by Sam Rapp
A kingdom divided against itself will not stand. Sometimes, breaking off from the norm is what it takes to make a difference, and that is exactly how Independent Presbyterian Church came to be. Independent Presbyterian was formed in 1916 around a man named Henry Edmonds. Edmonds was the pastor of South Highland Presbyterian there he encountered a strong-willed elder who often sought to run off pastors who did not agree with him. Edmonds was one of the men who disagreed with this elder, and therefore ended up leaving South Highland. The major doctrine that Edmonds disagreed with was predestination, but that was just one of many others that separated him from the elder. Edmonds was a man with an extraordinary heart for the oppressed and the marginalized. He was a social justice warrior. He was very counter-cultural and wanted a greater love for people and his theology was very progressive. He did not necessarily believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, that Christ died as a sacrifice for human, and many others.
The Formation of Independent Presbyterian Church
The session of South Highland brought charges against Edmonds before the North Alabama Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (the “Southern Presbyterian Church.” As the process began to go against him, Edmonds decided to leave South Highland and the PCUS in 1915. Around him a church independent of the local presbytery was established. Later, in 1920, Independent Presbyterian church joined the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. While sometimes called the “Northern Presbyterian Church,” the PCUSA had many congregations in the South.
IPC initially held worship services in Temple Emanu-El and had Sunday evening services in the Lyric theater downtown. The first phase of the current church building was completed six years after the church’s creation, in 1922. It was designed by two architectural firms Warren, Knight, & Davis and Miller & Martin.
The outside of the Gothic Revival sanctuary is a light brown stone with tall stained-glass windows lining all sides. Inside the giant front doors, the sanctuary is lined with rich dark brown pews covered in a beautiful satin. The ceiling is tall and impressive, directing congregants’ eyes upward. The first of the church’s pictorial stained-glass windows were installed in the late 1930s Over the course of the following decades, several additions were built, and other portions renovated. Sadly, a 1992 fire caused damage to the Educational Wing and Edmonds Chapel. The church rebuilt these sections with some updates and renovations.
IPC is located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Birmingham, an area rich with history. The congregation is housed in one of the most impressive church buildings in the state, with gorgeous stained-glass windows lining the sanctuary, immaculate chandeliers hanging, and an incredibly complex architecture. The congregation is almost entirely white and has been throughout its entire history. Edmonds desired churches that affirmed Christian relation between blacks and whites. Ironically, much of the congregation under Edmonds was at odds with his ministry, as “an estimated half of Birmingham’s Protestant clergy were members of the Ku Klux Klan” in the 1920’s (McWhorter, 235). It is fair to assume that some members of the KKK were members of IPC. However, this did not keep the church from growing.
Independent Presbyterian Today
Currently, IPC is a flourishing and lively congregation. On a recent Sunday morning at the eleven o’clock service, around 75 percent of the seats were filled, with over two hundred people attending. There are five clergy on staff and a total of eighteen full or part-time staff members. IPC has programs and offerings for ministry in all shapes and sizes and a robust and intuitive website. Like other Presbyterian churches, it is led by elders and deacons who are nominated and elected to serve three-year terms.
IPC, was created out of the progressive theology of Edmonds. This theology sought to find unity and equality among men and women, white and black, old and young. Many in Birmingham, or “Bombingham” as it became known, were not affirmative in the loving and cherishing of different people. In fact, Birmingham was a city of such racial segregation and hatred that Edmonds committed to communism in attempt to secede from his culture. Independent Presbyterian was birthed from a desire to change the norm. IPC still stands on these grounds, as their mission statement clearly shows.
We believe God calls us to be a Christian community, actively engaged in transforming lives through our living faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. You are invited to worship here and to discover ways to grow your faith, serve in ministry to others, and build relationships through fellowship. All are welcome”Mission Statement, Independent Presbyterian Church
From the beginning, Edmonds had the desire to shift the social norms that preached a hierarchy of certain people over others. Edmonds might have denied certain conservative beliefs of the Christian faith, but he was firm in that all people, black or white, male or female, were created and loved by God.
Birmingham remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation to this day. This deeply effects its religious life.. Religion in Birmingham is affected not only when Christians say these words, but when they act them out. Although Edmonds did not form the church with the most conservative stance theologically, he had a desire to make people feel loved and cherished by God and the church, and so he established a church that would grow and thrive for the next hundred years as Independent Presbyterian Church.
Independent Presbyterian Church
Address: 3100 Highland Ave, Birmingham, AL 35205
Congregation Organized: 1916
Current Site Opened: 1922
Affiliation: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
“Birmingham’s Independent Presbyterian Church at 100.” Presbyterian Historical Society, PCUSA, 4 Feb. 2016, www.history.pcusa.org/blog/2016/02/birminghams-independent-presbyterian-church-100.
“Henry Edmonds.” Bhamwiki, 6 Oct. 2019, http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Henry_Edmonds.
“Independent Presbyterian Church.” Bhamwiki, 22 Apr. 2019, 3:09 PM, www.bhamwiki.com/w/Independent_Presbyterian_Church.
“Independent Presbyterian Church.” Birmingham365.Org, http://www.birmingham365.org/venue/independent-presbyterian-church/.
McWhorter, Diane. 2003. “From Birmingham to Redemption.” Sewanee Theological Review 46 (2): 231–40.
“Visit Independent Presbyterian Church.” Visit Independent Presbyterian Church, ipc-usa.org/welcome/.
Whiting, Marvin Yeomans. The Bearing Day Is Not Gone: The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary History of Independent Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Alabama, 1915-1990. Birmingham, AL.: Independent Presbyterian Church, 1990.
Sam Rapp ’20 is a religion major in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies.
Published November 7, 2019.