HAZARD — The congregation at one Perry County church celebrated their 120th anniversary this past weekend, and their church has a history unlike most in the area.
The First Baptist Church of Town Mountain was formed by former slaves, Native Americans and white land owners, and over the past 12 decades has become a thriving house of worship that has been able to withstand the test of time. Rev. John Pray, the current pastor, noted that his church’s history actually began with various races of people working together.
“The ancestors of this church are a mixed race of people,” said Rev. Pray. “They were Native American, Cherokee, a little bit of black and white.”
In these early days there were few options for a settled church. Often times a group of people would meet rather infrequently to hear a traveling minister. One of these early traveling preachers to come to the area was George Woodard, who came with a teacher, Dan Olinger, in 1886. They were able to baptize six women into the Christian faith during the times that they traveled in the area.
While these meetings never grew to establish a church, they set the stage for what would become the First Baptist Church of Town Mountain.
A group of families, many related to these first six women, got together and started hosting a service in 1892. The service was modest and held under a tree and on log benches held up by rocks. According to Sadie Pray, Rev. John Pray’s wife and a lifelong member of the church, the location of these early meetings was in the same area where they still have church today.
“It was somewhere right in this area,” she noted during a recent interview with the Herald.
Despite these difficult circumstances, they were able to establish a solid community of people in their church. They continued to meet for many years in this same spot, or in the winters at a local home to hear traveling pastors.
The charter members read much the same as the current list of deacons of the church as many of them are decedents. Nancy Tarter Stacy, Elizabeth Isom, Dan Richmond, Vina Combs, George Brashear, Carolina Combs, Alex Olinger, Dan Olinger and Jack Combs were able to maintain the church for two years even without a building in which to meet.
In 1894, Tom Sawyer Combs, a white man, donated land to the congregation and this remains the site of the church to this day. A log building was built at the site and held the church as well as a school.
For the first few years, pastors came by horse back to the church from across the region. These traveling preachers would host dozens of services a week all over the area.
As the coal industry and railroads came to Perry County the church grew as more opportunities moved in. This growing economy meant that the church was able to build a larger building on additional land donated by two former slaves, Bill and Jack Combs. The Combs brothers were two of the first people to move into Perry County as they came with Elijah Combs when he settled Hazard.
“He brought with him, as it goes, his sons and two slaves,” said Rev. Pray. “His slaves were his sons Bill and Jack Combs. So many of these people are the descendants from the original Combs.”
The current church was built in 1920. Unfortunately, it was also around this time that many new influences came to the area due to the influx of jobs in the coalfields. Many of these brought with them preconceived notions left over from the Civil War. According to Rev. Pray, it was then that the church became known as a black church, even though it has always remained integrated and has people of many different races attending regularly.
“That came later when people began to come in from the southern states,” Pray noted.
From 1932 to 1933, the church continued without a pastor until members contacted the Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist District Association, which sent Reverend W. M. Dunson. Dunson hosted an intensive two-week revival to replenish and re-energize the church after being without a pastor for a year.
The revival worked, bringing 66 new members to be baptized.
Rev. Dunson remained at the church for 20 years. It was during his time with the church that the current stone building was constructed as a refurbishing of the log church. The stone for the building was donated by church member Eliza Williams.
Since this time the church has only had three different pastors with Reverend Dr. John Pray holding the post for the last 32 years. Pray had been stationed in Kentucky in the military and said he vowed to never come back despite marrying a woman from Hazard.
After working as a detective in Philadelphia for many years before becoming a pastor, he was then sent to the First Baptist Church in Town Mountain, which made his wife very happy. She had been looking forward to coming back home.
Since then he has come to love the area and especially the church. The church building has grown in size, but the sanctuary remains in the old stone building. Much of the work was done by members of the church, including handmade chairs on the alter and cabinets by Deacon Bill Combs.
Rev. Pray said it is hard to explain why the church has been able to stay around for 120 years. He said in many places people that move away try to ignore their past, whereas people here like to remain connected and look forward to coming home.
“The people here seem to be not ashamed of their past,” he said. “They all look forward to coming back.”
And that included many of the church’s members who had the chance to come back on Sunday, August 26 to celebrate its 120th anniversary.