In My Own Words: Church Historian Reflects on 125 Years

Somebody once said, ”Organized religion is a really good thing – the more organized the better.” He later explained that when people react against “organized religion” what they’re really objecting to is “what I would call disorganized religion. It is organized around something other than the faith proclaimed.” With that in mind, we can celebrate the 125th anniversary of the time when 27 families gathered to “organize” Highland Baptist Church in the then-new neighborhood of the Highlands.

From there, Highland has grown, waned and grown again as in each generation its members sought, as God has given them to know and understand, to live out the faith proclaimed. We may never have lived it out perfectly, we may have wished to have moved faster on one or another issue, and to have moved together rather than apart in all cases. But it’s heartening to know that for all the changes over the generations, some things seem remarkably consistent. Almost from the moment it opened its first doors in 1893, Highland has supported and done ministry with at-risk children and with the down-and-out of all ages. Some of the outreach is remarkably consistence. Since 1900, Highland has collected a Fellowship Fund on communion Sundays to help the needy. (I assume you still do that.) One of its earliest members wrote of the need for a “new reformation… a re-enthronement of justice and love.” If that sounds like something you might hear from Highland’s pulpit today, well, you are right. The fact that it was written by a Confederate veteran (George Eager), who later turned into an enthusiastic supporter of the Social Gospel, only gives us another occasion to say, “Only at Highland.”

As the church’s historian, I can tell you we got the stones for the sanctuary from a quarry in Jeffersontown, but we all know that Highland is comprised of the living stones who gather in such great numbers each week between the stones. Those little names that you see inscribed in the corners of our art-glass windows, upstairs and downstairs? Those are the donors and honorees whose own stories are as rich, diverse and faithful as those who worship at Highland today.

As the historian, I got to know many of the colorful characters in our history, dating all the way back to the 1890s. There was the seminary professor, Basil Manly Jr., who spent the waning energies of his life getting a Sunday School going in the Highlands, which morphed into our church; the patrician woman, Juliette Norton Marvin, who footed the bill for the new building and many other important causes before her own tragic death. There was the force of nature, Annie Eager (George’s wife), who launched many social ministries including a school for women’s missions; and a force of supernature, Emma Leachman, who opened a settlement house and rode the streetcars of Louisville to provide social ministry to the thousands each year. “She sat where you’re sitting,” Pastor Joe Phelps once told us, reminding us of our possibilities once we too commit to this work of love.

I could go on and on, and if you read my book on the history of Highland, you will know that I do go on and on, and on. 

For me there is not only the history of Highland, writ large, but our own family history at Highland, when it figured in several key milestones in our lives. We were fortunate to be there at a time of not only a wonderful leadership team of such ministers as Joe Phelps, Nina Maples, Kathy Collier, Carol Harston, Renee Purtlebaugh, Emily Hull McGee, Austin Echols and others, but also a gifted, generous and large group of lay leaders, offering wisdom and friendship in countless ways. It was at Highland that our daughter was dedicated, loved, taught and many years later baptized. Highland’s loving inclusiveness of my father-in-law, Glynn Coryell, extended to Nina coming out to Paducah to preside at his beautiful memorial service and burial last year. 

We dearly miss Highland. We miss the cloud of witnesses in stained glass, their rainbow colors dappling the pews at different angles throughout the day.

And we miss all of you, the people with whom we worshiped, studied, rejoiced and wept with as the occasion called for, the living cloud of witnesses in the pews today.

~ Peter Smith, Religion Editor at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former member of Highland Baptist Church (2001-2016), and author of Highland’s history book (The Cloud of Witnesses: 110 Years of Faith).