State’s oldest black church, baptisms, beginnings remembered during bicentennial

Updated: Feb. 4, 2020 at 5:11 PM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - The state of Alabama just celebrated its 200th birthday. Now, its a local church’s turn.

St. Bartley Primitive Baptist Church in Huntsville is not only the state’s oldest black congregation, but it’s considered the mother church for all black primitive Baptist churches.

It is a house of worship steeped in history, looking forward to celebrating this milestone year.

St. Bartley Primitive Baptist Church is steeped in history.
St. Bartley Primitive Baptist Church is steeped in history.(Source: WAFF)

It’s tucked behind Cavalry Hill in northwest Huntsville off University Drive.

Where the Buffalo Soldiers once roamed and encamped after the Spanish-American War, sits what’s now St Bartley Primitive Baptist Church.

Its newly-renovated interior is much younger than its 55 year old exterior. With prominent vestiges of the past quite visible from the outside with the old church bell, still calling people to worship.

The foundation of this third church building relies on a cornerstone from its second. That second church, called the “Big Brick,” was built in 1872 and torn down in the 1960s on Williams Avenue.

Nothing physically remains of its first church named Huntsville African Baptist or pastor, William Harris, just stories, passed down through the years.

St Barley’s roots started to grow in the most unlikely of places. In a graveyard on what’s now Huntsville Hospital. Slaves would gather at night in the cover of darkness to worship. Remember, they had worked hard all day and weren’t legally allowed to gather without their master present.

St Bartley Primitive Baptist Church sits where the Buffalo Soldiers once roamed.
St Bartley Primitive Baptist Church sits where the Buffalo Soldiers once roamed.(Source: WAFF)

Rodney Milton, St Bartley’s historian, said he can’t imagine the danger those early worshipers faced.

“It was very dangerous. Very dangerous. I believe those people really trusted God. To steal away, to worship in that place, in a graveyard,” he said.

Milton says those early worshipers started to meet in 1808 and eventually formed a congregation in 1820, planting a church in that old Georgia graveyard that stood until it was burned in the Civil War.

Milton said, “Union soldiers burned it down.” But somehow, that fire was fuel for pastor Bartley Harris. He wouldn’t let Union soldiers keep him from preaching the gospel with a roof overhead and was quite happy when a notable general heart about the church burning and sent money,

“Ulysses S. Grant sent $400 to rebuild and it was rebuilt,” Milton said.

Bartley was so beloved he was called “Saint” Bartley, and he had a goal to save sinners one soul at a time.

His efforts are well-documented in some of Huntsville’s most iconic photographs of the day. They are scenes captured at the Big Spring.

Buffalo Soldiers plaque
Buffalo Soldiers plaque(Source: WAFF)

Once a year in May, elder Bartley Harris would gather seekers together to be baptized. Hundreds of them. Onlookers would climb atop the roof of a building or stand at the water’s edge to watch the immersions or they’d just roll up their pants legs or dress and wade in the water.

Harris baptized well over 3,000 people in the Big Spring, according to historians, and they would come by train or horseback to be part of it.

“Whatever mode of transportation they had at the time, they would come and gather around the Big Spring to witness the baptism. and you know, that was some shouting good time back then,” said Milton.

And that shouting, that praise, still goes on today.

A church that grew from a graveyard with 76 worshipers in 1820 stands at 776 in 2020.

A congregation who first worshiped by candlelight that still burns brightly 200 years later.

St Bartley’s partners with local schools donating school supplies. The congregation also is active with its neighbor, the Village of Promise, with a big Easter egg hunt each spring.

This year, the church will kick off its bicentennial celebration on the fourth Sunday in February. It’s a big gospel heritage musical on May 30. Church members will go to the site of the second church, the “Brick,” and have a special service.

Finally, church members will open a time capsule on the grounds of the current church on the first Sunday in November. That will officially be the church’s 200th anniversary.

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