First Missionary Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama is “striving to be one of the most loving Churches in all the world.” For 125 years we have been on this path. But how did our journey of faith, praise and service begin? Our history unfolds revealing saints of old who passed the torch down through the years and on whose shoulders we stand today as we uplift our hands and give glory, honor and praise to God.
The Formation of the Church in the Latter Half of the 19th Century
In the late 1800’s a group of Christians from Aberdeen, Mississippi settled in Huntsville, Alabama. Among the families were the Herndons, Turners, and Furlows. Being Baptist, these families found no Missionary Baptist Church. Therefore, guided by the Holy Spirit, in 1880, they established the First Missionary Baptist Church in an old house on West Clinton Street under the leadership of Reverend Robert Green. Some of the descendants of these first families still live in Huntsville and carry on their families’ legacy within First Missionary Baptist Church.
Shortly after the formation of the Church, in 1881 Reverend Pope Jones became the Pastor. During his pastorate services were held in the United States Court Building at three and seven o’clock p.m. each Sunday. Reverend Jones started a building program. With assistance from the Muscle Shoals Missionary Baptist Association, the Church purchased a lot on Steele Street. Construction of the church began in 1886 with Reverend Jones and Reverend M.J. Hooks erecting the structure.
Between 1888 and 1949 the Church became a stronghold in the community. During this period, many ministers played significant roles in guiding the Church and shaping its future. Among those demonstrating their ability to be a strong shepherd for God’s people were Reverends A. Trampe, A. Jones, J. Hampton, S. Robinson, J. Miller, J. Mastin, C. Perry, J. Butler, A. James, W. Walton, W. Howse, O. Tucker, Matthews and E. Drew. Many accomplishments were achieved under their spiritual leadership.
The Church at Mid-20th Century
As the church grew and matured through the early 1900’s, it underwent many periods of adjustment. In 1949, God sent a strong anchor, a blessing to the Church in the form of a young, gifted, well-prepared preacher. The Reverend Horace P. Snodgrass came to the Church with a vision and a program. Reverend Snodgrass held Th.B and D.D. degrees from the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Selma University, respectively. He served First Baptist for twenty-four years. His tenure ended the previous pattern of brief pastoral stints; thus enabling the church to experience a period of real stability.
Under the dynamic leadership of Reverend Snodgrass, the church evolved spiritually and physically. Reverend Snodgrass constantly reminded the membership that the mission of the Church was to lead souls to Christ. The missionary thrust resulted in a steady increase in membership. The church was for the first time united actively with the district, state, and national Baptist organizations and soon was represented on Executive Committees and staffs at each level. The internal organization of the church was strengthened with the founding of the Brotherhood Organization, a service auxiliary composed of the men of the church.
The physical plant of the Church was improved in many ways. The acceptance by the Alabama Baptist Convention of the Church’s invitation to hold its 1953 annual session at First Baptist Church led to the complete renovation of the Church interior and the beautification of the building’s exterior and grounds. The most notable renovations were the additions of an indoor baptistry, a central heating system, a modern kitchen, restrooms, and a sidewalk in front of the church. Shortly thereafter, the steep steps outside were remodeled to allow a rest between flights; thereby accommodating those members who found the task of climbing the steps very challenging.
Also in 1953, another arm was added to the Church’s outreach ministry. This was the powerful arm of radio. Broadcasting from radio station WBHP, the opening words of the program were:
“This is your hour of consolation; stop whatever you are doing and worship with us.”
The hymn “We’re Marching to Zion” became familiar in the Huntsville community as the herald of the first radio worship emanated from a Black Church. The radio broadcast was later moved to radio station WEUP, from which it is still being broadcast.
As the church entered the Sixties, it continued to thrive. Property adjacent to the church was purchased. This purchase along with the land made available by the destruction of the parsonage, was used to develop a paved parking lot. Meanwhile the interior was further renovated and beautified, the result being a completely new look for the choir loft.
