The Story of a Stained-Glass Masterpiece
By: Anna Fisher
The Mountain Brook Baptist Church came from humble beginnings. With only nineteen members, the congregation built the church up from ground. As stated in Sacred Space and Sacred Story by Joe O. Lewis, “The work as a whole has been progress. We despise not the day of the little things. We put our faith and trust in Christ, and we go forward.” Little did the people of Mountain Brook Baptist know how true that statement would become. The people would go to extraordinary lengths to make sure this church was a place to learn about the gospel and to teach others. The Teaching Window in the sanctuary of the churchshows the effort that was put into the church to make it a place where all can worship the Lord and stand in awe of the provision he laid over the church.
The Faithful Nineteen
In 1944, the community of Mountain Brook decided that it was time for the town to have a place for evangelism and outreach. After much prayer, on April 25, nineteen people entered Valley Baptist Church, now known as Mountain Brook Baptist Church, to build up a community of believers in the young suburb. The small group did not know where to begin but pressed on and trusted God’s guidance along the way. With full hearts, the people of Mountain Brook Baptist decided to buy a three-and-a-half-acre lot at Montevallo Road on January 29, 1946 and a committee was appointed to oversee the building of the church. From 1944 to 1954, led first by Colley (1944-1947) and then by Rev. William E. Waterhouse, the church pressed on in hope. The membership of the church steadily increased, and the construction of the church was completed in 1950. In 1959, Waterhouse retired and the congregation had the task of finding a new pastor. Church attendance also grew from 85 to 619 and the construction of a new space was necessary. A new committee was formed in 1959 committed to finding a new pastor and recognizing plans for the future as the church grew larger.
A New Pastor and a New Vision
The winter of 1961 was an anxious one for the people of Mountain Brook Baptist. It had almost been two years since they had a pastor and that is when they found Dr. Dotson McGinnis Nelson Jr. The call to get Nelson to become the third pastor was not easy. The committee went up three times to the First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, to convince him to become the pastor of this 600-member compared to the 3,000-member church he was then serving. On April 16, 1961, he accepted the invitation to become their pastor. As he was coming into the church, Dr. Nelson wrote a letter to the congregation stating, “I hope I can inspire some real understanding between pastor and the people that not an ordinary, but an ‘extra-ordinary’ job can be done” (Lewis 8). This letter would ring true in Mountain Brook Baptist as Nelson made it his priority to build a church. With a committee in place, Nelson consulted the nationally known architect Harold E. Wagoner about the new church’s design. Wagoner proved to be the right man over and over again as he had a reputation for “adapting to what the congregation wanted” (Price 104). For the next few years, Nelson focused on building the new church and preparing its members spiritually. In June 1963, Nelson shared with Wagoner that they had raised $220,000 towards building a new church. Through the difficulties of the process, the believers of the congregation pushed on to the day that the project would be done.
The Willet Windows
A central part of Wagoner’s design for the church was stained glass windows from the Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia. The windows were designed to draw every eye up to the church either in the daytime or at night. The interior of the church’s focus draws your eyes to the top of the New Testament window, where you can see Christ rising from the tomb in magnificence over the banner of life’s victory over sin and death. Unfortunately for Nelson and Wagoner, the windows would cost a lot more than initially expected. After many meetings and donations, they took out a loan and gathered donations for the windows. Again, another problem arose, the windows were going to be delayed. The plan was to have the church open up for Easter to preach the gospel message to those in the community. The pressure was put on for a wedding that was also supposed to happen before the Easter service. Then on March 10, Willet Stained Glass contacted Nelson to tell him that the windows would be shipped out and the pews for the wedding would be delivered on time. That Sunday, March 26, 1967, was glorious. As every congregation member stepped into the church, rainbow light filled the room. Even though the endeavor of the church was a long one, the congregation was able to look at the work completed and thank God for his faithfulness.
Teaching the Lost
One of the windows that goes overlooked is the teaching window. It is located in the sanctuary on the side as a part of Jesus’ life woven throughout the sanctuary’s glass. Throughout the window are actions that Jesus did as a lesson for his disciples and others. “He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes,” (Matthew 7:29) is inscribed in the window, woven through the stories. Matthew stated “not as the scribes” in order to declare Christ’s holiness compared to human scribes. Christ has the authority to teach these doctrines because he is from above compared to a sinful human. Starting from the bottom of the window is the lamp of learning. This lamp is often used in many academic settings, which sets the tone for the window’s teaching. )The lamp is also the central feature of the seal of Samford University, the nearby Baptist school that has often partnered with the church.)
Above the lamp, we see Jesus with the typical cross halo and the disciples’ regular halos. This scene depicts Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is on the bottom of the window as a foundation for the rest of the stories. The prayer states, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debt comes as you also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The prayer is saying God is the ultimate authority in heaven and on earth. It reflects the authority credited to Jesus in Matthew 7:29.
The next scene comes from Luke 7. We see Jesus with the typical cross halo and a Pharisee and a woman bowing at Jesus’ feet. Jesus goes in to dine with them; the woman kneels and starts to wash Jesus’ feet with expensive oil instead of the water (unused on the table) and wipes his feet with her hair. The Pharisee did none of what the woman did. The woman did it all because “she loved much.”
The next scene is from Matthew 19:14. This scene takes up most of the upper half of the window and depicts Jesus and a group of children. Many children are offering up gifts to Jesus, Jesus’ refuses to take the gifts and teaches them instead. Prior to this, when Jesus was sitting under a tree, children came up asking if they could talk to Jesus, and the disciples turned them away. Of course, Jesus was immensely angered by this and rushed the children over to him.
The next scene above this is from Mark 12:41-44. In the upper left, we see two men placing their large offering into the temple offering box. Down to the right, a widow with a baby puts her mite into the box. (A mite was the equivalent of a penny in today’s money.) Upon first glance, this story seems to be one of lesser importance. But it is quite the opposite. Jesus tells this story to demonstrate that we should give our all to him. The pharisees give their offering but are not fazed by it. The widow has barely anything to share but still offers it up to God.
The final scene is from John 13:1-17. Jesus is washing Peter’s feet after he had protested that he would never allow such an act. The significance lies in this that Jesus is God in human form but still bends down to be a servant to others. This story teaches Peter and us that no matter how high we believe we are; we can still serve.
The story of Mountain Brook Baptist is one of humble beginnings but humble intentions. Although it was a struggle to build up the new church and install the windows, the church persevered. Nelson’s view for the church being a place where all can worship was fulfilled and is still a place today where all can go and marvel of the wonderful place. The windows are a staple in Birmingham and a remembrance of what Christ has taught and done for us.
Medium: Stained glass
Artist: Marguerite Gaudin
Created and Installed: 1967
Location: Mountain Brook Baptist Church, 3631 Montevallo Road, Birmingham, AL 35213
Allen, Catherine. Mountain Brook Baptist to celebrate 70 years, Village Living, September 4, 2014.
Allen, Lee N, and Catherine B. Allen. Outward Focus: The First Fifty Years of Mountain Brook Baptist Church, 1944-1994. The Church, 1994.
Callahan, Rachel. Mountain Brook at Sunset. 2015 July 19. Picture Birmingham.
Lewis, Joe O. Sacred Space and Sacred Story, Mountain Brook Baptist, 2018.
Schnorrenberg, John M, Richard Payne, Philip A. Morris, and Marjorie L. White. Aspiration: Birmingham’s Historic Houses of Worship. Birmingham Historical Society, 1999
Anna Fisher ’24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 10, 2020.