City churches trace roots to pioneer days

Early congregations led abolition movement

Lawrence was born from the reaction between pro-slavery forces and abolitionists fighting for control over the future of the Kansas Territory — and the city’s early churches were the catalyst.

The struggles of the abolitionists, in Lawrence’s opening decades, set the course for many congregations that went on to flourish in the ensuing 150 years.

In 1854, the New England Emigrant Aid Company sent a hardy band of 29 men to found a city in the Kansas Territory, hoping to settle the land with as many abolitionists as possible. The hope was that when the territory eventually achieved statehood, Kansas would be a free state.

Among the men recruited by Amos Lawrence, a wealthy merchant based in Boston, were Unitarians, Methodists and Congregationalists. The most prominent Unitarian among them was Charles Robinson, who would become the first governor of Kansas.

It took the group about two weeks to reach a site here, and then its members set up housing in order to establish a beachhead for abolitionists.

The Unitarian Church — known as the Unitarian Society in Lawrence — was founded in 1856, the year that a stone church was built at what is now Ninth and Ohio streets. The church also was used by the Congregationalists and Methodists. The first minister was the Rev. Ephraim Nute.

“Certainly in the early years, Unitarians were instrumental in building the schools, fostering abolitionism, providing aid for the Underground Railroad and settlers of the abolitionist persuasion. The Unitarian Church was used as a hospital in the aftermath of Quantrill’s Raid (Aug. 21, 1863),” said Carol Huettner, administrator of the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, 1263 N. 1100 Road.

“I think that the idea of tolerance, inclusion and basic fairness is part and parcel of the mindset of Lawrence, and I believe that comes in a straight, unbroken line from the first Unitarian settlers here. Lawrence would not have been founded were it not for Unitarians.”

In the late 1800s the old English Lutheran Church sat at the corner of Quincy and New Hampshire streets. The building, constructed for ,500 in 1870, was the home of Trinity Lutheran Church, which moved in 1928 to 1245 N.H.

Impressive heritage

The history of three of Lawrence’s oldest churches also is rooted in the epic clash between those who wanted Kansas to be a slave state and those who were “free-staters.”

The founders of Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt., came to Kansas to swell the ranks of settlers opposed to slavery. They were among the group sent out by the New England Emigrant Aid Company.

“They were abolitionists, and they came to Lawrence in 1854. Lawrence was a frontier town, and the only place where they could meet was a building made out of hay, with a thatched roof. That’s where the church started,” said the Rev. Peter Luckey, Plymouth’s senior pastor.

Plymouth was founded Oct. 15, 1854. The church, like the city itself, is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year.

Plymouth’s historic sanctuary, designed by noted Kansas architect John G. Haskell, was built in 1870 — only seven years after Quantrill’s Raid on the city.

“The pastor at the time was Richard Cordley (the church’s second pastor, who came in 1857), and he was a very strong, abolitionist preacher. It can be argued that part of what brought William Quantrill to Lawrence is they were intent on getting him. They actually came to his house,” Luckey said.

Plymouth, which today has 1,200 members, has been at the same location since 1870.

First Baptist Church, 1330 Kasold Drive, is a year younger than Plymouth — it was founded in June 1855 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year — and traces its roots back to the conflict between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces.

“We had seven founding members in 1855. One of them was actually murdered in Quantrill’s Raid, though the (original) church at Eighth and Kentucky wasn’t harmed,” says the Rev. Marcus McFaul, First Baptist’s senior pastor, and the 30th full-time pastor in the church’s history.

“Lawrence, Kansas, and the Christian experience in this town in many ways does reflect what I would call classic, liberal Christianity. Our founders really did embrace the dignity and worth of all people. That’s a pretty significant thing in 1855 on the frontier, when everybody thought Kansas was going to be like Missouri, a slave state.”

First Baptist’s original sponsoring denominational group came from Boston, home to many abolitionists, and this influenced the course the congregation was to take.

McFaul said he was conscious of his church’s history and legacy.

“It’s almost overwhelming, because you’re made very much aware that you stand on the shoulders of all those pastors who went before you.”

Another Lawrence congregation that was directly affected by the battle over slavery is Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt., founded in 1857.

“All of our parish records were burned in Quantrill’s Raid. Everything was burned. We lost all the documents, baptism certificates, all of that was burned. They had to start again,” said the Rev. Jonathon Jensen, who is the 19th rector in the church’s history.

Trinity Episcopal has been in downtown Lawrence nearly as long as the city itself has existed. The church was formed, and the present lot of Vermont Street was purchased, in 1857.

The church’s first building was consecrated and opened for service July 29, 1859. The present building in the Gothic Revival style was begun in 1870 and completed in 1873.

Jensen is proud of Trinity Episcopal’s long history, and he often reflects on the church’s founders and past rectors.