This period was not only a time of improvements of the Church edifice, but most importantly the spiritual aspects were advancing greatly. Men of the church were answering the call to the ministry and other ministers were uniting with the church. The ministers listed below were part of this group: Reverend P.S. Swope; Reverend Horace N. Snodgrass; Reverend Felix James; Reverend D.B. Sledge; Reverend Charles Wormsly; Reverend A.B. Walker; Reverend G.W. Lindsey, Jr.; Reverend John Ewing; Reverend Elmore Hurt; Reverend Gerald Easley; Reverend M.C. Easley; Reverend E.E. Morton; and Reverend Earl Densmore.
The Church was also keenly aware of the social issues of the day. During the civil rights strife, which was a trademark of the Sixties, the Church opened its doors as a haven for citizens fighting for freedom. The Church served as a willing assistant in the cause for freedom and full rights for Black Americans.
After nearly a quarter century of service to the First Baptist Church, Reverend Snodgrass was called to his final reward while officiating at a funeral in his beloved pulpit on July 29, 1973. With the passing of Reverend Snodgrass, the church called as its pastor Reverend Emuel E. Cleaver, who was currently serving as assistant pastor. During his brief pastorate, renewed emphasis was placed on the financial responsibilities of individual members. Responding positively to this renewed emphasis, the Church was able to liquidate its indebtedness and began planning a new, modern church facility. Reverend and Mrs. Cleaver left this field of labor during the last quarter of 1975. After a long and prayerful search, the Church called as pastor the Reverend Dr. Julius R. Scruggs. Dr. Scruggs accepted the call and agreed to begin his pastorate in January 1977.
During the interim period Reverend Wayne P. Snodgrass served as pastor. A new parsonage was brought and paid for under his leadership. This period was also marked by a growing spirituality that seemed to permeate the Church as it looked to the arrival of its new pastor.
The Church in the Last Quarter of the 20th Century
Dr. Scruggs came to First Baptist in January 1977 as scheduled. He possessed superb academic credentials, holding the B.A. degree from American Baptist College and the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. His academic credentials were greatly enhanced by his seventeen years of pastoral experience prior to coming to First Baptist.
Pastor Scruggs’ twenty-eight years as Shepherd of First Baptist molded and shaped the thrust of its Christian Education, outreach ministry, stewardship, physical growth and spiritual maturity.
Christian education and Molding Christian Leaders: With the conviction to become a stronger teaching Church, several classes have been added to the Sunday School Department: Young People, Adult IV, V, VII, VIII, IX, X, Couples’ Class, Singles’ Class, and New Membership classes. Bible classes for all ages are taught each Wednesday night. As a result of Bible Study, Sunday School, and biblically based preaching, a consciousness regarding reaching people for Christ has escalated.
Fulfilling our Christian Education goals has required the placement of additional ministers over the years. In July 1983, Ms. Michelle Cobb became a part of the church’s ministry in the capacity of Director of Christian Education/Assistant Administrator. After four years of faithful service in this capacity, Ms. Cobb resigned to return to graduate school. Reverend Frederick A. Davis was called to the staff as Associate Pastor in March 1987, and did a good job in supporting the various church ministries. In 1991, Reverend Davis was called to pastor the First Calvary Baptist Church – Durham, North Carolina. In 1991, Reverend A. Russell Bailey joined the staff as Minister of Christian Education and Discipleship Training and did a credible job during his tenure of service. In 1995, Reverend Bailey was called to pastor the Shiloh Baptist Church – Mesa, Arizona. In 1993, Reverend Earla S. Lockhart joined our ministerial staff. She was very effective in her role as Assistant Administrator/Business Manager and in 2003 became the Staff Minister of Christian Education and Discipleship Training. In 1996, Reverend Troy Garner joined our staff as Minister of Christian Education and Discipleship Training. Reverend Garner did his job well as part of our staff. In 2002, Reverend Garner was called to pastor the Saint Joseph Missionary Baptist Church – Mobile, Alabama and in 2003 was called to pastor the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church – Athens, Alabama. The Reverend Dr. Janette Kotey joined our church staff as full-time Minister of Music in November 2000, and she is serving effectively in this capacity. Reverend G.W. Lindsey, Jr., part-time staff minister serves very effectively in the Prison, Jail and Congregational Care ministries. Rev. Morris (Marty) Tipton joined the staff in 2003 as Manager of Ministries (the position formerly known as Assistant Administrator/Business Manager) and has become a very valuable asset to the church staff.
