First Baptist Church – Evansville, Wisconsin

By Ruth Ann Montgomery

 

The congregation of the First Baptist Church in Evansville can trace its beginnings to a small church in the neighboring village of Union in 1844.  The American Baptist Home Mission Society sent Rev. Jeremiah Murphy to Rock County to organize the church and he successfully recruited 13 charter members.

 

For a number of years, the Union Baptist Church served the farm community in northern Rock County as well as the villages of Union and “The Grove”.  In the mid-1850s, the “the Grove” experienced rapid growth and was platted as the Village of Evansville in 1855.  The village of Union lagged behind. 

 

In 1856, nine members of the Union congregation living in or near Evansville asked permission to withdraw and form their own church.  Others joined with the Union members.  Delegates from Baptist church in Janesville, Stoughton and Union, met on February 13, 1856 and issued the following resolution.  “Resolved that this council do now recognize the brethren and sisters whose names have been submitted as a regular Baptist Church.” 

 

The men and women listed as the constituent members were Josiah Howard, Eunice Howard, George Taggart, Jane Taggart, C. H. Moon, Almire Moon, Thomas W. Stearns, Susan Stearns, E. W. Stearns, Phileta E. Stearns, George T. Morrow, Emily P. Morrow, Hannah Hammond, Loranah Kane, David Rowley, Rodah Rowley, A. N. Rowley, Anna Rowley, A. L. Rowley, Amanda Rowley, Minerva Warren, Eliza Higday, Martin Glading, Welthia Reed, John Siver, Lucinda Siver, Mary Rice, Milla Glading, Barret Carpenter, Mary Janes, Lucinda Rowley, and Charles Gahagan. 

 

In June of that same year, the new church was admitted to the Janesville Baptist Association.  C. H. Moon and Josiah Howard were elected the first deacons and E. W. Sterns, the first clerk.  Because they had no church building of their own.  The new congregation relied on the cooperation of other community organizations and held services in the district school, the Methodist Church and the Congregational church. 

 

The first pastor called by the new congregation was Rev. William Branche.   He had agreed to stay from six months to a year, however, four months later, Rev. D. T. Phillips took charge of the church. 

 

According to a history of the church published in the June 20, 1898 Tribune (Evansville, Wisconsin), the early days of the church were filled with controversy and challenge.  The church historian wrote:  “During this first year the church was subjected to sore trials and felt compelled to withdraw the hand of church fellowship from several disorderly members who failed to keep their vows and to walk with the church.”

Phillips remained at the church for thirteen years and the congregation continued to grow in numbers and in spiritual awakening.  In 1868, more members were added by baptism and according to one account, “the whole membership felt the religious quickening that called together a large number to the covenant meetings.”   Rev. Phillips resigned and was replaced by Rev. D. S. Starr in May 1859.  

 

Rev. Starr preached at both the Union and the Evansville churches.  His salary was listed as $400 a year, plus $50 more, if the congregation could raise the money.

 

During the early 1860s, when President Lincoln called for volunteers to enlist in the Union Army, Rev. Starr joined other local ministers and gave stirring speeches at recruitment rallies to encourage young men to enter the Union army.  At one meeting held in Evansville, 38 men volunteered to enlist.  In 1866, Rev. J. R. Eldridge replaced Rev. Starr as pastor of the Evansville church.

 

As the church grew in numbers, the congregation longed to have their own house of worship.  The April 9, 1866 issue of the Evansville Citizen announced:  “Mr. Hutchinson has sold his corner lots fronting the Congregational Church for $400 to parties representing the Calvinist Baptists lately for the purpose of erecting a church thereon.”   

A Subscriber’s list, also dated April 9, 1866, recorded the members and friends of the congregation who had agreed to fund the building of the new church.  More than 30 people were listed on the subscribers list.   

John Winston, a retired farmer and general store owner offered the largest sum, $250.  D. M. Rowley agreed to pay $200 and other offered smaller amounts.  Those who could not offer money offered services as payment.  George Taggart provided blacksmithing valued at $50 and William Bennett paid his subscription by hauling.  Bennett’s services were valued at $10.  

