The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia has an exciting and remarkable history. Starting on December 11, 1698, just 6 years after William Penn established the “city of brotherly love”, it began in a small abandoned building known as the Barbadoes Storehouse which it shared with some Presbyterians. Very soon after the Baptists obtained their own meeting place at Anthony Morris’ Brewhouse at the intersection of Water and Dock Streets.
In 1707 the congregation took over the Keithian Quaker Meeting House next to Christ Church Episcopal at Second and Market and in this building the Philadelphia Baptist Association was formed that same year. For the next 24 years the work flourished so that in 1731 the Meeting House was replaced by a large brick building measuring 42 feet by 30 feet and was called LaGrange Place. This in turn was replaced in 1808 by a still larger and more imposing structure. In 1746 the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia was constitutionally separated from the Pennepek Church from which it had sprung in 1698 and had continued to share its minister. The REV. JENKIN JONES then resigned from Pennepek and ministered solely to the Philadelphia Church until his death in1760 at age 74. (His tombstone is in the lower stairwell of the present church.)
The following year REV.MORGAN EDWARDS arrived from England to become Pastor and to begin an outstanding ministry. It was said of him in 1881, “In his day no Baptist minister equaled him, and none since his time has surpassed him.” He was largely responsible for the establishment of Rhode Island College which later became BROWN UNIVERSITY. His preaching drew great crowds and he was actively involved in the politics of his day and at one time placed under house arrest. During his time the Voting Rights of Women in the church was raised and agreed to.
Church life suffered during the War of Independence when membership declined and it was noted that , “the church and society here (are) in a broken state”. Its most notable member at this time was DEACON SAMUEL MILES who in 1790 was elected Mayor of Philadelphia. (A Memorial tablet to him is in the stairwell.)
In 1804 the church’s FIRST CHOIR was formed and was accompanied by ‘violin, clarionette , violincello and bassoon’. There was no ORGAN until 1829 and for several years this was pumped by men and boys. It was moved to the new church at Broad and Arch in 1856 and was subsequently electrified.
In 1789 the church gave birth to its first daughter church - Roxborough Baptist Church
In 1803 the Second Baptist Church in Northern Liberties was formed
In 1804 the Blockley Baptist Church
In 1809 the First African Baptist Church
And during the rest of the 19th. Century at least 7 other daughter churches came into being.
In 1806 DR. WILLIAM STAUGHTON became pastor and his fiery preaching and indefatigable labors drew such crowds that it became necessary for the LaGRANGE CHURCH to be enlarged again and during the process the congregation worshipped in the State House now called Independence Hall. Staughton went on to spearhead the Baptist drive for Foreign Missions and Higher Education and in 1823 became President of Columbian College now George Washington University.
It was during the ministry of DR. HENRY HOLCOLMBE (1812 -1824) that two most significant events in Baptist history took place. In 1814 the “General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination of the United States for Foreign Missions” was formed: a NATIONAL DENOMINATIONAL BODY. The second in 1815 was the start of a SUNDAY SCHOOL, just one month after the Presbyterians had opened Philadelphia’s first Sunday School. The years 1816 - 1825 were periods of contention and dispute over such matters as using lamps rather than candles, matters related to the Philadelphia Baptist Association, theological disagreements and the legality of the church’s constitution, but with the coming of DR. WILLIAM BRANTLY as Pastor in 1825 the church saw amazing growth and by 1835 had 635 members. During his 11-year pastorate he baptized 600 people and led the church in making extensive improvements to the Meeting House. In 1837 Dr. Brantly helped to convene a meeting of 424 delegates from 24 states to form the AMERICAN AND FOREIGN BIBLE SOCIETY.
1839 saw the formation of an organization of Baptist women, the Evangelical Sewing Society, popularly known as the DORCAS SOCIETY with its purpose “to assist young men studying for the ministry and to promote social life in the congregation”. Their main activity however was sewing for the poor.
