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Salem Baptist – one of Shelby County’s oldest testaments

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Salem Baptist Church is celebrating its 200th year – ranking it among Shelby County’s oldest churches. The tie that binds it together, current and former members say, is their love for one another.

By Lisa King

This year has been a whirlwind of excitement for members of Salem Baptist Church, with guest speakers and historic plays and a Homecoming planned for October.

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But through it all, underlying all the excitement at the picturesque church with its own little cemetery on Mount Eden Road, is a steadfast sense of family among its members.

As the church celebrates its 200th anniversary this year – which marks it as one of the oldest continuing churches in Shelby County – its pastor of seven years, James Hill, said that tradition of closeness among members is the main reason the church has keep going strong for two centuries.

“I have never seen such love of neighbor as I have here,” Hill said.

Church member Tommy Webb said that all throughout his life he has been a loyal member of the congregation, and hearing some former pastors talk about old times at the church has been a high point for him this past year.

“I have enjoyed all the former pastors who have come back, even though some of them have gotten a little age on them,” he said with a laugh. “But I go back a long ways in the church myself, I’ve been a member for seventy-five years. My parents brought me to Salem Baptist when I was only 3 years old.”

Former pastor Bill George echoed the sentiments expressed by every church member who was asked about the church, about the close knit quality that binds the congregation together.

“They just have such a tremendous fellowship,” he said. “My wife and I came to appreciate and love them very quickly.”

Edna Pulliam calls Salem Baptist her home, where she has been a member for many years. She attends Sunday school there and is a longtime church custodian.

“I love the fellowship the most,” she said simply.

Webb, who remains very active, said that fellowship is the most important thing to him and his wife.

“It has meant a lot to us to know Christ and to bring the family up in such a loving church environment,” he said.

Former pastor Karl Babb, who was also a guest speaker at the church this year, said that two things stand out in his mind about the congregation of Salem Baptist that he thinks make them special.

“They share a real sense of family, and they care about one another and support one another as family,” he said. “They want to see each other experience the fullness of life, and they’re willing to extend that caring to everyone in the community who is in need or wants to come into the church.

“They want to reach out to others in that way; they all have such caring hearts.”

Babb said the reason he thinks everyone is so into making the church’s bicentennial a huge event is because there has always been a strong appreciation for church history at Salem Baptist, a mindset he thinks has been handed down and encouraged through generations of church members.

“They have such a strong sense of heritage, they value and respect what those who have come before them have done and they’ve tried to build on that heritage,” he said. “And to me, that’s just a real positive quality.”

The church’s records explain its history.

Salem Baptist’s rich heritage began on Jan. 19, 1811, when Moses Scott, pastor of Beech Creek, and James McQuade, a pioneer circuit rider, along with  19 members, held the first meeting of a Baptist church at the home of Sarah Dugan in Southville.

Originally called Beech Ridge Baptist, the church was renamed Salem in 1823, though the reasons were not recorded.

Then in the spring of that year, members started construction on a log structure, which was finished in the summer and stood 100 feet from the present building.

On May 17, 1817, John Fisher, an agent for the heirs of Robert Slaughter, deeded 17 acres to Beech Ridge Church and another building was constructed, which was used until 1836 or 1837, when it was replaced by the first brick structure.

Another brick building was erected in 1857-58 on the church’s present site. That building burned in 1894, and the current building was constructed using the same foundation and most of the same walls.

The church expanded in the early 20th century, with an education building opening in 1961. Baptisms were held in the creek behind the church until 1949, when an outdoor baptistery was constructed.

The congregation now numbers slightly more than 400 members.

Hill said at the church’s Homecoming in October, he plans to open a time capsule that was buried 50 years ago and to bury another one.

“It will be an exciting day,” he said.

Church member Cecil Hammond said that no matter what the future brings, one thing will never change – the Salem Baptist church family will always keep the same closeness it has always had.

“We are just one big family,” he said.