By: Jason Strandquist
Longtime residents of Madison County often remark to newcomers on the impressive number of churches found in the Jackson, TN area. In 2021, as we prepare to observe the bicentennial of Jackson/Madison County, there are 198 houses of worship of all types located between Three Way and Medon, and between Mercer and Beech Bluff.1 The local religious landscape not only reflects the broader developments in the history of American religion, but it has also added its own significant chapter to that story.
The Woodland-Period mounds of Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park (c. 1-500 CE) indicate that what is today Madison County was an important religious site, frequented by native Americans of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins. Christian congregations accompanied the first influx of White settlers moving west from the existing United States after the War of 1812, at which time the Union numbered only twenty states. Congregational records indicate that these settlers constructed the first frontier churches in the early 1820s; for example, Methodist annals indicate that two “circuit rider” ministers were appointed to the “Jackson Purchase” in 1820, to serve the frontier congregations typical of the Second Great Awakening, with Baptist congregations recorded shortly thereafter, and a Baptist Association established in 1822. Likewise, the Western Presbytery founded in September of 1823 formally established Presbyterianism in Madison County.2 Some of the region’s longest-standing congregations – e.g. Cotton Grove Methodist Church, Brown’s Creek Baptist Church (home of noted preacher the Obadiah Dodson) and Denmark Presbyterian Church – still convene in the vicinity of these first congregations nearly two centuries later, but with various changes of venue owing to congregation growth, fire or natural disaster, and most significantly, the end of American slavery following the Civil War (1861-65).
Early congregations met in private houses, log cabins, courthouses, and even Masonic lodges into the 1830s, but the monumental churches that define Jackson’s cityscape began with the original Methodist Episcopal Church (today, First United Methodist), built on the corner of Church and Chester Streets in 1826, and the First Baptist Church, established in 1837 from the congregants of several smaller meeting houses. Institutional histories indicate that White and Black worshippers attended the same churches, both urban and rural, in the decades before the Civil War, but this pattern shifted decisively with the emancipation of the enslaved congregation members (1865 in Tennessee) and the rising tide of segregation in the subsequent Reconstruction era (1865-77).3
The destruction of slavery in the Civil War transformed church life in the American South, as many free African-Americans pursued religious autonomy. In Jackson, this development explains the apparent paradox of the city’s two First Baptist churches. In 1868, Black members of the First Baptist congregation “withdrew by letter” – that is, with the cooperation of the Baptist Association – creating an autonomous congregation distinct from the First Baptist Church founded in 1837.4 Opening on April 22, 1868, today’s Historic First Baptist Church became the first African-American Baptist congregation in Jackson, and has convened in its present location at 433 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive since 1957.5 The remaining congregation has continued as the First Baptist Church, today located on North Highland Avenue in Jackson.
The Reconstruction era witnessed the birth of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), a new Wesleyan denomination established in Jackson in December, 1870.6 The CME church was founded by forty-one former slaves who, working in concert with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, created what future CME Bishop Isaac Lane (1834-1937) termed “a separate organization of our own…established after our own ideas and notions.”7 Established as the “Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America,” a name it retained until 1954, the CME is now an international polity, with nine episcopal districts in the United States, a theological seminary, and four liberal arts colleges maintained by the denomination, including Lane College in Jackson.8
Today, Madison County’s 78 Baptist churches comprise the majority of houses of worship in the area, followed in numerical terms by eighteen UMC, sixteen CME, fourteen Pentecostal, and six Church of Christ congregations.9 On the surface, it may seem that relatively little has changed in the religious landscape since the Gilded Age, but in fact, the intervening 150 years have witnessed a significant diversification of creeds in the Jackson area. Roman Catholicism has a long historic presence, as the records of St. Mary’s parish date to the years immediately following the Civil War, while Jackson’s Reform Judaism synagogue was established in the mid-1880s, with a historic location on Grand Street in downtown Jackson; Concordia Lutheran church, representing the Missouri synod, was established in 1934. More recently-established
worship centers – including, but not limited to a range of non-denominational congregations, the Jackson Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Islamic Center of Jackson – suggest that the past century’s movement toward plurality will continue to shape religious life in the Madison County of tomorrow.
 Lyda Kay Ferree, “Religion, Fellowship Important in Jackson,” in The Jackson Sun, http://orig.jacksonsun.com/worship/index.shtml, last accessed 12 July 2020.
 Emma Inman Williams, Emma Inman Historic Madison: The Story of Jackson and Madison County, Tennessee, from the Prehistoric Moundbuilders to 1917. 2nd ed. (Jackson, TN: The Jackson Service League, 1972) p. 292 ff.
 See Matthew Gailani, “The Emancipation Proclamation in Tennessee,” Tennessee State Museum, accessed online at https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/the-emancipation-proclamation-in-tennessee, last accessed 13 July 2021.
 See Todd Brady, “Jackson’s Two First Baptist Churches,” in The Jackson Sun, 9 Jan 2020, https://www.jacksonsun.com/story/opinion/2020/01/09/jacksons-two-first-baptist-churches-opinion/4421108002/, last accessed 12 July 2020.
 “History of Historic First Baptist Church,” https://www.historicfirstbaptistchurch.org/history/, last accessed 12 July 2021.
 See Othal Hawthorne Lakey, The History of the CME Church. Revised edition. (Memphis, TN: CME Publishing House, 1996), for the authoritative study of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, originally designed the “Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America”; Lakey, History of the CME Church, p. 15.
 Isaac Lane, quoted in Othal Hawthorne Lakey, “The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church,” https://thecmechurch.org/history/, last accessed 12 July 2021.
 Lane College in Jackson is named for Bishop Lane, who also served as pastor of the Mother Liberty CME Church, the historic premises of which were demolished by a tornado on May 4, 2003, but which continues in a new church building at 456 South Highland Street.
 Ferree, “Religion, Fellowship Important,” in Jackson Sun; see note 1, above.