Friday, February 26, 2016

Waterford's Religious Centers: The Baptist Ministers and Churches

Today's Union Baptist Church, Waterford,  VT. Photo courtesy of the church website,
The "White Village" of Lower Waterford today has only one church, and it is not a Baptist one -- but the longing to worship in the "spirit of Roger Williams" (1603-1683; Puritan who became a Reformed Baptist) came along with many of Waterford's early residents whose roots had first been in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In 1796 Silas Davison arrived in Waterford, where his farming career vacillated with his landholdings. He preached in Barnet as well as Waterford, and Dr. C. E. Harris in his Waterford history (A Vermont Village) says that the Rev. Davison was "ordained in John Wood's barn."

Baptists in Barnet and St. Johnsbury found the journey to the Rev. Davison's home for his services was too difficult, wrote John D. Thyng in a note added to Frederick Palmer Wells's History of Barneet, Vermont. So a "call was sent to the Baptists in these two towns to meet at Passumpsic on Sept. 24, 1811, that village having been chosen as the most central point" (J. D. Thyng again).

Eight people had been meeting at "Bro. Silas Davison's house" and became half of this "Baptist Church of St. Johnsbury and Waterford." The church's second pastor would be the very well known Rev. George B. Ide, and "scores [of people] were added tp the church." With a membership of more than 200, it became the largest Baptist church in Vermont, until a decline began around 1843. The intricate history of these years includes the "Millerite doctrine" and reorganizations that stretched across into New Hampshire as well. Various buildings were outgrown. A bequest from Jonathan Lawrence of about $2,000 and the land on which the Passumpsic Baptist Church now stands (plus a farm in Waterford) led to the 1895 construction of the church seen today in Passumpsic, designed by architect Lambert Packard.

Things became more complicated during the late 19th century. In 1869 a Free Will Baptist Church was organized in St. Johnsbury, and in 1875 it gained a church building, which burned in 1881, was rebuilt in 1882 (seating capacity 300!), and when its congregation later merged into a second one (see next description), the building was taken over by the First Church of Christ Scientist (it still stands, next to the Fairbanks Museum). Another congregation, the First Baptist Church, was organized in St. Johnsbury in 1874 and in 1875 gained a church building on Railroad Street. In 1916 the two St. J Baptist congregations merged to form the Union Baptist Church, which thrived in its Railroad Street home, adding a school in 1976.
Railroad Street (St Johnsbury) building that housed Union Baptist Church, 1916-1992 (and earlier, the First Baptist Church).

The Union Baptist Church outgrew its home in St. Johnsbury, and in 1992 it completed construction on a much larger building, including a school wing, in Waterford. The first worship service held there was on October 25, 1992, bringing the Baptist group back into the town where the Rev. Davison had launched his own church meetings so many years before.
Groundbreaking, for 1992 structure - photo from UBC website, annotated by Tanya Powers.

This year, 2016, is the centennial of the merger of those churches, and Union Baptist Church plans to celebrate its history in July. A complete narrative of the church and its many leaders will be compiled by then. So this post is simply a "place holder" for that long version that we can look forward to.

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