The First Baptist Church, previously known as the First African Baptist Church, was established in 1817, and was opened as the first Protestant congregation for African Americans in the Saint Louis area. As a result of this development, all other African American Baptist churches were eventually created. The church began as a small Sunday school which was supervised and directed by Reverends John Mason Peck and James Welch. At the time, the two men were missionaries looking to expand African American involvement in the Baptist community. The school and church organizations slowly gained popularity which led to the production of smaller branches. One branch in particular was later led by Reverend John Berry Meachum, the first African American pastor. This establishment brought on even more popularity to the church, and while it was discretely operating as a school, it had close to three hundred members. The church operated for many years on limited funds, and moved to a variety of locations across Saint Louis. After undergoing a tragic fire in 1940, the First Baptist Church now stands tall on Bell Avenue. The current pastor is Reverend Henry L. Midgett and weekly Sunday school and worship services are available to the public.
The First Baptist Church in St. Louis was not converted into the transformative, community-binding organization that it is today over night. The efforts of various individuals, specifically Reverend James E. Welch, John Mason Peck, and John Berry Meachum were at the forefront of cementing the movement of Baptist Christianity in the area. The combination of the contributions of these men along with the thirst for faith that was present among citizens of Saint Louis led to this movement. The founding, history, and leadership of First Baptist Church in St. Louis reveal the church’s significance in the spread of the Baptist faith within St. Louis during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
James Ely Welch was the product of humble beginnings in Fayette County, Kentucky, where he spent the majority of his childhood participating in a variety of jobs centered around grueling physical labor. His father wanted to ensure he received a quality education and, therefore, he was placed in the educational system at age ten where he bounced around several schools before eventually leaving his father at seventeen to work for his brother. In 1810, Welch experienced a personal transformation in which he felt the call of God come upon him. During the following summer, he preached for the first time in his life. He found that he enjoyed spreading his faith with others and went on to travel to many parts of the country. When he finally settled down in St. Louis, he encountered a population which was mostly comprised of French Catholics. Nonetheless, he soon gained a respectable following; the only issue was that there was a serious lack of a worship space. According to the First Baptist Homepage, Welch went on to purchase a 40 foot by 80 foot lot for the price of $600 and that was the beginning of The First Baptist Church. Shortly thereafter, a Sunday school for colored children was opened by Welch and his colleague, John Mason Peck, and the Baptist faith began to spread throughout Saint Louis.
Welch's colleague, John Mason Peck, was born into a farming family on October 31st, 1789, in Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1807, at the age of eighteen, he became a teacher of the faith. A Baptist pastor by the name of Reverend H. Harvey introduced Peck to the Baptist faith initially. On September 14, 1811 John Mason Peck was baptized into the Baptist faith and in 1813, Peck became a pastor of the faith. However, he gave sermons in between the time of 1811 and 1813. In July of 1817 he, along with his family, set west for Saint Louis. After eventually arriving in December of 1817, he met up with James E. Welch. Together, these two men started the the First Baptist Church of Saint Louis. A few years later, Peck and Welch would meet a freed slave by the name John Berry Meachum. In 1825, Meachum was ordained by Peck. Peck had a big influence on the Baptist faith in the Saint Louis area not only through the founding of the First Baptist Church of Saint Louis, but the Second Baptist Church of Saint Louis as well. After converting to Baptist at the age of twenty-two, he made remarkable strides in advancing the spread of the Baptist faith.
John Berry Meachum was one of three men who played a major role in establishing the First Baptist Church which was founded in 1817 and is still active today. Meachum, along with Peck and Welch, founded the church with the motivation to create a safe place of worship for free blacks and slaves. Like Peck and Welch, his work in creating this establishment came from a personal background connected to the issue. Meachum was born into slavery in Virginia, but was unusually fortunate to earn money working from his owner and eventually purchase freedom for himself and his family. He ended up in Saint Louis when his wife, who was originally a slave in Kentucky, was taken there. Upon arrival, Meachum began his work with the First Baptist Church by developing preaching skills with the help of Peck. In doing so, Meachum was able to preach in the church as well as continue to run small businesses that helped many slaves earn their freedom as they accumulated wealth and work experience. As Meachum gained wealth, he was able to provide a home to those stopping in Saint Louis via the “Underground Railroad” which in turn continued to lead members into the First Baptist Church as either a place of worship or a place where they could be provided opportunities for education.
Overall, The First Baptist Church had a major impact on the Saint Louis African American Community being the first Protestant Church for African Americans in the area and inspiring the establishment of more Baptist churches. It initially had an attendance of 14 persons, but quickly grew to nearly 500 members by the mid-1840s, and the Sunday school attendance ranged from 150-300. The church was directly responsible for the education of hundreds of slaves who would have otherwise gone without any instruction. John Milton Turner was one former slave impacted by the church. He went on to become the first U.S. Minister to Liberia in 1871, and was the second person to become a diplomat from the area. This was just an example of the church’s positive influence on its members. All of these factors contributed to making the church responsible for the initial spread of the Baptist faith in the Saint Louis area, and with providing African Americans with a safe place to worship and grow. The First Baptist Church continues to offer services for those in Saint Louis after nearly 200 years of existence, and is the oldest operating black church in Missouri.
Content researched and written by Emily Chisholm, Jack Pingel, Amanda Posegay, John Schaefer, and Stephanie Surkin.
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