Dr. Brantly was succeeded by DR. GEORGE BARTON IDE in 1838. He was one of America’s great preachers and in 1843 during a powerful revival at which he preached, 110 people were baptized. He also was concerned about higher education for young people and he was greatly instrumental together with members of First Baptist in the founding in 1846 of the University of Lewisburg later to become BUCKNELL UNIVERSITY; the name changed when William Bucknell, a wealthy businessman and a trustee of the church gave significant amounts of money to rescue it from closing. Other leaders in the church served in leadership positions at Bucknell or served as Faculty members. Among these was ROBERT LOWRY who was baptized by Dr. Ide and taught in one of the church’s mission Sunday Schools and later became an outstanding minister in Pennsylvania and New York. He was the composer for the music of many familiar hymns such as :
Shall we gather at the river?
We’re marching to Zion
I need Thee every hour
What can wash away my sin?
All the way my Savior leads me
It was in 1862 while visiting Philadelphia to preach at First Baptist and following the Wednesday night Prayer meeting that JOSEPH H. GILMORE wrote the words of the hymn He Leadeth Me after preaching on Psalm 23. They were written on some scrap paper which his wife subsequently found on his desk and she sent them to a religious magazine. The lyrics were set to music by the composer of many famous hymns, William Bradbury.
The 1840’s were the years of debate over the institution of SLAVERY and Baptists like the Methodists and Presbyterians were divided over the issue. Subsequently the denomination was split and the Southern Baptist Convention was formed while Baptists in the North developed several independent societies including the American Baptist Missionary Union, the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the American Baptist Publication Society. The American Baptists stated categorically that “we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery”.
In 1852 the church had outgrown its building on LaGrange Place and purchased property at the corner of Arch and Broad Streets and, in 1853, Dr. Ide laid the cornerstone for a magnificent building with a towering steeple, although by this time he had accepted a call to pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1860 most of the graves from LaGrange cemetery were moved to MOUNT MORIAH CEMETERY in southwest Philadelphia and in 1884 a tall, imposing monument to all deceased pastors was erected in the First Baptist Church section of the cemetery. In the same year GRAVESTONES of several early pastors were placed inside the new building at Broad and Arch and these in 1900 were moved to the church at 17th. and Sansom and can be seen in the lower stairwell.
1864 saw the beginning of the 30 year pastorate of the church’s longest and most distinguished pastor , GEORGE DANA BOARDMAN. He was the son and namesake of one of American Baptist’s earliest missionaries to Burma (who died when George Jr. was a baby) and became the stepson of Adoniram Judson, who was America’s first foreign missionary. Boardman’s ministry was characterized by eloquent preaching, conscientious pastoral work and a commitment to the social implications of the gospel. He was a strong Abolitionist and supporter of the Union. He was best remembered for his 25 year series of Wednesday evening lectures in which he gave an exposition of every verse in the Bible. He lectured extensively both publicly and at the University of Pennsylvania where he served as University Chaplain and on the Board of Trustees. Dr. Boardman served 4 terms as President of the American Baptist Missionary Union and represented both American Baptists and the cause of peace at many international conferences. He published over 150 books, monographs, lectures and other papers.
It was under Dr. Boardman’s leadership that First Baptist participated in the founding of many important institutions. These included THE BAPTIST HOME for the elderly… THE BAPTIST ORPHANAGE… THE INGLIS HOME FOR INCURABLES…. THE WOMEN’S NATIONAL INDIAN ASSOCIATION and a CHINESE DEPARTMENT in the Sunday School.
Many daughter churches came into being during Dr. Boardman’s pastorate and dozens of members were released to start these causes yet the membership continued to grow. In the 1890’s the BETH EDEN BAPTIST CHURCH (a granddaughter church) merged with First Baptist and this produced a joint congregation of 835. Dr. Boardman retired in 1894 but was elected ‘honorary pastor’ and preached frequently as his health enabled him and until his death in 1903. He was succeeded in 1896 by Dr. KERR BOYCE TUPPER.
