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The Baptist Church in Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, February 4, 1934

The Baptist Church in Dayton
by Howard Burba

To record the beginning of the Baptist church in Dayton is to rewrite the beginning of Dayton. For with the very first settlers came members of this congregation, and scarcely had those settlers erected their rough homes until the same axes used in that work were turned to the hewing out of a house of worship.

            The first Baptist church in Ohio, or the Northwest Territory as it was called in that early day was organized at Columbia, five miles above Cincinnati, and now a part of that city, in the year 1790. The town had been settled about a year and a half before this, a few months only after the settlement of Marietta and before Cincinnati, by  a band of 25 persons from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In their little company there were six Baptists. That number was increased to nine before their organization into a church, which took place one Saturday at the house of Benjamin Davis, under the direction of Rev. Stephan Gano. Their first pastor of the church was Rev. John Smith, from Pennsylvania.

            In 1793 a meeting house was completed, the first Protestant meeting house built in what is now Ohio. After Wayne’s victory over the Indians in 1794 to became safer for parties to attempt the settlement of points away from the Ohio river, and thus members of the original Columbia church began to scatter over the Miami valley and to form the nuclei of churches organized  in various localities.

            Among these was the church at Staunton, one mile from the present site of Troy. This was established as early as 1804. King’s Creek and Union churches sprang up about the same time. The churches at Turtle Creek, now Lebanon, and Little Prairie, now Middletown, and several others, might be mentioned in this connection.

            Who the first Baptists that settled in Dayton were cannot be ascertained. The town was laid out on the fourth of November, 1795. Daniel C. Cooper, one of the party who made the first survey and soon became titular proprietor of the place, partly by acquisition of preemption rights and partly by agreement with the settlers, reserved the four corners at the intersection of Main and Third sts., for public uses.

            In the record of the county commissioners as early as December, 1806, we find that one Charles Roe, in behalf, as it is stated, of the Baptist Union Congregation of Dayton, applied for the land on the southeast corner of Main and Third sts. as a site for a house of worship, according to Mr. Cooper’s gift. A few months later, Sept. 8, 1807, it is recorded in the same book that the petition of the Anabaptist church was granted, and then follows in due form an agreement on the part of the county commissioners to deed to the Baptist organization the ground as soon as a deed of it should be received by them from Mr. Cooper. This is the first mention of Baptists in Dayton.

            What that Baptist Union church or congregation was, and whether it had at that time any more than a nominal existence cannot be discovered. At any rate it seems not to have been strong enough to follow up and realize the claims which it had thus obtained. For, turning to the record of conveyances, we find that the lots in question were afterward deeded by Mr. Cooper and his heirs and that the one on the southwest corner went to the Methodist Episcopal church.

            Records show that Howard Dunlevy, a Baptist, came to Dayton as early as 1810. There was then a small Presbyterian church, which worshipped either in the old Academy building or the old courthouse, but which was not incorporated until two years later. Dr. James Welsh, an able man, was preaching for them. There was also a church of what was called the “New Lights,” later known as the Christian church.

            The commencement of the Baptist interest, which resulted in the formation of what is now the First Baptist church, may be associated with the removal to Dayton, about 1823, of certain Baptists from the Lebanon church. At their request, Baptist ministers occasionally visited them and preached. Among these was Stephen Gard, pastor of the Elk Creek Baptist church, in Trenton, and Wilson Thompson, pastor of the Baptist church, in Lebanon. In the division which afterwards took place among the Baptists into the Old School and the New School, both of these men went with the Old School. Thompson was a man of much natural ability. He exerted for a time a powerful influence over the churches in the Miami Association. At first he was a most zealous evangelical preacher, but after a time he embraced many radical notions. Gard, though less brilliantly gifted, was highly esteemed by those who knew him best. From the constitution of his mind he was inclined to search into and dwell upon the “mysteries” of religion, such as the “doctrine of election” and the like.

