History of The First Baptist Church


Oakland, California


Chas. G. Reed.

(written between 1920 and 1925)

That part of the City of Oakland lying between the Bay and Lake Merritt, the Estuary and about 21st Street, was incorporated as the Town of Oakland on May 4th, 1852, and from Market Street to the Lake, the Estuary to 14th Street, was laid out in blocks two hundred by three hundred feet, each containing twenty eight lots of twenty five feet frontage. The land on the East side of the bay of San Francisco was known as Contra Costa County, as far East as the Alameda Creek of Niles Canyon. The little village naturally took on the same name. The population in 1852 was probably not over five hundred, and the land was only held by the promoters of the Town, on a lease from Vicente and Domingo Peralta. Horace W. Carpenter, the principal promoter desired to get central of the waterfront and in order to do so he obtained the position of enrolling clerk in the State Legislature so as to enable him to have an act passed to incorporate the Town of Contra Costa. The inhabitants did not want the Town incorporated and there was so much opposition that Mr. Carpenter deceived the people by changing the corporate name to Oakland, and as none of them knew a Town by that name the Act was passed. A Town Board of Trustees of Mr. Carpenter's choice was elected, who gave him the desired waterfront. The name Oakland was a very appropriate one as all of it South of 14th Street was covered with live Oaks, Broadway, then known as Main Street, having its share of these handsome trees.

The business part of the Town was from the foot of Broadway to Fourth Street and the main part of the dwellings South of Tenth Street, with here and there a dwelling farther to the North.

Oakland was incorporated as a City May 25th, 1854, with a probable population of seven hundred and fifty. By 1857 it had one thousand, and at the first census in 1860 it had grown to fourteen hundred and fifty three.

The First Baptist Church of Oakland was organized on December 7th, 1854. The constituent members being Rev. E. J. Willis, Mrs. N. A. Willis, L. W. Taylor, S. Ayers, Mrs. Mary Potter, and Nathaniel J. Thompson. Rev. E. J. Willis was chosen Pastor, Nathaniel J. Thompson Deacon, and L. W. Taylor Clerk.

Its first house of worship erected at the South East corner of Fifth and Jefferson Streets was dedicated and the Church formally recognized by an ecclesiastical council on December 17th, 1854 and was the first completed Protestant Church erected in Oakland, the first Presbyterian Church being unfinished at that time and not completed for several years.

The First Church at Fifth and Jefferson Streets was about thirty by fifty feet with a small room at the back of the main building which was used as a library for the Sunday School and stowaway for odds and ends. It had quite a tall steeple in which was a bell, which, though small, could be heard throughout the City. There was a narrow vestibule at the front, over which was a small choir loft, which never was used so far as I know as I sang in the choir in 1860, and we then stood in front of the pulpit.

As near as I can recall there were ten pews in either side of the one aisle, each of which would comfortably seat eight grown persons. I recall that Benj. Malson with his wife and six children just about filled a pew--one of this family, Mrs. Ida Clark is now a member of our church, and a brother Seth B. Malson is a member of the 23rd Avenue Baptist Church. This is, I think the only family, some of whom have kept in touch in membership almost from its beginning until the present tine.

On either side of the church were three large windows, but none in front. As there were few or no plastered buildings at that date I can safely say that the inside was ceiled with wood and that the entire building was constructed with redwood cut and whip sawed in the neighboring hills. With a little crowding two hundred persons could be seated in the building and it was often used for Town meetings, lectures, concerts, etc. It was lighted by three reflector oil lamps on each side and one on each side of the pulpit. A small reed organ stood at the Pastors's right which as far back as I can remember was played by Miss Jennie Stewert--Deacon Thompson's sister-in-law. A large wood stove served to heat the room in winter. The value of the building was about $1,500.00. The lot was worth about $100.00 and while I have no proof to offer, I am of the opinion that it was donated.

Of the constituent members I was well acquainted with three, Deacon Thompson, Mr. Taylor, Church Clerk, and Mrs. Mary Potter. I have tried but in vain to learn anything about Rev. Mr. Willis, who was pastor for the first seven months and until someone could be found who would take the pastorate. The only thing I learned about him was that he was City School Superintendent during his residence in Oakland. N. J. Thompson and L. W. Taylor were both carpenters and no doubt worked on the church during its erection, thus accounting for the completion of the Church with only six members. Mrs. Mary Potter was the wife of John Potter, a well known business man and who also became a member of the Church. A daughter, Mrs. Carrie L. Dermont resides in East Oakland, and an adopted son, Horace P. Ross is Chief Deputy County Advisor.

