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Churches and Religion

Pages 29-34

Historical Sketches of Iowa Baptists, 1886

S. H. Mitchell

 Published by Burdette Co., Burlington, Iowa



Peculiarities of the Field - Anecdotes of Early Iowa History -
Elements of Growth - Seed Sowing - Colporteur Work Baptist -
Centres - Disappointments.

BEFORE proceeding to sketch the growth of Iowa Baptists in the second decade, beginning with 1845, it may be well to note some of the peculiarities of the field in which this growth was to take place.

In 1834, when our story began, the territory now comprising the state of Iowa was "placed under the jurisdiction of the territory of Michigan. Two years later the territory of Wisconsin was created, including what is now Iowa. In 1838 Iowa itself was made a territory, and December 28, 1846, it was admitted to the Union as a State.  "[See Encyclopedia Britannica; Article, Iowa] In 1836 there were but two counties, Des Moines, with a population of 6,257, and Dubuque, with 4,274; total 10,531.

It would be safe to assume that the elements of society opposed to the gospel would be about the same here as elsewhere. The followers of Cain had preceded, probably, those of him whose blood "speaketh better things than that of Abel." The first execution for murder was in June, 1834, that of Patrick O'Connor, at Dubuque, for the murder of one George O'Keaf. Judge Lynch presided at the trial. Two or three anecdotes will serve to show some of the forms of sin. About 1839 there was a dispute between Iowa and Missouri concerning the boundary line between them. A strip of territory six miles wide was claimed by both. It was likely to come to arms. Angry forces were gathering on either side and moving to the front, when happily better counsels prevailed, and the dispute was settled in favor of Iowa. It is related that before the settlement one Iowa officer started to the Missouri border with thirty men and six provision wagons. Of the six five were freighted with whiskey.

In 1841 an anti-slavery meeting at Washington was being addressed by Samuel Howe, of Mount Pleasant, and a Congregational preacher from Brighton, Iowa. An attempt was made to break up the meeting. Here again the principal disturbing elements were whiskey and the loungers about the saloon. There is evidence that our Baptist fathers were actively engaged for the right from the first.

The following anecdote illustrates the kind of appeal our hardy pioneers were wont to make, and their success, oftentimes, with the roughest characters. It was in Dubuque. A person was soliciting aid of a number of young men to build the first meeting house in the territory—a Methodist. The solicitor is described as a tall, angular, somewhat uncouth frontiersman, with only one eye. One of the group of young men solicited, responded, "he would give a dollar towards the building of a gambling house, but nothing for a church." The old man drew himself up, and directing his one eye upon the group, said in a mild tone of voice: "You are all young men who, I have no doubt, have been raised by Christian parents. Many of you may live to raise families upon 'the Purchase.' If so, I am sure none of you will blush when you tell your children that you helped to build the first meeting house on the 'Blackhawk Purchase.'" After two or three minutes' silence, the young man broke out: "Old Hoss, here's a dollar," and was followed by all the others with from fifty cents to a dollar each.

We turn now more directly to our own history for the second decade. During the first half of this period, from 1845 to 1850, the growth seems to have been rather slow. It was the time of the great movement across the plains to Oregon and California. Prior to 1850 no less than five of the pioneer Baptist ministers of Iowa had removed to Oregon, and were followed soon after by two or three others. In 1845 there were 190 Baptisms, and the total membership was 523. There were yet but the two Associations. The third Association, the Fox River, was not organized till 1849. This was on the southern border, stretching towards the Missouri River. Churches not before mentioned had been organized at Mount Pleasant in 1843, at Agency City in 1844, at Libertyville in 1845, and at Fairfield in the same year. At Blue Grass, in Scott county, there was an organization in the same year (1845); also the Liberty church, near Charleston, in Lee county. At Lamotte, Jackson county, in 1844, and Maquoketa in 1848, and in the same year at Marion, Linn county.  In 1849, probably, there were two churches organized in Davis county,—North Union and Chequest Union. There seems to have been an organization at Leon, in Decatur county, as early as 1848. To those at all observant of the geography of Iowa, these figures will be instructive as to the spread of the work in those parts of the state.

From a table furnished by Rev. T. S. Griffith, then of Keokuk, in 1862, for the dates respectively of 1850 and 1861, we have the following facts. The statistics are said to be as nearly correct as could be furnished at the time. There were, in 1850, Baptist churches in 25 of the 100 counties of the state. Whole number of churches 54; ministers 32; members, 1,654; baptized previous to that date, 1,095; meeting houses, 13 in 9 counties. According to the  Convention Minutes the whole number in 1850 Avas 1,144, The discrepancy would be easily accounted for by allowing for unreported churches and members. The estimated value of church property at this time was $23,700.

In the foregoing statistics I have tried to photograph the elements of growth in our Baptist Zion up to the date named. One of the earliest pioneers, speaking of the conditions of this work, says: "These were not the days of railroad coaches and cushioned carriages, but of immigrant trails, unbridged rivers, creeks and sloughs, old lumber wagons, prairie schooners and worn-out saddles. One missionary and his wife came forty miles to the first meeting of the Davenport Association on a one-horse cart, constructed out of the hind wheels and axle of an old lumber wagon, with a couple of old rails for these and a bundle of oats for a cushion.'' It is said that the good people of Davenport, even at this early day, evinced a little pride in the nervous haste with which, as soon as the minister and his wife had alighted, they "hustled the cart behind the barn."

Doubtless an important factor in the seed-sowing of these early days, from which a rich harvest has since been reaped, was the dissemination of religious books. In 1844, Lewis Colby, a publisher in New York, consigned to M.W. Rudd six hundred dollars' worth of books, which Bro. Rudd carried from settlement to settlement, on his back, and on foot, striding his way often, he says, for miles, with a pack of books almost as heavy as a bushel of wheat upon his shoulders. One trip he gives an account of, in which he visited Maquoketa, Anamosa, Marion and Cedar Rapids, and thence to the home of L. F. Temple, near Agency City; thus almost encircling the settlements of the entire territory -of that time. Who can estimate the fruits that may be gathered in the Lord's own way and time, from the seed thus laboriously sown?

L. F. Temple and the Baptist settlement at Agency City, evidently, at one time, promised to become an important Baptist center. It was at the very border line of the "New Purchase," and to all appearance an important strategic point for our broad-minded fathers to occupy for the prosecution of the great work which they already discerned in the opening domain, stretching out to the west and north beyond. Although unforeseen changes caused their plans seemingly to fall to the ground for the time, we cannot but admire the courage and the foresight, as well as the consecration to the Master's cause, that show themselves in the plans proposed by those who first began to occupy this field. L. F. Temple yielded to the force of the gold excitement that swept so many across the plains, went to California, and died of cholera at New Orleans on his return to "the States."

How many disappointments of our work have grown out—not of mistakes in locating churches and enterprises, we can hardly call them mistakes; but—of changes in surroundings and conditions that have rendered it necessary to do our work over again. Many of the churches organized in the first two decades of our history did not survive the third. Camps of drill, they were, and halting stations, and like individual Christian lives, though dead they yet speak. Nothing has been lost that was done for Christ. "Man proposes but God disposes."

In our next chapter we shall seek to unfold the history of movements in connection with missionary and educational work, to be followed by the spread of associational and church organization in the newer parts of the state. There will necessarily be less of detail and more of general survey.

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