From the Humble Beginning . . . .
The West Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church was founded and organized under the leadership of our first pastor, Elder Peter Starnes, circa1869. Until 2019, it was believed that our church was without a doubt founded in 1869. However, recorded minutes of the Third Annual Session of the Colored United Baptist Association held in Pulaski, Tennessee in September of 1869 found that Adam Watson was the messenger representing West Harpeth at the 1868 meeting. This indicates that the church was probably established in 1868 or earlier.
The first members were people who had come out of slavery. A group of “colored” Christians, who lived in Franklin, had been meeting in various places for Sunday worship, but now they wanted a permanent meeting place. They found a place in the Parry area. They called it “Perry.” There is some discrepancy about the exact location, but everyone interviewed agreed that the church met on land located in the Parry area, about a half mile south of the church’s current location (4141 Columbia Pike at Franklin, Tennessee). Some said the land was owned by Uncle Tom Patton or Mr. Lewis Patton. Others said services were held on a portion of Bob Hodge land and still others said the church worshipped on the grounds of Parry Station Train Depot. Perhaps, this information all ties together somehow. We do not know. The church was called “Perry” because of its location in the Parry area.
On March 14, 1881 land located on Columbia Pike at Coleman Road (current location of our church) was purchased from James Johnson for the sum of $173.38. A new church building was erected. The church called “Perry” became known as the West Harpeth Primitive Church during the dedication service. It was a one-room framed building with center posts, oil lamps, and a wood stove. According to Deacon Alvin Fitzgerald (103 years old at the time of this writing), there was a lodge located on the upper level of the church. Deacon Fitzgerald also stated that his mother, who was not a Christian at the time, would come to the church to teach Sunday School because no one in the church was qualified to teach it.
In addition to our founder and first pastor, Elder Peter Starnes, West Harpeth has had five other pastors:
Elder Zack Bostic (early 1900s – 1942)—Organized the first usher board and withdrew church from Lynn Creek Association with 17 members and joined the Cumberland Association around 1936.
Elder R. A. Wright (1943 – 1966)—Organized the first active usher board; built new church in 1948—laid
Cornerstone in November 1949; built a detached fellowship hall (R. A. Wright Fellowship Hall); organized
several auxiliaries/ministries: the senior choir; deacons’ board, mothers’ board, brotherhood, ladies’ auxiliary,
and the Sunday School; introduced music in the church for the first time—purchased a piano for $75 from
Willie Mae Thomas and stored it at Providence United Primitive Baptist Church until the members consented to
having it placed at West Harpeth (many of the members of the West Harpeth congregation did not believe that
music should be played in the church); music still was not permitted on communion days.
Elder Walter Rodgers (1966 – 1972)—Remodeled church in 1968—(dedication service held and cornerstone laid in September 1968); tore down small, detached tin fellowship hall where fish was sold and rebuilt it; new fellowship hall became known as the R. A. Wright Memorial Fellowship Hall, included for the first time indoor restrooms (accessed from the outside); installed an awning between the fellowship hall and the church building to shelter the people from rain, snow, etc. as they walked from building to building; replaced wood and coal heaters with space gas heaters; appropriated money for a central heating system; renovated church October 1971; mortgage burning service November 19, 1972; organized a junior choir; purchased a bus.
Elder James Coure (1973 – 1982)
Retired the $1,000 debt on central heating and air conditioning system; purchased another bus; organized junior usher board and young adult choir
Elder Hewitt Sawyers (1983 – Present; December 2020)
• Ended dues and taught tithing; instituted a business method of handling finances (finance committee/financial secretary)
• Purchased duplicating equipment and printed programs onsite for the first time
• Placed a strong emphasis on educating the membership–implemented discipleship training; reorganized Sunday School and implemented Bible Study classes on Wednesday evenings and Friday mornings; implemented new members orientation for children and adults; developed a training program for deacons; sponsored choir workshops; provided training for ushers; educated the membership on the meaning of and “Lent” “Advent;” introduced the concept of Ministry Plans in 2014; each ministry charged with the task of determining purpose and developing a ministry plan and budget based on purpose and need; developed mission and vision statements
• Formalized children/youth ministry: implemented a Children’s Church and Vacation Bible School—partnered with Gateway Church for past two years (classes for adults, also); provided opportunity for youth to attend retreats/camps; instituted the Fruit of the Spirit and Christian Character Awards; reorganized the youth choir and youth ushers; organized the nursery; organized liturgical dance and mime teams; sponsored Girls and Boys Scout Troops; STARS (youth); True Love Waits; first “Trunk or Treat” in 2015; implemented a college scholarship program in 2015 initiated by Sister Evelyn Hickerson (friend of the church)
• Organized community outreach ministries: jail ministry; Christian Leadership Society; nursing home ministry; Mother’s Day Out; Hallelujah Night (held at Brentwood Skate Center for youth and families community-wide; entails a brief message at the beginning; skating to Christian music; skating games/prizes, food, and fellowship); DARA Cool Preschool; partnered with Walmart in sponsoring a Career Education Day for youth; partnered with First Baptist Church Natchez in a “Grab and Go” food distribution effort; partnered with the “Feed My Lambs” ministry in backpack give-away and food distribution; partnered with Williamson County Schools in teaching Adult Education classes at our church (Emily Britton first member to get a GED through the program; Sister Annie Mae Britton enrolled in a reading class); Pink Luncheon (American Cancer Month); partnered with Oak Valley Church in American Red Cross Blood Drives; Vacation Bible School or VBS (rented bus to transport children from the community to VBS); led church in participating in the building of a Habitat House; hosted the Cumberland Church School Robert L. Crocker Scholarship Banquet; partnered with the Gideons in their effort to distribute Bibles all over the world; and partnered with the Gentry Foundation in offering a tutoring program for Grades 1-8.
