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Text: Psalm 85:8-13, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12
It has been an interesting week. Last Sunday, for those of you who were not with us, we were out at the Hoggatt School, with 25 mph winds. A tent flew away, with one small injury. I discovered mid-sermon that half of it had apparently blown away in the frenzy. And a good portion of the communion bread went blowing in the wind. You should always be in church because you never know what might happen.
And then a lot has happened since Sunday. On Tuesday we welcomed the newest member of our First Baptist family, Fern Maureen Grauman. Now, let me tell you something about Fern. She may be less than a week old, but she already holds an all-time First Baptist Church record. We have been here 150 years, and Fern hold the all-time record attendance record. She is 1 for 1. Perfect attendance. Every Sunday of her entire life, she has been in worship at this church. Nobody even comes close to her record – it will never be surpassed.
OK, so Fern arrived on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Manatts poured the asphalt for our renewed parking lot. Did you notice the lot this morning? It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. OK, that’s a bit much, but it really does look great.
Late Wednesday afternoon, they had almost finished pouring asphalt when the rain came. And then the hail. A bolt of lightning struck a tree in our yard, literally blowing roots out of the ground, with an open trench left behind. Numerous electronic devices were fried, including, interestingly, the garage door opener. The internet was knocked out. Maybe worst of all, our tree won’t make it. And our pets were terrified.
The point is: you just never know what is going to happen. Life is full of changes, not all of them good, and it takes a certain amount of faith to face the future, even on a good day.
This month we are thinking about our history as a church as we look ahead to our 150th anniversary celebration at the end of the month. We have seen more than a few changes over these 150 years – some planned, some welcomed, some wonderful, and some thrust upon us whether we like it or not.
Last week we considered the theme of “Roots” as we remembered and celebrated that frontier congregation, the Squaw Creek Church, that persevered amid the hardships of the Civil War and eventually became the First Baptist Church of Ames. This morning we will be thinking together on the theme of “Faith,” remembering those who built this congregation and eventually made the move to Lynn Avenue.
Last week we mentioned Captain Kendrick Brown. He was the key layperson and driving force behind the beginning of our church. The son of a Baptist minister and who fought in the Civil War, he was the grandfather of Farwell Brown.
Immediately after the war, Capt. Brown and his new bride, Lydia, moved to the frontier of Ames. Not exactly Abraham and Sarah setting out to a land that God would show them, but not that far from it, either. When they arrived Ames Station had a population of around 40. “The town had not a tree or a foot of sidewalk, and in rainy times the Main Street was nearly impassable.” The Browns ran the first grocery store in town. Capt. Brown was the first person in Ames to have a telephone and he twice ran for governor as candidate of the Prohibition Party.
Brown helped gather folks to begin the church. For its first two years, the new church had no settled pastor. The half-time pastor in Boone would occasionally preach here, and Henry Barden was an interim for several months. If there were no preacher available they would hold a service and Capt. Brown, the church clerk, would read one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. But in 1870, Rev. Samuel Mitchell accepted the call as the first pastor of the church.
Like Ira Rees of the Squaw Creek Church, Mitchell had come to Iowa from Indiana. When he came to Ames, he turned down an appointment with the Northern Baptist Home Mission Society to serve as a Railroad Missionary.
(Some of you have been to Green Lake and seen the chapel car on the grounds there. The Northern Baptists had a number of “chapel cars,” railroad cars that served as mission churches in frontier areas and moved from city to city.)
When Rev. Mitchell told J.F. Childs, president of the convention that instead of becoming a railroad missionary, he was going to serve as pastor of the church at Ames, Rev. Childs replied, “Well enough, an important field - but how are you going to live?”
The people who started this church were not sure what they were getting themselves into. But with things that prove to be really worthwhile, that is often the way it works. When you have a child, you don’t have any idea of what it is going to involve, no idea what the future will hold. It takes faith.
The writer of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Which sounds a little bit odd – how can you be sure about things you have not seen? How is faith different from just wishful thinking? Well, faith is not the same thing as optimism. Faith is a deep belief that God’s power and presence and love will be with us, whatever comes to pass. And that belief, that hope, is so strong that it is more like an assurance.
How can we have such a belief, such a conviction, such an assurance? We can have faith in God because God is faithful toward us. This conviction is stated over and over again in scripture, especially in the Hebrew scriptures. Our reading from Psalm 85 says, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and the Lord will give what is good.”
Faith involves a certain amount of unsettledness, a certain amount of “to be continued” and “to be determined.” If we already knew everything, had everything figured out, had no questions and no uncertainty whatsoever, then we wouldn’t need faith. But because we live in an uncertain world, because we do not know everything, because life can take wild turns at a moment’s notice, faith is required. It is essential.
And there is a difference between faith and mere belief. Faith is not a neutral matter – it demands something of us. Believing that LeBron is a great player, for example, doesn’t really change my life. But true faith involves commitment and leads to action – it changes the way we live.
I look at some of the folks who built this church over the years, and their faith led them to take action. It made a huge difference in their lives.
