The Significance of Local Baptist Church History: The 200th Anniversary of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama

By Gourley, Bruce | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Significance of Local Baptist Church History: The 200th Anniversary of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama


Gourley, Bruce, Baptist History and Heritage


Many Baptist congregations are spiritual homes to persons of diverse professional and career backgrounds.

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The First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, is no exception, though the professional tilt of the congregation is to those who work in the fields of engineering and science, thanks to the presence of NASA's facilities in the city. While the 2009 annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society focused primarily on the 400th anniversary of Baptists at large, for the members of the First Baptist Church, Huntsville, the entire year of 2009 was a celebration of the congregation's 200th anniversary.

A few acknowledgements are in order at this time. The journey to this moment in the life of First Baptist, of which I was honored to be a part, was several years in the making. It is a story that includes the influence of Auburn historians Wayne Flynt and Kenneth Noe, the former, now retired, a renowned historian of the South and of Baptists in Alabama, and the latter a leading Civil War historian. It is a story influenced by Walter Shurden, recently retired from Mercer University, and one of the most prominent Baptist historians of our era. All three poured themselves into the shaping of my own Baptistness, following a long Baptist tradition of each generation playing a role of shaping succeeding generations. And when for the past five years I worked alongside the history committee of First Baptist Huntsville as we condensed the story of this congregation into a book of a few hundred printed pages, I imbued two centuries of congregational faith-shaping, as represented in the lives of committee members Jim Harrison, Kitty Johnson, Joe Jones, Eva Geiger, and others. (1) Each local Baptist congregation is a unique narrative, yet no church is an island unto itself. The story of First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, is one of many

stories, a rich and complex two-century long meshing of persons, events, and currents-here, near, and far--that have transformed lives in Huntsville and around the world. With this in mind, I want to focus on the significance of local church history at this 400th anniversary juncture of Baptist history, in the context of the 200th anniversary of First Baptist.

Themes from the History of First Baptist Church, Huntsville

Many larger themes contributed to the story of First Baptist, not unlike the stories of many other congregations. Following is a partial listing, in chronological order, of significant historical events, trends, and movements that helped shape local churches of the past two centuries and are woven into the narrative of Leading the Way for 200 Years: The Story of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, 1809-2009: (2)

Conflicts between white settlers and native peoples at the turn of the nineteenth century were commonplace. In 1809, white settlers and Indians battled on the southern frontier of present day northern Alabama as the Enon Church, today's First Baptist Church, Huntsville, was established.

The biracial nature of Baptist life in the South, expressed principally in the dynamics of slavery, in the early nineteenth century shaped the ideology and theology of Enon's founders. Church records contain few references to slaves prior to the Civil War, and no records from a slave perspective.

The Enon Church grew up alongside the early modern missionary movement. Two early members probably heard Luther Rice speak at an associational fund-raiser for missions in October 1816.

The anti-missions backlash of the 1820s and 1830s proved to be a tense and pivotal time for the Enon congregation, who remained on the side of missions despite much pressure to the contrary.

The early Calvinistic theology evident in much of Baptist life in the early nineteenth-century South is evident in Enon's 1821 Rules of Decorum. (4)

The formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1845, from the perspective of the Enon Church, appears to have been a natural and seamless transition for Baptists in the South. …

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