During Reverend Scruggs’ pastorate several men and women have been called to preach. Among them are: Brothers Edward Anderson, Fred Batts, Charles Lee, Gregory Haygood, W.F. Williams, Charlie Nelson, Mark Whigham, Michael Rice, Russell Bailey, Jerome Bell, Emanuel Burks, Marvin Winston, Earl Johnson, Chauncey Robinson, Stanely Torain, Stephen Morgan, Mitchell Reed, Errol Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Wiley Day, Sr., Melvin Summerhill, and Jonathan Ford and Sisters Mary Robinson, Adria Dianne Smith, Cynthia Carter, Angela Taylor, Jennifer Davis, Rhonda Daniels, JoAnita Miley, Evelyn Felicia Matthews, Chantaye Knotts, Priscilla Montgomery, Carolyn Landry, and Janice Patton. Other ministers have united with the church during Pastor Scruggs’ tenure, including Carlise Hammond, Willie Alexander, Timothy Perryman, Jim Stewart, Bessie Whitaker, Edward Jones, John Holden, Wilmer Marshall, Ilene Marshall, Eugene Brown, and Delvick McKay.
Understanding the importance and impact of Christian Education in the early years, the Church instituted a program for the care and education of children. A licensed Child Development Center (CDC) for children 2 1/2 years through Kindergarten was instituted in 1982. In 1992, the CDC was expanded to include an academy. The Child Development Center and Academy (CDCA) serves children from 2 1/2 through fifth grade. The students are developing spiritually, academically, socially, and morally under the direction of competent Christian Directors, staff, teachers and other personnel.
Outreach Ministries: The Church ministries are growing and through them an impact is being made in the community. The Outreach Ministries include the Annual Revival, Witnessing Teams, Bus Ministry, Storehouse Ministry, Jail Ministry, a 60-minute Sunday Radio Broadcast and support for affordable housing. In January 2001, the Church launched a television ministry, broadcasting Sunday evenings on WHDF, the local UPN affiliate.
In 1992 and in 2003, we totally built and paid for a house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Since 1993, we have allocated $10,000.00 a year in the Church budget for Habitat. Additionally, members of the Church congregation have also helped build eight other Habitat Houses in partnership with other congregations, for a total of ten homes.
Other ministries include the Ministry of Pastoral Care, which has expanded to include Congregational Care (a ministry provided by Lay Ministers [People Caring for People); a ministry for single members; and a male discipleship class established in 1991. These expanded aspects of our Church’s ministry have added a new life and vitality to the Church’s overall ministry.
Home and Foreign Missions is another ministry that has received special emphasis under Pastor Scruggs. Over the years, the Church’s budget allocation for missions has steadily increased. From the mission budget, contributions are made to American Baptist College, Selma University, Alabama A&M University, Morehouse School of Religion, Birmingham Baptist College, Huntsville Bible College, Drake State Technical College, etc. The Church also sponsors a child in India. In 1992, we helped to endow the Chair of Excellence at American Baptist College by giving $110,000.00. In 1996, we began underwriting the Dean’s salary at the University of Haiti, by giving $12,000.00. In 1997, we gave Selma University $100,000.00. In March 2001, we gave $500,000.00 to endow the Chair of Pastoral Leadership-Preaching at American Baptist College. This was an unprecedented gift for a church of our size and the announcement received national attention. The church is currently in the planning phase of building a Chapel/Medical Clinic in Swaziland, Africa.
