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Churches and Religion

Pages 179-186

Historical Sketches of Iowa Baptists, 1886

S. H. Mitchell

 Published by Burdette Co., Burlington, Iowa




On November, 1850, the American Baptist Home Missionary Society appointed a missionary to Central Iowa, with special reference to Des Moines, then Fort Des Moines. He left the State of New York, November 19, 1850 and reached Davenport on the 30th of the same month. Here he was directed to stop for more specific instructions. He was detained at Davenport for nearly three weeks by the illness of his companion. Thence he came to Des Moines where he arrived January 3, 1851. The agent of the home Mission Society, then residing at Davenport, told the missionary that in settling at Des Moines, there would be no danger of being crowded. That he would have for the nearest Baptist pastor and church on the east, Iowa City, 120 miles distant, and on the west San Francisco, 2,500, so he would find ample room. This, however, was not the exact fact. There were probably more to be found scattered over the country. There was then, or soon after, a feeble interest in or near Knoxville, under the care of Rev. G. W. Bond and his father, (there was as early as 1848 a small organization near Oskaloosa, reporting 31 members, Rev. J. Bond, pastor; Ed.), but in the main the statement was correct.

The town of Fort Des Moines, at that time, contained about 500 inhabitants. On the 18th day of January, 1851, a Baptist Church was organized consisting of 14 members. This body at once proceeded to secure a lot and inaugurate plans for building a house of worship, occupying in the meantime, the court house, dividing the time with several other denominations; sometimes permitted to have it one-half of the time, sometimes one-fourth and one-fifth of the time, according as the other denominations had or had not preachers. Most commonly the time was divided with the New School Presbyterians, Rev. Thompson Bird, pastor, with whom the missionary labored side by side until the death of Mr. Bird, some 15 years in all. He was a friend and brother and counselor, and the highest type of a Christian minister and gentleman.

It was the intention of the Home Mission Society to have the missionary to preach in Des Moines every Lord's Day, but for reasons above mentioned this was impossible. Hence he established appointments in the surrounding regions, not only on Lord's Days but on week day evenings. The Church next organized after Des Moines (first called Fort Des Moines, but now taking the simpler name), was Corey Grove, some 15 miles to the northeast of the city. There were several families of Baptists and the Church prospered for several years, and a few were baptized, but by removals the Church became essentially merged in the Church which was subsequently formed at Iowa Center, where a town was laid out, and a house of worship was erected. It may be remarked here once for all, that the missionary many times organized churches where he had no strong expectation or prospect of the organization becoming permanent or perpetual. For instance, there were found in a neighborhood several Baptist families and individuals, or, a revival breaks out and the converts too far away to be identified with an existing Church. There is no town near, nor can it be foretold where a town will be located. The obvious duty is to gather them together, organize a Church, start a Sunday School and get the members actively at work, and then look after them, preach to them or provide them with preaching until they are strong enough to care for themselves. In this way families and members are kept under Baptist influence, and in active sympathy with Baptist work. Thus they are ready when they remove to other homes, or the center of population changes, to identify themselves with, perhaps to lead out in establishing Churches which become permanent organizations. From long experience and observation he became more and more convinced of the wisdom and necessity of such procedure, and that the opposite course would be often to throw away the fruits of much of the severest missionary toil, to be harvested by other denominations. This is too obvious to need argument.

In the following summer and autumn preaching was commenced in Hartford, 15 miles south and east from Des Moines, where there was a hopeful outlook for a revival and for a Church. In the mean time, learning that there were some Baptists about six miles south in a neighborhood called Keokuk Prairie, near the site of one of Keokuk's villages, and where there then existed an Indian burying ground ; the missionary sought them out, but found that they were anti-mission Baptists and opposed to Sunday Schools. He obtained an invitation to preach there, which he accepted, or left an appointment, and in due time put in an appearance. It was at once very obvious that he was not very welcome to the leaders, for they seemed to be suspicious whereupon this might grow. Without attempting to antagonize their views directly, the gospel was preached, and the people flocked together from all the region round to hear. A glorious work of revival broke out, and spread, like a prairie fire, extending to nearly all the families for an area of miles around. About 30 were hopefully converted, most of whom were subsequently baptized. Rather an unusual course was taken by the missionary. In the progress of the meetings the work of salvation entered powerfully into the families of the old members and their children were converted, and the hearts of the parents were melted and drawn with wondrous earnestness into the work of the revival. Ere long they began to say: "well if this is the way of the Missionary Baptists, we are of their belief and practice, but we did not know it." The ultimate result seemed so certain that the preacher, without any question, baptized the converts into the organization then and there existing, a large and flourishing Sunday School was organized, and thus things went on for a time, when, with but few exceptions, the membership went into a regular Missionary Baptist organization, and the other became virtually extinct. The Missionary was anxious to avoid the perpetuity of anti-mission and anti-Sunday School Churches in Central Iowa, and the conciliatory measures and attitude adopted worked admirably to this end, and that people have ceased to be a noticeable factor in the religious life in Central Iowa. The Church thus organized was known as the Keokuk Prairie Church, but a new town was laid out on the south side of North River called Carlisle, and a Church formed. Bordering immediately on the south of the territory of this Prairie Church, it absorbed most of its strength and is now known as the Baptist Church of Carlisle. They now have a good meeting house and parsonage free of debt, and a stated pastor. At Hartford, a station already mentioned, a Church was formed and a good house of worship erected. At another neighborhood some eight miles south of Hartford and south of South River, the pastor at Des Moines, hearing that there were some Baptists, went down, got them together, preached and visited among them and made arrangements for the formation of a Church. In process of time a council was called and a church organized, which since has been known as the Baptist Church of Sandyville.

