Memphis Historic Churches

   ... in the downtown and mid-town areas

 

It seems that Memphis was always known as the "City of Churches" or "City of 1000 Churches."  Yet that wasn't always the case.  The earliest settlers - frontiersmen, gamblers, and river men, certainly had little time to devote to religion.  This was a rowdy town and they were far more interested in liquor and the numerous local brothels.  But as more settlers began arriving, religion became respectable, and the first religious congregations began meeting in private homes.  During the middle 19th century, churches of every denomination were being built - one more grand than the other.  As more and more churches were established, the saying "A church on every corner" became very popular, with folks in later years adding "...and a gas station on the other corner."  By the beginning of the 20th century, Downtown Memphis was well established with a distinguished group of 90 churches and synagogues that presented a dignified profile to the city's landscape.  Today, fewer than 20 of these churches remain.  Like so much of the Downtown area, many of these early historical architectural gems have become part of "Lost Memphis."

 

This page will not include all of those "1000 churches".  Only a selection of the historic churches in the downtown area, and  a few in the mid-town area will be featured.  If you have information and a photo of any church that should be included please contact Gene Gill <gene.gill@verizon.net>

 

June West, director of Memphis Heritage says, "If you look at the houses of worship built here in the 1800s and early 1900s, you perceive a sense of pride, a grandeur of faith you don't see anymore.  It's in the stone that was used, in all the architectural elements, the balance and composition."

 
 

Click on small the photos to enlarge them. 


 
 

Anshei Mischne Synagogue   ... 112 Jackson Av

The Memphis Jewish Community dates back to 1840 when immigrant German Jews came to the city as peddlers from New Orleans and St. Louis.  Among these early immigrants were the Goldsmith's and the Lowenstein's who opened small shops and eventually became leading merchants.  Most of the early Jewish immigrants settled into the Pinch District.  The first Synagogue was established in 1853 in a bank building on Market Square and soon many additional synagogues began to dot The Pinch.   The congregation of this Synagogue  broke away from  another synagogue in 1900 and built

this Synagogue in 1927.    Orthodox Jews need to be within walking distance of their synagogue in order to adhere to traditional strictures against driving or riding on the Sabbath.  Thus there have been numerous mergers, synagogue name changes, etc. as congregations migrated from their original "Pinch" locations.  This synagogue has had several names.  After it ceased to be a Synagogue, it was converted into a nightclub, but it is now vacant and boarded up.  It is on the list "to be demolished".

 
 

 
 

Bellevue Baptist Church
 ...  70 N. Bellevue

Bellevue Baptist began in 1903 as a small mission of the Central Baptist Church.   The sanctuary shown in the postcard was enlarged many times and a new one was built in 1952.  The growing congregation became one of the largest in the South, and relocated to eastern Shelby County.  Mississippi Blvd Christian bought Bellevue Baptist and this location is now their mid-town campus.

 

Bellevue Baptist Bellevue Baptist Sanctuary Vintage photo Demolition
 

75th Anniversary

Interior postcard

1950s Postcard of the interior

 

<= Bellevue Baptist is now located at I-40 and Appling in Cordova and is known to truckers of the area as "Mile Marker - Fort God."  The church moved here in 1989.

"We were members for 35 years - of the old, but not the oldest Bellevue.  But I did go to the oldest Bellevue to hear Dr. Lee preach, and also for BTYU (Baptist Training Youth Union).  We, as a young group from Hollywood Churches, would board a bus to Bellevue and attend BTYU (party time), and then skip around the corner to the drug store and be back on the steps of the church when the church services were over."        - Elaine McAdams

 
 

 
 
 
Beth El Emeth - PLUS
Beth El Emeth Synagogue  ...  Poplar Av between 2nd and 3rd

and B'nai Israel ... Children of Israel ... Temple Israel ... Baron Hirsh ... Anshei Sphard

Orthodox Jews need to be within walking distance of their synagogue in order to adhere to traditional strictures against driving or riding on the Sabbath.  Thus there have been numerous mergers, synagogue name changes, etc. as congregations migrated from their original "Pinch" locations.   The changes are far too complex to cover on a page like this.

