By George Whitten, International Correspondent
MARYVILLE, ILLINOIS (Worthy News) -- The sprawling First Baptist Church in the U.S. state of Illinois was without a pastor Monday, March 9, after he was shot and later died of his injuries.
At least two other churchgoers were also wounded, but survived the attack in Maryville, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north-east of St Louis, Missouri, police said.
Worshipers said they initially weren't alarmed when a young man they didn't recognize walked up the church's center aisle during the early morning sermon and exchanged words with Pastor Fred Winters Sunday, March 8. Until he opened fire.
The gunman, identified by authorities as a 27-year-old from Troy, pulled out a .45 caliber handgun "and shot Winters three times in the chest," said Ralph Timmins of the Illinois State Police, who is handling the investigation.
Winters was using his Bible to shield himself from the bullets fired at him, he added. Churchgoers wrestled the gunmen to the ground as he brandished a knife to kill himself as his gun jammed, police said. Winters later died of his injuries.
"Some parishioners tackled him and held him on the floor," Timmins said. Two of the parishioners who jumped on the shooter received “non-life threatening” injuries from the knife, Timmons added.
About 150 people were attending the service at the time of the shooting. The church has an average attendance of more than 1,200 and was officially organized on March 4, 1945, according to their Web site.
The latest incident was expected to reignite a debate on the many guns available in the United States and growing attacks against churches. "The shooting this morning is a tragic situation, but unfortunately, one that has been witnessed many times over the years," Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network (CSN), which advises churches and other Christian institutions on security issues.
In the first two months of this year, CSN registered 139 incidents in 31 states "against Christian churches, schools and ministries," he said in a statement monitored by Worthy News.
"This most recent violent incident against a Christian church in a small town in downstate Illinois is another reminder that these incidents are not going to stop and can occur anywhere, at any time. The only recourse that churches have to is to acknowledge that it can happen to them and to be prepared," he added.
Funeral arrangements for the pastor were not immediately announced.