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The Early Years - 1870 through 1882

In 1870, five years after the close of the Civil War, rows of homes were being built as far north in Philadelphia as Berks Street.  Concerned about the need of a Christian work in this growing area, members of the Tenth Baptist Church (8th Street above Green Street) voted to establish a Baptist Mission in this area. 

The minutes of their meeting indicated the appointment of a committee to inquire into the expediency of establishing a mission Sunday School in the northwestern part of the city and to report at the next meeting.

The names of three men from the Young Men’s Association have been recorded as the Rev. Frederick B. Greul, former pastor of the Berean Baptist Church, together with Alexander Reed and Henry C. Singley both of whom became deacons of the new church. 

The committee reported and men began to clean the second floor of a grocery storey that was known as “Bethum Hall” at the corner of Twelfth Street and Montgomery Avenue.  Taking the name of the pastor, the Rev. J. Spencer Kennard, this endeavor was called the Kennard Memorial Mission.  Dedicatory services were held at a Thursday business meeting on June 16, 1870, and a Sunday School began the following Sunday.

On Monday, April 24, 1871, at a special business meeting, the following resolution was passed.   


Resolved, we organize as a mission society under the name of United Baptist Mission of Philadelphia, also Resolved, that all persons who love the Lord Jesus Christ are cordially invited to unite with us in our endeavor to extend His Kingdom in this neighborhood, and to become members of this mission by adding their names to this list.  This list numbered twenty-three, which was later increased to forty, all of whom agreed to subscribe the amount opposite their names for the support of the mission.

 On Monday, February 12, 1872, the church was organized with 56 members—35 came by letter from the Tenth Baptist, 12 by letter from other Baptist churches and 9 by “experience”, having formerly been members of the Church of God.  The new church adopted the name “Grace Baptist Church” and extended a unanimous “call” to L. B. Hartman, a member of the Tenth Church, to serve as pastor at a salary of $600 per annum. 

          Of the naming of Grace Baptist Church, Dr. Frederick B. Greul writes: 

A little incident in the early history of Grace Baptist Church do I recall which is illustrative of a sort of divine forecast.  When the council to recognize the Grace Baptist Church sat in the mother church (the Tenth Baptist), I remember quite well the discussion that arose about the name ‘Grace’.  Numerous opinions were presented on either side of the question.  At that time, though it was but comparatively few years ago, there was not the freedom now enjoyed of doing as one pleases, ‘if you please’, in such matters.  Churches were being named by number, or the locality in which the church property stood, or possibly the street on which the meeting-house stood, or possibly the street on which the meeting-house faced.  Such names as Grace, Epiphany, Trinity, Temple, Messiah, Gethsemane were not popular, although the Tabernacle was organized in 1848, the Berean in 1859, and the Beth Eden in 1870.


At this council considerable objection was raised to the name ‘Grace’.  Dr. Cathcart headed the opposition.  He got off one of his telling appeals to history, and would end up by saying, ‘Grace church!  Why, bless you, suppose this church should get some graceless rascal for a pastor, what a pitiful plight it would be in!’


The opposition may seem flat in a simple narrative, but to those who recall the vigorous and ringing fashion in which Dr. Cathcart expressed his dissents on public occasion, the matter becomes one of life and death.  But ‘Grace’ has triumphed, and the outlined calamity has not visited the church, for which we all thank God.  This little bit of unpatented history, I am sure, will not annoy any one, but may add a little emphasis to the marvelous galaxy of evidence that God organized this church.


          The church called a council of Baptist churches of the Philadelphia Association at which the question of recognition of the new church was discussed.  This was held on Thursday, March 7, 1872.  Thirty-three churches were represented.  Action was in the affirmative.

          On the recommendation of the council, Pastor Hartman was ordained in the Tenth Church on Monday, March 11, 1872, and on the following evening, Tuesday, March 12, 1872, recognition services were held.  The next official action was that of the ordinance of baptism of twenty converts from the former “Mission” on Sunday, March 17, 1872, using the baptistery of the Tenth Church. 