Deacon Thompson married Miss Camila Stewart, and they were the first teachers in the Sunday School, he teaching the boys, of which I was one, and she teaching the girls.

I have tried hard to obtain pictures of some of those I have mentioned, but have succeeded only in getting the pictures of Mrs. Mary Potter, a constituent member and Mrs. Camila Thompson, the first female teacher of our Sunday School.

The Second Pastor, Rev. Harvey Gilbert, served the church one year and four months. I knew him very well and his son Orville and daughter Julia, who married Mr. Alex. Elder and lived in Oakland for many years and died here. Mr. Gilbert went to San Rafael, where he had a school for boys and where he lived to a good old age.

The next pastor was Rev. J. B. Saxton, with whom I was more intimately acquainted that any other of the earlier pastors. He was a hard worker, preaching in the morning and evening in his own church and Sunday afternoons at East Oakland, then the Town of Clinton, in the little public school house which stood just east of the site of the 10th Avenue Baptist Church. His pay was so small that he opened a school for boarding and day scholars. I was one of his pupils and being one of the older ones, he had me study Astronomy. Having no globe to illustrate the lesson, he procured a fairly round potato and tied a twine string around it to show the equator and another at an angle with the equator to show the ecliptic. This was rather aa crude way to teach me, but I venture to say that I got as good an idea of the equator and the ecliptic as most modern scholars with the finest apparatus. Mrs. Matilda Dilger Brown was on of my schoolmates at this school. Mr. Saxton served as Pastor two years and five months. In the summer of 1860 he baptized a number of candidates in the waters of the Estuary at the foot of Washington Street. Among them was our oldest member, Mrs. N. J. Hoyt, whose membership has been continuous since this date. I was present and saw her baptized. Standing by me was Seth B. Malson, and neither of us thought then that we also should put on baptism and become members, but both of us did so.

Our member with the next longest membership is Frank M. Gilcrest, who joined not long after Mrs. Hoyt. The next was Mrs. Sheldon who joined in 1868.

In February 1864 the Church building was moved to the South side of Ninth Street between Washington and Clay Streets and occupied the present site of the Salvation Army barracks. After it was abandoned it was for a number of years used by the Oakland Turn Verein Association, a German Athletic Club, and was later torn down to make room for the Salvation Army barracks.

Rev. John Francis was pastor for one year following the pastorate of Mr. Saxton. He had the appearance of one of the preachers of Colonial times and was much beloved by all who knew him. I am not able to give the reason for his short stay with the church. Rev. A. H. Baker served as Pastor for two months only.

Rev. B. T. Martin served as Pastor one year and ten months after his ordination on May 20th, 1869 but he had previously served the church as stated supply three years and nine months, making his full time of service five years and seven months. It was during his pastorate that the church outgrew the first building, and in the early part of 1868 a lot one hundred by two hundred feet was purchased at the South East corner of 14th and Brush Streets for $2,500.00. Two years later the South Sixty two feet were sold for $1,800.00. Work upon the new house of worship was begun on July 9th, 1868 under the supervision Benj. Malson, and the building was completed in March 1869 at a cost of $32,000.00 and was formally dedicated on the 30th of the same month. While the building was being constructed N. J. Thompson (mentioned heretofore as the First Deacon and one of the six organizers of the Church in 1854) was at work near the top of the steeple when the great earthquake of 1868 took place. Not realizing it was an earthquake that did the shaking, he threw his arms about the spire and shouted to the man below, "Hey, what are you doing down there? Stop that shaking!"

To the praise of Mr. Martin, during whose pastorate the 14th Street church was built, it is only just to say that he accepted but a small salary, not enough to support his family, and took a position in the U. S. Mint in San Francisco to provide the balance necessary for his living expenses. As you will observe by his picture in our chapel, he was of Shakespearian type of face and beard, a fine student and gifted as a speaker. No pastor could have been more highly thought of by his church than he. The members were justly proud of him and his achievements--for the new building was considered as something much in advance of the other Oakland Churches.