 

Children of Israel  built the synagogue (above) in 1884 and occupied it until 1916.  Beth El Emeth occupied it from 1916 to 1957.  It was demolished in 1957.   An office building now occupies the site.   Children of Israel  moved into a new synagogue also on Poplar Av (below) in 1916.   Baron Hirsh purchased a former African-American church at 4th-Washington in  1912 and remaimed there until their new building was built in the 1950s. 

 

Children -Israel

Temple of Israel Temple of Israel Samfield Baron Hirsh
 

 
 
Calvary Episcopal Church   ...  135 N. Second

Calvary Episcopal church was consecrated in 1844 and is the oldest Memphis Building in continuous use.  The design was by Rev Philip Alston, the minister, who was an amateur architect.  There were renovations in 1881 and the building has remained virtually unchanged since that time.  It was once covered with a stucco veneer which, in 1961 was removed from the outer walls to expose the clay bricks that were underneath.

 

Post Card     Interior Calvary Entrance Calvary Parrish House

Vintage Photo at Calvary   

 
 

 
 

Central Baptist Church  ...  2nd Street, between Beale-Gayoso

This structure stood above all others.  Built by Edward Culliatt Jones between 1868-85, the church was best known for it's 125 foot steeple - the tallest in the city.  Central Baptist was demolished in 1937.  For many years the lot was used for a gas station and parking lot.  Today, there's a parking garage built for Peabody Place in the 1990s.

 

...with Steeple

Without steeple

Interior

Edw C.  Jones

Location

 
 

 
 
 

Clayborn Temple   ...  280 Hernando at Pontotoc

This building housed the Second Presbyterian Church until it was sold to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1949 and the name was changed to Clayborn Temple.  After the name change, the church became an important center for the black community during the Civil Rights Movement.  Martin Luther King spoke at Clayborn several times and the sanitation worker marches started and ended there.  The Temple has been inactive since the 1980s, and was originally on the market for one million dollars.  The price has now been reduced to $600,000.  (See Second Presbyterian  - below)

 

Boarded Interior Decay Interior Decay Interior Decay Historical Marker
 
  

 
 
Collins Chapel CME Church  ... 678 Washington

This is the oldest African American religious congregation in Memphis, dating back to 1841, when parishioners of First United Methodist at 2nd and Poplar, invited a group of slaves to join Sunday services.  Four years later the number of blacks at the church grew to over 500 and the church deeded its basement to them for separate services.  By 1859 the congregation purchased this lot on Washington and held services outdoor  until the chapel was built in 1860.   It was named for the Rev J. T. C. Collins, the congregations white minister.  Over the years, the congregation has included civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, and W. C. Handy.

 
 

 
 
 
 
First Baptist Church ... 538 Linden ... 200 East Parkway North and Poplar
 

Serving Memphis and the Mid-South since 1839.  The old First Baptist building (In the postcard) is still standing and is now Mt. Olive Cathedral C.M.E. Church at 538 Linden Avenue.

 

Old First Baptist

 

The Old First Baptist The Old First Baptist 1839 First Baptist First Baptist
 
 

 
 
First Beale Street Baptist  ...  379 Beale

This is the first brick church in the south built by and for former slaves to serve their community.  The congregation originated in 1849 in the home of a white Baptist minister.  A city ordinance at the time prohibited blacks from preaching to a congregation and required a white man to be present during all services.  After Memphis fell to Union forces in 1862, these regulations were dropped, but the church continued under the leadership of a white minister until 1864.   In 1865 the church raised enough money to purchase their lot on Beale.  It then took them more than 22 years to raise enough money to build the magnificent church designed by Edward Culliatt Jones and Mathias Baldwin.  The cornerstone was laid in 1871 and the building finished in 1885.  The twin towers were originally much taller and more ornate.  One tower was damaged during a windstorm in the 1880s and the other was struck by lightning a number of times.  But it remains a graceful and imposing structure.   Ida Wells published her newspaper from here and W. C. Handy's memorial service was held here in 1958. 

 

First Beale Street Baptist

Rare full side view Original towers Towers 1910 Statue 1938

Edw C. jones

 

 


 
 
 
First Church of Christ Scientist  ... Dunlap & Monroe

 

The beautiful church was built around 1911, across from Forrest Park.  The building was sold to the UT Medical Center, who demolished the building in 1961 to build a new structure for their Medical Center.