          On Monday, April 29, 1872, the first mention of securing a lot at Mervine and Berks Streets upon which to build a permanent home for the church appears upon the record. 

          After two years, the mission moved to this location erecting a tent.  It accommodated about 500 people, so we suppose it was about 40 feet in width by 60 feet in length.  It had a board floor, pews with cushions, gas lighting and was heated by several large stoves.  A board fence surrounded it with an entrance gate and a small vestibule serving as the entrance to the tent from Berks Street.  It cost $1,500. 

On Sunday, August 25, 1872, the tent was used for the first time.  At this service, William Bucknell of Bucknell University fame, subscribed $1,200 towards the cost of the tent and the congregation $900 towards the payment for the lot. 

          After a few months, a baptistery was erected with the first candidates baptized on February 3, 1873.

          Meanwhile, the members of the new mission considered it necessary to build a permanent church and consequently employed an architect to prepare plans.  A contract was given and the work begun. 

          During these days, the pastors changed.  Pastor Hartman was followed by the Rev. J. Green Miles and then the Rev. C. H. Kimball. 

          The old tent was given to the Sunday Breakfast work which later became known as the Sunday Breakfast Association.  The cornerstone of the new church was laid on Tuesday, June 9, 1874.  When the new building was occupied, only the lower floor was used for eight years and it was not until the following pastorate of the Rev. Russell H. Conwell that the building was completed. 

           In 1882, the Rev. F. J. Parry, one of the workers at the mission, knew of a preacher in Lexington, Massachusetts, he thought would make a good pastor for Grace Church.  This was called to the attention of the deacons and Alexander Reed corresponded with the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, pastor of the Lexington Baptist Church.  In view of the importance of the negotiation, we quote the minutes. 

At a special meeting of Grace Baptist Church held September 14, 1882, W. A. Morse in the chair, the following business was transacted.  A report of Alexander Reed concerning the Rev. Russell H. Conwell was made that a “call” was made with an offer of $2,500 and privilege to lecture.  Answer was to be made to Alexander Reed in ten days.  After prayer, the meeting adjourned to meet October 16, 1882.


                                                                                    Jas. L. Stevenson

Church Clerk









Dear Brother and Pastor Elect:


Herewith it is our pleasure to enclose a copy of a Resolution furnished us by our church clerk.


We would add that at a large meeting of the church held last evening, preceded by prayer, it was unanimously resolved to invite you to accept the pastorate of our church.


Our brethren in order or encouragement and faith traced the action of the church to special providence.  All the events that have transpired in our recent history and your association with us, limited though it is, give us this comforting assurance.


We still pray that your speedy coming “over into Macedonia” and to us a crisis in our church history may be done to the glory of the Master, and your still further and greater usefulness in the proclamation of His Word.


In the past we have had three pastors, Rev. Hartman, Miles and Kimball.  We called and they cheerfully responded.  We have called no other save yourself and now we wait in prayer believing our Lord will be realized and that his Kingdom will be advanced by your speedy acceptance of the hearty call to his church herein contained.


In the honor of fellowship we remain spiritually yours,


                                                            Deacons, Wm. A. Morse, Alex Reed


          The new pastor and his family arrived on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1882.  Workers were busy with finishing touches to the sanctuary, with its frescoed ceiling, stained glass windows and pews of hard wood upholstered in red.  The completed building was ready for dedication by Pastor Conwell.

          Born in a Methodist family in Massachusetts in the year 1843, Mr. Conwell had been a soldier in the Civil War, a practicing lawyer, editor of newspapers, popular lecturer, and author and world traveler as a newspaper correspondent.  Russell Conwell gave his heart to God and vowed to devote his life to the work of two men, he and Johnny Ring (see Appendix B).

          Mr. Conwell entered his ministry at Grace Baptist Church with enthusiasm.  The sermons, with illustrations gathered from around the world, attracted such crowds that we find instructions to issue tickets to members for their entry through the Mervine Street door.Next - Conwell's Early Years



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