In the latter part of the year 1853, Rev. Wm. J. Sparks, living in Boone county, near the present town of Moingona, had gathered together some Baptists into a Church and preached to them. He had extended his labors some thirty miles further up the Des Moines River, where his preaching had been blessed in extended revivals. He called upon the Des Moines pastor and urged him to come to his assistance. A series of meetings was arranged, beginning with his home Church, and proceeding northward to the other points. During that trip two Churches were organized; one near Carson's Point, and the other fifteen miles north, at a point west of Homer, called then Boone Forks. There the ordinance was administered to a former member of the Baptist congregation in Des Moines. A Church was formed about the same time in Vandalia, Jasper county, where since has been erected a commodious house of worship. A preaching station was established near Monroe, in Jasper county. There was at that point a body of Baptists made up of divergent views on some points. There were a few Old School, or Hard Shell Baptists; nor especially opposed; and other regular Missionary Baptists. These, all being Baptists, were content to sink their differences in order to maintain the particular views of the Baptists, and were worshiping happily together. The pastor from Des Moines visited them, preached to them, and ultimately secured for them a pastor of Missionary Baptist views. In process of time, and with advance sentiments, a Church of our order was duly organized at Monroe, a house of worship built, and the visibility of the old organization disappeared. Preaching was commenced at Newton, the county seat of Jasper county. Here, too, a Church was formed, a house of worship and a parsonage erected, and a pastor settled.

Calls for aid came from Panora, county seat of Guthrie county. The Des Moines pastor visited them and a Church was finally organized; and another at Adel, county seat of Dallas county. An urgent call came from Winterset, the county seat of Madison county, to the Baptist pastor at Des Moines. He visited them, hunted up the Baptist members, and some months later a Council met and recognized them as a Church. The}^ settled a pastor and built a commodious house of worship In the winter of 1863-4 he visited them again, and a series of meetings continued nearly a month, and near thirty were baptized into the fellowship of the Church. The Church was greatly strengthened, and under successive pastors, and in general revivals so increased in numbers that at one time it was one of the strongest Churches in Iowa.

In Grinnell were some Baptists from northern and western New York, some of whom had known the missionary in years gone by, at the former home in the older state. They suggested and procured from the others an invitation for him to visit them and assist in gathering together and organize them into a Church. He went and preached, and baptized several converts from a revival previously enjoyed in the town, and aided them in organizing the Church; and although their number was small, and financially tli(^y were weak, they resolutely, and as rhe heart of one man, set to work to erect a house of worship; some going to the woods, cutting logs, hauling them to the mill and getting them converted into lumber, some doing the carpenter work, others the mason work, and some contributing money. The people had a mind to work, "and so the walls were built" and the finishing was completed, and "there were shoutings of grace, grace unto it.'' It should be added that the railroad company gave them the lot, and thus the first house of worship raised in Grinnell was built by the Baptists. The founder of Grinnell, and after whom the town was named, met the aforesaid Des Moines pastor away from their respective homes, during the work of the Church building, and remarked, "I do not see how those Baptists can build a house of worship, I do not know that any of them have much means, and I am sure the Congregationalists would not dare to attempt building." Grinnell was settled by a colony of Congregationalists, and it was their aim and boast that the platform of their Church was so broad and liberal and their creed so elastic and accommodating as to embrace all religious creeds and views, and so have but one denomination of Christians in the town, namely, Congregationalists. But the "iron bed-stead" of the Baptists could neither be "stretched" nor "cut off" with facile adjustments, and hence they went on and formed a distinctive Church, and history shows that many have found their home and the inspiration of their religious life and work therein.

But time and space forbid to speak in detail of the Churches gathered at Indianola, Summerset, Adel, Peoria City, Norwalk, Reeve's Settlement, Montpelier, Stuart, Prairie City, Polk City, East Des Moines, etc., etc., some 30 in all, which are now or have been connected with the Central Association.

Among the earlier ministers associated in this field we name in this reminiscence, Russell, Evans, Guild, Currier, Bond, the Arnolds, Townsend, Sparks and others who hare wrought well in their various spheres. The Central Association was organized at Vandalia and held its first regular meeting in the autumn of 1852 with the Church near Monroe, then called Harmony Church.

Besides the houses of worship now owned by Baptists in Des Moines, there are houses on the field covered by this sketch in Winterset, Boone, Perry, Peoples' Neighborhood, Newton, Killduff, Hartford, Carlisle, Indianola, Vandalia, Sandyville, Stuart, Monroe, Norwalk, Summerset, Kinsey Settlement, Grinnell, and perhaps other points. Some anecdotes connected with the subject of this chapter will appear in another place.


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