“I feel a connection with all those who’ve gone before us, and it reminds me of all of those who will come after us. It feels much larger than myself,” he said.

Rich history

Plymouth is not the only Lawrence church celebrating a sesquicentennial anniversary this year. So is First United Methodist Church, 946 Vt.

“We consider our history as beginning with the arrival of the Rev. William Goode and the Rev. James Griffing to Lawrence on Nov. 7, 1854. They held revival services here in November and December of 1854. The church charter was actually in 1855, but we have always celebrated our history as starting in 1854,” said Jerry Niebaum, co-chairman of First United Methodist’s sesquicentennial committee.

Goode was appointed to the Kansas-Nebraska district of the Methodist Church. Griffing was a circuit rider, traveling between communities from Lawrence to near Junction City. He was a preacher on horseback, who rode the countryside and preached the Gospel throughout the territory.

“Our first framed church was built in 1858 where the Southwestern Bell tower is downtown. If you look at the Harper’s Bazaar (magazine) drawing of Quantrill’s Raid, you see the Methodist church right in the center of the destruction. It was not damaged at all, and it was used as a morgue for the victims of the raid. They moved out the pews to make room for the bodies,” Niebaum said.

A brick church was built in 1865 where the Masonic Temple now stands, 1001 Mass., and it was used until 1891, when the congregation moved into its present stone structure at 946 Vt.

First United Methodist has now been in the same downtown church for 113 years.

“History doesn’t excite a lot of people, but yes, there are many here who understand the rich history that we have,” Niebaum said.

Sense of belonging

For black settlers who migrated to Lawrence in the city’s early years, the churches they formed offered much more than simply a place to worship.

They offered a safe haven for the expression of culture, opportunities for leadership and education, as well as a place for social, political and, later, civil rights activities.

“African-American churches are important in every community, especially if you go back in history. There was a time when blacks didn’t have much of a social role outside the church. They needed some place of stability, some place that they felt was their own,” said the Rev. William Dulin, pastor of Calvary Church of God in Christ, 646 Ala.

“If it hadn’t been for the black churches that offered a feeling that they belonged, blacks who came to this area probably wouldn’t have stayed here. Churches gave them a sense of spiritual guidance, as well as some roots. The city might have been different today if we hadn’t had some of those churches.”

The earliest black churches in Lawrence that have maintained continuous congregations — despite name changes and physical relocations — date back almost to the founding of the city itself.

St. Luke AME Church, 900 N.Y., and Ninth Street Baptist Church, 847 Ohio, were both founded in 1862.

Other black congregations founded in the city’s early years are: St. James AME Church, North Seventh and Maple streets, established in 1865; First Regular Missionary Baptist Church (originally located at 416 Lincoln), founded in 1868; and Second Christian Church, 1245 Conn., (it has also changed locations), organized in 1897.

The Rev. Reginald Bachus, as pastor of First Regular Missionary Baptist Church, 1646 Vt., is the leader of a congregation with a venerable history. The church will celebrate its 136th anniversary in October.

He reflected on the meaning of churches to Lawrence’s black residents, particularly during a time when they were largely shunned by the city’s whites.

“In the life of the African-American community, especially 150 years ago, the church was really the only place that they could feel comfortable, express themselves and have a sense of belonging in society. Many times, people could exercise their talents and leadership abilities, which they couldn’t do in a secular setting,” Bachus said.

Alice Fowler, historian of First Regular Missionary Baptist Church as well as a member of the congregation for the past 50 years, agreed with her pastor’s assessment.

“The (black) church was the social and political outlet, the congregating place of African-Americans. It was a church, a school and a way to inform people of events that were going on in the community,” she said.

“There was very large participation in events for the church, such as vacation Bible school and church picnics. There weren’t a lot of activities that African-Americans could take part in (in the wider community). So churches provided their own resources for African-Americans during the (city’s) early years.”

Black churches have played an important role in Lawrence. Here is a list of some of the historically black congregations that have been established in Lawrence and when they were founded:¢ St. Luke AME Church, 900 N.Y., 1862.¢ Ninth Street Baptist Church, 847 Ohio, 1862.¢ St. James AME Church, North Seventh and Maple streets, 1865.¢ First Regular Missionary Baptist Church, 1646 Vt., 1868.¢ Second Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 1245 Conn., 1897.¢ Lawrence Pentecostal Church, 19th and Tennessee streets, 1929. Now defunct.¢ Calvary Church of God in Christ, 646 Ala., 1931.¢ Overcoming Church of God in Christ, 14th and Rhode Island streets, 1975. Now defunct.¢ Church of God of Lawrence, 851 Elm, approximately 1967.¢ Victory Bible Church, 1942 Mass., 1983.¢ Praise Temple Church of God in Christ, 315 E. Seventh St., approximately 1997.