Jesus Wants You for a Sunbeam, But Only if You’re Baptist

Jessie on right with ?Tiny and unidentified friend, walking home from church.

“We attended First Baptist Church and always went to Sunday School and to the Sunbeams which met on Monday afternoon. Mama helped out in the Cradle Roll Department and the Beginners Department. From there we went on to the Primary Department and the Junior Department. On promotion day in September we moved up to another class or department and it was always a big event because we got to march up to the front of the church. Promotion Day always called for a new dress, just like Easter.

First Baptist Church, Greenwood

“Dr. Edward J. Caswell was the minister. He stayed in Greenwood for more than twenty years, and we [Sara and Criss] were the next to last couple he married before he retired and moved back to Kentucky. He was a very handsome bachelor who lived at the Irving Hotel, and he got a lot of Sunday dinner invitations from the ladies in the church.

“The sanctuary, which was built in 1910 and torn down a few years ago, had a great big dome with lights all around the inside of it, and when I went to church with Mama a few times I spent most of the time looking up at that big dome and at the stained glass windows, which had pictures of Jesus on them. In the summer time we went to Bible School and came home with all kinds of things we had made, and at Easter we had egg hunts at the church.”

Sara, the granddaughter of a Methodist preacher, was a Baptist at heart all her life. Just not one that found it necessary to darken the doors of the church, but she was at peace with that decision. Jessie raised her children in Greenwood’s landmark First Baptist building and never forgave Sara for caving in after marriage and becoming a Methodist for Criss’ sake. He was no door-darkener, either, but they made sure Cathy and I were pinafored up and dropped off at St. John’s bright and early every Sunday morning. Sara did take a turn keeping the nursery and doing riot control in the pre-school department for a time, but gave that up for good after one of my friends bit her. I fled Methodism for the Baptist church at an early age and backslid to Episcopalianism a few years ago; Cathy went Presbyterian in high school and never looked back. This may be the day that the world is supposed to end, but I figure we’ve got all the ecumenical bases covered.

Ed. note: I have a photo of Dr. Caswell, but it’s hiding, and I will post it when it surfaces. He served FBC from 1925 until 1946, which must be a record of some sort.

The original Baptist sanctuary in Greenwood was on Howard Street, just behind the old Post Office and across from the Church of the Nativity. It was a Gothic frame structure, built in 1895 and used as a boarding house after the 1910 sanctuary was finished. Appropriately, the “Super Soul Shop” is now on that site. There’s some irony there, but we’ll not pursue it.

The West Washington Street FBC, considered by architectural historians to be a landmark ecclesiastical structure, was completed on land donated by Dr. and Mrs. T.R. Henderson a block west of their home. It was a truly inspiring sight, inside and out, and the loss of that silver dome was tragic. A nearly identical Baptist church still stands in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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