I judge the building would seat about 750. There was a fair sized choir loft back of the pulpit. A baptistery under the pulpit, a fairly good organ--hand pumped which sometimes gave a weird groan when the pumper got tired and failed to keep up the air pressure. The organ was donated to the Los Gatos church and was replaced by a fine instrument. In the back part of the building was a good prayer meeting room, Ladies parlor, pastor's study and a room used for meetings of trustees and Sunday School and various purposes.

Mr. Martin was succeeded by Rev. B. S. Mac Lafferty, who began his ministry May 10th, 1874, (Though in the meantime several had acted as temporary supplies) and on December 24th, 1874 became pastor by an unanimous call of the church. During his pastorate $8,500.00 of the church debt was paid, leaving a balance of $10,000.00. Mr. Mac Lafferty had the courage of his convictions and earnestly declared the truth as he understood it. During his pastorate some of the membership went out and founded a new church organization known as the Central Baptist Church, meeting in a hall on the South side of 14th Street between Broadway and Washington Streets. The new organization was very short lived and soon collapsed. Mr. Mac Lafferty resigned April 1st, 1879, having served five years, beloved and regretted by his faithful followers. He was succeeded by Rev. Granville S. Abott, who served the church until December 31st, 1881. During the pastorate of Dr. Abott the church has a prosperous season. Sixty two more added by Baptism and fifty four by letter. It was with much regret that the church released Dr. Abott, so that he might take charge of the Baptist paper "The Herald of Truth". So much needed in the work of the denomination on this Coast. He made the paper a great success.

Upon accepting the resignation of Dr. Abott a call was extended to Rev. Evan Davis of Burlington, Iowa. The call was accepted, but owing to illness, his coming was delayed and Dr. E. H. Gray, who had with Mrs. Gray recently come to California in the interest of the Baptist Denomination, consented to act as supply until Rev. Davis should be able to come.

This arrangement lasted six months, when owing to continued ill health Rev. Davis found it impossible to keep his engagement and was released by the Church. A unanimous call was then extended to Dr. Grey who accepted and served the church for six years.

Dr. Gray was one of the most distinguished ministers of his denomination . He was chaplain of the United States Senate during the twenty ninth and thirtieth sessions of Congress. In that capacity he officiated at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in the East room of the White house, where were gathered seven hundred distinguished mourners, and offered prayer and was in the great funeral procession which numbered forty thousand.

The church at that time was carrying a mortgage of $10,000.00, a floating debt of $1,500.00, and was in great need of repairs. Dr. Gray went vigorously to work to clear up the debt and mostly through the generosity of Mrs. M. M. Gray, wife of Dr. Gray, Mrs. Matilda Brown, Mrs. Elishia Higgins, and Mr. Peder Sather, the entire debt was paid and nearly 4,000.00 was raised and expended upon repairs.

The benevolence of the church were also increased several fold. During Dr. Gray's pastorate two hundred and nineteen were added to the membership. Dr. Gray organized the Society of Christian Endeavor amongst the young folks, out of which came the present B.Y.P.U. In 1884 the writer of this history was baptized by Dr. Gray.

In 1887, owing to failing health and increasing responsibilities, Dr. Gray was asked to select an assistant pastor. He suggested Rev. C. H. Hobart of Los Gatos. The selection was unanimously approved by the church. In the spring of 1888, through the generosity of Mrs. Gray, the Pastor and his assistant took a three month trip through the Holy Land.

In July 1888, Dr. Gray resigned, and Rev. C. H. Hobart was unanimously called as his successor. In 1889 occurred the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Gray's entry into the ministry, and a jubilee service was held in his honor, which lasted several days, during which time the pastors of the City and the whole community united in doing honor to this venerable soldier of the Cross. The following poem by Francis M. Pugh, then a member of the church, was written for the occasion:

A Soldier of the Lord

When the Nation's heroes gathered
On our golden western shore,
And we looked into the face
Of the men, who long before
Saved our county from destruction,
Kept our starry banner bright,
With no shame to pale its crimson
And no cloud to dim its light.