DR. TUPPER provided firm leadership and in the two years of his pastorate the membership grew from 835 to an all-time high of 1,013. He was a scholar and writer and was a worthy successor to Dr. Boardman. He added two pastoral assistants to the staff including a woman, ALMENA B. BOSSON (Aunt Mena) who served the church for 20 years as Church and Bible School visitor. It fell to Dr. Tupper to fulfill the agreement made when the two churches, First Baptist and Beth Eden) merged, to sell their respective buildings and establish a new structure midway between the two churches. This led to the building we now occupy at 17TH. AND SANSOM. The formal dedication service took place on October14, 1900 and the church began to celebrate its 200th.birthday.
One of the Church’s most famous sons was DR. WILLIAM WILLIAMS KEEN, M.D. known and honored throughout the medical world as “the father of American surgery”. He was a deacon of First Baptist throughout his life and he it was who wrote the most comprehensive account of the church’s history, The Bicentennial Celebration of the Founding of the First Baptist Church of the City of Philadelphia. In 1893 he assisted in performing secret cancer surgery on President Grover Cleveland, about which he wrote in 1917. Dr. Keen was greatly influential in the church’s life until his death in 1932 at age 95.
The early years of the 20th. Century was a time of great tension and division in the Protestant Churches as pastors and people wrestled with “critical scholarship” of the Bible and the so-called ‘Modernism’ of the Theologians. Dr. Tupper had repudiated such teaching but his successor DR. GEORGE HOOPER FERRIS who became Pastor in 1905 held to the Modernist view. But the church was strong with a marvelous group of lay leaders who led boards and committees and staffed the Sunday School of over 500 students yet there was a significant migration of members from the city to the suburbs. Dr. Ferris maintained a strong preaching ministry and was greatly loved by the congregation and had considerable influence in civic and community groups.
From 1908 until 1936 the REV. GEORGE E. NICHOLS was the Assistant Pastor and through several incumbencies he faithfully carried out the Pastoral duties; of him it was recorded in 1917, “…. has been untiring in his efforts to keep in touch with our entire membership, and a large part of our Church’s cohesion is due to his efforts in this direction”. In 1918 DR. CARTER HELM JONES became pastor and he too was an outstanding speaker. World War I was progressing and he led the church in vigorously supporting War efforts and established a close relationship with the Navy Yard. In the early decades of the 20th. Century, First Baptist was still one of the denominations most prominent and powerful churches with distinguished members holding important positions in national and denominational life. When Dr. Jones resigned in 1923 great care was taken in calling his successor and in 1925 a young Canadian-born Baptist pastor was selected. REV. IVAN MURRAY ROSE entered upon a 32 year ministry which encompassed such significant events as the Great Depression and the Second World War. The membership of the church still included many leaders of church and state but as with many city churches, members moved to the suburbs and membership declined. When Dr. Rose retired in 1957 it was about 300.
During World War II, the church opened its doors to thousands of servicemen and women who were entertained with food and fellowship and welcomed at Sunday services. After the war there was another exodus to the suburbs but the church struggled to maintain its services and established a COMMUNITY CENTER for children after school and on Saturdays for recreation and Bible Study, and CAMP VENTURE in the summer.
In 1949 a SANCTUARY FIRE destroyed the entire chancel area, the organ, pulpit furniture and the 12 stained glass windows in the dome. Fortunately insurance covered the replacement of all but the windows and gave the church one of the city’s finest musical instruments, a magnificent Moeller organ.
1951 saw the arrival of J. EARL NESS, Jr. as organist and Choir Director and he was to develop an outstanding music ministry until his death in 1987.
DR. OWEN MILTON WEATHERLY became pastor in 1958 and while he worked hard to reverse the trend of declining membership it did not come about, and when he suggested having a ‘black‘ seminary intern to work in the church it was strongly defeated. This was the time of the Civil Rights movement and the church was not inclined to get involved. Dr. Weatherly resigned in 1964.