Scholarship funds were established to aid young people and ministerial students of First Missionary Baptist Church in their educational endeavors. The first scholarship award was made in the summer of 1978. The Nathaniel Griffin Scholarship Fund was awarded in the amount of $1,000.00 in 1987, and is awarded annually. Other scholarship funds have been established: the Dorothy Bowen Ammons (1991) and the Calvin Parker Scholarship (1999).
A very successful program of recreational fellowship has been established. This program includes softball, basketball, and a church bowling league during the months from September to May. We also have a Health and Fitness (Aerobics) Ministry in full force and the gymnasium is used daily by the CDCA. In addition to the congregational and choral worship, a church orchestra was organized as a part of the music ministry. It is also significant to note that the church holds life membership with the NAACP and local meetings are held at the Church.
Stewardship, Physical Growth, and Spirituality: During Reverend Scruggs’ twenty-eight year tenure as pastor over 3700 new members have united with the church. The annual budget has increased from $72,000.00 to more than $1.6 million.
The twelve-acre lot, which we now occupy on Blue Spring Road, was purchased in 1977 and construction of the Church began soon after. On March 9, 1980, the members of the First Baptist Church family along with friends and well-wishers, marched into the new structure which cost $1,092,000.00. Since moving into the Church, the Educational Unit was dedicated as a memorial to Reverends Horace P. Snodgrass and Emuel E. Cleaver. The library was named the John W. Benson Memorial Library as a result of a donation from the Benson family.
In August of 1985, a new parsonage, costing $127,000.00 was paid for and dedicated. In 1988, the Francina Bannister Scruggs Educational Complex was dedicated to the glory of God and the edification of humanity in loving memory of Francina B. Scruggs, first lady of First Baptist Church from 1977 until her death in 1987. This complex houses administrative offices, classrooms for the Sunday School and the Child Development Center/Academy, and a Fellowship Hall. The cost of complex was $650,000.00
The indebtedness for Phase I of the Church was retired in 1990. The indebtedness of Phase II was retired in 1997. In August of 1995, we erected and dedicated our New Christian Family Life Center and Academy at a cost of $1,306,729.53. The three phases of our church facility cost over $3,300,000.00. The indebtedness has been totally liquidated.
Our Shepherd, Pastor Scruggs is a Bible scholar, a gifted writer, and published author. He has written four books: Meditations on the Church, Baptist Preachers with Social Consciousness: A Comparative Study of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harry E. Fosdick, God is Faithful, and How to Study and Teach the Bible.
On July 1, 1989, the church family was blessed by the union of Pastor Scruggs and the former Josephine Stewart-Tipton. Mrs. Scruggs has blended beautifully into the First Baptist Church family. She continuously looks for ways to minister and serve. Among other acts, she began a card ministry and served for 10 years as the Assistant Administrator for the CDCA.
Being a man of vision, Pastor Scruggs has always been receptive to new ideas as they are revealed to him by God. Recent initiatives that have been implemented to edify the Church body have included the Pictorial Directory (produced in 1985, 1990, 1996, 2000, and 2005); an 8:00 a.m. worship service which began in 1997; and the Rites of Passage Program for youth which started in 1998. Seeing a need to address the enthusiasm of members ages 18-45, Pastor Scruggs launched YAM-Young Adults in Ministry in 2000. Shortly afterwards, in early 2001, the YAM Choir was formed. The changes brought by growth, diversity and spiritual needs of the Church family have been the guiding force for program developments that would nurture and uplift the Church body. In the last quarter of 2001, a more in-depth thrust of witnessing was begun. Under the umbrella of “2000 by 2002,” we reached approximately 1800 unsaved, unchurched, or delinquent souls for Christ by the end of 2002 (just 200 short of the goal to reach 2000 persons!).
In 2003, the Church initiated an HIV/AIDS Ministry (The Healing Touch Ministry) and has been accepted as a Partner in AIDS Ministries by the Balm in Gilead (a nationally-known initiative to mobilize and empower Black congregations for HIV/AIDS ministry).
As we move through the twenty-first century, under the leadership of Pastor Scruggs with Christ forever at the helm, more rich chapters will be added to the history of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama.