HOCU | The Bishop who built a church himself


Sidney Malone

Bishop King James Underwood speaks to the congregation on Sunday. Bishop Underwood was the senior pastor of the New Will Free Baptist Church for 42 years, but retired in September.

By Faith Allendorf, Managing Editor for Reporting

Urbana resident Bishop King James Underwood built his life from the ground up with many tools, whether they be hammers or his faith in Christ.

Bishop Underwood was born in 1938 on a plantation called Panther Burn, which is named after the Black Panthers. The plantation was within the Mississippi Delta.

At the time, Mississippi was a Jim Crow state, where things, as Bishop Underwood said, were “separate and not equal.” 

“We had a different bathroom from the whites, and when we had water fountains, we couldn’t drink out of the same ones whites drank out of,” Bishop Underwood said. “You couldn’t eat in certain places or stay in hotels because they had that law.”

Bishop Underwood recalled a time in high school when he was not allowed to eat in a restaurant during a field trip.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    “They would not allow me to come in to eat, and they didn’t go to that restaurant to eat because I was left out,” Bishop Underwood said.

    Bishop Underwood mentioned that while they weren’t close, he knew and used to play with Emmett Till — a young Black boy who was brutally tortured and lynched in 1955 after being accused of offending a White woman. 

    “He didn’t even know the woman,” Bishop Underwood said. “He was just down visiting his grandaddy in Mississippi … and we had fun, and I knew him as another person we played with.” 

    After graduating high school, Bishop Underwood and his family ran into trouble and had to flee the South because of an incident that lead to death threats.

    The Bishop said his family was “great cotton pickers,” for they could pick 1600 pounds of cotton a day. Because he was the youngest, James was the one to take the cotton to the cotton gin where it would be bailed and later sold by the sharecropper. 

    Bishop Underwood’s dad told him to bring all of the cotton money back, but the sharecropper refused and was going to take some of the money. James told them that his dad said to bring all of the money back, and the sharecropper was insulted.

    “He was going to hang me and they called me a smart-mouthed ****** because I stood up and wanted to do what my dad wanted done,” Bishop Underwood said. “That night, I had to leave because they came looking for me.” 

    After moving to C-U, Bishop Underwood became a minister of the gospel, where he would preach for 20 years. Eventually, at an annual conference, Bishop Underwood was elected as a vice bishop to the bishop that was over Kentucky. Soon enough, though, James became the bishop over Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. 

    “One year after (the previous bishop) was elected, he died, and that made me become the bishop over three states,” he said. 

    Bishop Underwood served in that position for nine years before he was elected as the general bishop of the Western Division Free Will Baptist, where he was over nine states of Baptist churches. He was in this position for another nine years before a stroke left him unable to serve.  

    Bishop Underwood has always been a hands-on person. While growing up in the South, he learned a lot of “survival skills,” and he was also a Boy Scout. Bishop Underwood recalled learning hunting, fishing, canning, growing crops and construction. 

    “We were never hungry … because we were hunters,” Bishop Underwood said. “We lived good because of survival skills.” 

    In high school, Bishop Underwood was in industrial arts where he made tools and other things. One year, he went to an Illinois State competition in industrial arts. Out of the whole state, he took second place.

    Bishop Underwood’s love of God and his trade skills would lead him to take on one of his biggest projects: building a church.

    Bishop Underwood is the founder of New Free Will Baptist Church in Champaign, a church that he built with his “own bare hands.” The Bishop said that in 1979, God had told him to build the church. The church was built in two years, and since he had built it himself, the building was debt free.

    “God said that I gotta build a house for the people,” Bishop Underwood said. “Everyone thought that I wouldn’t be able to finish it, but I did it.” 

    When Bishop Underwood initially went to build his church, the city would not allow it. They told him that he had to go through trade school at the University. But that was unnecessary, for Bishop Underwood said that his lifetime already provided the training he needed.

    When an inspector came by to inspect Bishop Underwood’s church, they were blown away.

    “He said, ‘I never seen anything like this. You mean you built this?’” Bishop Underwood said. “They didn’t give me that chance or opportunity to show that I could do it … because I didn’t fit their mold.”

    In addition to being the senior pastor at the church, Bishop Underwood worked full time at Alloy Engineering for 35 years. He also provided outreach and religious services to those at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.

    Bishop Underwood was a representative for Project Reality in 1985 for the C-U area – a project dealing with teaching and evaluating adolescent health education. His leadership at his church started the Good Morning Breakfast program, which provided meals for Birch Village Housing Project children.

    For 42 years, Bishop Underwood was the senior pastor of the church, with his wife by his side as the associate minister. In September this year, Bishop Underwood retired, and his son took over. 

    Bishop Underwood’s wife, Dr. Evelyn Burnett Underwood, said that her husband’s retirement dinner was “big,” and people came from many places to celebrate and support the bishop.

    “We had a big dinner, and people came from Indiana and other places in Illinois — there were probably about 200 people,” she said. 

    For all of his life, hard work and persistence defined him as he built his life from the ground up. Today, Bishop Underwood looks upon his life with contentment.

    “It’s been a good life,” he said.


    [email protected]