Hidden History: Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church

Huntsville church is the oldest African-American congregation in Alabama

Religion plays a strong role in the lives of many Alabama residents, primarily because the state is located in the heart of the Bible Belt. Mo Carter takes us to a church whose foundation has been very strong for numerous generations.

Every Sunday in the Tennessee Valley, multiple things occur during a typical service in the African American church.

There's praise and worship, fellowship, and you'll also hear a good sermon.

Like many places of worship, Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church holds services every Sunday, but one thing that sets them apart from others is its longevity. 

But in order to understand how long this church has been around, you have to leave the sanctuary, and head to a place which is commonly known as a place for deceased loved ones.

Saint Bartley's roots began in what used to be the Georgia Cemetery during the antebellum era of the South. Not only was the cemetery a place to honor deceased loved ones, but it also was a focal point for the black community, because slaves actually claimed this place as their own.

Rodney Milton, Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church Historian, says, “Those people had to be dedicated and they had to be not afraid. Because back then, if you were a slave, you probably didn't meet in a public place."

William Harris, a slave himself, preached multple sermons in the graveyard and by 1820, Harris organized the Huntsville African Baptist Church, making it the oldest African-American congregation in the state of Alabama. Unfortunately, there are no pictures of William Harris, but members at the current church depict him as legendary.

Saint Bartley church member Dianne Wilkins explains, "He was a big man with a lot of courage and a lot of faith to start a church in graveyard. That's phenomenal. That's mind blowing."

William Harris would lead the flock of his church for a half century and by the time he left pulpit, another man who had already staked his claim as a Huntsville legend away from the church had stepped up to lead the church to new heights.

Jaymes Mooney, Pastor at Saint Bartley, says, “Bartley Harris, who came after William Harris, actually played a role in the Civil War and joined with Confederate Army in hiding weapons. The Union Army came along and actually burned down the church because he hid weapons.” 

During Reconstruction, Bartley Harris moved the Huntsville African Baptist church from the Georgia Cemetery to Oak Avenue, which is now present day Williams Avenue. Not only did the church have a change in location, it also got an upgraded name.

Milton says, "He was so well known in the community, so the community considered him a saint. So they referred to the church as Saint Bartley's Church. That's how we went to the name of Saint Bartley after Huntsville African Baptist Church.”

Baptisms are a big part of every religion and the baptisms that were done by Elder Bartley Harris were big..literally.. According to church records, Harris baptized more than 3000 members in the waters of Big Spring Park on baptism Sunday, making it a must-see event.

Pictures show people on horses, in buggies, with umbrellas. It was a big event for the city of Huntsville.

Another brush with history that involves Saint Bartley is its role in the Indian Creek Primitive Baptist Association, in which it is known as the “Mother Church”.

Mooney says, "We do have a lot of congregations around the country that are looking in and seeing what Saint Bartley is doing and they are inspired by our work."

During the course of nearly two centuries, Saint Bartley has seen its fair share of change, from locations to leadership, from slavery to the civil rights movement. Saint Bartley's current pastor James Mooney believes that the church has survived and thrived as Alabama's oldest African-American congregation because of the grace and mercy.

Dianne Wilkins has another message as well. "This Church has remained a strong place in this community and for that we are grateful to God. The Church is 197 years old. That's great, that's wonderful. but what's greater is that the word of God never changed."

In the year 2020, Saint Bartley's will celebrate the congregation’s 200th anniversary. We asked the pastor and his staff if they plan on having a huge celebration. The answer is yes…but first they want to get to year number 198. 

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