The importance of cornerstones is written deep within the biblical tradition and in Birmingham, Alabama, many small churches have ones inscribed with not only the name of the church and the date of construction but with the names of pastors, deacons, trustees, and architects.
Cornerstones and the Biblical Tradition
In the week of his death, Jesus of Nazareth appealed to Psalm 118:22-23, saying “The stone that the that the builders rejected as become the head of the corner. This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10-11, cf. Matthew 21:42, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:6-7). The author of the letter Ephesians later referred to the church as a building, and to Jesus Christ, who was rejected, “being the chief corner stone.”
From the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, Freemasonry was strong in America and, with it, the ritual of laying cornerstones. The cornerstone of the White House was ceremonially laid on October 13, 1792. The next fall, President George Washington, wearing Masonic regalia laid the cornerstone of the Capitol Building with the typical Masonic rites on September 18, 1793. One hundred fourteen years and eleven days later, President Theodore Roosevelt would use the same marble gavel to set the foundation stone of Washington National Cathedral.
The cornerstones of most churches were laid with less ceremony, but unlike the cathedral’s foundation stone, which was covered over with layers of construction, they are often visible symbolic reminders of a congregation’s history. The fact that more elaborate inscriptions are usually found on African American churches than White ones, suggests that these permanent inscriptions were more important to those whose opportunities were limited by segregation and racism than to those who enjoyed America’s promise of economic and class mobility.
This is the first in a series of posts featuring the churches and cornerstones of Birmingham, Alabama, and surrounding municipalities. Most photos were take during weekend bicycle rides when I explored the avenues and streets of the Magic City and its neighbors.
Laymen’s Chapel C.M.E. Church
As of 2021, Laymen’s Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church was a closed building on Vanderbilt Road on the northern edge of the East Birmingham neighborhood. Its immediate neighborhood on the flood plain of Village Creek, north of I-20/59 had been level and redeveloped as Greenwood Park (opened 2012).
The 1967 cornerstone of this cider-block building lists the names of the pastor, presiding elder, bishop, and six trustees. E. D. Williams, pastor; T. A. Pratt, presiding elder’ E. P. Murchison, bishop; and E.W. Windham, L. I. Pritchett, A.G. Smith, N.E. Wills, Sr., E. Bush, and W. M. Bookings, trustees.
The location is just off the Interstate. Vietnamese Buddhists located their temple just a half mile east because it was an easily accessible location. So it is possible this building will appeal to some community as a central location. More likely, since there are no longer any residences nearby, it is only a matter of time before this former house of worship is razed.
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