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Wetumpka churches move past Civil War riftcomment (0)

August 25, 2005

By Jeremy Dale Henderson

Today encased in a glass counter at First Baptist Church, Wetumpka, are two time-worn Bibles.  
One is the church’s old pulpit Bible, as ornate as it is huge. Its now-crumbling pages were read to the Baptist believers of Wetumpka in the 1800s, and it is so thick and heavy it firmly requires two hands, nearly four, to hold it.
The other is much smaller, its tattered pages barely held in order by a homespun cloth cover. The Bible looks at home in the tiny museum that formed around it and there’s a reason why. The signature in the back reads “Lockee Taylor.”
Lockee Taylor, member of First Baptist Church.
Lockee Taylor, slave. 
The history preserved at First, Wetumpka, is long and involved, a thumbprint of the eras through which it survived and grew. And though history can’t be changed, according to Pastor James Troglen, it’s being amended even now.
First, Wetumpka, was formed in 1821 — two years after Alabama became a state — in the open-air frontier of circuit riders and Indian trails. Today its venerable old chapel sits on the west side of the Coosa River — just over the Bibb Graves Bridge — competing against the historical markers of the Presbyterians across the street and the Methodists around the bend for attention. 
It took six sporadic years to build, work done only as funds became available — “a pay-as-you-go type deal,” according to unofficial church historian Jo Allen Turner. 
But 1852 finally saw the congregation gathered for worship in an antebellum sanctuary Wetumpka could be proud of — new pine pews standing on wide-plank floors and sheltered by handmade brick, all hewn, placed and laid by members themselves — members owned by other members. The hands that made  and laid those bricks were the black hands of slaves.
Black and white heads bowed together in worship for decades at First, Wetumpka, prayed on bended black and white knees — side by side for certain stretches but segregated for others. Taylor and the approximately 230 other slaves met in the Baraka room, the room made for them, by them. She read her Bible there. The ones who were capable read the Word, and the ones who couldn’t listened. 
Through four years of Civil War, even with its pastors on the front lines, the mixed congregation did not give up meeting together. It took four years in the debilitating shadow of surrender to do that. The tension of Reconstruction finally drove a wedge between them, splitting them in two like the logs used to build their church.
“A few years after the emancipation, the slave members of First Baptist wanted to have their own meeting house,” Turner said. “Mr. Thomas Williams, a Methodist and a lawyer here in town, gave them the lot on which to build.” 
On the east side of the Coosa, about 300 yards down from First, Wetumpka, sits the result — Gilfield Baptist Church. Though it’s had many names — from Giftfield to Gildfield to Guilfield and now Gilfield — today, save for a new fellowship hall under construction, it still stands as it did in 1869. Its foundations are still fused to the river rock polished by the floods of the rumbling Indian waters from which Wetumpka takes its name. 
Both churches were spared from the water damage that defined life in Wetumpka before the dams, but First, Wetumpka, and Gilfield Baptist have much more in common. Troglen calls it “spiritual heritage.” Gilfield’s pastor Curtis Cook calls them “sister churches.”
Larry Teel, a member of First, Wetumpka, puts it a little more simply: “We were a part of each other.”
Until recently, most at First, Wetumpka, had no idea of the two churches’ connected history. Teel had noticed the work going on at Gilfield since April — many people had. But, like most, he thought nothing of it. Like most, Teel didn’t know the story. 
“I’m not what you would call a historical person,” he said. “I’m more interested in what’s going to happen in the future than what happened in the past.” Still when Troglen asked him to fill in for a New Members 101 class one night, Teel readily obliged. 
“I was happy to do it but thought I should bone up a little. I started reading a little bit and discovered that most of our church had been black at the time of the Civil War and that the Gilfield church had been formed, so to speak, out of our church,” he said. “I thought that was really significant, so I shared it with the class.”
Later they discussed how — with the financial blessings First, Wetumpka, had — they would like to help Gilfield with its new building. “All of us in that class had noticed the work they were doing down there, and all thought it’d be really exciting if we could be a part of their project somehow.”
A prayerful pastor-to-pastor power lunch later and the rest is history. Troglen met Cook for lunch at Wetumpka’s old Little Sam Café, the first official communication between their respective institutions in 136 years. 
Troglen told Cook about the church’s history lesson and desire to contribute to the project and Cook responded with appreciation.
“He told me that they wanted to help us either with the physical labor or bear some expenses because we are somewhat sister churches,”  Cook said. 
Neither congregation has a single member that can trace themselves to the particular slaves and masters of First, Wetumpka. “It’s a cloudy tie, but we worship the same Lord and Savior in the same community,” Troglen said.
For the cynic, it’s a story primed for terms like “reparations” and “guilt offering.” But neither pastor sees it that way. “We don’t see it as a guilt offering; we see it as a love offering,” Cook said. 
“When [Troglen] first told me about it, I pondered it in my heart a little bit,” he added. “I didn’t want anyone to feel as though we couldn’t handle our own project’s expenses or do it ourselves.” 
Troglen said Gilfield doesn’t need help; its members are simply accepting the offering in the spirit in which it was given.
The aid from First, Wetumpka, to finish Gilfield’s first addition in 136 years was originally envisioned as sweat equity. It was decided, however, that redirecting the bill to First, Wetumpka, for already-contracted work would quicken the process and lower the cost. Estimates are around $4,000. There are still several weeks left to go on the project.
“We don’t see it as something that was owed to us or something that needed to be done on their end,” Cook explained. “The Lord has shown me a vision of what we could do at Gilfield, and I didn’t want to say, ‘No, we don’t want it,’ or, ‘No, we don’t need it.’ I didn’t want to turn down something the Lord had sent, something the Lord might be giving us. We would do the same for them.”

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