Church gets historic designation
Stained glass windows stand like sentinels along the perimeter, their colors enhanced by mid-morning sun. Simple wood-honed pews, three sections wide, face an in ornate podium. A balcony overhangs the chapel, a modern sound system control panel the only vestige that breaks the 19th century architecture.
Oak floors creak beneath aged carpet yet the footing is sound. More than 130 years from its construction, much of Bartlett’s original Baptist Church remains unchanged.
Bartlett’s Board of Aldermen are designating it an historic landmark.
Recommended for consideration by the Bartlett Historic Preservation Committee, aldermen approved their first reading of Ordinance 13-09 June 25. A public hearing to officially designate the church, now part of the city’s municipal complex, will be held July 23.
Historic landmark designation can be granted in a variety of ways. Nominations may come from the preservation committee, an organization interested in historic preservation or by the owner of property considered for nomination.
Bartlett’s planning commission can approve the nomination and forward it to the board of aldermen for consideration. To be considered, property must have either been the site of an historical event, be associated with a person of historical significance or have architectural significance and be a minimum of 50 years old.
The Bartlett Baptist Church actually predates the origin of the city. Incorporated in 1866 with a population of less than 100 residents, the city grew up around the then frame meeting house located on a fourth of an acre in Green Bottom, about where the chapel stands today.
Joseph P. Ward bought the original church for $5 in 1852. It was replaced by a yellow frame house with gothic architectural features in 1870. A now-removed church bell was added in 1877 and in 1896 the then Prosperity Baptist Church’s name was officially changed to Bartlett Baptist.
In 1932, the yellow frame house was wrapped in a brick veneer and in 1946 Sunday school rooms were added. Finally, a new sanctuary was built in 1964. The congregation relocated to Yale Road in 1988, and the city took ownership of the original property.
The original founders are a who’s who of Bartlett history. John Bryan Canada, a young Virginian, was chosen minister of the congregation. The families of James Pruden, J.M. Kelly and Samuel Berryhill played prominent rolls in the church’s his
Clarence Gowen, a former Bartlett Magistrate and Shelby County Board of Education representative, wrote about the church in “A History of Bartlett Ba
ptist Church” on its 100th anniversary.
“There were no automobiles in those days, and we thought nothing of walking from one to four miles to church, especially if certain young ladies went along,” Gowen wrote. “Going to Sunday school and Singing school were the events of the week, and to be looked forward to with eagerness and enthusiasm.”
Gowen, in reciting the church’s history, noted the move to Green Bottom in 1854.
“We find at this time 24 male members and 41 female. For some reasons
the lists were made separately – perhaps because women were then forbidden to speak in any discussion and could only make their views known through some male relative or friend,” Gowen wrote, “We also find the names of 15 negro slaves on the church roll and the names of the masters to whom they belonged.”
The church survived despite an ongoing raging war. In 1861, the minister, J.B. Canada, first reported the Civil War’s effect with this simple sentence: “No me
eting held on account of the war.” In 1862, with the majority of young men absent enlisting in military service, only one meeting was recorded and in 1865, with the closing of the war, Gowen wrote that the colored members of the congregation petitioned for letters of dismissal to form their own church on Shelby Street in Bartlett.
The minutes in 1871 reflected the construction of the existing c
hapel. Then tragedy struck in 1883. Yellow fever crippled the church and the community, and financial distress followed. Gowen quoted church notes that read, “The alter fires burned dimly, but they burned.”
But health was restored, and the church began to flourish in the
20th century. Church membership was reported at 150 active members in 1909. Services, previously once a month, were held twice each month. Then sickness came again.
An influenza epidemic in 1918 nearly shuttered the doors for good.
In 1930, Bartlett Baptist and Raleigh Baptist shared joint pastor
s and. By1950, the membership had grown to nearly 500.
Today, the church hosts nine separate religious services each Sunday. It has seen dozens of weddings, reunions and business meetings. A landscaped courtyard was constructed in recent years between the sanctuary and chapel.
Upstairs, old Sunday school rooms show the original plaster as it peels from the brick exterior. Modern additions, such as air conditioning, slide beneath tiled ceiling panels. A peeling baptismal mural is covered by a curtain; it once used to
bring parishioners of all races to God.
The sun streams through the colored glass, warming the pews inside. It’s the foundation of Bartlett’s past, its oak floors holding the footsteps of elders.