Description Of Church Building
Canaan Baptist Church is located at 211 North Main Street, two blocks north of the square in downtown Covington. It stands within the historic African-American commercial area and its rear lot borders U.S. Highway 51. Founded in 1868 by Rev. J. Williams, the Canaan congregation experienced a large volume of growth in the late-nineteenth century. By 1885, the congregation moved to a frame building that served their needs until 1916-1917, when they outgrew the building. At this time, they tore down the frame church and replaced it with the current brick church.
The present church was constructed under the leadership of Reverend W. J. Clark. The brick building displays Gothic Revival influence with pointed arched entries and windows, and a crenellated parapet on the tower. The basic form of the building is a modified cruciform plan, with a cross gable roof and entrance tower in the southeast corner. The tower serves as the
main entrance to the building. The brickwork is American bond with six courses between the headers. A corbeled water table extends around the building. The foundation is concrete and the roof is a cross gable covered with composition shingles.
Front of Building
The front, or east facade, contains a single, large stained glass, tripartite Gothic arch window. The window consists of three double-hung sash windows with a fixed tripartite transom. The stained glass in each panel consists of a central golden yellow section separated by craftsmanlike
muntins and bordered by purple and a blue square in each corner. Below the large window at the basement level are two windows with original two-over-two double-hung sash windows and white moldings. The gutters of the gable front portion of the roof extend into a slight bell-cast extension. Located on the southeast corner of the east facade is the entrance tower that is approximately two and a half stories tall. The east and south elevations of the tower are identical. The first levels on the east and south elevations have identical entrances. The paired doors are wood panels with a Gothic arch stained glass transom that has very simple tracery muntins. Archivolt molding surrounds the doors. Brick corbeling accentuates the arches. In the center of each door’s second row of panels is a gold and green stained glass window. Metal awnings added circa 1980 provide protection at the entrances and in 1988 the concrete steps replaced earlier steps.
Extending above the entrance of the tower is a four pane circular window and a corbeled stringcourse that is at the mid-level of the window and then extends around the top portion of the window. Above the circular window is another stringcourse forming the base for two rectangular, fixed louvered vents that cover the church bell. Above the two louvered bays is additional corbeling. It gives the appearance of drip molding around the vents. Another corbeled stringcourse separates the vents from the crenellated cornice.
North Section of Building
The northeast corner of the east facade steps back the width and the depth of the tower on the southeast corner. The cross gable portion of the roof is evident at this juncture. A single window is located in the center of the recessed portion on the east facade. The window is an original double-hung sash stained glass window identical to those in the large gable arch window. The center pane is large and golden, surrounded by purple panes, and blue panes in the corners.
The north elevation has an identical gable front roofline and large Gothic arch tripartite window, like the ones found on the east facade. The northeast and northwest corner elevations are also recessed at the cross gable juncture. The north elevation of the northeast corner has only the
corbeled water table that surrounds the building. The north elevation contains the same stained glass double-hung window as found in the rest of the building. Below this window is an original single light window at the basement level. The north elevation of the church contains the educational building addition. The unadorned brick structure has a side gable roof and sits lower than the original church building. An enclosed connector attached the two buildings to each other.
South Section of Building
The south elevation is identical to the east elevation with a large arched original stained glass window over two original double-hung basement windows. The recessed southwest corner of the elevation is enclosed with a weatherboard and gable roof connector added in 1988 to provide access to the educational building. Two original double-hung sash windows and an original paneled door face south. Below these is a door for access to the basement. A lift allowing the disabled access to the sanctuary was installed circa 1988 on the exterior of the connector. The original double-hung stained glass window on the west side of the original building is enclosed by
the 1988 addition. On the south side of the 1988 addition is a continuation of the brick belt course, and a metal door at the southwest corner. A centered white wooden cross is the only ornamentation.
