The Great Discovery 1907-1916
One hundred years ago, the Gospel preached by mainline churches failed to create enthusiasm among the masses. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s did refocus the attention of the nation upon man and his salvation, but failed to re-establish the New Testament church’s charismatic experiences. Meanwhile, Rev. Charles Fox Parham, critical of his church’s modernistic teachings, rediscovered God through a personal healing and formed a holiness-slanted Bible college in Topeka, Kansas. There, while Parham was away on a speaking tour, students in prayer began speaking in other languages, considering this a gift bestowed upon them by God.
Newspapers reported this Kansas phenomenon, as did other ministers and colleges. Similar occurrences in Wales and at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles confirmed the Kansas students’ experiences. Many believed these outpourings to be the “latter rain” spoken of by the prophet Joel. G. B. Cashwell, editor of a monthly North Carolina-based Apostolic magazine, made a trip to Los Angeles to investigate. During his visit, he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. In January 1906, Cashwell returned to North Carolina to open a revival in Durham. A year later, he visited Memphis to bring the message to L. P. Adams, pastor of the Independent Holiness Church, holding services in his home at 736 Richmond (one block southwest of the East McLemore/Mississippi Blvd. intersection).
Adams, a well-educated lawyer and teacher, together with Rev. Charles H. Mason, an Azusa Street visitor-turned-believer, co-founded the Church of God in Christ. Mason, head of the African-American segment, and Adams, the Caucasion, often worshiped together in tents and rented halls.
In 1908, the Adams group raised a tent on Trigg Avenue between Florida and Adelaide Streets, attracting hundreds. That autumn, a downtown storefront was rented at the corner of 129 Jefferson Avenue and N. 2nd Street. In 1911, the church—called the Grace and Truth Church of God in Christ—added to its membership Ralph M. Riggs, a young man who 42 years later became the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God.
The following year, the Church of God in Christ, several Pentecostal churches and Apostolic Faith Assemblies were invited to participate in an informal conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas during the first week of April 1914. Attending from Memphis were Adams, Mason, Riggs and Paul Van Vaden. Planned as a means for Pentecostal fellowship, the convention culminated in the organization of the Assemblies of God fellowship. Upon returning to Memphis, Adams and Mason remained with the Church of God in Christ.
Founding the Dream 1917-1926
As the years progressed, the miracle of Pentecost continued. In 1917, the Fifth Annual Convocation of the Church of God in Christ was held at the Grace and Truth Church. Rev. Adams was sought after nationally for his preaching, leadership and counsel. But the members at Grace and Truth soon tired of his frequent absences, and Adams eventually resigned in 1919. That same year, the church separated from the Church of God in Christ and changed its name to the Pentecostal Mission.
Rev. H. E. Schoettley, a prophetic preacher from Ohio, came to Memphis to lead the Pentecostal Mission. He erected a tent on the corner of South Third and Lucy Avenue, where his preaching drew great crowds. Many of those who attended were saved and filled with the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, a few members left to help the former Pastor Adams found another Memphis mission, but returned and reunited in the Fort Pickering area of Memphis south of the Harahan and Frisco bridges, upon Pastor Schoettley’s resignation in 1923.
Without a pastor, Emmett Simpson, one of the church’s deacons, invited the Arkansas District Superintendent of the Assemblies of God to speak in Memphis. At that meeting, the church officially became a part of the Assemblies of God, with 37 household heads signing the charter. Throughout the next year, Rev. Howard Galbraith assumed the role of pastor.
In June 1924, the church elected Rev. Ira Smith to oversee the congregation. Smith, a prophetic preacher and organizer of Sunday schools, encouraged Tennessee congregations to unite as an Assemblies of God district. His efforts came to fruition in 1926 when the Memphis Assembly of God Church was re-chartered as a Tennessee Assemblies of God affiliate, along with churches in Dyersburg, Sidonia, Dyer, and Columbia.