            It was on the 29th of May, 1824, that a council assembled in Dayton for the constitution of the Baptist church. Fortunately there has been preserved to posterity the original minutes of that time, in the handwriting of Elder Corbly Martin, who was clerk of the council. The names of those present, along with the names of the constituent members were set down in this, the most precious historical record in possession of the Baptist church in Dayton.

            The council was composed of 17 persons, nine of whom were ministers. Besides Wilson Thompson and Stephen Gard, already mentioned, the former of whom was moderator, there was Elder John Thomas, who was for some years pastor of King’s Creek church, and Elder John Guthridge, who had also been pastor of King’s Creek and who performed much laborious pioneer work. He was a most useful man, making no pretentions to learning. He carried his Bible with him and, feeding his own soul upon it, was prepared to feed the souls of others.

            Elder Nathaniel Tibbits, who had been pastor of the first church at Cincinnati, and a man of great energy and power, was another of the little group of organizers. Elder Jacob Melford, who had been pastor of Wolf Creek church and Tapscott church, though not a man of much talent, has been described as an exemplary Christian. He was requested to draw up the articles of faith to be presented to the council, and this interesting document, in his own handwriting, has also come down as an additional historical treasure, preserved by local Baptists to this day.

            Elder Corbly Martin, the clerk of the council, had been connected for some years with a mission to the Indians, but was living at this time within the bounds of the Lebanon church. He had frequently visited Dayton and preached. He subsequently adopted the views of the Campbellites. In the year 1874, when the Baptists of Dayton gathered to celebrate the golden anniversary of the founding of their first church here, there was but one of the original members of the first council left. He was Daniel Bryant, whose latter years were spent in the city of Urbana, O. He recalled that in connection with the council meetings several sermons were delivered, the first of the number by Elder Thompson. According to Mr. Bryant, he himself preached one of the several sermons, using a text suggested to him by his fellow-travelers as they rode horseback to attend the meeting in Dayton.

            The afternoon was spent in the examination of the candidates whose names form the first roll of the first Baptist congregation ever to be established in Dayton. They are as follows: Simeon Stansyfer, Elizabeth Stansyfer, Ganett Thompson, Andrew Clark, Rebecca Clark, Rebecca Snyder, Elizabeth Cromwell, William, George and Nancy Daniels.

            The Articles of Faith were carefully considered. They took high Calvinistic ground in connection with those of other Baptist churches of that time, using stronger expressions on some points than most Baptist churches of the present day would be willing to use in such a document. They insisted that the redemption which Christ wrought out was special and particular; in other words, that it was only for the “elect.” To these articles we append the declaration that: “We consider ourselves under obligation to attend to the example that Christ gave his disciples by washing their feet, ‘Ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.’ Yet the omission of this observance by any member shall not be a bar to fellowship.”

            This last declaration led to considerable discussion, but it was finally passed as being harmless, and was not afterward observed by the church. Feet washing had, up to this time, been more or less practiced by different churches, but was fast falling into disuse.  Elder Tibbits gave the right hand of fellowship and announced the brethren a church of Jesus Christ. Elder Gard offered the recognition prayer, and Elder Guthridge preached a sermon containing a charge to the church. After this one, Richard Davis, who had been a member of a separate Baptist church, was received into membership on the relation of his Christian experience and acknowledgement of the articles of faith.

            The council held its first meeting on the porch of William Huffman’s house at the corner of Third and Jefferson sts., where the Beckel House now stands, and after the preaching service on Sabbath morning Mrs. Lydia Huffman was baptized in the Miami river, a little to the east of the present site of the Main st. bridge, the first baptism, so far as known, that was ever witnessed in Dayton. Within three months three others were baptized, which raised the number to 13, and in September of the same year the church was received into the Miami association.

            In 1825 David Kiser, sr., was baptized. In that year also the church received a valuable accession in the person of Moses Stout, who came here from the church in Lebanon.