William S. Morgan was hired to do the carpentry work.  By May 1866, masons were beginning to lay brick for the new church.  As the building was under construction in October, workmen were putting a tin roof on the dome of the new church.  They were using hot coals and some of the coals started a fire near the roof.  The fire was well underway before it was discovered.  Fortunately, there was water nearby and the men were able to stop the fire before it destroyed the new church. 

The cream brick structure was completed in early December at the southwest corner of First and Church Streets.  The Ladies Benevolent Association was organized on October 16, 1867 to help raise funds to support the church and its operation.  The club was open to both men and women. 

There were eighteen members of the Ladies Benevolent Society.  Women paid dues of 25 cents.  Gentlemen were invited to join for a fee of 50 cents.  The group met every two weeks in the evening for social activities that included sleigh rides, charades, oyster suppers and dramatic readings.   

Fund raisers were held at Treat’s Hall, a public gathering place and they were able to fund the wooden sidewalk in front of the church and help pay for the furnishings.  Just before the new church building was completed, the Ladies Benevolent Association sent Elder Eldridge to Chicago to find a minister to preach at the dedication, purchase carpets, chandeliers and anything else he thought was necessary for furnishing the church. 

The new building was dedicated “to the worship of Almighty God” on December 18, 1867.  Forty-one members were recorded on the church rolls.   

In the spring of 1868, a new minister, Rev. D. T. Richards, led a growing congregation.  Many new members were successful businessmen and ardent workers for the new church.  In July 1869, Rev. Jabez Snashall, a student awaiting ordination as a minister, succeeded Richards.  Services were held at 10:30 on Sunday morning, with Sabbath School immediately following.  A Sunday evening service was held at 7 p.m.  Rev. Snashall resigned in May 1870 and in August the congregation issued a call to Rev. J. C. Hart of Waverly, Illinois.   

A new bell was purchased by the congregation in August 1870.  The 3,300 pound bell was made at the Blymer Peaton Company foundry in Chicago.  Local carpenter and hardware merchant, Caleb Snashall engineered the raising of the Bell.  “The bell was of good tone,” a local reporter noted.   

During the early years of the church, pastors served very short terms.  Frequently the ministers preached at both the Union and the Evansville churches.   

In 1871, Rev. J. B. Hutton became pastor.  Because the church did not furnish a parsonage, Hutton purchased his own home and when he resigned in July 1873, he sold the house to a Mrs. Quivey for $800.  Hutton moved to Atlanta, Illinois.   

Rev. C. H. Kimball served from 1873 to 1876 and when he resigned the church issued a call to Rev. C. R. Lathrop.  During Lathrop’s administration, the church building debt was finally paid.   Church records recorded, “The debt on church all provided for we are free; bless the Lord.”    

The church was active in organizing various social gatherings for members and friends.  The programs were also fund raisers for the congregation.  A New Year’s Entertainment in December 1873 included a drama, “Aunt Dinah’s Pledge”, a popular farce, “We are all Teetotelers”, as well as musical entertainment.  Admission was 15 cents. 

“Sociables” or house parties were another way to raise funds.  The congregation and friends were invited to the house of one of the members and paid an admission charge for refreshments and musical or dramatic entertainment.   

The fund raising efforts allowed the church to remodel and redecorate their building in the summer of 1879.  New side entrances were made to create a larger vestry.  The ceiling of the church was repaired with new lath and plaster.   

The bell tower had begun to lean and was “out of perpendicular” according to some observers.  Caleb A. Libby was hired as the carpenter to straighten the tower and do the other remodeling.  He was assisted by Nat Libby and Charley Conine. 

When Lathrop left Evansville, the Rev. R. S. Dean was called as an evangelist in April 1880 and the congregation was so impressed with his work that they decided to invite him to be their pastor.  Rev. Dean began his pastorate and in the next three years, in true evangelistic style, Dean and his congregation reported that twenty five new members were added to the church roles.   

In the 1880s, a Foreign Mission Circle was formed and Miss Belle Pettigrew was named President.  The funds raised by the Mission Circle were used to send barrels of merchandise to help with Indian missions and a Scandinavian Mission.  Belle Pettigrew was so enthused about the work that she eventually became a home missionary and worked in the South for many years.  The local church supported her efforts and in return she gave interesting talks about her missionary work when she visited Evansville.

