History - as published in our 100 year Anniversary booklet

A history of First Baptist Church of Fargo, North Dakota as published in the 100th-anniversary
booklet dated 1979. This history is updated to correct spelling and grammatical errors.

A history of the First Baptist Church of Fargo was assembled and organized by the historical committee for the 75th anniversary on January 27th, 1954. The committee consisted of Wallace Rice, Chairman, Mrs. C. E. Webster, F. A. Leonard, J. N. Jensen, Mrs. Lucy Hall, Miss Signe Euren, and Stewart Schlipf. As many of the church records have been lost, the committee drew on the memories and reminiscences of the surviving pioneers of the church for the details appearing in this historical report.

The Northern Pacific Railway, building west from Duluth on its way to the Pacific coast, came to the Red River at Moorhead in the fall of 1871. Men from the construction crews, having to wait out the winter before work could be resumed in the spring, came across the river and established a little settlement of caves and shanties among the trees along the river bank, a rough and tumble community known as “Fargo on the Prairie.” When the construction moved West and the head-of-track camps were established at various points throughout the Territory, “Fargo in the Timber” with its violence disappeared. But from these two small settlements came the permanent town of Fargo.

In June of 1872, the railway bridge was completed, and the first train arrived in the new town. Despite blizzards and stock market panics, the construction moved west and within a few years, traffic was rolling through Fargo on its way to the Pacific Coast. The famous Red River carts of legend were gone, but steamboats lingered on the river, taking passengers and freight north to Grand Forks, Pembina and Winnipeg, well into the1890’s.

By 1879 Fargo was a thriving town of 1500 or so, set in the midst of a booming agricultural country, but a pioneer town, nevertheless. It was largely treeless with frame buildings straggling off into the prairie grass, a town of unpaved streets where horses floundered, and wagons sank to their axles in the three-day blizzards.

It was in this new town on the night of January 27, 1879, that twenty-six people met at the home of Mrs. T. W. Swift on Roberts Street to organize the First Baptist Church. The people present that night who became the charter members of our church were Mr. & Mrs. James S. Campbell, Mr. & Mrs. John J Shotwell, C. T. Emerson, L. A. Emerson, O. B. Emerson, Mrs. A. F. Smith, Mr. & Mrs. W. P. Burdick, Mr. & Mrs. Charles E. Brown, Mr. & Mrs. F. A. Elder, Mrs. N. D. Pinkham, F. R. Evans, Mr. & Mrs. Rundell, Kate R. Burger, John R. Hague, Fred P. Ester, Mrs. M. E. Hall, Charles H Beattie, and A. F. Lane.

As it was a rather unsettled time in the new community, some of these people were not long in Fargo, but others remained and were active for years in the affairs of the church. Among them were James Campbell, a contractor and his wife; John Shotwell, who worked for the Grandin interests; and W. P. Burdick, the town’s first superintendent of schools. Of the group, Mrs. N. B. Pinkham lived to be the last local survivor of these charter members. These founders and their families are all gone now, but we can picture them meeting in homes at first, carrying lanterns and stumbling over dark snow streets and board sidewalks as they went to services on winter evenings.

By summer they were meeting in Chapin’s Hall known as the Opera house, on the second floor of the building that stood where the Dakota National Bank is now. Mrs. Webster, who came with her family that first summer, remembered a boy, Frank Campbell, lugging the first pulpit up the long stairs on Sunday morning and carrying it down again after the service, to store it at a member’s house. This first pulpit was similar to a wooden music stand. The first real pulpit hand made by James S. Campbell in 1880, was made for the first church dedicated in 1881 and is still in our possession.

When the cold weather came that fall, the church moved its services to McHench Hall on Main Avenue and where Fifth street would be, for the barn-like Opera House was impossible to heat. This hall that stood near the location of the former Park Theater, at Front Street and Fifth Street South was used for secular entertainment all week, but the Baptists’ little organ and pulpit were there at the side of the room, waiting for Sundays.

There it was that the church was meeting when their first supply pastor, Rev. George Vosburgh, came from the East to Fargo on business and supplied the pulpit during his stay of several months. This young man went on to become well known in the denomination, preaching in Evanston, Illinois, and in Denver.

Mrs. Webster’s family, the Thomsons, who came that first summer, had six children. With them as a nucleus, the church’s first Sunday School was established on the very next Sunday after their arrival.