The years 1964 - 1969 saw a succession of Pastors and Associate Pastors with the church continuing to decline in numbers, but by 1969 there were signs of revitalization and “gentrification” in the City and optimism that a new Pastor in the person of REV. HOWARD HARTZELL might reverse the trend. Some progress was made and outreach projects like A.A.R.P. and Alcoholics Anonymous found a home in the church. The church participated actively in the country’s Bicentennial Celebrations calling attention to the Baptist contribution in guaranteeing Religious Liberty. When Rev. Hartzell retired in 1981 attendance had fallen to 30-40 people and it was difficult to find a replacement for him.
New life came to First Baptist in 1983 when DR. WILLIAM D. THOMPSON, Professor of Preaching at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary agreed to serve on a part-time basis with his main responsibility being the Pulpit Ministry, and DR. PETER C. WOOL came as Co-Pastor with responsibility for Pastoral Care, Administration and Christian Education. Many new members joined the church and brought with them gifts and skills developed in other church and educational environments. In addition the 1980’s saw several black members joining the church and assuming leadership positions. It was a period of growth and experimentation but by 1997 both pastors had left and the maintenance of a huge and costly building together with a small congregation continued to drain the resources of the Church.
The REV. DWIGHT LUNDGREN came from the First Baptist Church of Rhode Island (America’s Oldest Baptist Church) to be Pastor in time for the 300th. Celebration in 1998 and a year of meaningful activities were held culminating in a large Banquet with former Congressman, Rev. William Gray as speaker. Rev. Lundgren resigned the following year.
From 1999 until 2006 the church was served by several Interim and fulltime pastors including the REV.ROBERT ZIMMERMAN (2000-2002) and Rev. Wesley Shipp (Interim 2003-2005) but the size of the congregation continued to fluctuate and the cost of maintenance remained burdensome. Believing that God still had a plan and purpose for First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, in 2006 the REV.GERARDO JAMES DE JESUS was inducted as the 29th full-time Pastor and served until August 2009. During his ministry an exciting outreach ministry to the Homeless called EMMANUEL MINISTRIES was started, led by Valerie Heath and the F.B.C. Mission Board and this continues to be a vital mission of the church.
Dwindling financial resources, a challenging building maintenance schedule, and a small congregation could have been our Death Knell, but with renewed faith and cautious optimism the members of F.B.C. in October 2009 invited DR. PETER WOOL (a former pastor) to return as our Transitional Pastor. On September 15, 2014, ownership of the renown First Baptist Church Building at 17th and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia was transferred in an historic agreement. In order to sustain their continued presence and ministry, the members of First Baptist Church found it necessary to sell the building. The new owner is Liberti Church, a member congregation in the Reformed Church in America. The Liberti congregation had been worshipping here for three-and-a-half years under a lease agreement. While facing several options, the membership of First Baptist chose Liberti instead of a commercial development interest, so that this building would continue to be a source of ministry, healing, and a center for community life and support. The First Baptist Church congregation still worships in this location under a lease agreement with the Liberti Church.
In 2016, the congregation voted to become a "Welcoming and Affirming" Baptist Church. In September of 2018, after the retirement of Dr. Wool, First Baptist called REV. DR. QUINTIN L. ROBERTSON to serve as its Interim Minister. Dr. Robertson is the first African-American called to shepherd First Baptist, making this a historic and important appointment.
After several years of searching, First Baptist called the REV. JAMES K. P. WILLIAMS in January of 2020 as their newest pastor. Unexpected to all, Rev. Williams' pastorate coincided with the CORONAVIRUS-19 global pandemic and the political upheaval that marked 2020. First Baptist actively served marginalized communities--particularly the elderly and those suffering from homelessness--throughout by regularly and enthusiastically delivering food and aide. First Baptist sought to shepherd the city during the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, participating in non-violent protests, even marching from Charlottesville, VA to Washington, D.C. in condemnation of racism and racist structures and powers. Presently, First is seeking to re-engage with the Center City community through tangible service and witness.