Welcome to our new series! Looking forward, the history of our church will be told in either two or three parts. From Lewis and Clark to 2017, our beloved First Baptist’s legacy is incredible.
In 1893, Pastor J. Sheppard (an English native who after pastoring First Baptist returned home with his family), prepared a pamphlet commemorating the dedication of the new church building. Having paid for the large construction project without dipping into debt, the church felt there was much to celebrate – and they were right. This pamphlet included a poem written by Pastor Sheppard, as well as numerous historical accounts of the founding of various institutions within the church (i.e. Sunday school, women’s ministry, etc.).
One of these historical accounts described in vivid detail the founding of First Baptist. The story’s author was James H. Stewart – one of the earliest members of the church. His loving wife, Emily, has her name memorialized on one of our infamous stained-glass windows. Without further ado, here are the words of Mr. J. H. Stewart:
“In the year 1804, Lewis and Clark, the government explorers, started out on their long, memorable and adventuresome expedition up the Missouri river and its tributaries, penetrating the vast extent of territory known as the great Northwest, and included in the term Indian Territory known as the Louisiana purchase from the French, which was consummated in 1803. The expedition consisted of about thirty men, well-armed and equipped, and supplied with three boats for the undertaking. They arrived at the mouth of the Platte in the latter part of July 1804. From this point, they proceeded up the river and held a council with the Otoe Indians at the site of the present Fort Calhoun. Very little interesting history intervened for a number of years. The Mormons passed through during the years 1845 and 1846 making a short stay before they proceeded to the “New Jerusalem” as they termed it.
‘Westward the star of empire takes its way.’ The great tide of travel was then, as it I snow, toward the occident. On the 23rd day of May 1854, thirty-nine years ago, an act was passed by congress organizing the Territory of Nebraska. This act was a declaration to the world that her domain was open to the immigrant and the homeless. If you will take down your school maps of that date and undertake to learn its boundaries, you will discover in large letters ‘Unexplored Territory,’ and then that other inspiring sentence, ‘The Great American Desert.’ The first immigrants sought homesteads near the borders of civilization and along the western shores of the Missouri river. So much for the opening of the ‘Great American Desert,’ which stands today without a peer in the entire universe, and should justly by named the ‘Great American Paradise.’
We shall divide our Church History into five parts as follows: First, the Cuming City Baptist Church; Second, the Nebraska Baptist Association; Third, the Baptist State Convention; Fourth, The Omaha Baptist Association; Fifth, the First Baptist Church of Blair, allowing ourselves but a short time upon the second, third and fourth topics, but undertaking to give quite a concise history of the first and fifth.
Before proceeding further, let us make a statement in regard to the first things: The first minister to cross the Missouri river was a Baptist; the first prayer meeting held, the first sermon preached, the first church organization, the first person baptized was by a Baptist minister. In the year 1834, Rev. Moses Merrill was send by the American Baptist Missionary Union to this territory as a foreign missionary to the Indians. He was located near Bellevue and there organized a Mission.
CUMING CITY CHURCH –
The beginning of the settlement of Cuming City and its surrounding dates with the autumn of 1856. During that winter, one family, Josiah Boise, were the sole occupants of this vast territory. Emigration arrived very slowly and the winter of 1858 find very few inhabitants. Ever on the alert we find the church not slow to assist herself. The records read: ‘On January 26, 1858, according to previous appointments, the brethren and sisters of Baptist Faith and order assembled at the log house of T.C. Hungate, in Cuming City, in an informal meeting tending to the organization of a church. Rev. G. W. Barnes, of Florence, was present. Meeting adjourned until February 20.’ (I have a latter from Brother Barnes stating how he came to Cuming City.) On February 20, 1858, the First Baptist Church of Cuming City was organized, the following persons becoming members: T.C. Hungate and wife, Mrs. Emily Kline, Mildred Lippincott, Abraham Raver, N.S. Whitney, G.A. Brigham and Mary A. Stewart. Rev. G.W. Barnes was engaged to preach every two weeks and made his appointments on horseback. His pay for one years’ work was a horse, which was afterwards stolen.