How Our pulses throbbed within us!
Cannon's crash and wild hazza
Seemed too feeble for our greeting
To those veterans of the war.
But tonight our song of welcome
Strikes a tenderer, truer chord,
For we come to render homage
To a Soldier of the Lord.

Governments and nations vanish
As time's billows o'er them roll.
'Mid the wrecks of all creation,
Breathless stands the human soul.
Grander fame than martial heroes'
Nobler name than statesmen win,
Is his due, who fights to save men
From the power of hell and sin.

And we greet, tonight, a warrior,
Tried and true in tent and field,
Who has never furled his colors,
Never cast away his shield.
But where the hottest waged the conflict,
Fiercest surged the battle's tide,
Raised on high the Royal Standard-
Preached a Savior crucified.

Bravest souls are tenderest ever,
Not by warlike acts, alone,
But by gentle word and council
Are his worth and wisdom shown.
Fearful hearts have taken courage,
Sinning souls have found peace and rest.
Many a darkened home remembers,
How his visits cheered and blessed.

Colder rays of evening sunshine
Shed a brilliance round his way,
heralding the glorious dawning,
Of heaven's bright eternal day.
Soldier with a stainless record,
Uncrowned king, today, is he.
Fifty years of work for Jesus!
Truest proof of royalty.

The pastorate of Rev. Hobart, who was young and full of energy, was very successful, and rapid growth was made. One hundred and ninety two were added by letter and one hundred fifty six by baptism. In June 1892, the Church had Five hundred twenty one members. The church then had one of the largest and best choirs in the City. The pastor's very charming wife did excellent service as leader of the women's work. Rev. Hobart was much beloved in and out of his church and still has many warm friends here. He has always carried a winsome smile, which still remains with him. We rejoice in having his son Kenneth, who, with his wife, are serving as missionaries in China, as members of our church. A daughter Helen is also engaged in Christian work in Los Angeles.

Our church owes much to Rev. and Mrs. Hobart for the splendid work done by them during Mr. Hobert's pastorate.

After a long term of service, Rev. Hobert resigned, and after a pastorate of five years in Pasadena, took up his residence in Sacramento, where he was pastor of the church for years.

In July 1901, Rev. Homer J. Vosburgh was called to the pastorate. Those of us who knew him will ever remember his scholarly attainments and dignified appearance. Though he had a serious look, he always enjoyed a hearty laugh. He was succeeding finely, having good attendance upon the church services, then the church was burned with all its contents, including the fine new organ. One of the halls in the Masonic Temple at 12th and Washington Streets was rented, and services held there until the chapel of the present building was ready for occupation.

Work on the Auditorium was nearing completion when the earthquake of 1906 so completely wrecked a part of the building that it became necessary to replace the tall spire, which was shaken down, by the present tower and to make other changes which quite changed the appearance of the whole building.

Mr. Vosburg was of great assistance to us in obtaining help from churches in the East, where he was well acquainted, and we received about $30,000.00, which enabled us to complete the church building.

Notwithstanding all the discouragements which had come to us, Mr. Vosborough went bravely on and brought order out of chaos.

On May 1st, 1910, the entire membership of the Free Baptist Church joined with us, adding eighty one to our number. They had disposed of their church property for $3,500.00 giving $1,500.00 to the 21st Avenue church of San Francisco for missions and $2,000.00 to our church to apply on the church debt. Among the Free Baptists were Dr. Wn. E. Reud, the pastor, and Deacon S. P. Meads.

By paying one half of the cost of our organ, we obtained the balance from the Carnegie Organ Fund and have a first class instrument.

After a successful pastorate of ten years, Mr. Vosburgh resigned, going to a church in Camden, N.J. For a year following the church had various pulpit supplies: Rev. Dr. I. A. Buyer of the Christian Church supplying for several months and his congregation worshiping with us during the construction of their church.

In December of 1911, Rev. Wm. Kenny Towner received a unanimous call to our church, which was accepted, and Mr. Towner came to us from New York State. He was young, full of fire and enthusiasm, and did splendid work up to the beginning of the world war, when his patriotism led him to take a temporary leave from the church and go to France in the work of the Y.M.C.A. among the soldiers. He deserved great credit for his willingness to go into service on a less salary than he received as pastor, and while the difference was partly made up, it was not all paid as it should have been.

