Oldest African American church in Arkansas celebrates 178 years

By Stefanie Brazile

IIn April 2022, the cover of our magazine featured First Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock as they celebrated 177 years of service 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.

Photo by Mike Kemp

The congregation’s history traces back to the Rev. Wilson N. Brown, who was enslaved when he founded the church in April 1845 and ministered to many other enslaved people over the years. 

Brown had to preach three times each Sunday to accommodate everyone who wanted to learn about God, so a brush arbor was added to the original building, along with an additional 15 feet.

On April 23, First Missionary Baptist will celebrate 178 years of ministry. When the article was published last year, church leaders shared their 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.”

Paul Williams is the chairman of the Board of Deacons and has been a member since 1983. He loves his church. “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. Around the time that the article was published, members voted to merge with another Little Rock congregation and Rev. Cameron Mitchell became their pastor. 

LEFT: 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. RIGHT: Paul Williams, chairman of the board of deacons (from left) with the pastor of First Missionary Baptist, Rev. Cameron Mitchell.

Before the vote, 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. The congregation is a group of people that has always stood by one another with a strong faith and a Christian background.”

The building opened in 1882, and a large Bible was moved over from the former building. Dating to the pre-Civil War era, the antique book was the focus of a $3,500 grant the church received in 2022 from the Black History Commission of Arkansas. “It helped pay for a conservator to do as much repair as possible,” said Hubbard, who wrote the grant.

Now properly preserved, the Bible has been placed in a mahogany case that is approximately four feet tall. It will be dedicated at the upcoming celebration service. Other historic pieces are the pipe organ that was 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 62-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.”

The public is invited to worship within the historic walls at 10 a.m. April 23 and to return at 2 p.m. for the Bible dedication and 178th celebration.