   
 

 
 
First Congregational Church   ...  234 S.  Watkins St  ... 1000 S. Cooper
 

The church was founded in 1862 with 25 members.  Originally known as Union Church, the name changed to Strangers Congregational Church.  It was founded by people who believed that slavery was wrong.  The name was changed to First Congregational in 1909.  In 1991 the church became an "Open and Affirming" congregation by stating that gays and lesbians were welcome into the church.   They celebrated their "Centennial" in 1963.  Their classical modified Ionic building on S. Watkins was designed by Walk C. Jones and dedicated in 1910 and entered the National Register in 1980.    This building may be saved the fate of it's neighbor, The Nineteenth Century Club.  Plans are to preserve the 103 year old building and turn it into seven upscale apartments.  The congregation has now moved to the former Temple Baptist Church at 1000 S. Cooper and today the building is home to over twenty different organizations. 

 

1st Congregational 1st Congregational Historical Marker

Walk C. Jones

1st Congreg. Plate

       

 

First Congregational on Cooper First Congregational on Cooper Temple Baptist 1956

 

 
   

 
First Presbyterian Church  ... 166 Poplar-3rd

Built in 1884 by Edward Culliatt Jones.  It originally had a large steeple - one of the tallest and most graceful in the city.  It was lost in the church's early years and replaced with a square tower.  Today, the church's weekly Sunday Soup Kitchens feed the needy in downtown Memphis, and the ministry programs help families throughout the Mid-South.

 

Early Photo Vintage Postcard Souvenir Plate 1st Presbyterian Edw C. Jones
 
 

 
 

First United Methodist Church   ...  204 N. Second


In 1832 the Methodists built the first religious building in Memphis at this location.  In 1843, they began construction on a larger church which was replaced by a 3rd building in 1887 - the first all-stone church in Memphis.  It was completed in 1893.  This church burned to the ground  in one of the most spectacular fires in the city's history in 2006.  A new Gothic-style church, similar in appearance to the old structure is expected to be completed in 2011.

 

1911

2006 Fire Ruins after the fire   New Church
 

First church in Memphis-1832

Sunday School

First Preacher

First Pastor

John Pepper

 

1891

1906

History - 1985

Postcard

Certificate 1900s

New Plans

 
   

A souvenir booklet "The Evolution of a Sunday School" (below) was published in 1924 to celebrate the opening of the Pepper Memorial Sunday School Building next to the First Methodist Church.  The Pepper Building suffered smoke and water damage in the 2006 fire but is still in use.  This very rare booklet is posted in its entirety below:                                                              ... Collection of Dave French.                                                                

  Cover

 

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

13

14

                           

15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28
                           

29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42
                           

43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56
                           
 

 
 
Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church  ...  1720 Peabody

Grace church dates back to 1852 where the congregation met in a rented downtown room.  They eventually had their own downtown home at Vance and Lauderdale.  St. Luke's Episcopal Church was founded in 1894 and had a fine home at Union and Idlewild.  In 1912, they moved to their new building at 1720 Peabody.  (Their previous building at Union-Idlewild became the famous Helen of Memphis Shop in 1937).  By The late 1930s, Grace Church had a strong congregation, but found itself without an adequate building.  St. Luke's church had their new church in the heart of Memphis, but had a declining membership.  The two parishes merged in 1940.  The architect of Grace-St. Luke's is Bayard Snowden Cairns of Hanker-Carirns.  He also designed several important downtown buildings, including the Chisca Hotel, St. Mary's Cathedral, and Tech High School.

 

Grace St. Luke's Grace St. Luke's Rev Allison Interior Memorabilia 1914
 

Grace St. Luke's has seven extraordinary Tiffany stained glass windows dating back to 1889.  That year, one of the benefactors of the Grace Church, Mrs. W. A. Gage, met a Tiffany Glass representative at the Paris Exposition, and personally underwrote three windows, including the glorious window depicting Christ's ascension.  The church commissioned four more windows during the building of it's new church.  All the windows were installed under the direction of Louis Comfort Tiffany himself.  When Grace merged with St. Luke's in 1940, it brought the windows and they were installed throughout the building.  They are the largest collection of Tiffany windows in the south, and prime examples of Tiffany's stained glass art.

