Another stop during our historical church tour was a quick stop in Huntsville, AL which brought my wife and me to Central Evangelical Presbyterian Church for lunch with Pastor Dr. Randall Jenkins. Randy was born near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He attended colleges in Indiana and Pennsylvania, and received his undergraduate degree from Washington and Jefferson College. After working with Youth for Christ for several years he attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where he received his Master of Divinity degree. He received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Reformed Theological Seminary at the Charlotte, North Carolina campus in May 2004. Randy was the Pastor at the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina for several years before coming to Central Presbyterian Church. He and his wife, Judy, have three daughters, Leah, Grace, and Abby.
Unfortunately we did not have much time to spend with Randy but we did manage to get in a quick tour of his church after lunch. A block from the downtown square, Central is one of two downtown Presbyterian churches, being not more than a block from each other. It is a fascinating church building with an unusual sanctuary and beautiful stained glass windows. While we did not have much time to visit, our time together prompted me to study their website where I learned much about this pastor, this congregation and this church that has a colorful past, a dynamic present community involvement and a future vision for their church and for the city where they serve.
Huntsville became the first incorporated town in Alabama in 1811. However, the recognized “birth” year of the city is 1805, the year of John Hunt’s arrival. In 1819, Huntsville hosted a constitutional convention in Walker Allen’s large cabinet making shop. The 44 delegates meeting there wrote a constitution for the new state of Alabama. But even before that constitution was penned, the foundation for Central Presbyterian Church had already been laid as the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, organized on February 4, 1810.
In 1828, the first church building, a white frame structure, was erected on the east side of Greene Street between Holmes and Walker Streets. In 1845 the congregation moved to a new church building, believed to have been designed by George Steele, on the corner of Lincoln and Randolph Streets and after 9 years completed a one room square Sanctuary. The building was completed in 1854 and dedicated by the Rev. Robert K. Donnell, the man to whom the Presbyterian Church owes her success in North Alabama.
It was a handsome, one room Doric structure which included a slave balcony and had no basement. The brick building included four immense Corinthian columns on the front, supporting a heavy porch top. A large cupola on the roof housed the church bell.
THEN CAME THE WAR
On the morning of April 11, 1862, Union troops led by General Ormsby M. Mitchel seized Huntsville to sever the Confederacy’s rail communications. The Union troops were forced to retreat some months later, but returned to Huntsville in the fall of 1863 and thereafter used the city as a base of operations for the remainder of the war. While many homes and villages in the surrounding countryside were burned in retaliation for the active guerrilla warfare in the area, Huntsville itself was spared because it housed elements of the Union Army. (Wikipedia)
THE CHURCH MOVED ON
Despite the war, the 1845 building was in good condition when it was razed in 1899 to make room for a larger building. When the razing began on April 30, 1899, the plan was to purchase the adjacent property on Lincoln Street. Since the owners would not sell, the church was designed to fit the property already owned. For that reason, the building was designed high rather than wide and flat. The same architect who designed the building designed the Jewish Synagogue farther down Lincoln Street. The Rev. Joseph W. Caldwell laid the cornerstone and later dedicated the Sanctuary.
Bricks from the old building were used to build the lower wall of the present church. The Romanesque Revival Sanctuary is octagon in shape. The beautiful stained glass windows are irreplaceable and have been a source of beauty and inspiration for many. They were created by a Bavarian artist that was seeking a church to demonstrate his artistic ability at the same time the church was being built.
In 1957, the Education Wing was constructed to accommodate the influx of new people in Huntsville. Adjacent properties were finally purchased and a courtyard, playground and parking lot were built.
AND CONTINUES TO MOVE
In 1991, the Freeman House at 205 Lincoln Street was purchased for offices and more parking. In 1996, the congregation fulfilled its vision of restoring the house and using it for the glory of God. This historic and gracious house provides the setting for the Hawthorne Conservatory of Music (see below).
In January of 2001 the church purchased the Cooper House, across the street from the church building. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places on January 4, 1973, Cooper House is one of the oldest homes in the Twickenham Historical District. The Cooper House, said to be one of the few antebellum structures of frame construction to survive the Civil War, suited Central’s need for expanded parking, office space and storage. The building needed extensive renovations, which required approval of the Huntsville/Madison County Historical Society. The Historical Society would not allow the church to demolish the home and build a new, larger structure, but they did allow the back porch to be built into additional space. Now called the Family Life Center, the renovated Cooper House fits the church’s vision for additional outreach and new ministry, while preserving the integrity of the historical structure. The beautiful old home was completely restored to accommodate a new Fellowship Hall and kitchen facilities. It is not only used by the church but is available for many community and private events as well.
