James E. Hamill and Memphis First Assembly of God

Memphis First Assembly of God, circa 1952

This Week in AG History —January 27, 1952

By Ruthie Edgerly Oberg
Originally published on AG News, 28 January 2021

James E. Hamill (1913-1994) never graced the cover of the Pentecostal Evangel even though his work was extremely influential in his community and in the Assemblies of God. However, his life’s work was featured on the cover of the Jan. 27, 1952, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel — in the form of the church he pastored for 37 years. In the 114-year history of First Assembly of Memphis, Tennessee, the congregation has had only 10 pastors, seven of them in the first 25 years.

While the church was Hamill’s life work, its history traces to the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement. The congregation was formed in 1907 when L. P. Adams, a well-educated attorney in Memphis, received the Pentecostal message from G.B. Cashwell. At the time, Adams pastored an independent Holiness church. Adams affiliated with the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a largely African-American Pentecostal organization led by Charles H. Mason and headquartered in Memphis. The name of Adams’ congregation was Grace and Truth Church of God in Christ. Adams participated in the organizational meeting of the Assemblies of God in 1914 but did not join the Fellowship nor did he bring his church into it, preferring to remain in fellowship with Mason’s group.

In 1919, Adams resigned from the pastorate and the congregation separated from the COGIC and was renamed Pentecostal Mission. H.E. Schoettley served as pastor from 1919 until 1923, when church joined the Arkansas District Council of the Assemblies of God. Thirty-seven households signed the initial charter, bringing the church into the Assemblies of God. In 1926, the new pastor, Ira Smith, helped to form the Tennessee District Council, separating it from Arkansas, and was later elected district superintendent of the new district.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the church experienced two splits over pastoral leadership, and found itself unable to pay a pastor. A 23-year-old student from Glad Tidings Bible Institute (San Francisco, California), named William Pickthorn, offered to lead the church without salary in 1934. Under his ministry, the church splits came back together into one congregation, which was rechristened, “First Assembly of God.” In 1943, when Central Bible Institute (Springfield, Missouri) extended an invitation to Pickthorn to serve as instructor, the church was advancing toward 500 in Sunday School attendance.

An interim filled the pulpit for the next year and attendance dropped dramatically due to the lapse in leadership. The church extended an invitation to a young man from Mississippi who, at 31 years of age, already had experience pastoring in Columbia, Tennessee; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Hope, Arkansas. On Dec. 31, 1944, pastor James E. Hamill looked out at his new congregation and cast a vision for the coming years. Little did anyone know that it would be almost 40 years before he would step down from that pulpit.

Seven years later, the Pentecostal Evangel highlighted the church in the Jan. 27, 1952, issue. The article reports that under Hamill’s capable leadership the church had grown to nearly 1,400 in Sunday School and was running over a thousand in the morning services. Hamill stated in the article that the key to the church’s growth was, “spirituality, good organization, consecrated personnel, the consistent improvement of facilities, sound and sensible promotion of the program, and hard work!”

Hamill also involved the church in cutting edge media promotions. Besides their involvement in the publication of a weekly community newspaper, The Memphis Mirror, the church began a local radio program, Words of Life, and in 1955, Hamill became the first preacher in the mid-south to have a regular television program, Christ is the Answer, which enjoyed a 25-year run.

First Assembly also became widely known for its music program under the capable direction of Hamill’s wife, Katheryne. As the home church of both the southern gospel quartet, The Blackwood Brothers, and Elvis Presley, the church experienced influence in the broader musical environment. When Katheryne retired from the church’s music ministry, she was followed by Paul Ferrin, who later went on to become the national music director for the Assemblies of God and for the PTL Television Network.

Hamill’s creative leadership often set new standards for Assemblies of God church organization. He was one of the first to ask a congregation to “subscribe” to the church’s operational and outreach budget, making monthly commitments of giving. This format saw the giving at First Assembly more than double in the 1960s. He was also one of the first to be intentional in hiring multiple staff and in 1972 founded one of the earliest Pentecostal private Christian day schools, First Assembly Christian School, still in operation.

Hamill’s service to the local community and the national body of the Assemblies of God as general presbyter and executive presbyter helped to set the tone for pastoral ministry up until his retirement in the early 1980s. He was followed at Memphis First by Frank Martin, who served as pastor until taking appointment to Russia with Assemblies of God World Missions after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The current pastor, Thomas Lindberg, has been with the church since 1994.

While local pastors rarely grace the covers of high-profile magazines, their influence on communities through the local church will only be measured in eternity. James Hamill and the nine other pastors who led First Assembly of God in Memphis, Tennessee, over 114 years discipled a general superintendent (Ralph Riggs), many national and district leaders, and scores of local influencers. They are also likely the only church that has hosted the national conference of two major Pentecostal bodies, hosting the Fifth Annual Convocation of the Church of God in Christ in 1917 and serving as host church for the 30th General Council of the Assemblies of God in 1963.

Read the article on Memphis First Assembly, “On the Cover Page,” on page 4 of the Jan. 27, 1952, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Also featured in this issue:

• “The Escape from Sodom” by E.T. Quanabush

• “The Healer of Mental Sickness” by Robert Cummings

And many more!

Click here to read this issue now.

Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.

Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200
Email: Archives@ag.org

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “James E. Hamill and Memphis First Assembly of God

  1. Rhydonia Anderson

    Was this congregation in Memphis ever known as Bethel Assembly? I have an 8×10 professional photo (business name on back, which I don’t have in front of me now). I was born Sept 1946; in this photo–which is an indoor shot, I am a babe in arms; my mother, father (who grew up across the Mississippi River–in Crittenden Co., AR), and Daddy’s mother (Mamaw). I would say there are about 200 people in the audience. I believe the building is probably “timber frame”–beams, etc. (ceiling fans tho’ I’m not sure they are running. Incidentally, I, Rhydonia (Holt) Anderson was named for Rhydonia Griswold; Daddy’s mother had heard the Griswold sibling trio sing and suggested the name Rhydonia for me. I called Springfield, MO a few years ago; ended up talking w/Hilton Griswold who said it was very likely the trio was in West Memphis area pre-Sept 1946.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s