In the spring of 1880, the church called its first regular pastor, Rev. E. B. Haskell from Massachusetts. As was so often the case with newly established churches in pioneer communities, a part of his salary was paid by the Baptist Home Mission Society. Rev. Haskell stayed in Fargo until 1883.

With a permanent pastor, the next step was to find a permanent home, a real church building to take the place of the various temporary meeting places that had been used. On the 20th of July 1881, the church was incorporated, and work on a new building started at once. That summer and early fall, while the construction was in progress, the church met in a school house, a frame building on the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street facing the courthouse, on the corner where the Christian Science Church is now located.

The new building that was erected that summer of 1881 stood on the traditional Baptist corner at First Avenue and Eighth Street South, where there has been a Baptist Church ever since. It was completed and occupied before winter set in. Of its cost of $3000.00, $500.00 came from the Home Mission Society. The balance, in those boom times, was quickly paid. The first building moved from its original location, altered a bit and brick-veneered, formed the rear part of the sanctuary dedicated in 1905.

About this time, the Home Mission Society sent a missionary to Dakota for the purpose of starting new churches through the Territory. Rev. B. W. Huntley founded nine new Baptist Churches in nearby communities during 1881, his first year in the field. Rev. Huntley was also an active member of the local church while here.

Wallace Rice came as a boy with his family that summer of 1881, as did Lucy Hall’s mother, the future Mrs. S. B. Babcock. Fred Schlipf came to Fargo and joined the church a year later. 

Mr. Rice remembered vividly the life of the church and the young community, of how, for instance, on winter afternoons the youngbloods of the town used to race with cutters and fast horses down the hard-packed snow of Eighth Street, starting at Ninth Ave. South or so and passing the church, to pull up at Front Street now Main Ave.

A succession of pastors came and went through the years that followed the building of the first small church; Rev. S. W Stevens, Rev. H. M. Barker; Rev. John W Davies, Rev. Homer M. Cook, Rev. W. L Blanchard; Rev. W. W. Reed and Rev. S. A. Hayworth. One of these, Rev. Davies, married a girl from our church, Mrs. Webster’s sister, Phemie Thomson, while another young man who supplied in the pulpit for a few months in the ‘80’s married an older sister, Mary. This second young man, C. F. Hopkins, did not stay in the ministry.

Rev. Cook was our pastor during the mid-nineties when, for a few hectic years, the liberal divorce laws of the new admitted State of North Dakota brought a flood of would-be divorcees to Fargo from all over the United States and from as far away as Cuba and Spain. Many of this cosmopolitan crowd attended the services of the First Baptist Church on Sunday mornings because of the eloquence of Rev. Cook and the musical ability of his wife who directed the choir. In 1896, the state legislature amended the divorce laws, and immediately all this was a thing of the past.

In 1893, Fargo experienced a devastating fire “The Great Fire” in the recollections of all the pioneers, that destroyed most of the business district. The Baptist members of the volunteer fire department, like Wallace Rive and Fred Schlipf, helped in the desperate struggle to save the town. Fortunately, the little Baptist Church was not in the line of the conflagration, however, ten years later, in 1903, the courthouse burned, and with it all the records of the church that had been put there for safe keeping.

Having volunteer firemen in jobs in the church, especially in a town of frame buildings such as early Fargo had, sometimes meant that the overworked fire bell would ring in the midst of the service and off would go the men of the church transformed from ushers or choir members into firemen in an instant leaving the women, the older men, and the children to carry on the service alone.

In 1897 the rivers overflowed, and one could row a boat across the south side of Fargo, right past the church and clear to the Sheyenne (river). New pavement had been laid along Eighth Street shortly before, a pavement of cedar blocks laid on planks. When the flood subsided, it was found that all this new pavement had floated away and had come to rest in Island Park.
Among the people who were members1 of the church in those years as who have figured prominently in the recollections of those that knew them were: C. T. Clement, treasurer of the State Baptist Convention in the‘80’s, W. H. Ayman, Col. S. F. Crockett, who first came to Fargo as a clerk on the steamer “Grandin”, Mrs. Webster’s parents, Mr. & Mrs. Walter Thomson, Hattie Platt, Mrs. E. Ashley Meirs, Mr. & Mrs. J. C. Buckbee, W. L. Loomis, A. L. Wall, one of Fargo’s Mayors, R. S. Lewis, and C. R. Reed.