Tumultuous Transition 1927-1936
First Assembly’s third decade was significant for the church’s future and indicative of its staying power. In 1927, Mrs. Elizabeth Harris, a member of the Memphis Assembly, organized a Saturday night youth training session that became the model for the fellowship’s national youth organization, the Christ’s Ambassadors. Hundreds of young people evangelized Memphis through their worship and witness.
In 1929, Pastor Smith was elected Tennessee District Superintendent, necessitating his resignation from the church. A charismatic Mississippi preacher, Walter Byron Jessup, was elected to lead the congregation. On the first day the new pastor arrived, Sunday School attendance increased by eleven—all Jessups. Reverend Jessup came to Memphis with a vision for a 2,000-seat temple in the heart of the city. In an effort to fulfill this vision, the church moved from a rented building on DeSoto Street in Fort Pickering to a new facility at Cleveland and Larkin Street (one block north of Poplar). Unfortunately, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, casting the church into the throes of financial difficulty. Consequently, the new property was lost, forcing the church to worship in a tent at Bellevue and Walker (one block north of McLemore). Frustrated by what he considered interference from the fellowship’s leaders, Pastor Jessup took matters into his own hands and declared that the church would no longer be affiliated with the Assemblies of God. The Bellevue tent, which belonged to the Tennessee District, was removed. Temporary places of worship were found for those who remained, but the congregation splintered over the fellowship’s position of the pastor, some staying with Jessup, others returning to the rented Fort Pickering property as an Assembly of God. With an approving nod from the District, laypeople and special speakers led the Fort Pickering worshipers, having no elected pastor.
The fragmented church remained in a state of confusion. After the Jessup family moved back to Mississippi, an Assemblies of God minister, Rev. J. L. Slay, was chosen as the new leader for the group. Pastor Slay’s first move was to find a permanent place of worship by purchasing property on Bella Place (due east of Elmwood Cemetery) and erecting a tabernacle. His second move was to reunite the congregation by assuring its reinstatement into the Tennessee District of the Assemblies of God. But Pastor Slay’s tenure was cut short when the former Pastor Jessup returned to the Memphis church to hold a series of revival meetings. The campaign began with a good crowd, but ended in controversy with only a handful of members attending. As a result, Pastor Slay resigned and returned to Mississippi.
A young student from Glad Tidings Bible Institute in San Francisco, boarding with the Slay family, giving music lessons, and ministering to the youth while recovering from yellow jaundice, was surprised by his host’s resignation. William H. Pickthorn, advised by his Bible school mentors never to preach, offered to stay without salary and assist the financially strapped church. Before the end of First Assembly’s tumultuous third decade ended, the twenty-three-year-old Pickthorn became the seventh pastor and the most productive leader to date of the Memphis Assembly of God.
Pickthorn’s efforts helped heal the long-standing rift between those who had returned to the Fort Pickering church during Jessup’s revival and those who had stayed at Bella Place. Under the supervision of Assemblies of God General Superintendent Ernest S. Williams, the two congregations merged on Saturday night, September 8, 1934, and consolidated into one body. The church boards agreed that, instead of worshiping in either of the two old structures, the merged congregation should move halfway between the two into a vacant church at 960 South Third (three blocks south of what is now Crump Boulevard). On Sunday, October 21, 1934, the first service was held on Third Street, and the congregation acknowledged itself as the First Assembly of God. A very traumatic period of the church’s history had ended.
By 1935, church attendance was estimated to be near 200 and growing. The church’s first radio broadcast, “Sermons in Song,” aired regularly on WHBQ.
The Firmer Foundation 1937-1946
With the accountability, good sense, and preaching talent of Pastor Pickthorn, First Assembly’s fourth decade got off to a great start. His words were, “This seems to be an occasion for beginning again, for leaving the weaknesses and failures of the past behind and making resolutions with a determination for better things in the future.” In 1937, the Assemblies of God chose Memphis as the location for its 13th General Council, hosted by the young energetic pastor and his new bride, Mary Evelyn Hastings. During 1939, the church’s attendance increased so quickly that a recently added Sunday school annex became overcrowded. An additional building program was desperately needed to accommodate the more than 350 attending. During this time, First Assembly organized a bus ministry—renting two city buses and drivers—supervised by churchwomen who often bathed and dressed the children before their ride to Sunday school.
