Energy, perseverance, industry, and strong will and fearless spirit — these provided the momentum for Harriet Bishop to leave Vermont in 1847 to teach children in the fledgling village of St. Paul. Traveling by boat across Lake Erie and then on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Harriet finally reached her destination by canoe and was surprised that St. Paul was so small. Only a few homes and five stores made up the town. Of the 50 people who lived there, 20 were children without a school.
Harriet set up classes in an old blacksmith’s shop — “a mud-walled log hovel covered with bark and chinked with mud” — where on July 19, 1847 ten pioneer and Indian children came to learn. Six days later, she invited them back to attend Sunday School. “The children should not only be taught to read and write,” Harriet stated, “but also be taught the Word of God.” And she invited everyone from the town to join her at the school for Sunday worship services.
No Baptist church existed north of Iowa, from the Mississippi River to the Pacifica Ocean. Harriet had sole responsibility for the entire school-house ministry until in 1848 when Abram Cavender, a blacksmith, settled with his family in St. Paul, and together they carried on the work of the Sunday School. Constant petitions to Heaven and to the Baptist Home Missions Society resulted in appointment of Rev. John Parsons as missionary to St. Paul on February 8, 1849, one month prior to Minnesota’s recognition as a United States Territory.
Within six months, a church was formed of 12 members, gathered from as many miles. Preaching services were held in the schoolhouse built on Jackson Street, and on December 29, 1849 a church compact was made and articles of faith and practice adopted. Recognition services for the new church occurred on Sunday, December 31, followed by immediate plans to build a meeting house on “Baptist Hill” — now Mears Park in downtown St. Paul.
In 1857 Baptist Hill was graded down, leaving the little meeting house 20 feet above the surrounding level. A new site was selected but building plans were delayed until the old property could be sold. Finally, the Wacouta Street Church opened for public worship January 1, 1862 and by the early 1870’s membership reached nearly 300, making the new edifice too small for expanding church programs.
Plans proceeded to build a second church nearby at 9th and Wacouta; and when it was completed and opened for worship May 31, 1875, it was not only the largest religious edifice in St. Paul but the most costly, reportedly having one of the best pipe organs in the country. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press described the edifice as “the finest piece of architecture west of Chicago.” Built upon these historic foundations, First Baptist Church has inherited a legacy of strength, a record of positive and constant contributions changing with the needs of the times.
After the turn of the century, communion became open to all believers, including non-members, and social rooms of the church were available for neighborhood events. Downtown churches were organized to conduct united revival services on two occasions, and Vacation Bible School was first held in 1917. Expanded use of the church as a community center grew during the ’20s, including opening a gymnasium and conducting Junior Church services. Vacant space on the church’s property was designated for use as a playground, accessible to all children.
During the religious revival sweeping the nation in the 1850s, 66 persons were added to the church, two-thirds baptized in the river during 10-below-zero weather. A day of prayer in 1877 helped relieve the grasshopper plague which nearly bankrupted the state.
Sensing that city mission work had been neglected, three mission stations were set up and later became independent churches. With a focus on youth, the Baptist Young People’s Union was organized 100 years ago.
Work among foreign language groups in St. Paul began with the forming of a Chinese School prior to World War I. During World War II, the church hosted Nisei who lived here or were stationed at For Snelling, and in the ’60s a Yugoslav family was reunited and sponsored by First Baptist.
Providing a full-time worker among Spanish-speaking people of St. Paul was a joint endeavor with the American Baptist Home Missions Society. Building expansion occurred in the late ’50s — excavation below the sanctuary to provide meeting rooms and completion of the gymnasium and classrooms at 10th and Wacouta.
So many churches were helped in getting started by First Baptist that Harriet Bishop once called it a “religious Forwarding House.” Among those still in existence are Pilgrim, First Swedish (Trinity), Oakdale Community, and Immanuel Baptist. In 1962 a church extension took root in rapidly growing Woodbury and in five years became an established church.
A Day Care Center began in 1966 and later the center section of the church complex was rebuilt with offices, library, and meeting rooms.