The Olde Pennepack Baptist Church on Krewstown Road, a picture of idle tranquility, offers passers-by little hint of its profound significance in the history of one of the biggest religious denominations in Pennsylvania and the nation.
Its centuries-old walls of beige fieldstone stand silently amid clusters of Colonial and Revolutionary-era gravestones. The modest structure peaks not with a pristine bell tower, but with a simple A-frame roof. Even on the Sabbath, only a handful of worshipers gather inside its whitewashed doors for a singular weekly service.
On June 1 and 2, church members, Baptist leaders, local historians and several of the founders’ descendants celebrated the congregation’s 325th anniversary. The dedication of a Pennsylvania historical marker at the site highlighted a weekend of activities commemorating the milestone.
“We have so many things we want to accomplish. The main goal is to continue, just simply to continue, to be able to be here every Sunday morning and be a congregation,” said Cheryl Carlson, the church clerk. “We’re striving to find our mission here, why God has kept us here. I strongly believe that our mission is our history.”
Founded in 1688 by a dozen Welsh and English immigrants, Pennepack is the oldest Baptist congregation in the state and the seventh-oldest in the nation. Domestically, the denomination has its deepest roots in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but the Pennepack group was the Baptists’ first sustained foray into new territory. It was their bridge into the mid-Atlantic colonies and ultimately well beyond.
Today, Baptists number more than 40 million in the United States and comprise the nation’s largest religious denomination other than Catholicism.
Pennepack was central in the formation of the nation’s first Baptist association in 1707. Decades later, its members argued over Revolutionary War allegiances and, almost a century after that, were outspoken abolitionists when the issue of slavery drove a wedge between the Northern and Southern arms of the denomination.
Dr. Samuel Jones, who served as pastor from 1762 to 1814, was a key figure in the 1764 founding of the Providence, R.I., school that would become Brown University. He turned down an offer to become the college’s second president because of his ongoing ministry in Philadelphia.
“This church is so important to the establishment of the Baptist church in the United States,” said Fred Moore, a Northeast historian who coordinated the anniversary festivities on behalf of the church’s non-profit historical foundation. Moore prepared the paperwork for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to have the state marker erected outside the church.
A state official involved in the marker program didn’t need much convincing to certify the site. Jonathan R. Stayer, the head of reference services for the PHMC’s Bureau of Archives and History, is a practicing Baptist.
“When this application crossed my desk, I could not contain my excitement that a site so important to my personal religious heritage would be marked,” said Stayer, who is a member of a York congregation.
The Pennepack Baptist marker joins about 2,000 others across the state, including one installed at the Pennypack Creek Bridge in Holmesburg last October. The signs mark sites with military, religious, political, academic, ethnic, business or environmental significance.
“Each marker establishes an important link to the past,” Stayer said. “It is my hope that this sign will not be the end of the story, but will instead provide encouragement for further study and discussion of Baptist history in our commonwealth.”
State Rep. Kevin Boyle, who presented a state House citation to Carlson in recognition of the 325th anniversary, noted that the Baptist congregation established a precedent of tolerance for other denominations and faiths that settled in Pennsylvania in the years to come.
“[The founders] were trying to escape religious persecution in England and Wales and they came to our country. This church is representative of religious liberty,” Boyle said. “And I can’t think of anything more significant in our society.”
The volume of regular worshipers and, indeed, the modest church building, offer little hint of the congregation’s glorious past.
In truth, one Baptist congregation preceded Pennepack in Pennsylvania. In 1684, the Rev. Thomas Dungan founded a congregation in Cold Springs, an unincorporated area near Bristol, Bucks County. Dungan baptized the man, Elias Keach, who would become the first pastor of Pennepack. After Dungan died in 1688, members of the Cold Springs group joined the rolls of the Pennepack congregation. By 1702, the Cold Springs congregation was defunct.
In Pennepack’s early years, members worshiped in one another’s homes. In 1707, the congregation erected its first church building on the Krewstown Road site. The church was enlarged in 1774, then replaced in 1805 with the structure that stands there today.
The congregation continued to expand and, in 1886, built a larger church on Bustleton Avenue in the growing community of Bustleton. The congregation kept the 1805 church and used it sparingly for weddings and other special occasions, like the annual Pennepack Day observances, which began in 1904.
In 2006, confronted by the financial realities of a declining membership, the congregation sold the Bustleton Avenue church to a Ukrainian/Russian Baptist group and used some of the income to restore the Krewstown Road church. Heat and air conditioning systems were installed there for the first time.
Northeast historian Pat Worthington-Stopper, who is now in her 80s, has fond childhood memories of the Krewstown Road church.
“I have to tell the story of 1938, our 250th year — the celebration we had then,” said Worthington-Stopper, a church member, during the June 1 anniversary gathering. “Every seat in this building was taken, upstairs [and] downstairs. People stood outside [at] the windows and doors just to hear the service. And I can see it. I can see it today. I was there. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Hopefully, we’ll be able to [keep doing] it for a long time.” ••
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For video from the June 1 ceremony, visit the Northeast Times channel on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/NortheastTimes.