Rev. Dean stayed in Evansville for three years, then moved to South Haven, Michigan and purchased a newspaper business.  In September 1884, Rev. E. R. Curry replaced Dean.  During Curry’s administration the Union and Evansville churches formalized the arrangement of having one pastor serve both congregations. “Rev E. R. Curry is very much liked as a citizen and pastor and the church is doing all they can to show an appreciation of his labors.” 

The congregation added new chandeliers, an organ, and pulpit chairs in the summer of 1885.  They also took down the stoves and an unsightly pipe and made plans to dig a new basement for a furnace to heat the building.   

The new heating system proved unreliable and over the next few years, the Baptists frequently met in the Congregational church across the street.  The trustees issued the following release for the January 12, 1887 issue of the Enterprise newspaper, “It being necessary to make some changes in the heating apparatus at the Baptist Church, the trustees have arranged with the Cong. Society to hold services in their church.” 

There were several changes in pastors over the next few years.  Curry resigned and was replaced in 1888 by Rev. A. J. Hovey.  Hovey stayed only a short time and in 1890 Rev. R. N. Martin became pastor.  Another new pastor arrived in April 1892.  Rev. Mr. W. L. Jones was greeted at a reception at A. C. Gray’s home and the ministers from other churches in the community were invited to meet him.   

During Jones’ term the church was remodeled once again.  Excavations were made under the church to create a dressing room for the baptistry.  The excavation also increased the space needed for a furnace.  

Rev. O. P. Bestor served the church for five years in the late 1890s.  He arrived in December 1893 and was considered one of the church’s most successful ministers.  A graduate of Brown University, Bestor was also a popular speaker with the Baptist Young People’s Union in Rock County.   

During his pastorate, sixty-one new members were added to the church roles and people began agitating for a new church building to house to growing congregation.  In addition to their local work, members of the congregation also supported people from other communities who were victims of fire and other disasters.   

In October 1894, the ladies of the Baptist church sent four barrels of clothing and bedding to Cumberland.  There had been a serious fire in that community and many families were in need.  This response to disaster sufferers was typical of the work done by the local congregation. 

Rev. Bestor organized Christian Culture classes for members of his congregation.  Those participating studied the history of the early Christian Church.  He also arranged for temperance lectures.  One speaker, Mrs. Ellen Dayton Blair, was a “chalk talker for the Loyal Temperance Legion”.   According to the news release in the Evansville Tribune, Mrs. Blair “makes free use of chalk and charts to illustrate her theme and is especially effective with children.  She makes some very hard hits against the use of tobacco and liquor.” 

Bestor was also a valued member of the local Civil War Veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic Post in Evansville, and served as the chaplain.  When he resigned from the church in 1898, the G.A.R. Post gave him an envelope of money and the church printed a resolution of thanks in the local newspapers.  

Bestor was followed by Rev. Granger W. Smith.  Smith arrived in Evansville in 1899 after serving a church in Green Bay.  He served a term of three years and preached the funeral service of the last surviving Charter member of the church, Calista W. Rowley, who died May 12, 1902. 

When Smith resigned, a young divinity student with one more year of school was asked to serve as pastor.  The Evansville Review noted his arrival in their June 26, 1902 issue with the following:  Rev. John Wellington Hoag “is a fine representative of the class of modern young divines that is being educated and trained for the Lord’s service at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.” 

Although he had only agreed to stay for three months, Hoag was persuaded to remain as pastor for several more years.  He was so effective in his work that the church was packed to overflowing for the services and it was during Hoag’s pastorate that the church finalized plans for a new building.   

In early January 1903, the congregation met at the Evansville City Hall for a banquet that served as the beginning for a building fund drive.  The women of the congregation led the effort to start the pledges.  At the dinner, the women of the church announced that they had raised $1,000 for the building fund.  Five individual members pledged $500 each.  “Prospects are good for the city soon to have another fine church building with no indebtedness to it,” Evansville’s Badger newspaper reported.

Caleb Snashall, a local architect and builder, was named as the chairman of the building committee.  He also also chosen to design and superintend the construction.  A skilled architect and designer, Snashall was responsible for many of the homes and business buildings in Evansville.   

