I grew up in what was, for its day, a megachurch in northern New Jersey. We hosted a Summer Bible Conference that involved a meeting every night, from the end of June through Labor Day. Preachers and teachers came in from all over the country to share their insights on the Bible, modern culture and prophecy.
Recently, my brother Bob came across a copy of one of the church’s publications from 1953. (I was about to enter my senior year in high school.) The preacher for the week was the Rev. G. Beauchamp Vick, Pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit. This church was experiencing dramatic growth based on an aggressive Sunday School outreach program that bused kids in from all over the city. Our church hoped to learn from their experience and replicate their growth in our community. Out of curiosity, Bob and I have been researching the Rev. Vick and Temple Baptist online, and here’s what we’ve discovered.
Temple Baptist was started in 1934 as a satellite ministry of a large church in Fort Worth, Texas. They took over a unique Gothic-style building, constructed in 1917, which seated 5,000 people. Many southern families were moving into Detroit during that time because of the expansion of the auto industry, and the new church, with its southern cultural values and worship style, grew rapidly among them. Among the whites, that is. Black southern families were also moving into Detroit, but they were not welcome at Temple. In fact, a later pastor reflected on the attitude that ruled at Temple: “There was a hatred for the black race that I had never seen in another church.”
In 1952, the congregation sold the facility to escape from the neighborhood which was “going black.” (This would have been a year before the Rev. Vick spoke at my church, touting their successful growth strategies.) They built a new place of worship seventeen miles away, which proved not to be far enough, since they moved again, even farther from the core city, in 1975. Through all these years, African-Americans occasionally attended services at Temple, but the church constitution forbid them from becoming members. This exclusion lasted until as late as 1986, when the congregation finally voted to end their formal segregation policy. Today, what’s left of Temple Baptist Church has been absorbed into a suburban megachurch.
Meanwhile, the historic church building had been bought by a growing black congregation, led by the Rev. Theodore S. Boone, and was renamed King Solomon Baptist Church. Under the Rev. Boone’s strong leadership, King Solomon soon became one of Detroit’s most prominent churches. It became known for featuring some of the best-know Gospel singers, such as the Rev. James Cleveland, the Five Blind Boys and the Clouds of Joy. It was also a place where up-and-coming talent could be recognized, were as The Supremes, discovered at King Solomon in 1960 by producer Berry Gordy.
As the Civil Rights Movement built momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, King Solomon Baptist Church hosted a number of major gatherings. Thurgood Marshall gave a major speech there soon after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school integration victory. U.S. Representative Charles Diggs gave an impassioned radio address from there in 1956 about the murder of Emmitt Till. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.., spoke in the church on two different occasions. And it was at King Solomon that Malcolm X presented his famous “Message for the Grass Roots,” in which he criticized Dr, King’s insistence on non-violence and called for a “black revolution.”
Today, the church building is abandoned, as is most of the neighborhood around it. However, in 2011 the City Council of Detroit designated it as part of an Historic District. Someone has written: “The church building was a microcosm of the social changes shaping the city around it, starting with segregation, white flight, the rise of the civil rights movement, and deindustrialization.” I feel that this “Tale of Two Churches” also tells the story of my life. Once I was a person who would have felt at home in Temple Baptist; now I would be much more comfortable in a church like at King Solomon Baptist. There’s hope for all of us.
— Pastor George Van Alstine