DENOMINATION AFFILIATIONS and DISAFFILIATIONS
Originating in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the church and denomination reunited in May 1906 with the Presbyterian Church, USA, to become the United Presbyterian Church of North America. In 1958 the Presbyterian Church, USA, united with the United Presbyterian Church of North America, forming the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. And on June 10, 1983, the United Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church, US, reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (USA), and they were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) until 2007, when Central left this affiliation.
The church disaffiliation started by first filing a lawsuit asking that the church, not the PC(USA), be declared owner of the congregation’s property. They later followed-up with a congregational meeting to bring the issue to disaffiliate with the denomination to the church members.
The telling of the PC(USA) departure (in part) was related by The Layman Online:
“Central Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Ala., which recently filed a lawsuit seeking to be declared owner of its property, has voted to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and align with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
North Alabama Presbytery, however, said the congregational meeting where the vote took place was “improperly called” and has authorized an administrative commission to assume “original jurisdiction” of the church by dismissing the pastor and session.
Central Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Randy Jenkins, said 142 people voted for disaffiliation at a congregational meeting following worship services March 11. There also were nine “letters of intent,” he said, signed by congregation members who could not be present. The church has about 265 members by Jenkins’ estimation.”
There were some peculiar charges and moves by the Presbytery in regards to a supposedly “improperly called” meeting, to the point of threatening Pastor Jenkins with removal and intent to dissolve the Session. Indeed, the Presbytery did declare the Session dissolved and ordered the trustees of the church to dismiss the property lawsuit. But Jenkins avoided the presbytery action by renouncing his PC(USA) ordination before they could act and the trustees ignored the threatened takeover of the administration of the church. The Presbytery seemed primarily concerned about property issues while the church was concerned about that AND theological issues. The church declared the split with the PC(USA) was because of longstanding doctrinal difference, disagreement with the direction (theologically and structurally) the denomination was taking, and because the PC(USA) believed that it was the owner of their property rather than the corporation made up of the members of the church. Eventually the lawsuit was settled letting Central leave PC(USA) with property for $250,000 in various payments. In exchange for the payments, the agreement stated, “The presbytery shall quit claim all its right, title and interest in and to any real or personal property, and any present or future interest therein, now or hereafter claimed by Central Presbyterian.” The presbytery also agrees to dismiss the church “to a presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, or another Reformed body, with any and all real and personal property.”
A COMMUNITY CHURCH
Central Evangelical Presbyterian Church has a long history of being a church that presents the Word of God, cares for one another, puts its money where its priorities are (they have a very high percentage of their budget devoted to missions), and impacts the community through outreach, including an unusual outreach of the Hawthorne Music Conservatory.
The Hawthorne Conservatory is a unique music ministry of Central EPC. Located in the historic Freeman House in downtown Huntsville, the school offers quality music instruction in a safe and inspiring atmosphere to students of any age, especially those who cannot afford music lessons or instruments. In addition to private lessons, they offer enrichment programming, which consists of specialty group classes and seasonal camps. They also take music into the community, particularly places where music education & enrichment is not easily accessible or affordable. (From the website)
MOVING INTO THE FUTURE
Central Presbyterian Church continues to reach outside of their walls to those men and women who are unchurched and offer a venue and ministry that will touch their hearts with the love of Christ. Their impact on and for the community, and for the kingdom of God, is a great testimony. The church and members generously offer their hearts and their facilities to fulfill community needs so they can utilize their physical assets seven days a week.
Today the church reports just over 300 members. I am glad that the Lord led Central Presbyterian Church leadership and congregation to the EPC. We are blessed to have them among our family of churches. I look forward to a future Sunday when I can visit Central EPC again and worship with the congregation and get to know the church and her people a bit better. If you find yourself in the Huntsville area some weekend, I encourage you to visit them at 406 Randolph Avenue, Huntsville, AL 35801.
*Much of the church history is from the Central EPC website