One of the most active members was Frank D. Hall, who was representative of the Baptist Publication Society from 1895 to 1902 and who, in that capacity, organized Sunday Schools up and down the Red River Valley. Later he was superintendent of the North Dakota Children’s Home here in Fargo. He was the father-in-law of Lucy Hall. Also active were Mr. & Mrs. S. Babcock. Mr. Babcock served as Sunday School superintendent for years. When they left here, they moved to a farm just north of Detroit Lakes where many picnics for Fargo Baptist2 were held.

By the late 1890’s, the first small church building had been outgrown, and so in 1904, while Rev. Hayworth was pastor, construction was started on a new building in the same location. The original building was moved to the east end of the lot to form the rear part of the sanctuary. Sliding doors were installed so that this room could be shut off for Sunday School purposes. Many of those brought up in the church remember those sliding doors, how they would stick at crucial moments and defy any efforts to move them. Also remembered are the labyrinth of screens that were set up on Sunday mornings to divide the classes, and the shower of darts the boys used to throw from one temporary classroom to another. This church was dedicated on May 14, 1905, with Dr. L. R. Crandall of Minneapolis preaching the dedicatory sermon. The total cost of the building, including the new pipe organ, was $22,000.

In the 1920’s two young people from our church family went into full time Baptist work. One was Bliss Pilcher, who entered the ministry about 1920 and was still active in Baptist work in the state of Washington at the time of our church’s 75th anniversary. The other was Miss Florence Webster, who went in 1922 to China, where she taught music and English in a girls’ school in Ningpo, China, until just before the outbreak of World War II.

In 1925 the church embarked on an extensive building program when, during the pastorate of Rev. Henry R. Best, work was begun on the educational wing, a structure that cost $65,000 and more than doubled the capacity of the church plant. The work went on through 1926, and on January 30, 1927, the new building was dedicated.

It was noted in a feature article done by the Fargo Forum in 1927 that the Sunday School enrollment was over 300.3 The article does not state how many members the church had, but in the files are records showing 556 members in 1929, our 50th year. In 1934 the membership list was corrected and adjusted and showed 433 members.

Two years later in January 1929, the church celebrated the 50th Anniversary of its founding with services that lasted through the good part of a week. The anniversary sermon was preached by a former pastor, Rev. A. E. Peterson, who was, at that time, the Baptist State Secretary for Illinois.

Rev. Heitmeyer wrote and directed a pageant depicting the work of Baptists in North Dakota. It was performed under his direction by a cast of local church members and given in the auditorium of Fargo High School at the time of the North Dakota State Baptists State Conventions 50th anniversary, 1934.

The church’s Seventieth Anniversary was celebrated the week of March 20, 1949, during the pastorate of Rev. George King. Former pastor, Rev. Daniel Heitmeyer, came from his home in Colorado to speak at the anniversary banquet. Our old-time members of the church, Mrs. C. E. Webster, Wallace Rice, Mrs. Lucy Hall, and Miss Florence Webster, all of whom had joined the church prior to 1900, were honored at the banquet.

Following World War II and during Rev. George King’s ministry, our church sponsored a couple from Latvia as a part of the displaced persons program of the denomination. Mr. & Mrs. Smedins lived on the third floor of the educational building and he served as our janitor.

In 1950 J. M. Wylie presented to the church an electronic organ and chimes to replace the original pipe organ that was installed when the sanctuary was built in 1904, as it could no longer be repaired.

In the spring of 1952, the mortgage on the educational wing was paid. A mortgage burning ceremony was held in connection with the semi-annual meeting on May 7 of that year, and again former Pastor Heitmeyer came from Colorado to be the speaker for the occasion. Many things had made possible the payment of our debt on this building: the devoted efforts of the Women’s Association through the years, the generosity of many individuals in the church during the Seventieth Anniversary drive, and the bequest left to the church by former Governor L. E. Hanna as a memorial to his wife who had been an early member of the church.

Through all these years from 1879, the church has maintained an active Sunday School. The first superintendent was C. R. Reed, and the one who served in 1954 was Mrs. Anna Christian. Between them is a long list of those who have held the position, names familiar to Baptists through the years, John Shotwell, Herbert Loomis, A. L. Wall, Harry Dilworth, A. H. Dodsley, John C. Barline, L. E. Goodwin, W. L. VanHorn, M. R. Ling, S. B. Babcock, William Upshaw, A. J. McKenzie, James VanKikk, H. J. Thompson, J. J Goetzenberger, Tom Greenshields, Mrs. George McGregor, A. D. Haven, Ray Parsons, and Bessis Joseph. Of these, Mr. Babcock and Miss Joseph hold the position for the longest time, a term of eight years each. A good deal of the strength of our young people’s work during the 40’s and 50’s was largely due to Clara and Codie Bell, who now live in Maryland.

