By Patrick Thompson
South Avondale Baptist Church was an important part of Birmingham’s religious history. It witnessed two world wars, financial downfalls, interracial struggle, and religious revivals. What started out as a meeting in an empty store became a historic congregation that lasted until the end of the twentieth century. An examination of its history illuminates the ups and downs of a neighborhood congregation.
In 1871 the city of Birmingham sprang to life when a railroad was built parallel to iron-rich Red Mountain. Many people came to Birmingham in search for wealth. Religion was not their top concern. The Alabama Baptist State Convention bemoaned the lack of evangelism in Birmingham. The First Baptist Church of Birmingham began with eight members and started mission stations in five different parts of Birmingham including Avondale. The First Baptist Church of Avondale, as South Avondale Baptist was originally named, began in an empty store in 1887 with twenty-three members.
It took years for the church to truly be established. Its first building was not erected until 1890 under the leadership of Jesse Mercer Green. The congregation slowly grew and found means to support a larger budget. In 1900 the congregation created departments of finance, sociability, missions, music, building and improvement, charity, Sunday school, and the Baptist Young People’s Union (B.Y.P.U.).
In 1914 the church decided to demolish the first building and construct a new one. Initially, however, the church did not have the funds to do anything other than hold services in a tent. Membership dropped to three hundred during the building’s construction. But when the new building, designed by James E. Green, opened in 1916, one thousand people attended the opening night service. The Jackson Security Company had helped fund the construction of the new building.
To ensure room for later expansion, South Avondale Baptist constantly purchased lots even if its financial situation was not comfortable. New lots were purchased for Sunday school and educational purposes. A residence for the minister was also purchased next to the church.
Hamilton Reid was the pastor during the Great Depression and upon his resignation he reflected over how pastors had lost their money from bank failure but the church decided to help them out during that time. The church generously funded their pastors to take trips after working more hours than they ever should. Hamilton Reid went on no vacations during the Depression so the church gave him a three-month trip to Europe.
As the post-war Baby Boom began, the church broke ground in 1948 for a two-story educational building on the corner of 41st St. and 4th Avenue South. The church bought more properties in 1958 for educational purposes and a new three-story education building was erected between the 1948 building and the 1914 church in 1962.
Money was generously given by this church. There were also times when South Avondale Baptist had to be very smart with their money. Properties were only bought during low housing markets including the Great Depression. Overall the money given was more than generous including a push to increase budgets for community involvement every year.
There were countless ways that South Avondale Baptist served their community. In 1920 evangelicalism classes began to be taught to equip the congregation. In 1927 the Women’s Missionary Union had a strong year reporting that they had held prayer and devotionals, furnished flowers for the church, made 147 visits to newcomers and the sick, visited 206 patients in the hospitals, and offered dinners for bereaved families. In 1949 youth camps and youth revivals starting taking place to enable kids to know the Lord. Vacation Bible school received much attention reached an all-time high in attendance in 1952.
There were all night prayer services during the revival as well as men’s meetings held to reach lost men in the community. The revival also encouraged the church to call every family and see if they were coming to Sunday and personally invite them to come if they were not already. During the world wars and the Great Depression, the church established a pantry for displaced people who could not afford to get food anywhere. The new education building allowed a kindergarten to be started. The church also secretly bought gravesites so that people who could not afford to bury family members could use them. The church even supplied their pastor with a new car for all the work he had done.
Learning from Mistakes
South Avondale Baptist’s history was not unblemished. During desegregation in the 1960s a lot of black people were attempting to go to white churches to fight for equality. The deacons of South Avondale Baptist issued a statement that if the black people were to come to the service that they would not be seated. This is an example of where South Avondale conformed to white Southern culture rather than challenging it with the gospel.
South Avondale Baptist exemplified what a church is called to do in a lot of ways. In some ways it did not do this, particularly its stance on race relations and equality. But South Avondale Baptist became a template for service to communities. Whether the pastor needed a new car, or homeless people needed food, or a new building needed to be put in, South Avondale Baptist was devoted to getting done whatever needed to be.
An Ending and New Beginnings
As many white families moved away from South Avondale after 1970, the membership at the church began to decline. Long-time members continued to attend, but few new members replaced them. As more of these people passed away, the rate of decline increased from 1995 to 1998 the number enrolled in the Bible school attendees declined from 279 to 155., and average attendance declined from near 110 to near 65.
When the church voted to merger with First Baptist Church of Irondale in August of 2000, the Bible school enrollment was 108. (First Baptist of Irondale change its name to the Church at Grant’s Mill in 2016.) Shortly before the church closed the Birmingham Baptist Association began M-Power Ministries in the churches education building. The association sold the historic sanctuary to New Hope Baptist Church. This African American Baptist church had begun in North Avondale but later moved to the west side of Birmingham. They operated a second satellite location there for many years and began a pre-school that still continues.
In 2014, Redeemer Community Church moved from Woodlawn into the historic sanctuary. It is slowly making its mark the same way that South Avondale Baptist did by actively seeking out the community and treating its church family with care. Churches have continued to follow in the footsteps of South Avondale Baptist through community service and care for pastors.
South Avondale Baptist Church
Address: 4700 Highlands Way, Birmingham, AL 35210
Congregation Organized: 1887
Congregation Disbanded: 2000
Affiliations: Southern Baptist Convention, Alabama Baptist State Convention, Birmingham Baptist Association
Sources for Further Reading
Davidson, James E. South Avondale Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama: Its Pastors, People and Programs, 1887-1974. Birmingham: the church, 1977.
“South Avondale Baptist Church.” Bhamwiki. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/South_Avondale_Baptist_Church
Patrick Thompson is a religion major at Samford University and a member of the class of 2020.
Published November 21, 2019. Updated December 18, 2019.