Snashall had worked in Chicago during the building of that city's magnificent structures in the 1890s.  Snashall designed the new church in a style that was popular at the time, the Romanesque Revival style.  This style was influenced by the famed architect, Henry Hobson Richardson and is sometimes referred to as Richardson Romanesque.  This style was also incorporated into the works of such famous architects as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Snashall took a great deal of pride in making the new Baptist church a model building.  John Winston and his sons, descendents of the original subscriber for the 1867 building fund, were hired as carpenters for the new church.  William Burk, a local painter, did the decorating of the interior. 

Workmen dug a basement for the building that was large enough to house a dining room, sitting area, kitchen, cloak room, toilet rooms and utility rooms.  The cornerstone for the new building was laid in July 1903. 

The program began with a concert by the Baker Military Band.  The corner stone was then raised from the ground by a derrick and placed in position under the direction of the architect, Caleb Snashall.  Miss Maggie Gillies read a history of the church and a list of church organizations, and officers that were to be placed in a copper box.  The box was described as 8 inches long and four inches deep and wide. 

W. H. Hatfield placed the articles in the copper box and the box was placed in a depression cut in the top of the stone.  The stone was then sealed with mortar. 

After the laying of the corner stone, the assembled crowd went across the street to the Congregational church and listened to an address by former pastor, Rev O. P. Bestor.  At the close of the address the doxology was sung and Rev. Hoag pronounced the benediction.  A local reporter noted:  “Thus closed one of the most important events which ever occurred in this city and from present appearances the Baptists are to have one of the most beautiful churches.”

The building continued with the first floor containing an auditorium style sanctuary, a lecture room that could seat 200 more people, and two small rooms that served as dressing rooms for the baptistery.

Snashall’s design in the Romanesque Revival style included distinctive round-arched windows.  Leaded glass was placed in the windows allowing sunlight to fill the sanctuary with a glow of brilliant gold, blue, green and a range of other colors. 

The main entrance was placed on the diagonal in a three-storied balconied tower at the northeast corner of the church.  This unusual configuration allowed entry through large double doors.  Stairs ascended to the sanctuary and two descending stairs on either side of the main entrance led to the lower level. 

The church was nearly complete when its architect, Caleb Snashall, died unexpectedly.  Sadly, he did not survive for the dedication that was held on June 12, 1904.  The new church was valued at $12,000. 

By 1904, there were 115 church members and about 100 of them were called “active”.  Rev. Rolvix Harlan was the pastor of the First Baptist Church.  Because the church did not provide a parsonage, Harlan and his family rented the house directly west of the church.   

Rev. Harlan added more services and the schedule was published in the four local papers that were printed in Evansville.  A February 20, 1906 Tribune ad read, “Service at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.  Bible School 11:45.  Baraca 12 n.  Junior 3 p.m. Y. P. 6 p.m.  In the evening the pastor will preach and take up the questions “Are we going to have saloons in Evansville?” 

Rev. Harlan also began the publication of an 8-page monthly newsletter for his congregation called “The Reminder.”  The Evansville Review editor wished the new publication success and noted, “It is carefully edited and full of entertaining matter relative to that society. 

Women of the church continued their fundraising efforts with an annual supper.  The three course menu that included meat loaf, vegetables, and pie was available for 25 cents.  The event was held in the new church dining room.  The ladies also organized an annual chrysanthemum exhibit and sale in November.  Handicrafts, quilts, baked goods and candy were offered for sale and a dinner was served in the evening. 

The Baptists had always supported strong temperance movements and the church was the site of the organization of a temperance league that included several prominent members of the community.  Allen S. Baker, president of Baker Manufacturing Company; M. J. Fisher, real estate agent; W. H. H. Johnson, a retired farmer and one of the charter members of the Baptist Church; and W. W. Gillies were named as officers of the new organization.  The men asked for more members and declared, “It is hoped that all will assemble who are interested in a good clean, temperance city and to keep it so.” 

In 1906, the church celebrated its fiftieth anniversay with a program that included reading the church history and a paper by W. W. Gillies, “What part has the old Union church had in our development.”  Gillies’ report noted that former members of the Union Church had donated more than 60% of the building fund for the new church.  Three of the six trustees of the church were orginally members of the Union Baptist Church, as was the Sunday School Superintendent, assistant superintendent and six of the eleven Sunday School teachers.  The church treasurer was also formerly a members of the Union church and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.   

