135 and counting at Seattle First Baptist

Last weekend saw a significant birthday celebration. But the weekend long fete wasn't for a child or to mark an adult's notable milestone. The events were held to recognize the 135th anniversary of the Seattle First Baptist Church.

Located at 1111 Harvard Avenue, Seattle First Baptist is the oldest church in the city and has roots going back to Seattle's earliest history. While the church held its first service on New Year's Day 1870, its origins date to 1850, when one of the region's first white settlers, John Holgate, arrived in August of that year.

He was captivated by the region. Though is first visit to the area was only a few months long, he persuaded the Holgate and Hanford families back in Iowa to settle in the region. They made their way west in a wagon train in 1852-1853. By 1853, the families had established land claims near what is now Beacon Hill; the Hanford homestead was located in what is now Tully's headquarters just west of I-5.

By 1869, Seattle had a population of just over 1,100 residents. At year's end, members of Holgate and Hanford families began what would become the First Baptist Church.

The initial church building was completed in 1872, where City Hall now stands downtown. Another church building was built there in 1890. But in 1905, a downtown regrade project required the church to be relocated. In 1910, work began on the current First Baptist Church building; two years later the church was ready for use. In those days the gothic-styled church, particularly its prominent spire, was a major city landmark.

Dr. Stephen Jones, Seattle First Baptist's coordinating pastor and one of four pastors who work as a team ministry, has been at the church for more than two years. He thinks the church's modern mission is reflected by its physical location between Capitol Hill and First Hill.

"We are a crossroads church," he said. "We want to help shape faith and help people interpret scripture. This is a church were a person can hold a religious or political position without being attacked by others."

Jones said the church has always been on the progressive side of the ideological debate. Rather than promoting a literal, dog-matic ideology, Seattle First Baptist points more towards tolerance and acceptance. Jones acknowledged that such views are sometimes at odds with more rigid and authoritarian Baptist churches.

"We sometimes fly in the face of what many people think of Baptists. In the late-1800s, a conservative faction wanted to go in a fundamentalist direction. It was a close call, but that group lost out and this church then began hiring more progressive pastors," Jones said.

"Throughout the 20th century, First Baptist has had many outstanding liberal and progressive pastors. We're a historic peace church, welcoming all kinds of people, involving them in urban issues. Our congregation has really stressed freedom to its members. It's an involved and informed group."

Jones mentioned that the church took the controversial and unpopular stance of opposing the Japanese internment in WWII. His immediate predecessor, Dr. Rod Romney, who led First Baptist from 1979 through 2000, is credited with promoting greater acceptance within the gay and lesbian community.

Many urban churches have experienced a significant membership decline in recent years. Several larger, older churches are empty or considerably underused. (For a local example, the Seattle First Christian Church on Broadway will be redeveloped after that church merged to become the All Pilgrim's church at the north end of Broadway.) During the 1950s, Jones estimates the congregation stood at roughly 1,500 members.

Jones acknowledged that membership declined from about 1,000 to roughly 700 following the departure of Romney. Such a change, Jones said, is typical when a popular and long-serving pastor departs. But he said Seattle First Baptist is thriving and growing in its urban environment.

"Our membership is strong and diverse," he said. Roughly half the church's members live in the greater Capitol Hill area. Three-quarters live in Seattle. The church draws people from Everett to Tacoma.

As an example of its current strength, Jones pointed to the way the church recovered from the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, during which the church sustained significant damage. A private capital campaign raised the $750,000 necessary to effect repairs.

Jones said that Seattle First Baptist has expansion plans in mind, including creating church parking - Seattle First Baptist does not own the parking lot next to the church. Jones said that no changes will be made to the older, gothic structure. Additional goals include developing affordable housing. Jones said he hopes to continue a recent trend of attracting new and younger families into the church.

He pointed to the church's growing outreach efforts, increased adult education programs and musical efforts, such as the Seattle Jazz Vespers, as examples of the institution's growing vitality.

Among the celebratory activities that took place over the weekend was a showing of the documentary "Princess Angeline," a film about the life of Chief Sealth's daughter and the Duwamish Tribe. A descendent of the tribe spoke after the showing. A sold-out bus tour visited sites of significance in the church's history and the Jones' Sunday sermon was titled, "History, Lived!" A photographic exhibit and artifact display created by the church's Heritage Committee documented the church's history and early connections with the Duwamish tribe.

Remaining an urban church, connecting with urban issues and concerns, remains a key aspect. While First Hill is changing - several new high-rise condominiums are set to go up near the church - Jones thinks the neighborhood will retain its character. Jones said Seattle First Christian Church intends to increase its commitment to social issues and build upon its connection to the neighborhood.

"I think we can be advocates in the political and social arena," he said. "We're in a position to reposition and redefine ourselves for the future. This church isn't going anywhere. This is our neighborhood and this is where we want to serve."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.

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