First Baptist Church
Town & Gown
The history of the Baptists in Kalamazoo begins in the spring of 1826 when the Reverend Leonard Slater preached many sermons in a spot that is today Riverside Cemetery, where he was eventually buried.
In June of 1835, Reverend Jeremiah Hall came to Michigan from Vermont and began preaching in what was then known as Bronson. One year later, at a meeting held in the farm home of Major Ezekial Ransom, Rev. Hall’s father-in-law, the First Baptist Church of Kalamazoo was organized with 14 members. As the congregation grew and the need for a larger meeting place evolved, property was purchased on the southwest corner of what was to become W. Michigan Avenue and Church Street. While a frame structure was being erected on the site, the congregation met for several months in a schoolhouse at Burdick and South Streets.
This first frame church was enlarged twice until, in 1853, the cornerstone of the present building was laid. When completed, the new brick church became a downtown landmark with what was considered the tallest steeple in all of southwest Michigan. The steeple was the home of the town clock, and a bell installed in 1855 became the village fire alarm.
When the church was completed, “slips” or pews were sold at public auction to raise money for the building. Those who bought the pews owned them and re-rented them yearly. There was even some discussion and decisions made about how the congregants would comport themselves once in the pews. A committee was formed to decide whether the congregation should stand during prayer and sit while singing hymns or vice versa. It was finally decided that proper conduct during services was to bow during prayer and stand while singing. The new church even brought a great deal of comfort to those being baptized. Before the church was built, baptism was administered in the Kalamazoo River…even in mid-winter. A hardy lot, these faithful.
The tall steeple eventually was condemned as being unsafe. It took 100 men to pull it down toward the courthouse next door. The steeple had been sawed off at the point of what is now the current church tower. This steeple razing was done in conjunction with a campaign to raise $135,000 for the erection of a church house and a remodeling of the building. It was discovered that the roof was pushing the walls of the church outwards. A Kalamazoo architect, H. W. Coddington designed the present roof, known as a self-supporting roof. He also built the vestibule in the front, the apse at the rear of the church to house the organ and choir, and designed the winding stairs and galleries to hold the ever-growing numbers of church members.
The clock in the tower was important because very few people had watches. Its installation resulted from an agreement between the church and the City of Kalamazoo. First Baptist Church agreed to install the clock, which the city had purchased, along with the fire alarm mechanism, which was hand-operated by a long wire that hung outside the steeple. As might be expected, this wire attracted young pranksters on many occasions.
The Church and Kalamazoo College
There is a strong link between the First Baptist Church and Kalamazoo College. Three Baptist leaders had a major role in establishing the college, which was then known as the Michigan and Huron Institute. A site for the institution was secured in August of 1835 by Rev. Jeremiah Hall. It was located on what was then known as Arcadia Hill. By September Rev. Hall reported that nearly three thousand dollars had been raised to build what was referred to as a literary institution. The church’s relationship with Kalamazoo College has been both supportive and a source of tension at the same time. Traditional Baptist teachings sometimes clashed with scholastic concerns. Thus was born the term “town vs. gown.” For example, at one of the church services the president of Kalamazoo College at the time, Stuart Grant Cole, termed the Bible a dead book and told the students to think for themselves.
The church building has undergone many renovations and improvements over the years. A new sanctuary was designed and built and was home to a uniquely “Kalamazoo” cross carved by Robert Hughes, an artist and teacher from Berlin, New Hampshire. Symbolism covered the movable 13-1/2 foot cross from a circle of flames suggesting the love of God to vineyards and orchards, the state tree that symbolizes Kalamazoo’s paper production, to a Catholic tower, Greek Orthodox dome and Protestant spire all linked together to show the hope for unity of Christians.
Women and the First Baptist Church
A First Baptist Church sesquicentennial publication makes note of the importance of the ongoing ministry of women in the church. A majority of the founders of the church were women. One of the most dynamic champions of human rights in the country, Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, though treated badly by her church, embodied a spirit shared by many of her sisters in the congregation. Though coming late, holding offices in the Church, serving on boards customarily reserved for men and acting as ushers at Sunday services have brought women more actively into the functions of the church. Dr. Jean Lowrie served as the church’s first woman Moderator from 1975-1978. Women now serve on the Board of Deacons and other boards, usher at worship services and have broken most of the discriminatory patterns of the past. Currently (2007), the church has a woman pastor, Rev. Mary Beth Sarhatt.
New Organ Arrives
In 1998, a new organ was installed in the church to the tune of $864,000. With 3,638 pipes, it is the largest in the Kalamazoo area. It covered the Kalamazoo Cross, but the awesome beauty and sound of the organ has more than made up for this loss. With this new source of music, First Baptist Church also serves as the backdrop for many cultural and arts events downtown.