West Section of Building
The west elevation is composed of the new educational building. An unbroken brick wall, with a brick belt course on the lower third of the wall, defines this elevation. The two-story sanctuary is entered through the tower into a small vestibule. The narthex has two doors, one on the north and one on the west that enters into the sanctuary. There are eight original large pews down the center, and six original small pews on either side. The pews are oak and upholstered in red fabric. The floor of the chapel has red carpet in the aisles. The floor beneath the pews has been left uncovered and reveals the original tongue and groove wood flooring. The pulpit is on a raised semi-circular platform. The choir loft behind the chancel is
three pews deep behind it. The pulpit, communion table, chairs and flower stands are made of light oak, and were purchased under the Reverend John Henry Seward circa 1940.
The walls of the sanctuary are plaster with an approximately three-inch plain chair rail. The shoe molding, baseboard and base molding are simple and unadorned. The original ceiling is of tongue and groove boards painted white. There are eight ceiling beams, which intersect in the middle to form a coffered square. At each corner of the square is a decorative half sphere.
Hanging from the ceiling are three fans and six light fixtures. The ceiling fans were added circa 1988, but the ceiling lights date to the introduction of electricity to the church circa 1935.
At the rear of the sanctuary is a small balcony installed circa 1935. The balcony’s access is from stairs on the east side of the sanctuary. It contains seven original pews and red carpeting. The front of the balcony wall is a tongue and groove boards, topped with a wood railing one foot in
The stairs to the basement are located in the northwest corner of the sanctuary. The basement has the original concrete floor, sealed in a dark brown color. The walls are paneled, with a plain baseboard. The ceiling is covered with white acoustical tile dating to circa 1960. On the northeast wall is the baptismal pool, which is constructed of poured concrete walls and painted blue. This was installed during the tenure of Revered Seward between 1931-1940. Before the installation of the baptismal pool, the congregation performed baptisms in a small pool behind the church. The basement also includes a small office on the east wall, and a kitchenette, bathroom, and meeting room on the west wall. Another bathroom is located on the north wall. An exit to the outside from the basement exists in the southwest corner.
The education building is entered from a doorway located in the southwest corner of the sanctuary. This doorway leads to a small hallway and then into the education building. The education building has several classrooms and meeting rooms. In 1988 R. L. Coulston & Sons, Inc., of Covington built the education annex, named in honor of Dr. J. H. Seward.
Canaan Baptist Church meets the registration requirements for integrity as set forth in the multiple property form “Historic Rural African-American Churches in Tennessee, 1850-1970.” The historic church building from 1916-17 exhibits a strong degree of integrity in setting, massing, and overall exterior and interior appearance, certainly from circa 1935 when the
balcony and electricity were added to the interior sanctuary. It retains a high degree of integrity in location, feeling, and association. The modern classroom addition of 1988 was added in a sympathetic manner to the rear of the original building. Placed on a lower grade, the brick building was constructed so not to remove any significant original architectural details from the 1916-1917 church building. Moreover, the original multi-gabled roof of the 1916-17 church building visually dominates the comparatively straightforward gable roof of the addition. This modern addition is clearly designated by a small plaque on the exterior south wall, which identifies the rear addition as the “Dr. J. H. Seward Education Center, 1988.” This plaque emphasizes how the new addition represents a new chapter in the history of Canaan Baptist Church.
Significance of Canaan Baptist Church
Built from 1916 to 1917, the Canaan Baptist Church, at 211 North Main Street in Covington, Tipton County, Tennessee, eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A for its local significance in the social and religious history and the ethnic heritage of African Americans in Covington and Tipton County. As the oldest and primary African-American Missionary Baptist Church in Covington, Canaan is still a significant social, political and religious center of the African-American community. Due to its significance in civil rights activity in both the Jim Crow Era and the Modern Era, the church building meets the registration requirements for historical significance as set forth in the multiple property form. Historic Rural African-American Churches in Tennessee, 1850-1870.
The Canaan Baptist Church was organized in 1868 two miles northwest of Covington, Tennessee on the Leigh Chapel Road under a brush arbor by the Reverend Jupiter Williams, a former slave. He served as pastor until 1871 and resigned from ill health as a result of life under slavery. Reverend William Adams brought the congregation into Covington and built a small frame church on what is now known as North Main Street. The present church building stands at the site of the third church building, which originally was a frame church for whites in Covington and known as the First Baptist Church. This move into much larger quarters happened under the direction of Reverend David Evans, who served as Canaan’s minister from 1876 to 1885. The congregation continued to use that building for over thirty years.
