Growing up, John Gray listened to his grandmother, Lillie Mae Wiggins, talk about the history of black churches in Decatur — of the founding of the one-time interracial Spring Hill Church, the creation of the “city church” First Missionary Baptist and the founding of Westside Baptist.
Now, as leader of El Shaddai Church, formerly known as Spring Hill, Gray is passing on those history lessons to the next generations.
“My grandmother passed away four years ago at the age of 104. She would always talk about the history of the churches in Decatur and how it all started with Spring Hill,” Gray said.
The church sits on the northwest border of Decatur, bordered by the railroad track, factories and a cemetery dating to the early 19th century.
For the past two centuries, people gathered on the plot of land to pray. They prayed for peace during the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War and Gulf War. They prayed for freedom as Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led marches during the civil rights movement.
While the earliest written record of the church dates to 1821, when Spring Hill entered the Muscle Shoals Association, oral records, passed down from generation to generation, place the church’s history even earlier. Evidence exists from 1812 — the date on the church cemetery’s oldest stone remembering the life of Nancy E.B. Thompson. According to the Morgan County Archives, Thompson, the 12-year-old daughter of Edward and M. Thompson, died June 5, 1812.
What the congregation knows is the church on Old Trinity Road, which many people believe to be the oldest African-American church in Decatur, was first established for white worshippers.
“When the church was established, the story goes, they made the deal with a spit in the hand. Back then when someone gave his word, that was it,” Geneva Gray, John Gray’s mother, said during the church’s 190th celebration. “This is one of the oldest churches in these parts. From this church sprang other churches.”
Source: Decatur Daily / Catherine Godbey