Lydia Brown died in 1885. In 1886, Kendrick Brown married Margaret Mitchell, daughter of Rev. Samuel and Mary Mitchell, so Rev. Mitchell became Capt. Brown’s father-in-law. These families in a sense became one big connected family and their faith was passed on to succeeding generations.
After he had served as pastor here, Rev. Mitchell went to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, and worked with Chief Charles Journeycake, chief of the Delaware Indians and a Baptist preacher and missionary. Minnie Mitchell Lucas, the granddaughter of Rev. Mitchell and the niece of Kendrick and Margaret Mitchell Brown, went to teach at what was then called Bacone Indian College, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the same place where we sent a mission team to work this year, 129 years later.
Capt. Brown’s children included Daisy Brown, who went as a missionary to China in 1912, to the Women’s Bible Training School in Fouchow. She was the first person from our church to go as a missionary overseas, the first of a great number who went from the teens into the 1930’s and 40’s.
After graduating from Oberlin College in 1917, Lydia Brown went as a missionary to Nanking, China to organize and lead the music department at Ginling College. She was the daughter of Kendrick Brown and his second wife, Margaret Mitchell Brown. In China, Lydia she met another missionary named J.B. Hipps. They were married at our church when home on furlough and returned to China, where Lydia died three years later in 1924, with a 2 year old son. She was buried in China, and there is a memorial stone in the Ames cemetery. When her son Robert grew up, he inherited the desk that had belonged to Rev. Mitchell, and Robert’s wife Donna Westlic Hipps donated that desk to our church last year.
Students from First Baptist went as missionaries to India, to Burma, to Assam, to Albania, to South Africa, to numerous places in the United States. Many others became pastors. Out of a desire to use their gifts in serving God, others became doctors and nurses and teachers and social workers and more. Their faith led them to action.
I think especially of the faith of the church in making ministry to students a priority. Starting in 1920 with Rev. Davidson, the pastor had a dual calling as pastor and minister to students. The church chose to invest its energy and resources in work with college students – a group that as it turns out, doesn’t have a lot of money to contribute, and doesn’t stay in the community very long. But the church ministered to students anyway, out of faith that investment in the lives of young people is valuable and important and makes a great difference – even if the difference is often ultimately seen in other places.
By the late 30’s and into the 40’s, student made up a big percentage of the church, with a bus running every Sunday morning from the Roger Williams House to the church downtown. When it came time to build a new church building, the church moved to Campustown. And it was not easy. Pastor Ron Wells and others, in fact some of you here, went around the state raising money from churches and alumni. The church wandered in the wilderness for awhile, worshiping at the Memorial Union while the building was being built. There was enough money to build the church but not enough for all of the furnishings, or for the parsonage so Dr. Wells and his family lived on the second floor of the church. David Wells said that it was kind of an adventure, but the bad part was that he had to clean up his bedroom so they could use it for a Sunday School class on Sunday morning.
There are those times we are called to set out in new directions, knowing it won’t necessarily be easy, knowing there will be obstacles, unsure of what is exactly will happen – but we move forward out of a conviction, out of faith, that God is leading us and that God has a future awaiting ahead. And I’m not talking about history now; I am talking about us.
I have been discovering all kinds of historical materials and artifacts. A while back, I saw a shallow box that said Groundbreaking Service Records. What kind of records could there have been related to a groundbreaking service? I looked in the box, and I found records, as in actual records, 78 rpm vinyl records recorded by WOI Recording Service.
Larry Schrag kindly transferred the records to CDs. I doubt they have been listened to in nearly 70 years, and don’t know when they might be listened to again, so I want to share a brief portion of the Groundbreaking Service for this church building held in 1949. It speaks to the faith of those who moved out here to Campustown, and perhaps as inspiration to us as we seek to move forward in faith today.
The recording is a little scratchy, as you might expect. Dr. Wells introduces Dr. Walter Halbert, secretary of the Iowa Baptist Convention who offers the prayer.
Now, as then, we are building in faith, unsure of what tomorrow brings but sure that God is with us each step of the way. Amen.
Worship at the Hoggatt School
Text: Hebrews 12:1-2
In the year 1860, railroads barely made it into Iowa. You could get as far as Iowa City, or a little past Dubuque fuarther north, but that was it. The Transcontinental Railroad would not be completed for another 9 years. In 1860, it took 6 months to travel from New York to California. It was a different world.
That year, the Secretary of the Iowa Baptist Convention stated that you could go north from the capitol in Des Moines to the Minnesota border and west from the capitol to the Missouri River, and there were only two Baptist ministers in that quarter of the state. And one of them was infirm and couldn’t get out very much.
This was the edge of the frontier. Settlers were coming, driven by land, freedom, and hope of a new start. In 1860, a small group of folks living in this area joined together to form the Squaw Creek Church. This was an open country church with a Nevada address – there was no town here. That first year, the church reported eight members and no minister.
What we know about the church is found in reports from the Upper Des Moines Baptist Association and from a history of Iowa Baptists written in 1886, amazingly enough, by Rev. Samuel Mitchell, who was the first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ames, serving from 1870-75.
