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First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh

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CHURCH HISTORY

 

1800s

In June 1812, the year that Adoniram and Ann Judson set sail for India to become the first American Baptist missionaries, David Jones, an army chaplain and missionary to the Indians, helped a handful of English glassblowers and their families organize The First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh. The first baptismal service drew 2,000 spectators--forty percent of the city's 5,000 residents--to the banks of the Monongahela River.


In the 1820's, sectarian theological controversy was stirring in the Baptist churches of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio because of the preaching of Alexander Campbell.


A majority of First Baptist's members followed pastor Sidney Rigdon and embraced Campbellism. The minority appealed to the Redstone Baptist Association which condemned Rigdon's views after granting him a hearing. Control of the church passed back into the hands of the faithful minority, but the church lost its meetinghouse and was unable to buy it back for five years. Rigdon later became an intimate of Joseph Smith and helped to found The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. He is alleged to have stolen Solomon Spaulding's manuscript which is the basis of the "Book of Mormon."


In the 1830's and 1840's abolition was the cause above all other causes to which people of faith were summoned. Pastor Samuel Williams helped to found the Anti-Slavery Society of Western Pennsylvania, and published an abolitionist newspaper for sixteen years. He brought abolitionist speakers, including the renowned Frederick Douglass, to the church. It was the only church in the city where he was welcome.




 

Banner presented to the church by Fran Cridelbaugh on the occasion of our 175th anniversary, in 1987.

 

1900s

 

In the early 1900's immigrants became a principal concern of the church. A mission to Chinese people was established and Chinese were received as members. An Industrial School reached out to boys and girls of various ages. A School of Domestic Arts for women was created with the help of five other churches, and this became the forerunner of what was the Margaret Morrison School for Women at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now CMU). A Toy Mission became one of the most popular charities in Pittsburgh and provided countless children with Christmas gifts for many years. A ministry for the deaf helped hearing-impaired people receive the good news of the Savior. After the church moved to Oakland children from the School for the Deaf were active in the church, and sermons and lessons were signed for them. Summer "fresh air" programs, at church-owned Camp Myler, introduced city children to the countryside of western Pennsylvania. The severe recession of 1894 prompted the congregation to organize a food bank, and this continued through 1904.

 

Ministry in the early 1900's included a physical culture department tied closely to Camp Myler which welcomed children of any race, creed, or color. Sunday Night Supper Club drew large numbers of young adults from across the county. A business and professional women's group came into being, and Pennsylvania Baptists used First Baptist as a base for campus ministry to twenty five colleges and universities.

 

The church discovered radio soon after KDKA began broadcasting. Sermons were carried over the air waves in 1923. The most unusual use of radio came on Easter Sunday 1941, when Dr. Clausen, the church quartet and organist, with a pump organ, broadcast over KDKA a sunrise service from a DC-3 flying 10,000 feet above the city.


A woman became a trustee in 1941 and women were elected to the Board of Deacons in 1964. In 1980 women chaired both the Board of Deacons and the Board of Trustees, and in 1982 the first ordained woman, Rev. Thelma C. Mitchell, was selected as Minister-to-Students. Miss Mitchell is also the first African American person to serve the church as a minister.


Dr. Clausen and Dr. Moseley after him steadfastly promoted the causes of civil rights and peace. Succeeding clergy have kept the tradition alive. Dr. Stromee preached a sermon from the steps of Heinz Chapel during protests against the Vietnam War. Under Dr. Stromee important cooperative relationships were created with the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors and the Civic Center Chapter of AARP. A mutually beneficial contract with The Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, enabling WPIC to conduct a Therapeutic Activities Center for mentally handicapped adults from Monday through Friday in the church basement.


Cultural support for liberal religion, so essential to the church from 1920 into the 50's, diminished in the 60's and 70's. Ministry in recent years has looked to the late 1900's for clues to identity and forgotten pathways in ministry. One response to present realities has been to make the building a place of mission. The Korean Mission Church worshiped here for four years. The Chinese Campus Fellowship, Pittsburgh Chinese Church, Mid-town Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, and at least a dozen other groups whose purposes are congruent with those of the church used rooms in the building. The location nearby of the hospital with an organ transplant team has given us the opportunity of helping several families through those difficult times. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Ahead


God has blessed The First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh with a rich history, a unique identity, and a varied and diverse congregation. We are white, yellow, brown and black. We are old and young, rich and poor. We are citizens of many nations. When we proclaim on Communion Sundays that "people will come from north and south, from east and west to sit at table in the Kingdom of God," we already know something of that reality. God is with us and the future belongs to God. We live in faithfulness and hope.


Jack Hedenburg,

FBC Historian