The Vagabond – Tales of Gadsden First Baptist Church


The First Baptist Church of Gadsden was first a wooden structure built at the northwest corner of Broad and Fifth streets. When erected, the church was said by many members to be “out in the woods and inaccessible.” At that time, the little village of Gadsden was centered around the blocks bounded by First, Fourth, Locust, and Chestnut streets. The first cemetery in the area was located just across Fifth Street from the church, a site now partly occupied by the first city hall.

In the old days, the church’s bell tolled at the funeral of any of its members. When a prominent citizen was buried, the bells of the First Presbyterian Church joined the chorus.

When news reached Gadsden that Alabama had seceded from the union in 1861, the First Baptist bell was tolled from sunset to daylight. The state of Alabama eventually became a part of the Confederate States of America. This bell can still be seen outside from the front of the church.

During the Civil War, women church members frequently tolled the bell while their men were away at war. The bell tolled at many funerals in later years.

On his march through this territory, Confederate Gen. James Holt Clanton made his headquarters in the church. Some of Clan-ton’s soldiers stole the sil-ver communion set, but the item was later returned intact.

A Union army camped in Gadsden and also stole the bell and silver communion set, but the property was returned after a complaint to the commander of the army.

The First Baptist Church was also occupied as headquarters by CSA General John Bell Hood when he swung his army through the Coosa Valley for position in the fateful battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga.

One of the most historic and far-reaching events was when the South was prostrate immediately after the war and nobody knowing which way to turn, a large number of Confederate ge-nerals and soldiers from all over the South gathered in the old church to discuss a plan for carrying on guerilla warfare.

Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the greatest leader on either side of the conflict, was for continuing the strife. The fiery old warrior told his comrades and the broken leaders of the Confederacy that if they would give him 10,000 men, he would rid the south of Yankee bayonets.

But cooler heads prevailed, and it was voted to accept the terms of surrender and follow the leadership of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The first sessions of circuit court in this county were held in that old First Baptist Church until the courthouse could be completed in 1870. The church was the scene of many historic gatherings and church conferences. That was before Gadsden was the seat of Baine County, which was changed to Etowah County by the carpetbag legislature since Baine was named in honor of a northern man who came south and joined the Confederate Army.

Courts were held by Judge B.T. Pope, father of Benjamin B. Pope, one of the leading lawyers of Gadsden for many years and who served for a long time as solicitor of the old Gadsden City Court. William Ables, the county commissioner in 1899, was a member of the petit jury during that first term of court in 1868. He was the head of one of the most important families of Northeast Alabama.

A gray-haired black man named Bristow was janitor of the old wooden First Baptist Church for many years. It was his duty to ring the huge bell in the steeple, which he did for every service and for many funerals.

Bristow listened to many sermons in the church and very frequently was asked for his opinion of the preaching by a new pastor or of some visiting divine. On one occasion, Bristow’s comment on the first sermon by a new pastor was simply, “strong and long.”

After the war, around the late 1860s or early 1870s, the communion silver began to disappear, and the deacons and the pastor were puzzled over the fact. For months, the puzzled officials and members searched vainly for the silver. Many believed that it had been stolen and carried off.

When all of the silver was gone, it was discovered that the communion table was also missing. Nobody could guess why items had been stolen, if that was the solution of the puzzle. They could not understand why anybody could be as low and sacrilegious as to covet the table that has been in service since 1860 when the church building was erected.

Suspicion pointed in several directions.

One day something went wrong with the bell and it stopped ringing. The rope that rang it had slipped off the pulley. John Wisdom operated a hotel, stage line and ferry in Gadsden and figured heroically in the capture of U.S. Col. Abel Streight’s army bent on the destruction of Rome, Ga. Wisdom volunteered to climb into the squint little church tower and see what was wrong. He could not believe his eyes when he found the missing property in the tower.

The communion cups apparently were for the purpose of serving alcoholic drinks, and the communion table was set for a poker game. Also found was the long-lost communion table, placed on which were poker chips, a deck of cards and cigar butts. In other words, some gamblers had appropriated the sacred cups and table for their private use. They had converted the bell tower into a gambling den. The tower had been used for months in a poker game that was probably patronized by various and sundry citizens.

It was at about the same time that the janitor of the First Baptist Church at Seventh and Broad streets found a polecat in the church, He had much trouble dislodging it, and there could be no service in the building for several days.

Earlier, there was a time when many people quit attending services because of fleas having taken almost full possession of the old building. The fleas came from hogs that roam the streets at will and made their resting place underneath the church.

There was even an amu-sing incident that contained a tragic tinge. A gypsy caravan was passing along Broad Street when a Spanish gypsy leapt out of one of the wagons and ran to the church door, shouting in Spanish and gesticulating all over the place. It took some time for churchmen to understand that his wife had just given birth to a baby and that he wanted some holy water to christen it.

It took a long while for him to understand that a Baptist church did not have holy water.

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