The year was 1895.
President Grover Cleveland was in his second term, W.E.B. Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, the very first professional game of American football was played, and the final land run on the Oklahoma and Indian Territories unseated Kickapoo tribal members from their lands.
The legacy of each of those historical events lives on, as does the legacy of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Claremore.
Mount Zion began as weekly prayer meetings in the homes of some of the early members.
Brothers John Powell, Green Hamilton, Burton Ewing, and Sisters Viney Robertson and E. Hamilton began holding regular church services in the old Cherokee Court House.
As Mt. Zion Historian Judith Johnson recounted, “A permanent place for worship was keenly felt as the membership began to grow.”
They secured a small frame building, 24 by 29 feet, on the northwest side of town. The same small building served as the segregated black grade school.
Within a few years, the church and school were moved to the southwest side of town and enlarged slightly to accommodate the growth. This was around the same time that the Claremore School Board was forced to hire a teacher for the school in 1899.
Shortly after statehood, in 1909, Claremore built a red brick veneer schoolhouse for black children named after President Abraham Lincoln on the corner of Sixth Street and what is now Owala.
“The membership continued to increase numerically and spiritually,” Johnson said.
Eventually a more substantial building was put in place for Lincoln Schools, and the church continued to meet and grow in the building until 1957.
On Easter Sunday of 1957 the church moved to a site they purchased along Highway 66. They met there for a year, until the state decided to widen 66 to a four-lane road, and they were forced into meeting at the school once again.
Claremore Public Schools desegregated and eventually shut down Lincoln, but allowed Mt. Zion to continue to meet in the building. But by the 1990s, the building was falling apart.
In 2000, with the help of the Claremore Ministerial Alliance, Mt, Zion Baptist Church was able to build a 5,400-square-foot church building, debt free, where it currently stands at 805 N. Oseuma Ave.
While historically black, today the church family is diverse.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, your background, your race, your nationality, your sex, we’re all the same,” Reverend Kevin Williams Sr. said. “Come be a part of a church that feels like home.”
Stylistically, service opens with a call to worship, with soulful gospel songs directing the church family to focus their minds and hearts on Jesus, letting the world outside the walls fade into nothingness for an hour or two.
Following announcements is an altar prayer, a chance to hold hands with those around you and pray together for the needs of the church family.
Sunday’s service was a perfect metaphor for the last 124 years of the church.
Rev. Williams spoke on 2 Chronicles 20: 14-17, and the lesson of chapter 20 as a whole.
“Now is not the time to give up,” he said.
With the sing-song preaching style and call and response that feature regularly in the expression of faith for so many, Williams taught three steps to keep people from throwing in the towel when times get rough.
• Recognize it’s God’s battle.
“There are many who are fighting daily battles for one reason or another. Battles are small confrontations that are only a part of a great war,” Williams said. “Each of our small battles are pivotal in God’s war.”
• Go into pre-battle prayer.
“The prayer they prayed was not a canned prayer, filled with metaphors and big sophisticated words. It was one of those, driving in your car, stalled at a red light and the car won’t come back on, in deep thought kind of prayers, where all you can say is ‘Lord, have mercy.’”
• Prepare for the victory.
“It doesn’t matter whether God fights the battle for us or God fights the battle with us, those who fight in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ are guaranteed the victory.”
Williams, who is also a coach at Booker T. Washington High School and Carver Middle School in Tulsa, has served as the pastor of Mt. Zion for three years. He and his wife raise a blended family of seven kids.
“One of the unique things about Mt. Zion is that everyone is very close-knit and loving,” Williams said. “There are no big I-s and little you-s. Everyone is loving and very hospitable.”
Like churches across the United States, Mt. Zion has seen a dip in membership over the last few decades, as older members pass away, and younger members move away.
“It’s the ebbs and flows of life. Different circumstances come about,” Williams said. “It’s up to us to give it to God and let him handle the problems that come … If we fully give all of our issues to God, he is able to do anything but fail.”
The church’s ability to not throw in the towel, and instead rely on God, is exactly how they’ve made it this long, Williams said.
“We’re not big, but we are continuous and strong,” Johnson said.
That same faith will lead them into the future as they prepare to expand their outreach programs this year with a food pantry, tutoring program and College Sunday monthly hot dinner.
“This coming September will be 125 years for the church,” Williams said. “That is quite an accomplishment. So many churches come and go, but even in the most difficult times, Mt. Zion has been able to stand, and is still standing.”