Why are there Two First Baptist Churches in Murfreesboro?

Dr. Noel Schoonmaker, Rev. Eugene Cotey, the late Rev. Richard Willis Gordon, and Rev. James McCarroll.

Dr. Noel Schoonmaker, Rev. Eugene Cotey, the late Rev. Richard Willis Gordon, and Rev. James McCarroll.

It all started in 1843 when the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro was founded. This was a single congregation that included slaveholders and slaves. When the Civil War broke out, the church building was used as a hospital and it sustained considerable damage. Following the war, white church members began meeting elsewhere and gave the old church building to African American church members. Thereafter, two congregations developed, one predominantly African American and the other predominantly white. Each congregation has had an abiding witness ever since. Today, one meets at 737 East Castle Street and the other meets at 200 East Main Street.

Yet, we operate in partnership. One Sunday in 2014 we held a pulpit and choir swap. It was such an encouragement to both churches that we planned a special event in 2015 in which both congregations worshipped together under the same roof on a Sunday morning for the first time since before the Civil War. This historic event called “Legacy Sunday” featured music from a joint choir, a sermon delivered in tandem by both pastors, recognition of our shared history, and celebration of our current partnership. (You can read more about Legacy Sunday here).

Since then, we have held joint Holy Week services and another Sunday morning pulpit and choir swap. We have started a joint mentoring ministry at a local elementary school called the PEP Team (“People Encouraging Pupils”). We have had our two choirs join together to sing the national anthem at a Middle Tennessee State University football game. We have hosted an educational event on the plantation of Burrell Gannaway—one of the original deacons of First Baptist Church—which was led by descendants of persons who were enslaved there. The evening before a white nationalist rally on the town square, we came together to co-host the “One Community Prayer Vigil” in which leaders of over a dozen local congregations representing several different denominations led hundreds in a peaceful service of multicultural worship. We also held a second “Legacy Sunday” joint worship service in 2018 to celebrate our 165th and 175th church anniversaries.

Pastor James McCarroll of East Castle Street and Pastor Noel Schoonmaker of East Main Street are close friends and colleagues in ministry. Their friendship mirrors many friendships between members of both congregations. Although there are two First Baptist Churches in Murfreesboro, we regularly partner together in worship, fellowship, and mission work for the glory of God and the edification of the community. Therefore, there is a very real sense in which the two First Baptist Churches of Murfreesboro are one.