            For the first three years after its organization the church was supplied with preaching, generally once a month, by Elders Thompson, Gard Martin and others. In 1827, the membership being again reduced by death to 13, Rev. D.S. Burnett, then a young man, became pastor and they were encouraged to build a house of worship. The lot and building together cost about $2000 and stood on the west side of Main st. at the corner of the alley between Monument av. (then Water st.) and First st. It was in those days a comfortable building, with the pulpit placed near the entrance. Up to this time they had worshipped sometimes in the old courthouse and sometimes in a room on St. Clair st. between Second and Third. In the same year, at the request of Mr. Burnett, the church underwent some modifications in their Articles of Faith so as to make them shorter and to read better, but not to change the substance. A comparison between the two documents showed a softening down of the hyper-Calvinistic expressions continued in the older one.

            The first year of the church under Mr. Burnett the membership was increased to 48 and the succeeding year to 84. The Baptist cause now appeared to prosper and the congregation was the largest in the town. The young pastor, however, was becoming fascinated with the new doctrines of Alexander Campbell, which had for some time been spreading among the churches of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and were now being propagated to the Miami valley in part by Campbell himself.

            This new movement was expected by its author to swallow up all the Baptist churches of the southwest and for awhile it seemed that it might be successful. Fearing that the church in Dayton would be affected, and to fortify against it, Elders Gard and Thomson volunteered to visit the church alternately and preach to them sound doctrine, which in those days meant “election” and “limited atonement.” Their zeal and jealousy, however, unhappily led them too far, for they even cautioned the congregation to beware of educated ministers, of Bible and missionary societies and of all ‘human institutions.’ Thus the way was opened for a division in the church. The majority went into Campbellism, and in March, 1829, a resolution was passed rejecting everything written in the nature of Articles of Faith. Thus the church became a Cambellite church and in the same year separated itself from the association.

            Andrew Clark, Lydia Huffman, Daniel Kiser and wife had already been excluded because stoutly resisting what they felt to be the encroachment of error, they had refused to fall in with the majority. Others sympathizing with them were afterwards dismissed, viz., Moses Stout, Elizabeth Crowell, Elizabeth Bowen and Rachel Bradford. These eight were all that remained faithful to the principles upon which the church enjoyed the fellowship of the other regular Baptist churches.

            They met at the house of Elizabeth Crowell and passed the following resolution:

            “Resolved, that we keep the stand of the First Baptist church of Dayton.”

            In accordance with this position, at a subsequent meeting held at the house of Wm. Huffman, and after due notice, they felt called upon to vote the exclusion of Rev. D. S. Burnett and those who had followed home from the Baptist church of Dayton, though those persons constituting the majority had already dismissed them. They did this on the ground that Rev. Burnett and his followers had departed from the faith. They also made an effort by a petition to the supreme court to have delivered to them the church property, but the court decided that inasmuch as this belonged to the society in fee it must be under the control of the majority, notwithstanding any real or supposed error in doctrine.

            But the little band continued to hold regular meetings, enjoying the sanction and fellowship of the Miami Baptist association, with occasional preaching by Elders Jacob Mulford, Wilson Thompson and others. Thus at the close of the tenth year of its history the church was reduced about to the same number with which it started. It was a dark day, and the day of small things.

            During the yeas 1833 and 1835 they were strengthened by the addition of several new members by letter, among them being Mrs. Sarah George, Joseph McCammon, W. F. Spinning, Erasmus Osgood, E. E. Barney, with his wife and two sisters and Agustin King and wife. In 1834 there was preaching every month and prayer meeting every Sunday afternoon at some private house.

            In 1835 the house of worship owned by the “New Lights” was rented and meetings held there. A young man, Rev. Samuel R. Clark of New York, who had been sent west by the Home Mission society, was called to preach for them one-half of the time. Under his labors 11 members were received by letter, five were baptized and two restored. The congregation greatly increased, but on Sept. 11, 1835, only a few months after his settlement here and after an illness of two weeks, he was called from earth. After an appropriate funeral service, at which Dr. Moore preached the funeral sermon, he was laid in the old burying ground.