• Organized the Hospitality Committee, consisting of greeters, ushers, and formerly, the kitchen committee (in 2021, kitchen committee/food services committee a separate entity); implemented a Couples Ministry; implemented a church newsletter; established and/or re-established a children’s, youth, and young adult usher’s ministry
• Replaced church bus with two (2) vans
• Renovated old church—new pew coverings and new carpet in the sanctuary; a new wing including a baptistery; pastor’s office; bathrooms; and an all-purpose room—Sunday School, etc.; new robes for the choir; installed a sign bearing church name in front of the church
• Purchased an additional four (4) acres of land
• Built a new church facility including a basement with renovations to the old building transforming it into the new R. A. Wright Memorial Fellowship Hall; partnered with the Franklin Classical School in getting the basement completed in exchange for using the space for the school for three years; later, added a drive through, paved parking lot; replaced the sign in front of the church with a marquis (lighted sign); named classrooms according to the Fruit of the Spirit
• Implemented technology–replaced original duplicating equipment and began the use of other audiovisual equipment—overhead projectors, video projectors, televisions, sound boards, computers, access to internet, streaming video camera, projection screen in sanctuary, Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Virtual Services (partnered with Gateway Church in a virtual Vacation Bible School)
• Official Church Logo
In 2019, West Harpeth celebrated a milestone in the life of the church, 150 years in God’s service. The celebration took place the whole year, culminating on Sunday, October 27, 2019. The theme was: “Reflecting on the Past; Focusing on the Present; and Envisioning God’s Will for the Future.”
A look down memory lane mimicked some of the services our forefathers held, such as the R. A. Wright Memorial Tea and an old-fashioned communion/feet-washing service conducted by the late Elder Jasper Hatcher. Pastor James Coure, the only living pastor besides current pastor, was invited to bring the message one Sunday. He became ill and had a minister friend from Alabama preach in his place, although he and Lady Coure attended the service. Elder Percy Davis, who was a candidate for pastor of West Harpeth when Pastor Sawyers was chosen, brought the message one Sunday. The choir sang some of the songs of old and women wore hats one Sunday.
In looking at the current reality of West Harpeth, training is a major priority. In addition to the trainings afore-stated, trainings have been held on church safety, “Future of the Church” conducted by Elder Jaymes Mooney), social justice issues such as foster care, CASA, and mental health. Other initiatives include women engaged in the preaching ministry,
As we came down to the end of the year, preparing to celebrate the birth of our Savior, we observed the Advent season. Also, Myah Robertson (8th grader) wanted to plan a Christmas party for the youth. She did and it was a job well done, but it was scheduled on the same night of the Christmas-tree lighting downtown Franklin and few youths showed up. She was disappointed. We assured her that it was not her fault because she had done her part.
The year 2020 would bring some new challenges not only for our church, but for the world. A coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, entered the land and many programs and activities had to be cancelled. People were becoming ill and/or dying. By March 5, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had made its way to Tennessee. Pastor & Lady were able to attend the National Primitive Baptist Winter Board meeting in February. We also had a revival March 18-20, 2020, conducted by Pastor Jimmy White from Courtland, Alabama. After that, things got worse.
With the virus spreading rapidly, people were required to wear masks and keep a social distance of six feet, and gatherings were limited to 10. However, people were strongly encouraged to stay at home.
