Oldest African American church in Arkansas celebrates 177 years

By Stefanie Brazile

First Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock celebrates 177 years of service in April as the oldest African American church in the capital city and one of the oldest in Arkansas.

“The strength of our church is our faith in God,” said Renee Hubbard, a trustee and member since 1961.

Photos by Mike Kemp

The congregation’s history traces back to the Rev. Wilson N. Brown, who founded the church in April 1845. According to the written history of the church:

In Little Rock, it is known by the account of this history, that the “colored people” attended their master’s church, with reserved seating. Rev. Brown attended the Missionary Baptist Church and was very impressed that God had called him to preach the gospel to his people, so much so, that he asked Major Fields if he would permit him to try to secure a house, large enough for the colored people to hold their services. Major Fields’ response was, “I will consult with the pastor of the church and find out if he will be willing for the colored people to have a separate Missionary Baptist Church. The pastor consented and thus, our history begins …

The eight-page document tells how Fields and other white people worked with Brown and the congregation to build a 16-foot by 20-foot building and pews. Brown had to preach three times each Sunday to accommodate everyone who wanted to learn about God, so a brush arbor was added, along with an additional 15 feet to the building.

As First Missionary Baptist grew in number and faith, the congregants struggled under the horrible burden of slavery. The history states:

Despite these continuous, exemplary acts of mission from the white Missionary Baptists, both local and from the north, and the astronomical number of souls saved among the colored people, the colored people were still slaves.

The leaders of a church that has persevered for 177 years have a vision. “My dream is expansion, growth, and development so that we can have a greater impact on our community,” Hubbard said. “I believe that we are a hidden gem and treasure in Little Rock. I hope that as many people as possible will find out who we are. We embrace the past, but we are moving toward our future. It’s going to be grand. We want to do everything we can to bring people to Christ.”

Deacon Wyamon Stokes (from left), Deacon Paul Williams, Sister Renee Hubbard and Sister Almeta Smith are leaders and long-time members of First Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock.

Paul Williams agrees with Hubbard. As chairman of the Board of Deacons and a member since 1983, he has served under five pastors. “The people are still holding on. I admonish them, ‘Let’s stay prayerful and continue to look to God. He has brought us through, and he will continue to bring us through.'”

Both Hubbard and Williams describe a loving, friendly, and family-oriented membership. “They are a group of people that has always stood by one another with a strong faith and a Christian background,” Williams said.

The building opened in 1882, and a Bible was moved over from the former building. Dating to the pre-Civil War era, the antique book is the focus of a $3,500 grant the church received last month from the Black History Commission of Arkansas.

“It will help pay for a conservator to do as much repair as possible,” said Hubbard, who wrote the grant.

Another historic item is the pipe organ dedicated in 1915 and a podium that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from in 1963 at the church’s 118th anniversary.

As a 61-year member, Hubbard believes the church’s past assures a successful future. “Living by faith is everything to the congregation,” she said. “Without faith, you can’t do any works. Without works, your faith is dead. When you think back to the beginning with Rev. Brown, when it came to having money, they had zilch so we know that God was helping them. We trust and believe in God so much so that we can accomplish the things God wants us to in the coming years.”

Currently without a senior pastor, associate ministers Joe Adams and Braylon Everette hold Sunday morning services at 11 a.m. weekly. “We are also in the process and praying that a merger will come about,” Williams said. “Instead of a lot of churches splitting, we need to come together. Both churches are really enthused about it, and they would come to our historic building.”

501 LIFE Magazine will go to press before the two congregations cast a final vote. As FMBC marks 177 years of upholding the banner of faith in Christ, members draw on the determination of their forefathers and have faith that God will provide so they can continue their mission as a beacon of light in Little Rock.