The Civil War battles for Chattanooga hadn’t begun in 1863 when seven black residents met at Dent Farm, now a part of the Bonny Oaks Industrial Park, to establish Mount Calvary Baptist Church.
Next month, one of the oldest black congregations in the area — two years younger than St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church and three years older than First Baptist, East Eighth Street (originally Shiloh Baptist) — will celebrate its 150th anniversary.
The Rev. Robert Freeman, pastor since 2007, says the founders of the church had a “generosity of sharing of their own personal wealth to get the church established.”
“They had an abiding faith in God,” he says, “realizing he is the source of all the benefits and blessings. Because of those blessings, they shared them.”
Mount Calvary made its first home, a boxlike structure with shutters for windows and hollowed-out logs for pews, along what is now Noah Reid Road near the Friar Branch of Chickamauga Creek.
The worshiping body was such a draw, according to a church history, that trains bearing parishioners stopped at the building — both coming and going — on days when services were held.
In the winter months, transportation was less easy, so worshipers sought places to worship closer to their homes. As such, those worshipers established five Baptist churches that remain today — Hawkinsville, Mount Joy, Mission Ridge, Pilgrim Rock and Rock Island.
Around the same time, three members of the church moved from Dent Farm to an area near the intersection of what is today Highway 58 and Champion Road, purchased land and donated some of it for a new building.
Generosity, according to Freeman, has been a hallmark of the church.
The members, he says, donated the property, paid off the mortgage, tithed and gave of their goods to the Lord.
The Rev. T.M. King, for whom King Street in downtown Chattanooga is named, was pastor when the original Highway 58 building was erected. According to the church history, the pastor was paid in vegetables and fruits, which he carted to the King Street location and sold.
Mount Calvary’s next building was completed in July 1961 under the leadership of the Rev. Nathaniel Garth, whose 30-year pastorate (1958-1988) was the longest of the church’s pastors in the past century.
Over the years, the church purchased several adjoining pieces of property for parking and expansion, and in 1980 dedicated an addition that allowed the congregation to raze the first building on the site.
Freeman says the church is currently in a “transitional stage,” having “lost some of those patriarchs who were very supportive” and reaching into its community to recruit new, younger families to rebuild its membership.
“We want to make a bigger presence in the community,” he says. “We’re in the planning stages [of how to execute it]. We’re open to [hosting] community events. We want to do even more inviting and visiting.”
The 150th anniversary events begin with a noon salad luncheon on Saturday, May 11, with reflections by Hamilton County Public Defender and former church member Ardena Garth. Its token cost is 150 cents, emblematic of the sesquicentennial anniversary.
On Sunday, May 19, pastor Tim Sykes and members of Pilgrim Rock Baptist will be guests for a service at 4 p.m.
A musical featuring the Chattanooga Gospel Orchestra will conclude anniversary activities on Sunday, May 26, at 5 p.m.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...