“We acknowledge our mutual interest and our common cause and hope and trust that the friendly fraternal feeling may continue and thereby result in the greatest degree of usefulness to all concerned.  So let us live and work together”, Gillies concluded. 

Rolix Harlen resigned from the church and a new minister, Rev. J. L. Webster served the church from 1907 to 1909.  It took several months to replace Webster and pastors were called in from other Wisconsin churches to supply to pulpit.   

The Evansville newspaper, the Enterprise reported the meetings held during this time.  In October 1909, the paper reported:  “Services at the First Baptist church last Sunday were conducted both morning and evening and at Union in the afternoon by Rev. Bancroft, of Milwaukee.” 

Rev. A. L. Taber of Manhatten, Illinois was called as the new pastor in April 1910.  In April 1912, he offered his resignation.  He listed health reasons for leaving the church. 

A new minister, Rev. Theron T. Phelps was hired but stayed only two years.  During his pastorate, the Baptist Church completed paying the debt for their new church in 1913.  Phelps as followed by Rev. N. G. Oliver in 1915.   

For one year, in 1918, Rev W. P. Pierce served the church.  After moving to Albion Michigan, Rev. Pierce retired from the ministry and became a tour director and lecturer.  He died in August 1930, while conducting one of his European tours.  

In January 1919, Rev. A. W. Stephens accepted a unanimous call to be the pastor.  Stephens had served as pastor of the Oconomowoc Baptist Church for eight years before coming to Evansville.  His first service was held on March 9th.  Rev. Ernest Day acted as interim pastor until Stephens could complete his work in Oconomowoc. 

A Young People’s society was reorganized in October 1920.   

Rev. Stephens resigned in 1924 and was replaced by Rev. Thomas W. Gales.  Rev. Gales began a weekly column in the Evansville Review entitled “Baptist Notes”.  The column kept church members and others informed about special events, travels of the pastor and regular services.   

Rev Gale was also responsible for services at the Union Church.  The June 4, 1925 issue of the Evansville Review noted, “The service at Union will commence at two o’clock next Sunday.  A new plan of combining the church and Sunday School in one service has been adopted and will shorten the time.”  The “Baptist Notes” also mentioned that the pastor, his wife, and daughter Viola had attended the Union Church Ladies Aid meeting at Lyman Gillies’. 

The church was damaged by lightning in July 1925.  The lightning bolt struck the bell tower and started a fire.  Evansville firemen were called but the heavy rain and the height of the tower made fighting the fire difficult.   The fire fighters had to fight the flames from inside and where finally able to extinguish the flames.  The damage to the building was estimated at about $1,200. 

Rev. Gale signed from the Evansville church in 1925 and became active in temperance work in Wisconsin.  He served as the superintendent of the Wisconsin Anti-Saloon League during the prohibition era.  In the 1930s he moved to Spokane Washington to continue his temperance work and died there in June 1939. 

Rev. Robert H. Pratt served as minister of the church from 1926 through 1930.  The Evansville Review published a brief biography of Pratt in the March 20, 1930 issue.  Pratt was a graduate of East high School in Minneapolis in 1901 and had earned a B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota in 1905.   

After completing a course in theological education at Newton Theological Institution, Boston, Massachusetts in 1908, Rev. Pratt returned to Minnesota to become pastor of the Hebron Baptist Church in St. Paul.  Rev. Pratt continued his studies and earned a Master of Sacred Theology degree from Newton Theological Institute. 

Pratt had also served as pastor of Baptist churches in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, West Concord, Minnesota; Wayne, Nebraska; and Mt. Carroll, Illinois before coming to Evansville.   

In the summer of 1930, the church held a homecoming picnic at Leonard Park in Evansville.  Those gathered for the occasion decided to make it an annual event.  

Rev. L. M. Kitzmiller became pastor of the Evansville Baptist Church in 1932?  He resigned in September 1938 and was succeeded by Rev. C. W. Bloedow in December 1938.   

Rev. Bloedow