On March 21, 2020, Pastor Sawyers had the secretary, Regina Sanderfer, to announce via our ChurchCast messaging system that our worship services had been cancelled until further notice. On the upcoming Sunday, March 22, 2020, everyone was asked to pray at 11:00 a.m. The next Sunday, March 29, 2020, Sunday Morning Worship Service was pre-recorded and live-streamed. Services continued to be livestreamed with only 10 people present plus the Pastor’s wife. Pastor Sawyers made a robo call on April 4, 2020 with information about how communion was to be handled on the first Sunday, April 5, 2020, which was Psalm Sunday. He asked people viewing the service by livestream to prepare for communion by getting a cracker or a piece of bread and something to drink. It could be water. Bernard Jones, the Assistant Pastor, preached that day. His topic was “Do you (agape) love Him?” (John 21:15-17). The next Sunday, April 12, 2020, was Resurrection Sunday. Pastor had made another robo call telling the congregation that we would have communion again and to be prepared the same way as before. Pastor preached. His topic was “He is Risen.” (Matthew 28:1-10). Sister Ethel Scruggs contributed to this information.
On April 2, 2020, Governor Bill Lee issued a “stay at home” mandate for all of Tennessee to fight the spread of the coronavirus. There was a growing concern that residents were not following the precautionary measures put in place. Essential businesses could remain open. Residents could only go out on an as-needed basis. Churches were not on the list of essential businesses, so they were ordered to close.
In addition to being in the middle of a pandemic this year, we lost the oldest (in age) member of our church, Sister Annie Mae Britton, who passed on April 4, 2020 at the age of 85. She will always be remembered as a dedicated usher. Even when she could not stand long or walk very well, she found a way to get to every visitor and make them feel welcome.
It is amazing how God had guided us to put some measures in place that would be helpful during the pandemic. We had installed a new phone system that allowed incoming phone calls to be forwarded to the secretary’s home. We had purchased a streaming video camera and new sound equipment. We had a messaging system (ChurchCast) that allowed us to broadcast information to members’ home phones and/or cell phones. The newsletter had been re-instituted with Solomon and Regina Midgett leading this ministry.
Members were notified by ChurchCast that church services would be cancelled until further notice. Services were not held at our church for two Sundays after the “stay at home” mandate. Sunday, April 5, 2020, services were not held at all. The next Sunday Pastor Sawyers delivered a message from his home via YouTube. Meanwhile, the church had purchased a streaming video camera and new sound equipment a couple of years prior. It was time to put it to work. The Lynch’s (Rod, Carissa, and Joshua) got busy learning the equipment and getting signs made on which were written requirements for entering the church building. Verbiage on signs reflected Center for Disease Control (CDC) safety precautions—masks to be worn; temperature checked; hands washed, or hand sanitizer used before and after entering the building; members asked not to enter the building, if ill; and six-feet social distancing to be practiced.
The third Sunday we had our first live-streaming service. Only essential persons were present—The Pastor, Carissa Lynch (camera); Rod and Joshua Lynch (sound); 6 choir members; According to the CDC guidelines only ten (10) people could be gathered in one space, and they had to wear masks. We had 11 because the Pastor’s wife came with him.
In October 2020, we celebrated our 151st Anniversary. During a COVID season, one must think out of the box. To celebrate this event, we had a parking lot service for the first time. Gateway and Grace Chapel Churches were instrumental in helping us get it set up. Upon arriving on the church campus, cars were strategically parked. People could either remain in their cars or get out of their cars. People staying in their cars could hear the service very well because we had a tuner. Elder John Haynes and the Burns Tabernacle Primitive Baptist Church were our guests. The theme was “It’s Praying Time: Prayer Still Works Even in Pandemic Times.” Treat bags were available for children and adults, as well. A Pastor’s table was set up with special treats for the children. The church surprised Elder and Sister Sawyers with a special gift since it was Pastor’s Appreciation month.
There were two goals not accomplished during our 150th Anniversary celebration—placing a grave marker on our founding pastor’s grave and burying a time capsule containing church artifacts. These goals continued to be a focus for the 151st Anniversary celebration. On October 22, 2020, verbiage for the marker was submitted to Williamson Memorial Funeral Home. The proof was received on November 7, 2020. With the proof being approved, the grave marker was finally ordered on November 17, 2020. It arrived June 28, 2021. Finally, on June 29, 2021, the grave marker honoring the life and legacy of Elder Peter Starnes, our founding Pastor, was installed at the entrance of Boyd’s Cemetery, where his body rests. The time capsule is still a work in progress. A piece of PVC pipe was purchased but was not adequate for the items to be placed in it.
. . . and the history goes on . . . .