The Birthplace of Gospel Music

In 1920, Rev. J.F. Thomas and the Ebenezer Church met with the congregation of a Jewish synagogue, and finalized plans to purchase the Isaiah Temple at 45th Street and Vincennes Avenue in Bronzeville. This building continues to be the home of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.

Thomas did not live to see the opening of the new church building, however. He preached his 54th anniversary sermon on August 16, 1920. And on August 26, a few days shy of his 78th birthday, Rev. Thomas died. The Chicago Defender remembered him as one of Chicago's greatest pastors. A monument to his memory is located in Lincoln Cemetery. Shortly after his death, the Rev. Charles Henry Clark from Nashville, Tenn., succeeded Thomas and became Ebenezer’s second pastor. Two years later, however, Clark resigned as pastor of Ebenezer.

Ebenezer then invited the Rev. James Howard Lorenzo Smith from Birmingham, Ala., to be the church’s third pastor beginning March 16, 1931. During Rev. Smith’s 27-year tenure at Ebenezer, the church became known as “the birthplace of gospel.” Rev. Smith was not satisfied with the style of music he initially found at Ebenezer. On December 6, 1931, he preached to his congregation about a vision he had received. Rev. Smith’s vision was of a choir of Christian men and women sitting behind him singing what he called, “Good old-fashioned songs sung by our forefathers down in the southland.” In this sermon, Rev. Smith gave the call for the organization of the first gospel chorus.

Rev. Smith put together a team of music innovators to direct the chorus. He called upon professor Theodore Frye as director and professor Thomas A. Dorsey as pianist. In January 1932, after only a month of rehearsals, the Ebenezer gospel chorus made its debut in a church filled to capacity. The 100-member chorus wowed the congregation with their soulful Southern-influenced spiritual sound. Six weeks after the chorus made its initial public appearance, Dorsey left Ebenezer to direct a new gospel chorus at Pilgrim Baptist Church. In spite of this loss, Ebenezer Gospel Chorus continued to prosper under Frye’s leadership.

In 1935, Ebenezer’s musical program expanded to include a senior choir, a junior church choir, and a junior gospel chorus. Ebenezer’s celebrated music department has helped shaped musical greats such as Dinah Washington, Edward Colvin, Willie Brown, Willa Mae Ford Smith, Robert Anderson, Milt Hinton, Willie Webb, Delois Barrett, Billie Mae Barrett, the Norfleet Brothers, Theodore Charles Stone, Sallie Martin and Ethelynde Armstrong Engram.


  1. Wanted to compliment the choir and the soloists for the beautiful performance of the :Messiah” viewed on tv recently (church channel) Dec. 2018 date. Excellent!!

    1. Thank you for the kind sentiments. We trust you will be able to join us in person for this year’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. More information will be posted to site soon!

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