to increase the membership to 3,000. The annual income increased from approximately $12,000.00 to $300,000.00.
The late Mrs. Julia Pate Borders, First Lady, assisted Reverend Borders in all church activities and served for 27 years without a salary as Director of Christian Education overseeing Sunday Church School, Vacation Bible School, Head Start, nursery and elementary school. After serving the Wheat Street Baptist Church, the Atlanta community, the nation and the world, Reverend Dr. William Holmes Borders, Sr., became the Pastor-Emeritus in 1989, and continued in this capacity until his transition in 1993. Reverend Willie J. Webb served as our fifth Interim Pastor from 1988-1999.

Reverend Dr. Michael Neely Harris

In June 1989, Reverend Dr. Michael Neely Harris, a man of impeccable character, as described during the pastoral search, became our sixth Pastor of this one hundred forty-five (145) year old church. He has proven to be a dedicated, spirit-filled, erudite, dynamic, preacher who is remarkably skilled in preparing and delivering inspiring, soul moving sermons. Through these sermons, he has attracted more than one thousand (1,000) persons to join. Financial stewardship has increased and more than 40 new auxiliaries and ministries organized. Pastor Harris has led in facilitating improving the church campus and other properties. His most notable accomplishment is the renovation and designing of the Historic First Unit (basement) of the church in 2000 at a cost of 1.5 million dollars ($1,500,000). In June 2002, Georgia Trend Magazine cited Dr. Harris as a leader in acquiring the service of the first Church Administrator at the Historic Wheat Street Baptist Church. He has been featured in numerous publications as a Dynamic Church Leader and is in demand as a preacher and lecturer throughout the U.S.A.

Reverend Ralph Basui Watkins, MFA, DMin, PhD

July 2017 Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins was called to be our seventh Pastor. Dr. Watkins is The Peachtree Associate Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His work focuses on building bridges between young adults and the church in order to develop future leaders for the twenty-first century church while simultaneously respecting the traditions of old. He is defined as a bridge builder between the generations.
Dr. Watkins previously served at Beulah Grove Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia as the Director of Ministry Development and Macedonia Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as the Pastor of Education and Evangelism. Since moving to Atlanta he and his wife have been active members of Zion Hill Baptist Church where Dr. Watkins directed the photography and social media ministry.
Dr. Watkins is an active teaching / preaching scholar and has over 250 publications and conference presentations to his credit. He is author of “The Future of the African American Church” (co-authored with Justin West – 2014), “Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme (2011)”, “Leading Your African-American Church Through Pastoral Transition (2010)”, “From Jay Z to Jesus: Reaching and Teaching Young Adults in the African American Church” (co-authored with Benjamin Stephens – 2008), “The Gospel Remix: Reaching The Hip-Hop Generation – 2007)” and “I Ain’t Afraid To Speak My Mind (2003)”. He is presently working on his next book with Eerdmans Press entitled, Africana Theology: The Re-Radicalization of Black Theology”. He is also a professional photographer and storyteller. Watkins has produced two full length television documentaries and has had numerous photographs published in magazines.
In recent years, Dr. Watkins has received a Governor’s Teaching Fellowship, Lilly Teaching Fellowship, and Fulbright Hayes Fellowship for a study in Ghana, a Wabash Teaching Fellowship, and various awards and study grants to study in the African roots of African American Theology in Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Senegal, Ghana and Ethiopia.
Dr. Watkins has been married to Dr. Vanessa C. Watkins since June 21, 1982, and they have three adult children, Nastasia Watkins, Nicole Watkins-Smith and Ralph Watkins III.