AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Every Sunday morning, the nation's oldest black church opens its doors to worshipers. Its choir echoes voices long silent in the century-old sanctuary, and its pastor welcomes visitors to a piece of history much of America overlooks.
Just which church that is, though, has been open to as much interpretation as a Bible verse studied by a Baptist and a Roman Catholic.
"We are the oldest," says Isaac Johnson, a seventh-generation member of Springfield Baptist Church, formed in 1787 here in Georgia's second-largest city. "We've never argued that point."
"We were organized first," says the Rev. Thurmond N. Tillman, pastor of First African Baptist Church of Savannah. "We're not on our original site. We're on our fifth site. But we were organized first" -- about 10 years before Springfield, he says, though he cannot fully document the claim.
Two other churches -- another in Savannah and one in Jackson, S.C. -- also lay claim to the title, with less success. The bickering sparked street brawls in 1830s Savannah. Everyone agrees that Springfield, operating on its original site a block from the Savannah River in downtown Augusta, has the claim of continuity. It also has the support of a recent history book and a planned park commemorating its past.
But First African perseveres. The argument promises to end only when some yet-undiscovered document takes away the semantic wiggle room that allows debate.
The controversy has lately entered a notably civil phase. Springfield and First African exchange compliments instead of debating points. Tillman preached Springfield's anniversary sermon last August, and the Rev. E. T. Martin, Springfield's pastor since 1970, returned the favor during First African's anniversary in December. Dispute about who came first is no longer encouraged.
"Churches really can't be arguing about history," Tillman says. "There's been so much controversy and so much discussion about it years ago that folks just decided we need to be about the business of the Lord."
Martin agrees. But his brown eyes twinkle as he wonders aloud why First African and other churches have such trouble producing the paperwork to prove their claims.
"It seems we're the only ones able to do any real documenting," he says. Still, he spreads his hands magnanimously and shakes off a question about friction between the congregations: "We respect what each has."
Aside from its longevity, Springfield was the founding site for both Morehouse College, now in Atlanta, and the state Republican Party.
But on any given Sunday, only about 150 Augustans stroll past the Georgia historical marker detailing Springfield's history, walk up the steps through a white door frame and into the 102-year-old sanctuary for services.
Inside, worshipers shake off winter's chill, which lingers in the pale green room despite the grumpy heater's humming efforts. The congregation settles on dark wooden pews beneath rainbow-colored stained-glass windows. Dim yellow light spills from five aging chandeliers. One of the five choirs, dressed in royal blue and white robes, waits through Martin's sermon until he gives the sign that he's finished spreading the word for that day.
"I'm ready for y'all to come up," he says and waves toward the choir. They rise and Springfield repeats its traditions of song and ceremony for another week.
The church has 350 enrolled members, but only on special Sundays are more than 200 in its pews. Martin frets over the 33 members away at college, knowing that he'll be lucky if one or two come back.
Springfield sits on the edge of Augusta's inner city, ringed by an auto-parts store, two vacant lots and a car-rental agency. No homes are nearby, and so the church is not the center of community activities. Many members drive at least 15 miles to attend services.
The church pins its hopes for new members on Springfield Park, a $3 million project to sculpt historical monuments, markers and meeting places around the church's two buildings. Morehouse, which has recently been emphasizing its Augusta roots, will be featured prominently in the park, which could be under way within a year.
Springfield Park has one other motive, members say: settling the issue of which black church is the nation's oldest.
Springfield commissioned Augusta State University historian Ed Cashin to research the question. Cashin worked for nearly a year and in 1995 produced `Old Springfield: Race and Religion in Augusta, Georgia," which pins the title of oldest black church squarely on Springfield. Cashin points to Springfield's connection with Silver Bluff Baptist Church, uncontested as the original black church, formed in 1773. Silver Bluff closed in 1793, but its congregation had shifted to Springfield sometime before then, leaving the circle unbroken, says Cashin.