The church has participated in the work of the North Dakota Baptist State Convention through all the years. Dr. Roy Hodges, who was in the State work since 1938, was a member of this church, as was his predecessor, Dr. Fred Stockton.

Several laymen of the church have held office in the State Convention, notably Mr. J. N. Jensen, who was president for two years and treasurer for twenty-five years thereafter until 1953 when another member of the church, Mr. W. H. Green, succeeded him in the position. We are proud that our pastor during this Centennial year, Rev. Melvin Moyer, is currently, the president of the Baptist State Association, 1977-78.

During the Easter season of 1956 the members were shocked to have the sanctuary building, which had been weakened by a heavy snow, condemned by the city engineer. The walls had spread and there was the possibility of the roof falling in. Within a short time, it was torn down. The educational wing was left intact and it was in the second-floor gymnasium of this building, “The Upper Room,” that services were held for three years. A seventy-member church building council was soon formed with Wilfred Green as general chairman.

In June 1956, Rev. Franklin opened a small box in the cornerstone of the old sanctuary. This box contained a copy of the Bible with this inscription on the flyleaf, “Presented by Deacon K. Knudsen, Sept 27, 1904, S. A. Heyworth, Pastor,” and four copies of the Fargo Forum dated September 26, 27, 28, 1904. The September 28 issue carried the story of the cornerstone laying ceremony on Sept. 27. Col. S. F. Crockett was listed as the speaker for the occasion. Other periodicals found included the N. D. Baptist Manual of 1904, the Standard, a Baptist newspaper dated Sept. 24, 1904, and the Baptist Union of September 3, 1904.

In a tin box that had contained at one time “Kennedy’s Afternoon Tea Biscuits,” was found a list of officers and members of the First Baptist Church, 1904, a directory and manual of the First Baptist Church in 1900 and a Bible. Also found was a letterhead of “Steward Wilson, General Contractor and Builder, Fargo.” The items were preserved and placed in the cornerstone of the present sanctuary.

After much intensive planning, work was begun on the new sanctuary in July 1958.

The architect had many conferences with the building committee with the result that we have a beautiful sanctuary. The architect’s description of the building is as follows:

“The form of the church suggests ‘the tent of the Lord,’ Light enters from above, denoting the presence of the Lord by the illuminating rays which fall upon the cross. This is the universal cross which confronts all men. It is suspended in the space of the church to signify our faith in God through Jesus Christ. It illuminated the preaching of the gospel, the ordinance of baptism the communion with God through the Holy Spirit, and the practice of our faith.
The pattern of red accents of light in the narthex reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ in atonement for the sins of men.
The church encloses a garden, which, through nature, suggests the ever-renewing, perpetuating character of the church and the active creation of the Lord.
The church is surmounted by a cross, which radiated its symbolism to the Christian fellowship, and indeed, to all men everywhere.”
The Universal Cross has become a symbol of this church and the lovely courtyard and hall connecting the educational building are features that have made this a friendly church."

The present sanctuary was dedicated May 17, 1959. A week of special programs with special speakers was held May 10-17, 1959.

On March 13, 1971, another mortgage burning ceremony for the present sanctuary was held in Fellowship Hall.

In 1973, a fine addition to our church youth program was the purchase of three octaves of hand bells. The money was donated by various members of the congregation, and the bells have been a wonderful addition to our worship services. Much credit for the success of the bell choirs is due to the leadership of David Moe with assistance of many members of the children’s department.

In the1960’s and early 1970’s, our church experienced a decline of supportive families through transfer, retirement to warmer climates and deaths. To assist with the growing expenses of the church, and a declining membership, the second and third floors of the educational building were used by the Southeast Mental Health Association, and the primary and junior departments of the Sunday School were moved to the basement of the sanctuary.

There is a style passed on by those who began and those who built the work at this church. It is the style of rising up to meet a challenge and moving ahead from the point of encounter. Meeting the beginning of the next century with that same kind of determination and commitment will enable us to lay a strong support for our ministry now and for those who will follow and celebrate the bicentennial.

 

1The text at the beginning of this paragraph was very faint as printed in the program, however, this appears to be the correct wording.

2 Original text read “Fargo Baptist.” Possibly “First Baptist” or “Fargo Baptists” referring to the people of the church

3 Original text read,“1937.” Likely a typo. Changed to “1927” to align with the statement in the next paragraph “Two years later…”