The initial founding and development of Canaan Baptist Church reflected the general trends of religious development by African-American Baptist congregations in West Tennessee, as noted in the MPN cover form. As historian William E. Montgomery has observed, “[l]n rural areas there
were countless congregations that slave preachers had led in the old days and continued to gather and conduct religious services for as frequently as possible with the coming of freedom.” In addition, another significant aspect of the early history of the congregation was the decision to formally join the Baptist church. The members of the Canaan church probably did not claim Baptist affiliation because of past contacts with the churches of their planter masters; in Tipton County; the Episcopal Church dominated the planter class and professional elite. The Baptists’ insistence on baptism by immersion clearly distinguished them from other evangelical denominations and resembled some of the river ceremonies in areas of West Africa where many slaves had come from.”
The basement of Canaan is dominated by a concrete baptismal pool, which was installed at the same time as the construction of the basement (1931-1940). Just as important, and clearly tied to the twentieth century traditions of social activism at Canaan, “Baptist polity attracted blacks who wanted independence from white control;” these new congregations became “the building blocks of black Baptist polity.” The tradition of independence and social programs that mark the history of Canaan Baptist Church dates to the early years of the congregation.
Canaan Baptist Church Leaders
In 1916 -1917, the frame church was torn down and replaced by the current brick church under the direction of Reverend William J. Clark. Just north of the southeast entrance is a dedication stone, which reads “Canaan Bapt. Church, Organized 1868 by Rev. J. Williams, Rebuilt 1916 B. F. Walker, Peter Vaughn, G. R. Smith, Bob Lauderdale, Skidmore Taylor, William Ervin, William Smith, W. J. Clark Pastor”. These people were instrumental in support of the construction of the new church.
Canaan’s pivotal church leader of the twentieth century, however, was Reverend John Henry Seward, a dentist by professional training, that served the congregation from 1931 to 1966. During his pastorate the church renovated the interior of the church by adding the present balcony and electricity, circa 1935. He started many programs that brought the church to statewide, nationwide and international involvement and solidified its significant local role in African-American social history.
Internationally, the church became a member of the World Baptist Alliance and the International Council of Religious Education. The church also served as the headquarters to the West Tennessee Leadership Training School under the National Council of Churches in the United States of America. The organization’s purpose was to promote Christian education throughout Tipton County. This program inspired many young people to pursue higher education and three men from the church to enter the ministry; Reverend Neasbie Alston, Reverend Louis Allend Wakefield and Reverend James Harris Porter. Together with the age of the church congregation and its significance in the Baptist faith, this strong historical association with the West Tennessee Leadership Training School is the primary reason the church has made a significant contribution to the religious history of Tipton County.
More Current Activities
From 1931 to the present, the church also served as a meeting place for many local and regional religious and social organizations. Religious institutions held meetings there including the West Tennessee Association held its quarterly board meetings at Canaan. Many civic groups, such as
the Masonic Order, the Order of the Eastern Star and the Legionnaires, held meetings at the church at various times. The church was one of the few places in Covington where African-Americans could meet and conduct business on their own terms during the years of Jim Crow segregation.
On the local level, the church was a social center for African Americans in both the town and the county. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century segregation was strictly enforced in West Tennessee. “Jim Crow” laws limited the areas in which African Americans could congregate, and the only education available to African Americans in the county was the Frazier School just a few blocks north of the church. The demographics of the city and of the county also created a need for communal gathering places. The population in Covington in 1890 was 1,067, but 41 percent of that population was African American; fifty years later, the percentage remained high at 36 percent.
Many organizations within the church added to the social fabric of the African-American community in Covington and Tipton County. The Men’s Club would hold regular meetings that not only had a religious importance, but also became places to discuss business and civil rights topics. The Men’s Club sponsored the first African-American Boy Scouts troop in Tipton County. The Women’s Club also served in much the same manner. For young women, the first African-American Girl Scout Troop in Covington was established at the church. Though the exact date of its creation is not known, a mid-twentieth century photograph of the group in front of the church exists. Choirs and other activities would also bring people together to promote unity in the African-American community.
