The Road Less Traveled…The Baptist Church of St. Louis

Founded, February 18, 1818 / Dissolved, February 10, 1833

The original Baptist church in St. Louis took the road less traveled. It was founded by two missionaries sent by the Baptist Triennial Convention to the Missouri Territory, John Mason Peck and James Ely Welch. Together with seven Baptists they found living in this small pioneer settlement, Peck and Welch formed the Baptist Church of St. Louis. It was organized differently than the Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopal churches being formed around the same time. African Americans had become members almost from the formation of the Baptist congregation in St. Louis. This meant that slaves and their masters could have held the same membership status, a reality unheard of in this era. In most churches, the black members were forced to sit separated from the white members. There is no evidence of such segregation in Peck’s new congregation. It was a racially mixed congregation for its first ten years.

The church established a special outreach to the African American community. Peck was deeply concerned when he arrived in St. Louis that the African Americans “were without religious instruction.” By 1823, Peck began holding special services for the African Americans of St. Louis because, as most were slaves, they were unable to attend worship on Sunday mornings due to the requirements of their households. African Americans were prohibited from receiving an education until John Mason Peck broke through the social taboo and the education of blacks became a primary mission of the Baptist Church in St. Louis. Some freed-men, who were the minority of Blacks in St. Louis, attended Peck’s Academy. The most promising was John Berry Meachum. The Baptist day school was open to students without regard to their ability to pay tuition. With Meachum’s help, a Sunday School for black children and adults was opened. Nearly 100 enrolled. Since most of these were slaves, Peck was careful to obtain the permission of their owners, so as not to put their lives in jeopardy. Some owners became alarmed when the religious influence began to manifest itself among their slaves and determined that education was not good for them and withdrew them. But the school flourished anyway.

In 1824, the Baptist church of St. Louis “reported 54 members both white and colored, bond and free.” (p. 19, Brief Chronicle of Rise and Progress of Baptist Development in St. Louis) In a difficult social context, this church lived out the vision of the Apostle Paul, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free…” (I Cor. 12:13) Peck baptized white and black members of his new church, immersing the first African Americans west of the Mississippi.

On September 9, 1827, the following minutes are noted in the church’s official record: “Lord’s Day, Sept. 9, 1827. The church met upon short notice and after preaching by Bro. Peck proceeded to business. Resolved that Bro. Peck prepare a letter to the Association…and that himself and Barry Meachum bear it. Adjourned.”

It was frequently noted that the church had approved a letter (report) to the Baptist association and appointed two members to bear (deliver) it, or appointed two or more messengers to associational meetings. In all cases, the elected bearers of reports and the elected messengers were men. But on Sept. 9, 1827 the church resolved that John Mason Peck and Barry Meacham be named official messengers of the church to represent it before the Association. That an African American freedman would be elected to represent the members of the church before an otherwise all-white Baptist Association is remarkable evidence of the racial equality that existed within this congregation.

With strongly held abolitionist views, Peck preached a crusade against slavery wherever he went. The Governor of Illinois at the time stated that Peck, due to his tireless political advocacy, was the single-most reason that Illinois remained an abolitionist State.

In 1828, with Peck’s blessing, the African Americans asked to form their own congregation. 220 members formed the First African Baptist Church and Peck ordained John Berry Meachum as their founding pastor. The road less traveled resulted in the founding of the African American church in St. Louis, now called the First Baptist Church of St. Louis. At every return visit to St. Louis, John Mason Peck would preach at both the white and black Baptist churches in St. Louis and he was intimately involved in the support of both congregations until his death.

At the same time, the original Baptist Church lost their building through condemnation by the city of St. Louis. They faced mounting debt. This congregation lost not only its African American members but also some of its white members due to cholera and fevers and members moving away.

By 1830, this congregation was in trouble. It was no longer an inter-racial congregation. In 1832, they were down to 17 members. The number of white Protestants in St. Louis at this time was fairly small and there were many emerging Protestant churches to serve this small population.

Why did the original Baptist church fail? It failed for all the reasons that have been historically cited, but perhaps it also failed because of its success. It succeeded in reaching the African Americans of St. Louis and successfully launching them into a new church. But their departure meant that the remaining members had lost much of their mission and identity as St. Louis’ interracial congregation. The road less traveled cost them their existence.

Early in 1833, the Baptist Church of St. Louis voted itself out of existence, giving its small assets to a new congregation, Second Baptist Church. Many of the members also joined Second Baptist Church. For the next nine years, the Baptist Foreign Missionary Society and the Baptist Home Missionary Society sent missionaries to St. Louis to serve as pastors of Second Baptist Church until the young congregation was strong enough to call its own pastor.