 

Tiffany "Christ's Ascension"

 

EMAIL:  "The building that eventually became the Helen of Memphis shop was the former home of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, founded in 1894, which built its first church home at Union and Idlewild in the early 1900s before it moved to a new location in 1912 at Peabody and LeMaster. Its sister congregation, Grace Church, founded in 1852, eventually moved from its downtown home at Vance and Lauderdale, and the two congregations merged to become Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Thanksgiving Day 1940.  GSL was at one time the largest Episcopal parish in the state"  - Skip Howard, Church Archivist, First Baptist Church of Memphis, 3-23-2013.

 
 

 
 
Idlewild Presbyterian   ...   1750 Union

The Idlewild congregation was formed in 1891.  This building was officially finished in 1928, just before the Great Depression.  It's considered one of the city's most majestic churches.  It was designed by architect George Awsumb.  The impressive complex of buildings includes the main church, cloistered walkways, a chapter house, and a massive bell tower.  The interior features a French Gothic nave with carved dark oak beams. 

 

Idlewild Presbyterian   Architect's Drawing  

Geo. Awsumb

1892 Idlewild Presbyterian Cook Book     1920s May Day
 
  

 
 
Mississippi Blvd Christian Church  ...  974-978 Mississippi Blvd.



Founded in 1921.  It was the first African-American congregation in the city of Memphis to belong to the brotherhood of Christian Churches.  This congregation purchased the old Bellevue Baptist Church at 70 N. Bellevue and that has now become their mid-town campus.

 
 

 
 
 
Second Presbyterian Church  ...  280 Hernando at Pontotoc.

Organized in 1844, the church was built in 1891.  Design was supervised by Edward Culliatt Jones.  When the steeple was intact, this had to be one of the most beautiful churches in Memphis.  The Romanesque Revival exterior enclosed an unusual interior that's dominated by the sanctuary.  The building was sold to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1949 and the name was changed to Clayborn Temple.  (See Clayborn Temple - above).

 

      1890s

 

1909

Dedication 1893

2nd Presbyterian

2nd Presbyterian

Interior

E.. C. Jones

 
 

 
 
St. John's United Methodist  ...  1207 Peabody

The history of this church parallels the history of Memphis.  St. John's began in the downtown area in 1859 as "Central Church Mission".  By the end of the century it was bursting at the seams and the members built this new sanctuary further out on Peabody.  At the same time they chose to affiliate with another denomination, becoming St John's United Methodist Episcopal Church.  The new church opened in 1907.

   
 

 

 
St. Luke's United Methodist ...  480 S. Highland

This church has a long and distinguished history.  It was first known as Bethel Methodist.  In 1888 the church moved to Semmes and Southern and was renamed Buntyn Methodist Church.  Then in 1925 the church moved to its present location and became St. Luke's.  The sanctuary was built in 1930 and the Educational wings were added in 1948 and 1955. 

   
 

 
 

St. Mary's Catholic Church  ...  155 Market

This church, organized in 1862 to serve the German Catholic population of Memphis, was dedicated in 1870.  Services were conducted in the German language.  A steeple was finally completed in 1901, but was removed shortly afterwards for structural reasons.  The interior was modeled after the interior of St. Peter's, though it is much smaller and more brightly painted.

   
 
 

 
 
St. Mary's Episcopal Church  ...  692 Poplar near Alabama

St. Mary's Episcopal Church is one of the oldest cathedrals in the South.  This church was the Episcopal Cathedral for Tennessee.  It was begun in 1895 and completed in 1920.  The Diocesan House to the left of the church was built in 1902 as the home for the bishop.  St. Mary's was the third parish organized in Memphis, with Calvary in 1832, and Grace in 1853, being Mission Churches.  The marble altar is a memorial to the Episcopal sisters and priests who died in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.