The Tennessee State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs started a chapter that met at Canaan and the Frazier Fligh School in 1938. The club’s purpose was to allow older African- American women and young African-American women to meet and promote citizenship in the community and advance the causes of African-American women. The club held fund-raisers,
such as talent shows, to support various programs. The federation also held local and regional conventions with informative sessions. In 1953, the state federation held its annual convention at Canaan; its sessions concerned legislation, education, art, music and gardening. This club was a unique organization that promoted African-American women and, with the coming of the 1950s and 1960s, it promoted civil rights for all African Americans.
Civil Rights Contributions
Canaan Baptist also sponsored and became in the 1960s the meeting place for the only National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Tipton County. The chapter dates to the early 1950s and was under the leadership initially of the Reverend James Flowers of St. John Baptist Church of Atoka, Tennessee. Poor health, however, forced Flowers to relinquish the chapter presidency to Curtis French, a member of Canaan, in circa 1955. Canaan members provided the organization with the community’s leading Civil Rights activists from that point forward. The NAACP met at the church from circa 1955 to 1975. The second president of the chapter was John “Mack” Edwards, a Canaan deacon, who solicited NAACP membership, distributed literature, and reported to the national office. Once the ability to vote was acquired for African Americans in Tipton County, Edwards would later become a Tipton County constable and an alderman for the City of Covington. In 1963, Edwards convinced Canaan to allow mass Civil Rights meetings to be held at the church. According to an unpublished church history prepared by Minnie Bommer and Tim Sloan of Covington, many “Canaan Baptist members were not dependent on local whites for jobs. Although some were housekeepers and yard workers, whites needed them as much as they needed their jobs. Therefore, Canaan members did not fear reprisal as much as rural church members did.” Canaan retained a special relationship with the NAACP and Civil Rights Movement until 1975. As Bommer and Sloan document,
Canaan Baptist Church has most of the local elected African-American officials in the county as members. Canaan has always led the way for social and civic changes. For example, a community group decided to reactivate the NAACP in the early 1970s. It was reactivated in the basement of Canaan Baptist Church. The president was Mrs. Minnie Bommer, also a member of Canaan. She became the first African-American alderman of the City of Covington, as well as the first woman alderman. Canaan continued to allow the church to be used as the NAACP meeting place until 1975. Barlow Funeral Home, next door to the church, became the permanent meeting place for the NAACP. The owners of Barlow Funeral Home are Canaan members and Mr. Quincy Barlow is a member of the Tipton County Commission and the chair of its Budget and Tax Rate Committee.
As discussed in the Modern Era theme of the MPN Sheet, the strong association of Canaan Baptist Church with the historically significant Civil Rights Movement, and the local establishment of the NAACP, is a significant contribution to the social history. The church is also important for its association with the ethnic heritage of African Americans in Tipton County.
The tradition of civic participation and activism extends to the present. The church produced four of the first African-American officials in Tipton County and Covington. The first is Mr. Shelvie Rose, Sr., who was a Tipton County Commissioner and an Alderman for the City of Covington. He also served the community as a Tipton County teacher for thirty-four years. The Rev. Quincy Barlow has served as a County Commissioner for over twelve years, and is a Tax Enforcement Officer for the State of Tennessee. John Mack Edwards served as Tipton County Constable from 1974 to 1984 and currently serves as an Alderman for the City of Covington. Minnie L. Bommer was one of the first African-American females to sit on a city governing body in Tennessee. She served eight years as a city alderman, and currently serves on the State Board of Education.
Canaan Baptist Church demonstrates the importance of an African American institution in the civic role of the City of Covington and Tipton County. The church is an example of how strong leadership skills, from clergy and lay leaders, can contribute to the betterment of the community. The church hosted many clubs and organizations that contributed to the community, such as the Girl Scouts and the Tennessee Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and played a significant role as an information center and training center for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. The church was a center for the African-American community in 1885 and continues to be in 1999.