The history of Second Baptist Church is a microcosm of the history of our nation. It has experienced the same opportunities and challenges. From the pioneer days of its founding in a “rough, untamed frontier town”, it has served the community through financial panics, through periods of affluence and a depression. It has adhered to the principle of individual freedom in matters of faith on which the Baptist church was founded and has long welcomed all believers in Christ to its membership and communion. Religious backgrounds vary greatly including Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples, Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish backgrounds.
The story begins in 1817 when John Mason Peck was named missionary to the Missouri Territory by (what was later to become) the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions. He and James Welch, also from the East, rented a room in the rear of a store and opened an Academy, which met during the week. The room served as a sanctuary on Sundays. In February 1818 a church was organized as The Baptist Church, and in April several candidates were baptized - in the Mississippi River, which was the first time the Mississippi had been used for this purpose. Shortly thereafter a new structure was built; the lower of three floors housed the Western Mission Academy, the upper The Baptist Church. Peck encouraged the use of the building by Presbyterians and Methodists in hopes of furthering Protestantism in the city.
During these years slaves attended church with their masters as did freedmen, some becoming members. Peck, who was strongly anti-slavery, was concerned about education for the blacks. With John Berry Meachum, a promising young freedman, a Sunday School for black children and adults was opened. The school flourished and a separate religious organization was formed. Records show that on August 24, 1828, the “colored brethren who have long transacted business as a branch petitioned to be organized into a separate church and fellowship.” On Sept 7, 1828: met in St. Louis and organized the colored members into a distinct church by the name of The African Church of St. Louis”, the body which would later carry the name of the First Baptist Church.
By 1821 St. Louis had become a city; in 1824 the city announced the widening of the street on which The Baptist Church was located. The city demanded the church pay its share for this. The trustees protested to no avail. Shortly after, a violent hailstorm damaged the church, and the building was declared condemned. It was eventually sold at auction in 1828.
By the end of 1833, beset with other problems as well, including members lost to fever and cholera, The Baptist Church had only seventeen members. In early 1833, these members asked for letters of dismissal to “join any church of the same faith and order” and agreed to “transfer the money received over to the new church in St. Louis called the Second Baptist Church.” Thus Second Baptist Church was born.
In the years since then, this church has stood in five different locations, and baptisms no longer take place in the Mississippi River! The styles of architecture have included Greek and Gothic Revival, Italian Gothic and modern. The present site, on nearly 6 acres. The sanctuary building was built in 1957 and is designed by Frederick Dunn in contemporary Scandinavian style with focus on acoustics and worship space. It contains nine 40-foot-high windows depicting the Beatitudes painted by Siegfried Reinhardt and executed by Emil Frei.
Second Baptist has stood as a symbol of Christian faith, hope, love and service. Running through its history are strong threads of open membership and communion, the importance of missions, education, the searching for increased understanding of and growth in its faith, ecumenical associations, interracial efforts, peace, and the courage to stand up to local and state Baptist groups even if it meant ouster - not once, but twice. Along with this vitality, there have been times of unrest and discord. Ministers at Second have been prominent leaders, taking strong positions politically, socially, and theologically. In almost every case, the pastors of Second Baptist have been liberal or progressive. They have upheld modern scholarship and stressed “the right and duty of ministers and laymen to think.” (The Rev. Dr Bitting) Members, too, have never been reluctant to make their stands known! Rev. Jeter (1849-53) wrote: people at Second “had their peculiar views of preaching, music, the manner of conducting public worship, church discipline, etc. [But] this diversity leads to great liberality and forbearance among the brethren.”
Galusha Anderson (1858-66) (seen here on the right) faced more than “diversity” as he preached strong anti-slavery sermons in a sharply divided city. Dr. W. W. Boyd (1877-87) was controversial with his practice of open communion, ecumenism and his leadership in the suffrage movement early in this century. Dr. William Bitting (1905-24) was an organizer of the Northern (now American) Baptist Churches, a founder of what is now the World Council of Churches, and of the Metropolitan Church Federation in St. Louis, as well as being a delegate to an international peace conference in Switzerland. Rev. Leon Robison (1947-67) was a strong leader in the Metropolitan Church Federation, in peace stands, racial integration, freedom of worship, and ecumenical relations. He was voted out of the Baptist Pastor's Conference of St. Louis because of his practice of open membership. Interest in ecumenical relations was witnessed in the mid-1990's when members under the leadership of Rev Jerry D. Keeney (1983-1997) again held a joint worship service, re-presenting a silver tray to the Jewish congregation Shaare Emeth, as it had done in the late 1880's. (At that time, Second was excluded from membership in the city and state associations for having held such a joint worship.)
We have confidence that we will continue to emphasize the importance of mission, education, ecumenical associations, interracial efforts, peace, and the courage to stand up and be counted.
The Rev. Mr. Leon R Robison (1947-67)
The Rev. Mr. James B Barnes (1968-1970)
The Rev. Mr. Harold R Hoffman (1971-1982)
The Rev. Mr. Jerry D Keeney (1983-1997)
The Rev. Dr. William Rook (1998-2006)
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Jones (2007-2010)
Associate Pastor The Rev. Mrs. Kara Reagan Windler (2010- )
The Rev. Mr. Stephen Mechem (2012 to present)
Information compiled from The Story of Second Baptist by Neola Koechig with contributions from Meg Gilmore and Chuck Belik.