It is necessary before proceeding any further with our history to introduce another character. The one crying in the wilderness, the one to prepare the way; the John the Baptist of the Territory of Nebraska was yet to appear. In a little town near Philadelphia, on November 17, 1817, was born our beloved John M. Taggart. A portion of his early life was spent in Philadelphia, Washington, Bloomfield and Jacksonville, until the year 1856, when seemingly, guided by a providential star, the wise man from the East, moves westward and plants his feet in the village of Fontanelle. Nothing it seems to the writer, would be more appropriate than to continue a little with the devoted man before proceeding with the Cuming City Church. Brother Taggart was indeed a pioneer in the Territory, and his influence was felt wherever he went. At this time, the advocates of slavery were doing their utmost to make slave states of both Kansas and Nebraska. As a member of the territorial legislature, be it said to his credit, no man did more to shape the policy of, and give direction to the affairs of this new state, than John M. Taggart, as my father who is present today can testify. Had his aspirations been so inclined he could have held a prominent position in the state. In all church affairs, he took a prominent part, and if necessary to toil with his own hands for a livelihood while preaching the gospel, he was ready. In formulating plans for the development and progress for the cause of Christ, he stood without an equal. His wisdom in council, kindness in spirit and good judgment made all trust and love him. For seven years, he was the honored President of the State Convention.
Amiable in disposition, almost to a degree unknown of men. As a minister of the gospel, he was earnest and always carried to the minds of his bearers, ‘there is a man who believes what he says.’ Much of his life was spent in mission work, and the poor outcasts of society were never too low for his council and administration. Like Dorcas, he was mourned for by those who had been the recipients of his generosity, for not a penny ever came into his fingers that didn’t pass out cheerfully and willingly to the needy. This wise servant of God passed to his reward on June 17, 1882 in Colorado. Methinks how joyfully he received the welcome ‘well done thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’
On March 7th, 1858, occurred an event in the Cuming City Church which marked an epoch in the history of the Baptists in Nebraska – the baptism of Brother A.S. Warrick and Sister S.A. Warrick. The ordinance was performed by Rev. J.M. Taggart.
Meetings were held at different residences, principally at Sister [Emily] Kline’s. In January 1856, the first steps were taken toward procuring a house of worship. Rev. J.M. Taggart began his work as pastor of the church in April 1859, which laid foundation for this church. It is said by some present that no church in the state sacrificed in order to sustain itself like the Cuming City Church. During the month of September 1860, a building was purchased for $300. The house was previously used for school, built by subscriptions, but on account of not being paid for, was sold at auction, the church being the purchasers. The house was nothing but a shell, and required no little expense and labor to make it serviceable. Rev. Taggart plastered the building, working seventeen hours without meals to keep fire and prevent the plaster from freezing. The building was entirely of cottonwood, even to the lath, they being made of siding sawed into strips.
The church grew slowly, a few being added by baptism. On July 20, 1861, Lucretia Ridell and Aimee Taggart, now Mrs. Kenny, were baptized. August 31, 1861, we find the following record: ‘Voted that we observe the last Thursday in September next as a day of fasting and prayer for the prosperity and success of our nation, now in arms for the suppression of insurrection.’ June 14, 1864, the record shows the following: ‘Voted that a committee of three be appointed to procure funds and whitewash the church.’ And on December 1, 1862, it was ‘voted to employ Brother Peter R. Benner as sexton for the church and to pay him for such services seventy-five cents per month during the winter.’
As time passed, the church found it necessary for a larger building, therefore on March 3rd, 1866, the record reads: ‘Voted to build a larger house of worship.’ In the autumn of 1867, the building to which we have just bid farewell was built. The old building was sold for school purposes. It was a difficult matter to build in those days. The cottonwood lumber was hauled across the river on the ice; the pine lumber from Omaha and Council Bluffs. The building complete, including furniture and bell, cost $3,500. The church was dedicated on March 5th, 1868, and the dedication sermon was preached by Rev. J.M. Taggart, who chose for his text, Psalms 45:13. The following persons served as pastors during the history just related: Rev. G.W. Barnes, Rev. J.D.P. Hungate, Rev. L.W. Wharton, Rev. J.M. Taggart, Rev. W.S. Whiteside, Rev. E.G. Groat.
No important events occurred in the next two years, and on account of the new town of Blair, its members began leaving the church to decline. Its zenith was passed.”
Stay tuned for part two – coming next week!