Published September 25, 2008
The simple wood chapel 110 miles southeast of Memphis, Tenn., is no Crystal Cathedral. But the East Tupelo (Miss.) First Assembly of God building had a greater impact on 20th-century music than any of America’s gilded megachurches.
Inside its walls, Elvis Aron Presley discovered God and gospel music, learning to strum a guitar and sing.
Closed to the public for more than a half-century, the building was restored this year by the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. On Aug. 9, after a brief ceremony and prayer, the historic Pentecostal church again opened its doors to the world.
The building was open in time for Elvis Week 2008, which marked the 31st anniversary of Presley’s death.
The chapel seats roughly 48 people and has no frills, Foundation director Dick Guyton said.
“It’s very plain and simple,” Guyton said. “Country churches back in the 1920s and 1930s were not real fancy.”
No steeple crowns its rooftop. No stained-glass windows line its walls.
In many ways, it was a typical Assembly of God church from that era, said Darrin Rodgers, director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, Mo.
“Early Pentecostals were concerned with spreading the gospel and sending missionaries out and telling people about Jesus. ... They were practical rather than concerned about leaving an architectural legacy,” Rodgers said.
The lack of ornamentation reflected not only their priorities, but their worldview.
“Early believers were committed to the idea that Christ could come back at any moment. It seemed logical to them that the best investment that would not be eaten up by moths or rust would be in souls, not fancy buildings.”
When the church opened again, it looked a lot like it did on Jan. 8, 1935, the day Elvis Presley entered the world.
The church, which Presley attended for 13 years, was within walking distance of his home, said gospel music historian Jim Goff. Elvis’ parents, Vernon and Gladys, were faithful members.
“I don’t think they were Christmas and Easter attenders. They would’ve attended fairly regularly and they knew the preacher fairly well,” said Goff, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
Indeed, Pastor Frank Smith, who died last year at the age of 80, is credited with teaching Presley to play a few basic chords on a guitar.
The Presleys certainly didn’t go to the plain-looking chapel to impress the neighbors, who often viewed “Holy Rollers” with suspicion and contempt.
“They went because they got something out of it – out of the music, out of the preaching, out of the friendship,” Goff said.
Records indicate that Vernon Presley briefly served as the church secretary, according to Pastor David Lann of East Heights Assembly of God in Tupelo – the church that replaced First Assembly.
Lann said there aren’t many traces of Presley in the congregation’s files. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a photo of him” attending the church, he said.
The memories have also faded. “The people that used to be around, most of them have passed on,” Lann said.
The congregation had a lifelong impact on young Elvis.
“In many ways,” Goff said, “I think his musical tastes and his understanding of religion and worship, those things had already been formed at the Assembly of God Church in Tupelo.”
After the church built a larger building, the tiny tabernacle was turned into a private residence. It largely stayed out of the public eye until it was purchased by the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation.
In January, the foundation moved the structure to the Elvis Presley Birthplace site and launched a $600,000 restoration project.
“We were able to salvage about half the church. The rest of it was beyond use,” Guyton said.
Visitors will be able to watch a DVD presentation about the historic church. Of course, the video will include music.
“[We want] to allow the visitor as he sits in the pew to become part of a worship service from an old Assembly of God church back in the 1930s and ‘40s,” Guyton said.
Elvis Presley’s boyhood church was dedicated at Aug. 9. The Elvis Presley Birthplace site, museum, park, and memorial chapel are located at 306 Elvis Presley Drive in Tupelo, Miss. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children. More information is available at www.elvispresleybirthplace.com or at (662) 841-1245.
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