The Hallelujah Trail sings the praises of northern Alabama’s spiritual
and cultural heritage.
by Tracey Teo
In northern Alabama, personal faith is as much a part of a person’s identity as his or her name and hometown. It’s not uncommon to hear Alabamians describe one another as a Methodist from Florence or a Baptist from Tuscumbia.
Above: Squee Bailey, long-time member of St. John’s in Decatur, gives church tours.
Top: Helen Keller was baptized at First Presbyterian Church in Tuscumbia. Wesley K.H. Teo photos
North Alabama’s spiritual heritage is celebrated in the Hallelujah Trail, a self-guided driving tour of 32 historical churches scattered throughout 16 counties. The tour gives visitors insight into the beliefs and values that have shaped the culture in this corner of the Deep South.
Every church on the Hallelujah Trail is at least 100 years old, stands on its original site and is active today. These landmark churches range from the rustic to the majestic. Some are simple log cabins that house little more than a pulpit and pews while others are towering Gothic structures. But they share generations of Alabamians who have seen them as cornerstones of their communities and an integral part of their lives.
These three churches give a good glimpse at northern Alabama’s Hallelujah Trail.
First Presbyterian Church
Helen Adams Keller, who was left blind and deaf by a childhood illness, could not appreciate the Georgian Gothic architecture of the First Presbyterian Church in Tuscumbia that she attended as a child, nor could she hear the inspiring hymns sung by the congregation, but she opened her heart to God’s word and grew into a woman of great faith, which helped give her the courage and determination to overcome physical challenges. Her incredible story remains an inspiration. A pilgrimage to this church is often high on the list for those exploring the Hallelujah Trail.
Keller Johnson Thompson, a descendent of Keller’s family, has been a member of the First Presbyterian Church her entire life and has grown up hearing stories about her famous ancestor. She recounts a humorous tale her grandmother told her about Keller’s baptism in 1880.
“Helen was actually supposed to be named Helen Everett,” Thompson says. “But her father (Arthur) got so confused or nervous at the baptism, that he told the preacher her name was Helen Adams, so Helen Adams just stuck.”
Thompson says attending the church where generations of her family have worshipped makes her “joyous and glad” that she can carry on the tradition through her own children. The church is noteworthy not only because of the Keller connection, but also because it was organized in 1824, making it the oldest Presbyterian church in continuous use in Alabama.
The church is located at 103 N. Broad St.
The Tabernacle in Hartselle is an interdenominational meeting house that’s home to the annual Hartselle Camp Meeting. It allows worshippers to appreciate the natural beauty of a tranquil wooded area as they listen to God’s word. The camp meeting began 110 years ago as an 11-day Christian revival.
Rob Cain, president of the Hartselle Camp Meeting, has fond memories of attending the revival as a teenager and says the experience left an indelible mark on him spiritually.
“What stands out in my personal recollection of being a camper is that we weren’t so concerned with AC (air conditioning) and TV,” Cain says. “For 11 days, we had 75 campers attending three services a day in the heat of August. What was really amazing is that it was the highlight of our year.”
But unlike previous generations of campers, today’s youth have the luxury of a new air-conditioned dormitory. Instead of having to cook their own meals over a campfire, they can depend on hearty portions of good food in the dining hall.
The Hartselle Camp Meeting is now a week-long event and will be June 19–26 this year. The camp is located off state Highway 36 and Sparkman Street.
St. John’s Episcopal
For a tour of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Decatur, it would be hard to find a more qualified guide than Squee Bailey. Bailey was baptized at the white marble font in the sanctuary as an infant, walked down the aisle flanked by glowing stained glass windows (a highlight of the church) on her wedding day, and expects that her funeral will be at St. John’s, just like her father’s and her grandfather’s before her.
As Bailey leads visitors through the bright red doors to the sanctuary, she explains that this Gothic church, built in 1893, didn’t always face east. Until 1940, the church was a simple wood frame structure that faced north, but it was turned to face east like English parish churches. To further emulate English churches, the wood exterior was covered in limestone, giving the previously modest church a certain opulence to which some in the congregation objected.
“There was quite a bit of controversy about it,” Bailey says. “Some people really liked the little frame church.”
The church is located at the corner of Second Avenue and Jackson Street.
Make the Hallelujah Trail your inspiration to visit this interesting area of Alabama.
Tracey Teo is a contributor from Evansville, Ind.