- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — It is just possible that had the Rev. Tolbert Fanning’s buggy not broken down in Columbus in 1839, history would have taken a different course — and the current close-knit congregation of First Christian Church might not be celebrating the church’s 175th anniversary.

Fanning, the founder of Fanning College in Franklin, Tennessee, was said to have been an extraordinary preacher. While waiting for buggy repairs, as the story goes, he stood forth and drew a crowd. As the first minister of the denomination to visit Columbus, his doctrines were new and, to some extent, different from those heard from established pulpits around town.

His powerful oratory planted the seed that led to the founding of First Christian Church and its sanctuary. Today, a green historic marker in downtown Columbus is all that is left to mark the structure that played a part in some of the city’s history-making moments. The spirit that is First Christian Church, however, is alive and well at the “new” (circa 1968) church home.

Jane Smith has been a member since 1953. Somewhere along the way, the mantle of church historian settled on her shoulders. Her research of church and library records has documented an intriguing journey.

“We are tremendously proud of our rich history but making strides to change with the time and spread the love of God as the generations before us did,” Smith said.

Because there were no public halls in Columbus, the early congregation met in a long, frame building erected as a store but converted into what was called “The Theater.” It was on the south side of Main Street in the town square, across and not far from the Gilmer Hotel.

The church grew rapidly, with some 30 families listed as members. Among them was Col. John Gilmer, the largest stockholder in the company that built the Gilmer. He served two terms in the state legislature and was the owner of the antebellum home Riverview.

The first bishop was Green T. Hill, who operated a stagecoach line between Columbus and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was also a prominent bridge builder, and one of the first men from Columbus to die in the Civil War.

In 1849, Eli Abbott donated land to build a church where the marker stands today. The walls of handmade brick, hand-hewn logs and wooden pegs would eventually witness some notable events.

In 1863, during the War Between the States, the capitol city of Jackson fell to Sherman’s troops. That November, the state government moved to Columbus, where the legislature was called to meet. The House of Representatives convened at the old courthouse; the Senate met at the nearby First Christian Church. Gov. Charles Clark was inaugurated as the 24th governor of Mississippi at that session.

The church also served as a hospital during the war.

A noted First Christian pastor in 1877 and 1878 was Knowles Shaw. He was known as the “singing evangelist.” Among the 114 songs he wrote was “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

Ira Boswell was inspired by Shaw and others to preach. He went on to pastor two churches and to establish the Cincinnati Bible Seminary in 1924. He later was founder and president of the Louisville Bible College. Fittingly, he delivered the 100th anniversary sermon.

As years passed, the church was enhanced and enlarged. The 1900s saw steeples and art glass windows added. A two-story annex was constructed in 1947.

The year 1958 brought another major event to this small church, with the signing of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project. Mississippi Gov. J.P. Coleman, Alabama Gov. James Folsom and a host of officials gathered in the historically-significant sanctuary for the occasion.

Columbus was made “Capitol for the Day,” and First Christian’s pastor, the Rev. L.R. Still, was made Chaplain of the Senate and gave the invocation.

During the decade that followed, growing pains set in as the church congregation grew larger.

“We knew we needed to move; we were land-locked,” said longtime member Charlie Box. . “The church was doing good, and we needed to grow.”

He began attending in 1954. His wife, Kay, plays the piano, and sometimes organ, for services

Land was purchased in East Columbus for a new building.

Smith said, “We wanted desperately for someone to buy the (old) building who could preserve it. There were articles about it all over the country.”

Box and others hoped it might be turned into a museum. In spite of all efforts, however, the only buyer needed just the land, for a parking lot.

Marion Holloway is 93. She has been a church member since 1959, when she and her husband, now deceased, moved to Columbus with the Air Force. Her children were all baptized at First Christian. The family never missed a Sunday, unless someone was sick or out of town.

“When they were tearing the old church down, a lot of us were in tears,” Holloway said. “We all hated to say goodbye to it, but we realized that whatever happened would be God’s will.”

The congregation looked toward the future, with the historic stained glass windows as reminders of the church body’s rich history. Members leaned on each other. They still do.

“It’s a small church where everybody knows one another, loves one another … a good, loving church, a good environment to raise our two boys,” Box said. “It’s a part of our lives, that’s what it’s been, and it’s really an honor to have been a part of it so long.”

‘It’s a place where everybody’s happy to see each other,” said Holloway.

___

Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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