In 1830, Alexander Campbell travelled to Franklin at a time when the temperature was nearly zero. In his journal he noted, “We were very courteously treated by several citizens of this place,” as he preached in the Baptist church, the Presbyterian meetinghouse, and the Episcopal meetinghouse. This open-arms trip planted the idea for Christians to build a bridge across their differences and come together in downtown Franklin, and a church of 17 members was first gathered in 1833. The location of our current building was acquired in 1836. The property deed granted the land as a “place of worship of Almighty God” for Christians who leave behind any divisive ideas of human origin and uphold the Word of God as the only authority of faith.
Many strong leaders guided the church through its early years, but a pivotal moment in our history occurred in 1851 when Campbell made a return trip to Franklin. He preached at one of the local churches that had previously remained separate under its denominational background, and all 400 who were present decided to link arms with our spiritual ancestors as fellow followers of Christ (well, nearly all 400… reportedly, 4 individuals chose to remain on their own!). We are reminded that our story is enriched by prior generations investing love and hard work into God’s mission of reconciliation in this community.
This growth in members led to much celebration, but it also presented the new challenges that come with expanding a family. One of those challenges was having a place for everyone to gather together. Up to this point, the lot on Fourth Avenue had remained undeveloped by the church, and the members primarily met in each other’s homes and at the Masonic Hall. In response to the need, the construction of our first church building was accelerated and completed in 1852. This church house survived over 60 years and witnessed many joys and adversities, including the harsh realities of war while serving as a hospital for Federal troops during the Civil War.
One of the well-loved members of the community after the war was A.N.C. Williams, or “Uncle Allen” as he was known in his day, who became Franklin’s first black merchant after being freed from slavery. His success as a business man allowed him to found the Cummings Street Church of Christ on his own property. He was known as an outstanding leader in the Church of Christ and was called on several occasions to preach at Fourth Avenue. His funeral services were later held at our building in 1930 as the Cummings Street Church of Christ was not able to hold the vast number of people who attended. While our community has experienced the great tragedies of segregation, we also have encouraging voices from the past who still remind us to look beyond what is to what can be.
In 1950, the elders decided to expand the outreach in the community by establishing a congregation on the west side of town. We had previously been known as the Franklin church, but the building and naming of the new West End church led to us taking on our current name of the Fourth Avenue church.
The building as it currently stands today was constructed in 1978. During the last quarter of the 20th century, the congregation gathering at the present location grew to between 500 and 700 members with gatherings on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and Wednesday evenings. As Franklin began to grow and gain attention as an attractive place for young families to live, the church provided strong children’s and youth ministries.
Around the turn of the millennium, the leadership of the church experienced some key markers. The elders made an intentional move away from holding titles and toward becoming “shepherds,” both in name and in actual service to the body. Prayer was solidified as a main pillar of their service, and they have since tracked over 230 occasions when they have been able to anoint and pray over individuals in the model of James 5:14. Similarly, the title of “deacon” was laid aside at this time in an effort to embrace and encourage more ministry leaders within the body based on service rather than upholding an office.
During this time, leadership also embraced a vision of endeavoring to become an indispensable part of the community and an inviting place for a broader group of believers, not just those from the Church of Christ heritage. As emphasis was placed on making services more impactful and stirring, some areas were expanded beyond the traditional hallmarks of Church of Christ services. This transition manifested most noticeably in prayer and singing. In lieu of a traditional time of invitation, time was built into services for “family prayer time” – a time for members to huddle throughout the worship center, often with shepherds and their wives and joined organically by other members, to pray about specific needs and blessings. Singing expanded from using a single song leader to a praise team employing four-part harmony on stage. Instrumentation was incorporated with singing slowly and thoughtfully so that change was not made at the expense of congregational singing. Despite facing internal and external pressures about worship during this period, leadership decided, in the interest of unity, that the church would not hold alternate services to accommodate preferences on worship style.
The “Family of Fourth” today has several core tenants that have emerged from our 190 year journey in this community:
A vibrant culture of prayer covers every inward and outward reach of our family. Many dedicated prayer warriors are stationed along the frontlines, and a pastoral care team works behind the scenes to provide for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of our family members during difficult times. Whenever a need arises, one can expect to find members joining in prayer and moving into active love and support as the hands and feet of Jesus.
We aim to be a safe place for anyone who is seeking the Lord. We recognize most people bring heavy baggage and deep wounds to church, so we often remind ourselves that we are to respond with “open arms and empty hands”. Just as our early roots started by building bridges across divides, our arms are to be spread open to receive all, regardless of differences. And our hands are kept empty to avoid throwing stones at those who may oppose us.
We welcome the participation of men and women in the life and work of our congregation. We believe God has blessed both men and women with aspects of His character and wisdom that must be shared with the entire family. We want all of the voices in our family to be heard as we honor each member as a valuable gift from God.
Each week we share moments of celebration and reverence as we lean into being a “place of worship of Almighty God” as conveyed in our original land deed nearly 190 years ago. Our worship and teaching leaders are very intentional in joining the singing and preaching together into one cohesive message. We keep a close eye on what is happening in current music while also holding a deep respect for our historical a cappella roots and for the 2000 years of Christian singers who have gone before us.
We have an extremely talented combination of staff and interns, who not only serve the body faithfully, but also love, listen to and support each other very effectively as a team. Many volunteers come alongside these leaders to create engaging programs for every stage of life from our youngest to our oldest member. Our kids’ and youth ministries inspire our children to humbly dream big with God while forming enduring relationships with each other. Our adult ministries offer many ways for people to join together for prayer, study, fellowship, or service. And we have a large and strong JOY seniors ministry that continues to expand with unlimited potential.
In addition to the direct ministries of the church, we have a wonderful 30-year history in our Little School pre-school, and we have formed many active partnerships with surrounding ministries in the community and missionary efforts across the nation and world. Several of our members serve on the boards or in other leadership roles for these organizations and works, and our building is used throughout the week to provide a place for classes of all types, recovery groups, and other services. We encourage our members to support and join these ministries as part of the overall work that God is accomplishing in His kingdom.
We recognize our need to be guided by the Holy Spirit in all that we do. We believe the Holy Spirit is actively working in scripture and in our lives today to draw all to the Father by way of the Son. We see the evidences of His work through all of human history, including in our own direct story of how Fourth Avenue Church was birthed and developed over the last 190 years here in Franklin.
We do not claim to know what the next 190 years hold (or even the rest of this current year!), but we thank God for bringing us to this point and know that He will faithfully complete His good work in Franklin and beyond (Philippians 1:6). To God be the glory.