            Another crisis in the life of the church occurred at the time the secession of the Anti-Mission party took place. Nathaniel Hart, who went with the Old School, had written into local Baptist church history this account of the beginning of the division:

            “In the fall of 1835 I was one of the messengers of the Dayton church to the Miami association, then about to meet at Lebanon. The excitement between the old and new school had now become so great it was plainly manifest that the association must take up the subject. All the ordinary business was disposed of on Friday. On that evening Elder Hard, the moderator, took occasion to see me in reference to the next day’s work, and he told me he wanted some of the brothers to bring the matter up by resolution. I said that I would do it. The association met at an early hour and as soon as it was ready for business I offered a preamble and this resolution:

            “Whereas, there is great excitement and division of sentiment in the Baptist denomination relative to the subject of the benevolent institutions of the day such as Sunday schools, Bible, missionary, tract and temperance societies therefore, be it

            “Resolved, that this association regards said societies as having no authority, foundation or support in the Sacred Scripture, but we regard them as having their origin in and belonging exclusively to the world. As such, we have no fellowship for them as being of a religious character.”

            The association voted in favor of the resolution, 40 to 21.

            In 1837 Rev. Martin E. Cook, a minister of much note in the Black River association in New York, who was then in the northern part of Ohio, was called to the pastorate and preached one year or more, during which time there was a revival of interest, and eight were added by baptism. The church then numbered about 40. In the summer of 1838 Elder John L. Moore removed to Dayton and commenced a course of itinerant labor for the Ohio Baptist state convention. In January, 1839, however, he resigned that position and accepted the pastoral care of the local church. He said his object in doing so was to help the congregation erect a house of worship without which it could never rise. There were only 14 male members. Two of these were superannuated, poor and living with their children. All the members combined paid taxes on less than $10,000 worth of property, yet they subscribed $2000 for a meeting house. Young women in the congregation gave as much as $40 and $50 each. About $1000 was subscribed by citizens outside the church. For the purchase of a lot the sum of $1300 was borrowed by three individuals.

            In the winter of 1840 the house of worship was finished so services could be held in the basement. At this time Elder Moore resigned, and was succeeded by Rev. S. S. Parr, who came to this city from Zanesville. He was pastor from the spring of 1841 to December, 1843. And under his ministry about 75 persons were added to the church by baptism. He was a man of great power in the pulpit, but careless in his temporal affairs. He was succeeded by Rev. Frederick Snyder, who had been for some time a member of the local church, and licensed to preach.

            The congregation then numbered about 150, and was still struggling under the debt contracted in building the church, which stood on Jefferson st. on the site occupied in later years by the Jewish synagogue. Mr. Snyder remained with the church until May, 1851, a period of seven years. He died July 2, 1853. At his retirement the number of members reached 200 and it was during his term of service that the Wayne Street Baptist church was formed.

            The next pastor was Rev. Samuel Foljambe, who was called on Jan. 5, 1852, and resigned at the close of 1855. Rev. Samson Talbott then entered upon the duties of the pastorate and during his stay of seven years he baptized 82, bringing the total number of members up to 262. In July , 1863, he accepted the presidency of Denison university, and resigned here.

            Rev. H. Harvery, professor in the Baptist Theological seminary at Hamilton, N. Y., was called to the pastorate in October, 1863. He continued in Dayton for three years, resigning on account of ill health. On Jan. 16, 1868, Rev. Henry F. Colby, one of the most beloved ministers ever to serve a Dayton congregation, assumed the pastorate , continuing until 1903, a record in term of service not only for a minister of the local  Baptist church but for the pastorate of any church in the denomination. It was during his active and influential service that the Baptist church became one of the foremost religious institutions of the Miami valley, a position it holds to this day.

            At the death of Rev. Dr. Colby, Rev. Howard P. Whidden, became pastor of the First Baptist, serving until 1912. Subsequent pastors and their tenure of services were: Dr. J. C. Massee, from 1913 to 1919; Dr. J. B. Slocum, 1920 to 1922; Rev. William H. Geistweit, 1923 to 1929. J. B. Showers was pastor following the retirement of Rev. Geistweit, serving the congregation until the selection of the present pastor, Rev. Dr. Charles L. Seasholes, who has ably directed the activities of the historic old institution since 1931.