On December 7, 1941, America entered World War II. Consequently, no construction materials were available, putting First Assembly’s new church building plans on hold. Pastor Pickthorn’s brother, Albert, came to Memphis as the church’s first associate pastor. Sunday school attendance advanced toward 500. However, an invitation was extended to Pastor Pickthorn in 1943 by the Assemblies of God to teach at Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Missouri and serve in an editorial position at the fellowship’s Gospel Publishing House. The beloved pastor accepted the new ministry opportunity and resigned from First Assembly. Throughout the next year, evangelist Doreen Justus filled the vacant position.
During this interim, the church Board contacted a young Assemblies of God pastor and evangelist, James E. Hamill of Mississippi. His evangelistic efforts had grown to include some of the fellowship’s largest churches. Upon being elected pastor, Hamill moved his family to Memphis.
On his first Sunday, December 31, 1944, Pastor Hamill faced a congregation whose numbers had dropped, due to a lack of strong leadership and the involvement of many members in the war overseas. But a year later, attendance was again pushing upward to 400, presenting the church with a new challenge: not enough room and still no access to building materials. Pastor Hamill expressed his desire to see the church relocate and personally oversaw the acquisition of property at 1084 East McLemore at Somerville.
The Defining Years 1947-1956
On a Sunday afternoon in early 1948, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the McLemore site. From the regulatory halls of Memphis’ legal venues to Washington, DC, Pastor Hamill petitioned for materials and permits. A year later, the building was completed and occupied.
Believing in the power of the media, Pastor Hamill introduced a weekly full-sized church newspaper, The Memphis Mirror. The radio program Words of Life premiered, and in November 1955, the church put the first locally produced Mid-South religious telecast, “Christ Is the Answer,” on the air on Saturday mornings. The first guest to be interviewed on the program was First Assembly’s Vincent Liberto, a former liquor salesman whose conversion had resulted in a career change—selling milk.
The growth of the church’s Sunday school was phenomenal, led by Cecil Parrish, the new Christian education director and gifted promoter. Attendance quickly surpassed the 1,000 mark, as a result of church members involving themselves in promotional campaigns and eventually winning first place in national Sunday school contests sponsored by Christian Life magazine.
The increasing popularity of Southern Gospel music brought national recognition to a Mississippi family male quartet—the Blackwood Brothers. After moving from Shenandoah, Iowa to Memphis, the quartet members and their families made First Assembly their church home. In return, the congregation benefited from the music and fame of the renowned group.
Placing a heightened emphasis on Assemblies of God missions, both at home and abroad, Pastor Hamill invited missionaries such as Stephen Vandermerwe, Paul Bruton, Ernie Rebb, Kenneth Short, Charles Greenaway, and Lillian Trasher–the Mother of the Nile–to fill the pulpit. Popular evangelists who conducted revival services at First Assembly were William McPherson, Keetah Jones, Gene Martin and Willard Cantelon.
Credited with much of the church’s renewed spirit of worship was the pastor’s wife and music director, Katheryne Hamill. Her leadership and inclusion of various musical styles in the church set the tone for worship and became a model for music ministries throughout the fellowship.
“Multiple staff” became First Assembly’s new catchphrase when Jerry Hiller, the first youth pastor, increased the ministerial staff to four: Bruce Fite, Warren Grant and Memphis State University basketball star Forest Arnold.
At the time of its fiftieth anniversary, First Assembly was listed in national Christian publications as one of the top ten evangelical churches in the nation and ranked among the top three Assemblies of God churches. Local and national dignitaries, including mayors, union officials, governors, senators, vice presidential candidates, and religious leaders visited the church, seeking the favor of the pastor and congregation.
The Great Expansion 1957-1966
In 1960, stewardship became a major topic of First Assembly’s teachings and practices. Although asking a congregation to annually subscribe to a church’s operational and world missionary budgets seemed controversial at the time, the church board took unprecedented action and implemented the plan. Yearly budget campaigns and missionary crusades would highlight the financial needs, but the operational and missionary goals would be subscribed early in the year. Beginning in 1960, with a target of $160,000, the annual collections more than doubled by the decade’s end. Once again, First Assembly became the model for other churches by implementing a more predictable approach to church development and operations.
