JP:History: Church safe a treasure trove of local history

August 14, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Anti-slavery stand, early fire, silver service included

It was with bated breath that members of the First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain in February of this year confronted a locked safe that had been recovered after the church at the corner of Centre and Myrtle streets burned down in 2005.

The safe had been through the fire and was badly rusted from exposure to water and ice. But, with the help of two professional safe-crackers, congregants Linda Karpeichik and Martha Khan were relieved to discover “a treasure trove of historic books and documents” still intact, according to First Baptist’s March 2008 newsletter.

The church has only just begun sorting through the documents in the safe. The shiniest find, a silver communion service presented to First Baptist by JP Unitarians, has been donated to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Baptist split

Prominent among the documents reviewed so far is a letter from the congregation to the board of the national Baptist organization the American Baptist Home Ministry Society, dated Aug. 1844, recommending a split with pro-slavery Baptists in the South.

A year later, at a meeting in Augusta, Ga., Southern Baptist congregations decided to split from the home ministry society, and formed the Southern Baptist Convention.

The letter was written, according to monthly church meeting minutes from that time, by “the pastor and Bros. Forebush, Witherbee and Hazelwood.”

It contains a polite, but scathing critique of the acceptance of slavery by Baptists in the South. “In common with the majority of our Northern Churches,” it says, “we have long been painfully exercised in relation to the existence of slavery among the churches of our faith, in the southern part of our country. We have regarded its existence as a gross violation of the rights of man, and the law of God…We really believe that the happiness of our brethren south and north would be augmented by a separation…”

First Baptist Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird told the Gazette that the discovery of the documents reveals a commitment to social justice on the part of the congregation at that time that cannot be taken for granted. “You can’t assume that every congregation, just because they are from the North, agreed or disagreed” with the eventual split, she said.

The letter suggests that some congregants at the time had different opinions about the moral issues and different reasons for wanting to split from the South. “Many of our numbers have been embarrassed [by the association with slaveholders]. Others, who have not all these scruples, have nevertheless been grieved at the dissentions…[A]nniversary and convention meetings [of the national home ministry society] have been anticipated with fear…”

Regardless of the subtleties of the internal conversation that led First Baptist to endorse the split, Karpeichik told the Gazette she is proud her congregational forebearers chose the moral high road. “I am so proud that they were social justice advocates then,” she said.

The letter was among 22 books of church documents recovered from the safe, she said, most of which have not been closely examined.

First fire

Another interesting find among the books that Karpeichik has “had the privilege of looking at” is a startling piece of synchronicity.

The First Baptist Church had endured two fires prior to the 2005 blaze, one in the 1970s, which many here remember, and one in the 1850s.

Prior to the 19th century conflagration, the church was located across Centre Street from where it now stands, near what is now Starr Lane. After that fire, First Baptist bought the parcel on the corner of Myrtle and Centre, and began a phased construction project similar to the one it is currently in the midst of, she said.

“They moved into the first floor of that building in 1859. The following year they started into phase two,” she said.

If the church finishes the first phase of its current reconstruction project next year, it will be able to move into the first floor of its building on the 150th anniversary of when congregants first occupied the half-completed church, Karpeichik said.

While First Baptist plans to work with professional archivists to catalogue the rest of the documents from the safe, it has been focused on the reconstruction effort. The books are at an “undisclosed, safe location,” Karpeichik said.

“We’d really like to know what’s in them. It’s JP history and First Baptist history. We want to make sure we do right by them,” she said.

In addition to the 22 books, the safe also contained a silver communion service given to First Baptist by the First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist in 1854 after that church was destroyed by a fire and First Baptist hosted it during its rebuilding.

First Baptist donated the communion service to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Karpeichik said it will be displayed in a new wing of the museum that is to be devoted to art of the Americas. According to the MFA web site, the new wing will be open in 2010.