In July of 1926, fourteen spirit led Christians sought to create a new worship experience in Louisville, Kentucky. The result? A diamond in the rough named St. Stephen Baptist Church.
After their amicable split from Centennial Olivet Baptist Church, Percy Baker, Robert Carter, Arthur & Irma Douglas, Bettie Hayden, Kiah Herston, Bertha Jackson, Delbert King, M.H. Montgomery, Peter Pincham, Paris Roberts, Garfield Whitney, Cordelia Whittenhill and Rev. John L. Woolfolk found themselves in need of a pastor to lead their new worship family.
For one year, they invited guest ministers to preach to the small congregation, which worshipped in the basement of Antioch Baptist Church. It only took one sermon from a young Simmons University student named B.J. Miller Sr. to convince the church that he was worthy of serving as St. Stephen’s first pastor. And so he did.
For 44 years, Rev. Miller served as St. Stephen’s spiritual and visionary leader. Under his direction, the church grew and established a proud heritage that produced a legacy of highly respected gospel singers and musicians and progressive ministries.
In fact, it was St. Stephen’s non-traditional thinking in 1952 that gave birth to one of Louisville’s first inner-city family life centers. The Ormsby Boys Club was founded shortly after St. Stephen had outgrown its third church home on Kentucky Street. As it moved to what is now known as the church chapel, St. Stephen agreed to lease its vacant space to the Boys Club for $1 a year to support youth and family development in the California community.
Similar forward-thinking evangelistic approaches helped to create a growing membership that ultimately required larger Christian-education and worship space. To accommodate the needs of the growing congregation, the church voted to build the B.J. Miller Educational Building on the back of the church towards 15th Street in 1966.
Rev. Miller served as pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church until his death in 1970, at which time Dr. Benjamin S. Baker was extended the invitation to lead the church.
As the son of founding member, Percy Baker, Rev. Baker was well aware of St. Stephen’s rich and illustrious history. During his five-year tenure, he contributed to the church’s legacy by overseeing the construction of the church parsonage in the1970’s and strengthening the spiritual maturity level of the membership. Rev. William T. Young, whose two-year stint was the shortest of all St. Stephen pastors, succeeded Rev. Baker.
In November of 1979, St. Stephen Baptist Church offered its pulpit duties to a 20-year-old, Eastern Kentucky University student who would eventually take the church to a higher echelon of greatness.
Although quite young, Rev. Kevin W. Cosby’s rise to leadership within the church seemed inevitable. In addition to being born and raised as a member of St. Stephen, he was reared in a family with a rich history of church leaders.
His well-educated grandfather, Dr. B.J. Miller, Sr. was St. Stephen’s first pastor. His mother, Clora E. Cosby, served as the church’s minister of music until her untimely death in 1969. And for many years, Laken Cosby, Jr., his father, was a member of the deacon board.
Rev. Cosby prepared for his calling at St. Stephen by working as assistant minister at First Baptist Church of Richmond, Kentucky while in college.
Much like his grandfather, B.J. Miller Sr., Rev. Cosby is a strong proponent of education. In 1983, he earned a master’s in divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky followed by his Doctorate of Ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
With the understanding that it was just as important for his congregation to receive a quality Christian education, Rev. Cosby focused his efforts on building a superior Sunday School program for St. Stephen in the mid-1980s. As a result, church membership flourished.
By 1989, the church congregation had grown far beyond the 300 regularly attending members who welcomed Rev. Cosby in 1979. His anointed preaching and teaching began to attract such large crowds to the undersized church that an “On the Wall Committee” had to be created. The committee consisted of hundreds of men who volunteered to stand against the walls of the church to make room for the women and children during Sunday morning worship service.
In contradictory fashion, Rev. Cosby overlooked the need for more worship space and commissioned the church to build a new family life center. Erected in 1989 and equipped with a full-sized basketball court, an in-door running track, a weight room and classroom space, the Family Life Center became a discreet evangelistic tool by serving as a safe-place for many youngsters in the area.
However, the exponential growth of the church membership could not be ignored. The need for worship space would eventually demand that the Family Life Center gymnasium be converted into a worship center on Sunday mornings. For several months it eased the growing pains, but it wouldn’t be long before the “On the Wall Committee” resurfaced again.
In 1994, St. Stephen sought yet again to solve its space needs. This time, however, the church would take a bold step and build a $1.4 million, state-of-the-art worship center to accommodate its more than 2,000 members. The growth in church staff and choir members resulted in an expansion of that facility in 1998 that included an elaborate office suite and a choir rehearsal hall.
But not only has the church sought to build for the future, it has made notable efforts to connect with Louisville’s almost forgotten past-particularly with the purchase of the former Simmons University campus where Rev. B. J. Miller, Sr. was once a student.
In 1997, the church assumed ownership of the dilapidated property that from 1879 to 1930 functioned as the only black owned and operated institution in the nation providing college, medical and law degrees.