An even bolder plan for First Assembly was introduced during this time–the construction of a proposed million-dollar church complex. The majority of the congregation had moved east of the McLemore location. To follow this population shift, First Assembly purchased a parcel of land on the east perimeter of Memphis’ growth–255 North Highland at Waynoka.
The building plans on Highland were in keeping with the modern trends of the 1960s–a fan-shaped sanctuary with comfortable theater seating for 1,500 worshipers. The new church was dedicated in April 1962. A year later, Mrs. Hamill retired after 19 years from her musical responsibilities, succeeded by musician and worship leader Paul Ferrin. First Assembly’s music department, including a 90-voice sanctuary choir, attracted standing-room-only Sunday night crowds. While Sunday School continued to play a major role in the church’s ministries, an emphasis was placed upon family enrichment, as evidenced by the addition of a children’s director to the staff.
In 1963, First Assembly hosted thousands of ministers and delegates from around the world at the Ellis Auditorium for the 30th General Council of the Assemblies of God. By the end of this sixth decade, the church’s full time ministerial and professional staff was nine people strong.
The Social Upheaval 1967-1976
Unrest. Not in the church, but in the nation and the city of Memphis. Non-Christian values, including a ban on prayer, beleaguered public schools. The media, embracing the relaxed morals of the late 1960s youth counterculture, geared its new found liberal values toward anyone under 30. First Assembly developed a twofold response to these circumstances. First, it built an activities facility where young people could find wholesome, Christ-centered recreation. Replete with a gymnasium that doubled as a skating rink, racquetball and basketball courts, locker rooms, a cafeteria, snack bar, game room, and additional classrooms, the new facility–dubbed “Hamill Hall”–was dedicated in 1970.
On February 11, 1972, Memphis’ newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, announced First Assembly’s second strategy to minister to the youth of Memphis: the establishment of a private Christian school within the walls of the church. Key pastoral staff, assisted by congregational members with educational disciplines, developed and implemented the launch. Six months later, First Assembly Christian School (FACS) opened its doors, offering quality education in a Christian environment.
Pastor Hamill’s leadership abilities reached beyond First Assembly and eventually led him to serve on the fellowship’s highest board–the Executive Presbytery. In an effort to maintain a balance between being a local pastor and a national leader, the pastor limited outside preaching engagements and concentrated on the executive and administrative tasks at home. As the 1970s progressed, the budget numbers neared one million dollars for annual congregational giving.
The New Beginning 1977-1986
For thirty-seven years, First Assembly had given little thought to its future without the leadership of Pastor Hamill. But a series of life-changing events gave him reason to seriously consider reducing his workload and eventually retiring from the pulpit. His faithful wife and co-worker, Katheryne, “slipped away to be with her Lord” on April 17, 1979. Over a year later, he married Mildred Burgess, the widow of his close friend and deacon, Doyle Burgess.
On April 19, 1981, Dr. Hamill announced his retirement as pastor of First Assembly, effective once his successor had been selected. The role of filling Hamill’s shoes was not predicted to be an easy one.
The congregation turned to a renowned pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. Born and raised in Arkansas, Pastor Frank E. Martin arrived in Memphis with his wife, Ginger, and two sons in November 1981. On his first Sunday in the pulpit, the new pastor laid out his mission: “My real goal at First Assembly is to see the type of dynamic witnessing and worshiping church that is exemplified in the New Testament, especially in the book of Acts.”
The Martins immediately introduced new opportunities for ministry and fellowship for all ages and groups at First Assembly. Carrying himself as a Christian gentleman, Pastor Martin faced the transition with dignity and discretion. A new era for First Assembly had begun.
