By Bob Allen
Two historic congregations that went separate ways after the Civil War worshipped for the first time in more than 150 years as a unified First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Nov. 29.
First Baptist Church at 200 East Main Street, a predominantly white congregation established in 1843, and First Baptist Church at 738 East Castle, begun in 1853 as a mission to blacks who accompanied slaveholders to church prior to emancipation, gathered under one roof at a hotel convention center for Legacy Sunday.
The service celebrating the two congregations’ shared history and anticipating a future of increased cooperation came about after positive response to a pulpit and choir swap in 2014. The two Baptist churches have also worked together in joint ministry called People Encouraging Pupils to mentor students at Mitchell Neilson Elementary School.
“Today, there is one First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, Tennessee,” James McCarroll Jr., pastor of African-American congregation on East Castle told worshippers. “I want us to pray that we can work together. It will take time, but the Lord has a plan for this.”
Noel Schoonmaker, pastor of the First Baptist Church on East Main, said Christian unity “transcends all the barriers that typically divide social groups.”
“I believe it pleases God greatly when we celebrate both the cultural distinctiveness of Christians and the transcendent unity that we share,” Schoonmaker said.
Early attendees of the First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro included people enslaved by church members and possibly freedmen emancipated prior to the Civil War. In 1853 the church hired a part-time sexton from First Baptist Church in nearby Nashville to hold worship services for the black members once a month.
Nelson G. Merry, known in the predominantly black southeast section of the town as “Pappy,” left Murfreesboro in 1857 ahead of an angry mob after being publicly whipped and nearly lynched amid fear of an insurrection.
J.M. Pendleton, best known for his role in the Landmark controversy that roiled Southern Baptists in the 1850s, was viewed as divisive during his tenure as pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro from 1857 to 1862 for his opposition to secession and emancipationist views.
Pendleton moved north amid talk of his hanging and took a three-year pastorate in Ohio before relocating in 1865 to Upland, Pa., where he ministered until his retirement in 1883.
During the Civil War the First Baptist Church building was commandeered for use as an army hospital, first by the Confederates and then by the Union after the Battle of Stones River early in 1863.
By the end of the war the building was in shambles, and the congregation, which had already been talking of a new building before the war, had shrunk to probably fewer than 50 members.
After the Concord Baptist Association passed a resolution in 1869 encouraging white churches to assist blacks desiring to form their own congregations, the members of First Baptist allowed the black church to use the old building, though no legal transaction of property rights was made until a decade later.
The structure, essentially rebuilt with financial help from church members, burned down in 1939. The black church rebuilt within the original walls and remained downtown until 1954, when it was purchased and razed by the federal government for eradication of areas designated as “slums” during a program starting in the late 1940s known as “urban renewal.”
The white congregation occupied its current location just off the downtown square in a Greek temple style sanctuary completed in 1920. Most of the construction was during the pastorate of Austin Crouch, who later went on to become the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee from 1927 until 1949.
Debt on the building mounted during the Great Depression, and in 1936 the church was sold at auction. The congregation raised money to buy it back from the new owner, reoccupying the reclaimed building in December 1937.
The church split during the 1990s over plans to relocate to the outskirts of town. The group that remained downtown was committed to social ministry and cooperation with other downtown congregations. The church’s primary affiliation is now with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
According to Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and author of Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom, hundreds of black Baptist churches formed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War as freedmen departed white churches, and white supervision, to form their own autonomous congregations.
In 2007 former President Jimmy Carter brought together leaders from more than 30 Baptist organizations in an effort known as the New Baptist Covenant to unite the nation’s Baptists across racial and other divides.
Partnerships across the country between black and white Baptist congregations have recently taken on added urgency in light of racial division in American cities following the deaths of black males at the hands of police.
McCarroll, who preached his first sermon at First Baptist on East Castle in 2006, explained to worshippers why fellowship between the two churches in Murfreesboro is so important.
“This is an attempt to exhibit the reality that though we are different congregations worshipping on different corners in the city, we are still one body of Christ,” he said.
“When we put aside our differences and choose to focus on the common faith, hope and love that we share, then the world sees the holy truth that exceeds denominations, ecclesiastical traditions and liturgical variations,” McCarroll continued. “They see that though we are uniquely different we’re still one body in Christ. In order for them to see our oneness, we must first see our oneness.”
Schoonmaker, who came to First Baptist Church on East Main in 2013 after six years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Valdese, N.C., said as different members of the Body of Christ, “We need each other. We depend on each other. We cooperate with each other. We complement each other. We complete each other.”
“When I worship with the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, whether it’s at 200 East Main Street or at 738 East Castle Street, I am worshipping with my family,” Schoonmaker said. “Thank God for this great family reunion.”
The joint service included recognition of the longest-serving pastors in the history of both congregations.
“It is certainly a blessing for the two of us as pastors to share this day,” said the Rev. Richard Willis Gordon, who served as pastor of the Castle Street congregation 43 years before retiring in 2005. “We are thankful to God that even though there are many things that go on in this world, that in the church there can still be unity.”
“Well, what can you say?” quipped Eugene Cotey, who served 31 years at First Baptist Church on East Main before retiring in 1992.
“I love this man,” Cotey referred to Gordon. “We spent a lot of time together when we were pastoring. We’ve learned to know each other, love each other and pray for each other.”
“This is what Christianity is all about,” Cotey said of the joint gathering. “God does it.”