As the church continued to grow, so did Rev. Cosby’s influence. In 1994, the Courier- Journal newspaper named him Louisville’s Most Influential African-American. In 1996, he was added to the city’s annual list of the most influential people. And in a retrospective look at the past 100 years, WHAS-TV listed him among Louisville’s 100 most influential leaders of the 21st Century.
Today, St. Stephen Church is the largest African-American church in the state with over 13,000 members. The church’s weekly nine worship services and over 100 ministries have played a significant role in the spiritual growth of Louisville’s Christian community.
The spiritual awakening of the church has spawned evangelistic and community outreach efforts that have gone unmatched. For instance, St. Stephen’s annual Jubilee Festival, which celebrates the emancipation of Louisville’s slaves, has grown from a small community carnival in 1989 to what is now one of the region’s largest three-day music and entertainment celebrations.
In April of 2001, St. Stephen Church launched a weekly service in Southern Indiana and in November, 2001 moved into a new $4.2 million Family Life Center which adds to the church’s 76+-year legacy of Kingdom Building.
With an ever increasing need for “a place of our own” in Southern Indiana, grounds were procured and a $5 million Worship & Prayer Retreat Center was constructed in Jeffersonville. The grand opening celebration occurred in September of 2004.
In June of 2005, Hotel California was erected to serve as an outreach center.
December of 2012, St. Stephen embarked upon a bold mission to reach the world with the launch of the “On-Line Campus” (that is reaching thousands across the world).
On October 13, 2013, under the guidance of our Pastor and with faithful leadership of Stu Melvin and Curtis Brunson, the Hardin County Campus was launched and had 70 new members to unite with the church on the first Sunday.
On October 20, 2013, St. Stephen hit another milestone in successfully paying of the debt owed on the 15th Street Campus. This milestone was highlighted with a ceremonial burning of its mortgage at each of its services.
Subsequently, on June 14, 2015, the St. Stephen Church and Prayer Retreat Center in Jeffersonville, Indiana added to the church’s history of debt liquidation with a ceremonial burning of its mortgage.
In August of 2015, the awesomeness of God allowed procurement of the former Gloryland Harvest Church in Radcliff, Kentucky to become the new home of St. Stephen Church of Hardin County. This 23-acre campus was occupied in September of 2015. Sunday, October 11, 2015, Founder’s Day for Hardin County, will mark the entry into this great campus with a ribbon cutting ceremony and initial service and monumental Music Department Showcase of the choirs of St. Stephen Louisville, Jeffersonville and Hardin County.
Accomplishments of St. Stephen Church, through God’s Power:
- St. Stephen is the largest private black employer in West Louisville
- Over 98% of St. Stephen employees are from the black Community
- St. Stephen has made ongoing economic investment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation
- St. Stephen sponsored the Jubilee Festival, which brought arts, culture and music to West Louisville
- St. Stephen has the only black orchestra in West Louisville
- St. Stephen has the largest black music program in Kentucky
- St. Stephen makes housing available to the homeless via the Family Life Center
- St. Stephen is the first black church in Kentucky to build a Family Center
- St. Stephen has an indoor fitness center, racquet ball court, basketball court and an indoor walking track
- St. Stephen renovated the California Community Center a public building, at no expense to the city
- St. Stephen finances the largest black senior citizen’s support services entity in West Louisville, and utilize St. Stephen transportation
- St. Stephen brings blacks and whites together by channeling social and economic capital into a poor neighborhood on a daily basis
- St. Stephen owns more contiguous property than any other black or private institution in West Louisville
- St. Stephen’s $13 million in assets are controlled by blacks
- St. Stephen is the first church in West Louisville to ordain women into the ministry
- St. Stephen advocates publicly for justice for all citizens, regardless of race, age, or sexual orientation
- St. Stephen operates the largest black Christian Education program in Kentucky
- St. Stephen has raised millions of dollars to support black higher education through Simmons College of Kentucky
- St. Stephen’s pastor refused over $700,000 salary from Simmons College of Kentucky to strengthen the college’s economic stability
- St. Stephen empowers black parents and their children through SOAR, an after/summer school enrichment program
- St. Stephen awards $50,000 annually in college scholarship Funds
- St. Stephen houses one of West Louisville’s sit down family restaurants
- St. Stephen houses the only mini-mart grocery store in the California Community in West Louisville.
- St. Stephen conducts the city’s largest voter registration campaign, including record expungement
- St. Stephen is the largest private black employer in West Louisville
- St. Stephen has made ongoing economic investments in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation
- St. Stephen brought to the California Community the only physical therapy clinic in West Louisville
- St. Stephen has brought to the California Community the most comprehensive recreational center in West Louisville.
- St. Stephen has brought residential housing & apartments to the California Community in West Louisville.
GOD BE PRAISED!!!