Growing up, John Gray listened to his grandmother, Lillie Mae Wiggins, talk about the history of black churches in Decatur — of the founding of the one-time interracial Spring Hill Church, the creation of the “city church” First Missionary Baptist and the founding of Westside Baptist.
Now, as leader of El Shaddai Church, formerly known as Spring Hill, Gray is passing on those history lessons to the next generations.
“My grandmother passed away four years ago at the age of 104. She would always talk about the history of the churches in Decatur and how it all started with Spring Hill,” Gray said.
The church sits on the northwest border of Decatur, bordered by the railroad track, factories and a cemetery dating to the early 19th century.
For the past two centuries, people gathered on the plot of land to pray. They prayed for peace during the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War and Gulf War. They prayed for freedom as Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led marches during the civil rights movement.
While the earliest written record of the church dates to 1821, when Spring Hill entered the Muscle Shoals Association, oral records, passed down from generation to generation, place the church’s history even earlier. Evidence exists from 1812 — the date on the church cemetery’s oldest stone remembering the life of Nancy E.B. Thompson. According to the Morgan County Archives, Thompson, the 12-year-old daughter of Edward and M. Thompson, died June 5, 1812.
What the congregation knows is the church on Old Trinity Road, which many people believe to be the oldest African-American church in Decatur, was first established for white worshippers.
“When the church was established, the story goes, they made the deal with a spit in the hand. Back then when someone gave his word, that was it,” Geneva Gray, John Gray’s mother, said during the church’s 190th celebration. “This is one of the oldest churches in these parts. From this church sprang other churches.”
By 1859, the congregation consisted of eight whites and 40 blacks. That year the white congregants left the church in the hands of the black members. Two separate cemeteries existed — one for whites, north of the railroad tracks, and one for blacks, across the road from the church.
After a tornado destroyed the old wooden church building in the 1950s, the congregation rebuilt a stronger and sturdier church made of brick. And the church grew as members, such as John Gray, accepted the call into the ministry.
“I became a member here in 1969 and I was called to pastor here in 1991,” Gray said.
In 2003, under the direction of Gray and his wife, pastor Linda Gray, the name of the church changed from Spring Hill Missionary Baptist to El Shaddai, meaning God Almighty.
The congregation continues to focus on the future. Four years ago, the church purchased three lots east of the current building. Gray said the congregation plans on building a center for children with activities and an education wing. The church holds services Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
Featured Image: Georgia Encyclopedia
Inset Image: Decatur Daily File