The Wider Horizon 1987-1996
To reaffirm Christ’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations,” the Assemblies of God declared the 1990s to be the Decade of Harvest. In response, Pastor Martin and a Decade of Harvest team comprised of church members mapped an extensive strategy for the development of start-up churches in the Memphis area, soon to be the centerpiece of First Assembly’s outreach goals. Additional staff members were hired and inner city programs launched. Accordingly, budget goals and collections exceeded the $1,575,000 mark. One fruit of First Assembly’s labors during the Decade of Harvest was the addition of a Spanish-speaking congregation.
Active in denominational work, Pastor Martin was sought after as a leader. He served on college boards, sat on General Council committees and represented Tennessee, along with then District Superintendent Gene Jackson, on the fellowship’s General Presbytery.
At First Assembly, the 1990s were years of transition, similar to those 30 years earlier. The population of Memphis was rapidly moving further east. Younger and newer families were finding places of worship closer to their homes in East Memphis and Shelby County. To expand its facilities and accommodate a larger congregation at a strategic new location, property was purchased on Germantown Parkway, immediately south of I-40.
People and resources were available to launch a new building campaign as the annual income of the church approached two million dollars. But Pastor Martin’s heart was moving in another direction. Foreign missions, to which First Assembly had given generously, had been a major emphasis of the church. Now, First Assembly’s missionary support would include its pastor of twelve years. Frank and Ginger Martin announced their plans to move from Memphis to Moscow, Russia to be foreign missionaries. This was one of many transitional events that occurred at First Assembly during the early 1990s.
First, the finality of the Hamill years was realized. On February 20, 1994, the former pastor of 37 years went home to be with the Lord. Thousands gathered at the church to pay respect and remember this great leader.
Second, after one year under staff leadership, on September 18, 1994, the congregation elected Dr. Thomas H. Lindberg, a young Wisconsin minister, to be its tenth pastor. Dr. Lindberg, along with his wife, Sandi, two sons and one daughter, brought youth, preparedness, wit and anointed preaching to the pulpit. Once again, First Assembly had entrusted its future and vision to a strong and capable leader.
Preaching his way into the hearts of First Assembly and Memphis, Pastor Lindberg began his tenure on Sunday, November 7, 1994. Members of the congregation were often surprised to find the new pastor knocking on their front door, standing at their bedside in the hospital, dropping by a Sunday school classroom, or dining at their favorite restaurant. Somehow Dr. Lindberg always seemed to be there with a big warm smile and a firm handshake. A new era in First Assembly’s history was unfolding.
With new leadership came review. The future building site on Germantown Parkway was deemed too small, and in 1996 a much larger piece of property was found and purchased. It became First Assembly’s most ambitious vision ever: a multimillion dollar church edifice and school to be located on Walnut Grove west of Sanga–the highest point of land in Shelby County.
Preparing For A Bright Future 1997 – The Present
The task of expanding and relocating was a sizable one. Funds were to be raised and new visionary family programs instituted. This plan was embraced by a congregation eager to find a worthy place for a new generation to fellowship and worship in a teeming Pentecostal atmosphere. On Sunday, November 7, 1999–the fifth anniversary of Dr. Lindberg’s pastorate–the congregation celebrated its first service in its new house of worship.
The history of First Assembly affirms that a century ago, God initiated and guided a great revival in our city for which this generation holds the torch to preserve and continue. Believing now as then that First Assembly’s call is to fill a God-ordained role, we face a whole new day: militant humanism, sin, spiritual darkness.
In one hundred years, First Assembly has had only ten pastors. These men founded, stabilized and strengthened this great Memphis Pentecostal fellowship. Even though distance and time separate us from Fort Pickering, Bella Place, Third Street, East McLemore and North Highland, we will always remember the significance of those blessed places of worship.
Such a heritage brings new possibilities, fresh visions, and bigger dreams. Armed with the belief that the best days are yet to come, First Assembly continues to seek God’s guidance in taking whatever new bold steps are necessary to fulfill His plan for the future. “We must bring all men at all costs to Jesus Christ,” are the words of Dr. Lindberg. To him, these are more than words. They are his passion and commission. This richly blessed Pentecostal pastor preaches earnestly from the Word of God. He calls for the extraordinary and a plan to carry First Assembly’s legacy and mission far into the new century.