Church Schisms in Birmingham, Alabama

Published July 19, 2021, updated July 20, 2021.

Two of the more dramatic schisms in Christian congregations in Birmingham have long figured into my lectures in religion courses at Samford University. The formation of Independent Presbyterian Church from South Highland Presbyterian Church gives local shape to the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1910s and 1920s. The formation of Baptist Church of the Covenant out of First Baptist Church illustrates that Southern Protestants continued to struggle with racial inclusion even after the civil rights movement’s success in getting the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act through Congress in the mid-1960s.

The recent resignation of the Very Reverend Andrew C. Pearson, Jr. as dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent led me to think of other divisions within local congregations so with the help of friends I have pulled together this list. I welcome any comments or updates.

What constitutes a schism in a congregation? For my purposes, if a pastor resigns and starts a new congregation in roughly the same geographical area, that is a schism. In some cases he may be joined by many members of his previous church, in others a small number. I have also included cases where members from one congregation form a new congregation because of a dispute in a church.

Of course many times people leave one congregation to start a new church because the original church is too large or a congregation is needed in a new area or to serve a different population. Such cases of natural growth and division are not schisms. Obviously, in some cases the line between natural division and schism is a fine one. The clearest cases of schism arise over disputes over doctrine, practice, or personalities and even then they can take place somewhat amicably. They are not always “fights.”

For more information on any of these, please look at the history of the congregations, entries in Bhamwiki.com, or articles in the Birmingham News. Since this is just a quick list for use by my students and others, I have not cited sources.

1912 Edgewood Presbyterian Church formed out of Homewood Cumberland Presbyterian Church
And Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church Formed out of Rocky Ridge Cumberland Presbyterian Church

In 1906 the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church voted to reunite with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) Homewood Cumberland Presbyterian Church (known then as Oak Grove Cumberland Presbyterian) and Rocky Ridge Cumberland Presbyterian Church stayed with a group that did not enter into this reunion. Six years later, some members of the Oak Grove and Rocky Ridge desired to join the larger denomination so they left to form, respectively, Edgewood Presbyterian Church and Acton Presbyterian Church. Acton later renamed itself Altadena Valley and in 1978 withdrew from the PCUSA to join the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

1915 independent Presbyterian Church formed out of South Highland Presbyterian Church

The Reverend Henry Edmonds, pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church, was accused of heresy because of his liberal views of biblical inspiration and his rejection of substitutionary atonement. He formed a new congregation which became known as Independent Presbyterian Church. Within a few years it ceased to actually be independent because it joined the PCUSA. South Highland remained in the southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S. In 1983 the two denominations reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

1970 baptist church of the covenant formed out of first baptist church

Pastor Harbert Gilmore and approximately 250 members of First Baptist Church left the church after the congregation voted not to offer membership to two African Americans, Winifred Bryant and her daughter, Twila.

1972 Arlington Baptist Church formed out of West End Baptist Church

Controversy over the admission of African American members to West End Baptist Church led to the creation of Arlington Baptist Church. It disbanded in 1975.

1978 Covenant Presbyterian Church formed out of Edgewood Presbyterian Church

The Reverend Bill Hay resigned as pastor of Edgewood Presbyterian Church and established Covenant Presbyterian Church as a congregation of the PCA. Most of Covenant’s initial members came from Edgewood.

1990 Founders of the Church at Brook Hills include members leaving Dawson Memorial Baptist Church

This division is not in the same class as others since the Church at Brook Hills was started many miles away from Dawson Memorial Baptist Church and, as far as I know, no clergy from Dawson left to start Brook Hills. Those who have mentioned it to me have different opinions about whether it was a “schism.” But it did occur after a period of turmoil and the resignation of Dr. James Altus Newell as pastor of Dawson after only three years. In their history of Dawson the Atchisons write “After Dr. Newell resigned [effective February 15, 1990], some other members left to utilize their talents in other churches. Drs. Phil Walton and Dan Merck became leaders in organizing The Church at Brook Hills . . . Some other Dawson members also joined this church, while others went to nearby churches” (Ray M. Atchison, and Doris Teague Atchison, Light in the Valley: History of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church [Birmingham, Ala.: Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, 1999], 260-61). Brook Hills embraced contemporary music and other elements of popular “megachurch style” including not incorporating its Baptist identity into its name. Dawson remained a fairly traditional Baptist church.

1992 Mountaintop Church formed out of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church

On June 7, 1992, the Reverend Bill Elder, pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church announced he was resigning to start a new church. Initially called Mountaintop Community Church, it was established on the seeker-church model of Willow Creek Community Church.

1993 Fullness Christian Fellowship formed out of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church

The minister of music at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church (VHBC), the Reverend Bart Brookins desired to start a Baptist church that would be committed to a charismatic style of praise and worship. Vestavia Hills voted to support the new congregation and affirmed it in a commissioning service on January 31, 1993. But, given that Fullness emerged from VHBC because of a difference in worship style and theology and because the new church was planted in the same city, I’ve included it here.

2002 St. Peter’s Anglican Church formed out of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

After the vestry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church requested the resignation of its rector, the Reverend Douglas Richnow in 2002, some members of St. Luke’s formed St. Peter’s which affiliated with a more conservative denomination, the Anglican Mission in America. As a result of denominational mergers, St. Peter’s is now part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Like St. Luke’s it is located in Mountain Brook near Crestline Village.

2006 The Worship Center Christian Church Formed Out of Sardis Baptist Church

The Reverend Van Moody, executive pastor of Sardis Missionary Baptist Church founded the Worship Center Christian Church in 2006.

2010 Living Stones Temple formed out of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church

The Reverend Al Sutton resigned as pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in October 2010 and held the first service for a new congregation, Living Stones Temple, the following month.

2021 Still pending — Grace Church Birmingham formed out of Cathedral Church of the Advent?

In late April 2021, the Very Reverend Andrew Pearson announced his resignation as dean and rector of the Cathedral Church of the Advent effective May 16. After leaving the Advent he left the Episcopal Church, joined the ACNA, and announced his intention to plant a new congregation. Later, he explained that he left the Advent because he was unwilling to support a proposed covenant between the Advent and the bishop of Alabama. The covenant, approved in late June 2021, recognized the Advent’s identification with the evangelical Protestant expression of Anglicanism, a position Pearson shares, but it also pledged the Advent to using the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for its principal services and affirming its affiliation with the diocese and the Episcopal Church in other ways. Under Pearson’s leadership the Advent had used the eucharistic prayer from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In mid-summer 2021 he announced that the name of his new church would be Grace Church. As of July 2021, the proposed congregation has not yet held public services.

Please send corrections or additions to drbains@samford.edu

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