First Missionary Baptist Church of Courtland

First Missionary Baptist Church of Courtland

3064 Jefferson Street


The Muscle Shoals Missionary Baptist Association

On July 15, 1820, the Muscle Shoals Baptist Association was created to organize and assist new churches with development. In May 1827, Courtland Baptist Church formed and accepted into the Muscle Shoals Baptist Association that July. The charter members of this church were all white, except for two enslaved African Americans. As the years progressed, the congregation grew. By September 1844, church minutes show the reported membership was comprised of 31 white people and 69 enslaved African Americans. Several names of the enslaved African American members and their enslavers are listed in the Courtland Baptist Church records in the Lawrence County Archive.


Deangelo McDaniel, a staff writer for The Decatur Daily, wrote an article that discusses where and how African Americans worshipped when attending Courtland Baptist Church. McDaniel writes, “White owners controlled every aspect of slave life, including how and where slaves worshipped and how they were to sit and act in church. This usually meant that they had to sit in the balcony so they would not run away while their masters worshipped”. Other accounts suggest separate services. As McDaniel continues, he recalls a story that was told to him by a pastor in Decatur who said, “They would have service under a tree while the whites worshipped inside”. Another story McDaniel writes about is an account from the Works Progress Administration slave narrative project; Alice Sewell remembers; “White owners hired white preachers to preach to slaves. ‘He never did tell us nothing but to be good servants.’ …slaves would slip down in the woods ‘way down in the swamps to sing and pray to our liking’”. These early accounts of worship independent from their enslavers laid the groundwork for the many African American congregations that formed after emancipation. Many African American Baptist churches were established during the Reconstruction period and developed from this earlier familiarity with the denomination and its missional outreach. As Wilson Fallin, Jr., a history professor from the University of Montevallo, asserts, “The Baptist faith first gained a following among African Americans in Alabama during the period of slavery”.


Following the Civil War, the congregation of Courtland Baptist dwindled to just two members, Martha H. Owen and S. W. Shackelford. These women requested the “association take charge of the property and funds with stipulation that should a church be reconstituted, both property and funds be returned to the body”. It took many years, but a new church for white Baptists was formed in 1915 and by 1924, a frame church building was constructed on the property.


During Reconstruction, in 1869, a second Muscle Shoals Baptist Association formed as the African American counterpart to the now all-white Muscle Shoals Baptist Association. Sometimes referred to as the Muscle Shoals Association of Colored Baptists or more commonly the Muscle Shoals Missionary Baptist Association, this organization included sixty-six Missionary Baptist churches in Northwest Alabama, comprised of more than six thousand members, including what was then called First Baptist Courtland but today is known as the First Missionary Baptist Church of Courtland. The founders of the Muscle Shoals Missionary Baptist Association included Reverends Henry Byrum, William Coleman, and W.E. Northcross, the first ordained African American ministers in the area, with help from one white reverend named Joseph Shackleford of nearby Trinity.

Sunday School on the front steps in 1969

First Baptist Church / First Missionary Baptist Church of Courtland

Established during Reconstruction, formerly enslaved African Americans organized what was then called the First Baptist Church of Courtland. A white church of the same name had by this point disbanded and not yet reorganized.

Services of the newly formed church started in a private home on a farm about one mile northeast of Courtland known as Sykes Place. Early elders involved in the church's founding include Fred Bowman, S. Watkins, and Pastor Gabriel B. Johnson. The congregation built a frame building one block east of its present location. That building is no longer standing. A second building was constructed across the street from the present location. That building is no longer standing either.

The oldest section of this building, the main chapel, was constructed under Reverend T.J. James in 1916.


Courtland's First Missionary Baptist Church has been a central part of the North Courtland community and played a vital role in its history. The church has hosted commencement ceremonies for the Academy and later Courtland Colored High School and hosted the Muscle Shoals Missionary Baptist Association annual convention many times. Minutes of the Muscle Shoals Missionary Baptist Association from 1969 mention the church as a mass meeting location for Civil Rights protest marches.