Northeast Times

Making history

Pen­nepack Baptist Church cel­eb­rates its 325th an­niversary.  

  • Local residents gather at Pennypack Baptist Church to celebrate its 325th anniversary with the placement of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker across the street. First, people march around the cemetry to collect the spirits of the place. Then, they cross the street for the official unveiling of the marker, and after that, a small ceremony at the church cemented the celebration, June 1, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

  • Local residents gather at Pennypack Baptist Church to celebrate its 325th anniversary with the placement of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker across the street. First, people march around the cemetry to collect the spirits of the place. Then, they cross the street for the official unveiling of the marker, and after that, a small ceremony at the church cemented the celebration, June 1, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

  • Local residents gather at Pennypack Baptist Church to celebrate its 325th anniversary with the placement of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker across the street. First, people march around the cemetry to collect the spirits of the place. Then, they cross the street for the official unveiling of the marker, and after that, a small ceremony at the church cemented the celebration, June 1, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

  • Local residents gather at Pennypack Baptist Church to celebrate its 325th anniversary with the placement of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker across the street. First, people march around the cemetry to collect the spirits of the place. Then, they cross the street for the official unveiling of the marker, and after that, a small ceremony at the church cemented the celebration, June 1, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

  • Local residents gather at Pennypack Baptist Church to celebrate its 325th anniversary with the placement of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker across the street. First, people march around the cemetry to collect the spirits of the place. Then, they cross the street for the official unveiling of the marker, and after that, a small ceremony at the church cemented the celebration, June 1, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

  • Local residents gather at Pennypack Baptist Church to celebrate its 325th anniversary with the placement of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker across the street. First, people march around the cemetry to collect the spirits of the place. Then, they cross the street for the official unveiling of the marker, and after that, a small ceremony at the church cemented the celebration, June 1, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

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.” ••

On the Web:

For video from the June 1 ce­re­mony, vis­it the North­east Times chan­nel on You­Tube at www.you­tube.com/user/North­east­Times.

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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