Friday, July 31, 2009

First Baptist Church Huntsville, Alabama: 200th Anniversary Year

This year the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, is celebrating their 200th anniversary. The celebration has been taking place since January, and will continue through the remainder of the year. I was privileged to write the 200th anniversary history volume for the congregation. Entitled LEADING THE WAY FOR 200 YEARS: THE STORY OF THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA, the volume is available to the general Baptist public, and ordering information can be found online here.

Here is the text of an article published in the March 2009 issue of Baptists Today which provides an overview of FBC Huntsville's place in Baptist history:


Some congregations claim lofty ambitions. Members of First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, ascended to unprecedented heights, sending the first Americans into outer space, landing the first men on the moon, and hurling satellites into the outer reaches of the universe.

First-time visitors to FBC would never imagine that the church is two centuries old, and could be forgiven for being confused upon turning into the church parking lot. An enormous tower first attracts the eye, reminiscent of a rocket awaiting liftoff. In the shadows of the rocket-like tower, an enormous mural occupies the entire front of the sanctuary, recessed within what appears to be a 1960s-era pavilion. Only when one’s eye focuses on an image of Jesus holding a cross, circled by the planets of our universe, does one’s mind register that this might be a church.

Uniquely interesting, the buildings housing FBC hint at the composition of the membership, which includes many rocket scientists and engineers, employees and contractors of Huntsville’s NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army. Yet Journeying to the moon and beyond was far beyond the imagination of the original members of today’s FBC. Arriving in present-day northern Alabama in the early nineteenth century, the charter members of the church feared attacks from Cherokees and Chickasaws. Founded in 1809 about six miles north of present-day downtown Huntsville near the West Fork of the Flint River, and soon named “Enon” (renamed First Baptist at the turn of the next century), the little frontier congregation slowly grew as more settlers filtered into the area.

From the untamed wildlands of northern Alabama, the unfolding story of the Enon church proved to be a reflection of the progressive journey of some Baptists in the South. Birthed at beginning of the modern missions movement, Enon, comprised of white and black members, wrestled with the Baptist missions controversy of the 1820s and 1830s, eventually siding with missionary forces and earning the distinction as the oldest missionary Baptist congregation in the state. In the 1840s, the congregation affiliated with the newly-formed Southern Baptist Convention. During the Civil War, the church moved to the city of Huntsville and congregational records fell silent, the latter reflective of a large scale shortage of Baptist church records during the war. Struggling during Reconstruction and now a white-only congregation, women emerged as a pivotal force in terms of mission support, church finances, and an emerging temperance movement. Discipline practices during the second half of the nineteenth century mirrored a widespread decline in local church life throughout the South.

The city of Huntsville entered the twentieth century as a growing city in a re-emerging South, and First Baptist grew as the city blossomed. As the SBC consolidated denominational structures, First Baptist increasingly adopted convention-sponsored programs from Sunday School to Baptist Young People’s Union. Surviving the Great Depression, the late 1940s and the 1950s witnessed congregational growth that paralleled the golden years of the SBC.

Following World War II, the U.S. Army chose Huntsville as a research and design facility for the newly emerging field of rocket science, and in the 1960s NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center led the city into a period of unparalleled growth. Scientists and engineers from throughout the nation and world moved to Huntsville, and many joined the congregation of FBC. While First Baptist, like many other city congregations, struggled with the cultural and societal changes that swept the South in the sixties, for FBC the decade also witnessed new building programs, membership growth, and the emergence of a hands-on missions focus that hinted of an emerging post-denominational missions approach.

New challenges confronted the congregation in ensuing decades. As a fundamentalist controversy consumed Southern Baptist life in the eighties, FBC became one of the earliest supporters of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and allowed members the freedom of conscience in supporting various Baptist organizations and endeavors. While some historical Baptist congregations throughout the South fled downtown for the suburbs, First Baptist chose to remain in the heart of Huntsville and minister to the needs of the community. And while many established churches experienced decline as younger generations flocked to megachurches or forsook church altogether, First Baptist retooled itself to better reach students and young families in Huntsville.

In short, the story of the FBC of Huntsville is both the story of Baptists in the South over the past two centuries, as well as the story of the modern space age. Within the walls of FBC, faith and science co-exist in harmony as members worship a God who both cares for the hungry child down the street and is Lord of the vastness of the universe.


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