   

Original church 1871

Cathedral-School-Bis House Demolition 1898 School - Cathedral
 

   

1908

Interior

   

Souvenir Spoon

 
 

 
 
St. Patrick's Catholic  ...  277 S. Fourth
 

The church was established in 1866 at the corner of 4th and Linden.  The first St. Patrick was a two story structure with a school on the first floor and the church on the second floor.  From that time on, St. Patrick's has included education as a significant part of its mission. 

   
     
         1906 Postcard      
 
 

 
 

St. Peter's Catholic Church  ...  190 Adams at 3rd
 


This is the oldest Catholic Congregation in Memphis.  Designed by Patrick Keely, the building was begun in 1852.  There was already a church here, so the new building was built around the old.  Upon completion, the older building was broken up and carried through the front door, one piece at a time.  It's a Gothic fortress-like building.  There have been additions and improvements over the life of the church.  St. Peter's became the city's first air-conditioned church in 1934.

 

St. Peters 1892 St. Peters Interior Architect
 
 

 
 
Temple Baptist Church   ...  986 S. Cooper
 

Temple Baptist Church opened July 1952...1800 seats.  No other information.  The building is now occupied by the First Congregational Church (See their listing, above)

 

Temple Baptist 1956 Temple Baptist Sanctuary Temple Baptist Building

Temple Baptist Building

 
 

 
 
 
Trinity Lutheran Church   ...  210 Washington Av

Memphis had a wave of German immigrants in the early 1800s.  In 1871 they purchased a lot on Washington Avenue, which was "little more than a cow path with hitching posts and cobblestones".  Because the site was on a bluff, much excavating was necessary.  They completed the first story of the two story building and held services there.  Completion of the building was delayed by the yellow fever plagues of the 1870s and the second floor remained unfinished and unused until 1888. 

 

Trinity Lutheran

 

75th Anniversary   Rare photo of the "first story" Trinity Lutheran today  Interior 1930
 
 

 
 
Union Av Baptist  ...  2181 Union

 

The church began in 1902 and purchased the land for their church in 1904.  It's known as a very traditional Southern Baptist Church.

   
 

 
 
Union Avenue Church of Christ   ...  1930 Union

The original group forming the Church of Christ in Memphis first met in homes, but, according to an article in The Christian Chronicle, by Ealon V. Wilson, the small congregation moved to more adequate facilities in The Woman's Building in the late 1890's. Comparatively soon thereafter, it moved into its own building on Gaylord Avenue. The name of the street was later changed to Harbert Avenue.  In 1905, the group moved to this building at 1930 Union Avenue.   The congregation is now Midtown

Church of Christ.  The original congregation now meets at Woodland Hills Church of Christ out east.
 
 

 
 
Union Av Methodist  ...  2117 Union at Cooper

Built in 1914 in the Classical Revival Style.  The architect was John Glaisford.  Although on the National Register of Historic Places, this Memphis Landmark was no longer in use as a church.  It was sold in 2011 to CVS Pharmacy with the intention of demolishing it to build a pharmacy on the corner.  After losing a legal battle in mid 2011, the building was demolished.

 
 

 

Union Avenue Methodist

Union Avenue Methodist

Demolition 2011

 

EMAIL:  "I was baptized as a baby at Union Avenue Methodist and was a member until the late fifties.  My father attended until his hundreth year, sitting on the back row where he could 'nod off' occasionally.  The minister there went with me daily to visit Daddy during the month he was in the hospital where he died at 103 years.  I was really angry when they decided to tear the church down to build another drug store, and I wrote a letter of support to June West, at Memphis Heritage."   - Sarah Barrett Cave

 
 

 
 

Credits

 

The Historic-Memphis website does not intentionally post copyrighted photos and material without permission or credit.  On occasion a "non-credited" photo might possibly be posted because we were unable to find a name to give credit.  Because of the nature of our non-commercial, non-profit, educational website, we strongly believe that these photos would be considered "Fair Use.  We have certainly made no monetary gain, although those using this website for historic or Genealogy research have certainly profited.  If by chance, we have posted your copyrighted photo, please contact us, and we'll remove it immediately, or we'll add your credit if that's your choice.  In the past, we have found that many photographers volunteer to have their works included on these pages and we'll  also do that if you contact us with a photo that fits a particular page. 

 

The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Google Earth, Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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