Longtime pastor Ed Hightower has had a ‘grand time,’ much spent in Vicksburg

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 5, 2008

It was an historic day when Ed High-tower preached his first sermon as pastor of a church — not necessarily because of his message, but because of the date: Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor Day.

Church was over, and he was on his way back to Meridian with friends who had given him a ride to his new charge, when they stopped for a loaf of bread. When his friend came back to the car, Hightower said he was as pale as a ghost, pitched the grocery sack into the car, and exclaimed, “My God, we’re at war.”

That wasn’t all that happened that day which Hightower will never forget: he was to preach two sermons in Wayne County, one at Hebron Methodist Church in the morning and the other at Big Rock in the afternoon. The second appointment could have been traumatic for a young man just starting out in the ministry, for the folks at the country church didn’t know anyone had been appointed as minister, so nobody came for services.

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Ed Hightower was the only boy of four children and was born in Meridian in 1921. He grew up attending Fifth Street Methodist Church where his parents and grandparents worshiped. Something happened in Meridian when he was a senior in high school that changed his life.

“A youth revival was held in the city, and young people from every church came,” he recalled. The event was planned by two well-known Methodist ministers, the Rev. Tom Prew-itt, who later served in Vicksburg, and the Rev. Tom Carruth.

Shortly after that meeting ended, High-tower said, “I felt like the Lord was telling me I had to preach, so I went and talked to my pastor about it, and he guided me.”

Hightower had to go before a district licensing committee — “It’s not like that now” — and they quizzed him thoroughly and gave him books to read. The next year, he entered Milisaps College and after graduation spent a year at Emory University in Atlanta.

“I had to do something to help pay my tuition, so I went to work for Western Union,” he said. He had to have a bicycle, as he was a courier, and he borrowed $5 from one of his roommates in college to purchase one.

He wasn’t your regular Western Union delivery boy. In addition to the usual messages, he delivered singing telegrams.

‘I have enjoyed the ministry and feel like I was called to it. I’ve had a grand time, and some of my great days have been in Vicksburg.’

“It didn’t matter what the telegram read,” he said. It could be a congratulatory message or just a routine one, but for an extra dollar the delivery boy sang it.

There was one tune that was used — Hightower has forgotten it — and when the recipient opened the door, “I sang to him. Lots of folks looked like they were going to faint. I thought it was kind of stupid, but I got through it.”

He left Western Union to become a bellhop at the Robert E. Lee Hotel in Jackson. His uniform was provided, but there was no salary — he worked for tips, which were usually generous.

“Mercy, what a time I had getting through school,” he said.

His first assignment, the Waynesboro circuit, had seven churches he served. None of them met every Sunday, and four alternated services twice-monthly, morning and afternoon.

He said he tried to fine-tune his sermons, that usually he delivered the same message to each congregation.

Did they get better and better?

“Let’s hope so,” he chuckled.

The people in that first charge were so good to him, he said, that “you would think I had been in the ministry serving them for 25 years.”

From Waynesboro he was moved to the Hattiesburg area, and eventually he was sent to Port Gibson where he also served churches at Pattison, Willows and Rocky Springs. He later came to Gibson Memorial, when it was located on south Washington Street in Vicksburg.

He pastored about 40 churches before retiring after 46 years and has a list of marriages, funerals and baptisms he has performed, but they are too numerous to keep up with. He was pastoring Highland Church in Meridian when he retired, and though he and his wife, Lillian, are both from Lauderdale County, they owned a home in Vicksburg and decided to make this their home.

He’s back at Gibson Memorial, in a new facility on Oak Ridge Road, where he serves as assistant pastor but is involved in numerous church activities. His major duty, he said, is visiting the members and those who are sick or in need.

Being a small-town or country pastor isn’t likely to  make you rich, but Hightower, who will be 87 on Oct. 27, feels “it’s worth whatever you lose,” and he will continue as long as he can.

“I have enjoyed the ministry and feel like I was called to it,” he said. “I’ve had a grand time, and some of my great days have been in Vicksburg.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.