He resumed the pulpit and did valiant work until his resignation in 1919, effective January 1st, 1920, to accept a call from the First Church of San Jose. Mr. Towner took a special interest in the work of the young people and the Bible school. He was a fine musician, with a rich baritone voice, and not infrequently broke out in song during his sermon.

He has many warm friends amongst our congregation. The whole of our church choir went to one of his services after he left us to show their love and appreciation of his work here.

On the 18th of April, 1920, our present beloved and honored pastor, Dr. John Snape, came to our church from Hollywood. It would be almost useless for me to attempt to put into words our sincere appreciation of the great work he has done here, not only for our church, but for our city. The work for the new World Movement begun by Rev. Mr. Towner and finished by Dr. Snape was a wonderful accomplishment. The great ingathering into our membership, the executive ability and powerful sermons, the presentation by Dr. and Mrs. Snape of our electric sign, a thing of beauty, and the filling of our church to its utmost capacity in our evening services has been to us a great delight and added to all these and many other things accomplished is the John Snape Bible Class for men, which bids fair to become one of the great institutions of our City. As it seems to be his wish to stay with us, so it is our wish that he will be with us in the many years lying ahead as pastor, leader and friend, and under God's guidance make this church a blessing to us, to those who shall become one with us, and to our beloved City, Oakland.

Our church has always had a missionary spirit. Early in its history missions were planted in our City. One in East Oakland, as early as 1860, and one in West Oakland later on. Also one amongst the Chinese--Dr. J. R. and Mrs. Bradway, Mr. S.A. Green, Mrs. Egli and her two daughters have all taken a keen interest in our Chinese Mission work, and for many years our sister, May Hoyt Hill and her husband were missionaries to Japan. Our Columbian Park Mission brought to its present state of usefulness through the efforts of our pastor and our Bible School Teachers. Rev. Frank C. B. Silva, formerly of this church, has for thirty years been working amongst the Portuguese Sailors at New Bedford, Mass., where he had established a church and several preaching stations. We have no less than eleven of our present membership doing evangelical and missionary work.

I cannot finish this somewhat disconnected historical sketch without saying something of the work of the women in our church, for, in many respects they have far excelled the men in their faithfulness and sacrifice. Their work in our Bible School and our Charitable objects as well as their contribution of funds through the Womens Auxiliary has been of great assistance, and too much praise cannot be given to them for the part they have so splendidly carried out and brought to a successful termination. The wives of the pastors I best recollect, Mrs. Abott, Mrs. Grey, Mrs. Hobart, Mrs. Vosburgh, Mrs. Towner, and Mrs. Snape have indeed added grace to the pastorate of their husbands as they have also been splendid leaders of the women's work.

Among the laymen of our Church some have stood out more prominently then others, particularly a number who have filled the office of Deacon and have long since passed the their heavenly home. Nathaniel J. Thompson, our first Deacon, Cyrus W. Dam, Dr. J. R. Bradway, Jas. P, Cogswell, J. T. Latimer, Harry Garthwaite, Dr. Stark, J. H. Stevens, J. C. Caldwell, and A. J. Sowles were some of the noblest and best men I have ever known.

Of the living, we have many of the best any church can boast of. Our Bible School Superintendent, Arthur E. Caldwell, whose long and faithful services have been priceless--our Trustees, Deacons, Deaconesses, teachers, and leaders of our B. Y. P. U. are all peers of any filling like positions.

Without the least fear of exciting any jealousy on the part of the deacons or any one else in our membership, there is one Deacon I wish to mention, for if he fails to pass through the "Pearly Gates" I am sure it would be useless for any of the rest to undertake the journey. When this silver haired gentle soul, who has grown old gracefully, shall knock at the outer gate and St. Peter shall with his keys unlock the doors and bid him enter, and shall ask his name and whence he came, the confident answer will be, "Deacon Simeon P. Meads, First Baptist Church, Oakland, California", and I fancy I can see Peter smile as he says, "We have no further questions to ask, we have been expecting you for some time. Just walk right in and hang up your hat in the place you will find prepared for you".

I have only to add the hope that this church may grow in grace as it does in numbers and that in the years to come when we shall all have passed from earthly scenes it may still be doing the work of the Master and leading men and women to a higher and better life.

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