This association was formed in 1860 with 6 churches. North Union was the oldest, founded in 1851. It was a few miles south of Moingona, which is about 5 miles SW of Boone. When the North Union church was started, it was said to be the farthest northwest Baptist church on the continent. The other churches were: Carson Point, about 2 miles north of Pilot Mound. Ridgeport, maybe 6 miles north of Boone. Ridgeport was never much more than a wide spot in the road but that church, the Mineral Ridge church, stayed open until about 10 years ago. There was another church with a Ridgeport address called Swede Bend, a church of Swedish immigrants.
There was a church in Webster City, and then there was Squaw Creek. Only one of the six churches was located in anything like a town. Travel was hard, towns were few and far between, and churches were often started with near neighbors out in the country.
The Squaw Creek Church presumably met in members’ homes, because there were no public buildings to meet in. The Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm was established by the legislature in 1858, but the first building, the Farm House, had not gone up yet. The first students wouldn’t arrive until 1869.
In the beginning, Squaw Creek was an entirely lay-led congregation but before long they called Ira Rees as pastor. In 1855, Rev. Rees had moved to Iowa from Indiana and settled in Story County. He organized a church at Iowa Center, just north of present-day Maxwell. In 1858 Rev. Rees was appointed a missionary by the Iowa Baptist Convention to organize churches in Boone and Story counties, and that year he organized a church at Boonsboro, which is now incorporated into the city of Boone (although Boone was then called Montana.)
Rev. Rees’ salary with the Convention was $300 a year, half of which was to be raised in the field. In other words, they gave him $150 and said we hope you can come up with another $150 in the churches that aren’t there yet that you are going to start.
After the Hoggatt School was built, the Squaw Creek church began meeting there in 1862. It was located near what is now the intersection of Lincoln Way and Riverside. The first members of what became First Baptist worshipped in this very building.
That year, the associational annual meeting was held at North Union. The pastor there was the first pastor in this part of the state, Rev. William Sparks, or Father Sparks as he was called. Originally from North Carolina, he was deeply opposed to slavery and chose to move to the North. The meeting was held in Father Sparks’ barn.
In his annual report, Ira Rees said, “It is evidently a year of dearth and walking by faith not by sight. Only two persons added by baptism and only ten added in all.” He was speaking of all ten churches in the association, not just Squaw Creek. The Civil War took away men and kept new settlers from arriving. A nearby pastor wrote, “The churches are suffering a depletion as a consequence of the Civil War but exhibit an almost united devotion to the Government in its struggle to subdue the rebellion.”
Despite the struggle, Rev. Rees wrote, “We occupy a very important field. The whole of the northern valley of the Des Moines River seems in the Providence of God. We are now laying the foundation on which future generations are to build.”
Notable things happened in the next year. The church had three baptisms and the membership was now up to 19. While it had a Nevada address before, Rev. Rees signed his report with the address “College Farm.” There were apparently things happening at the new state model farm and college. And most notably, sometime in the latter part of 1863, Ira Rees left the area to move west.
Samuel Mitchell later wrote, “Mention should be made of the departure of Rev Ira H. Rees for a field farther west. The experience of this brother is a sad one to contemplate. He had settled on the land on which the south half of the town of Ames now stands. Undergoing here hardships, poverty and sickness almost to the verge of despair he finally sold out in the hardest times just before the railroad came to relieve the depression and went west to try the realities of another frontier settlement.”
Rev. Rees left the area just before the railroad came, just before more settlers came, just before the town of Ames was founded. In 1864 the Cedar Rapids and Missouri railroad came through the area, and there was a railroad stop called Ames Station, named for a Massachusetts congressman, that became the city of Ames. The new town built a school and the Hoggatt School, attended mainly by the children of two families, was no longer needed. The Hoggatt School became part of a residence in Ames before being rediscovered many years later. It was restored and moved here in 1981.
As for Rev. Rees: Rev. Mitchell later wrote,
For a number of years Brother Rees continued a heroic and self-sacrificing struggle on this frontier and then removed farther west, doubtless to repeat the struggle. A correspondent of the (Baptist) Standard in 1886 visited this same dear brother in southern Kansas and found him desirous of disposing of sundry lands he possessed in order to devote himself again to the activity of the ministry.
I do not know if Rev. Rees went back to pastoring, but he died three years later in 1889 in Grenola, in southeast Kansas, three weeks shy of his 65th birthday.
Well, that answers what became of the Hoggatt School and what became of Rev. Ira Rees. But what became of the Squaw Creek Church?
Already a struggling church, the loss of its pastor made things even more difficult, and the church stopped meeting by sometime in 1865 or 1866.
But that was not the end of the story. In 1868, Rev. J.F. Childs of Oskaloosa, Secretary of the Iowa Baptist Convention, came to Ames with the goal of reestablishing a church here. One of the new residents in Ames was Capt. Kendrick Brown, son of a Baptist minister in New York. Capt. Brown had served in the war, being wounded several times. After the war he married Lydia Gates and they moved to the brand-new town of Ames, Iowa where they ran the first grocery store. Kendrick and Lydia Brown were the grandparents of Farwell Brown, whom many of us knew and who died at the age of 100 a few years ago.
Rev. Childs and Capt. Brown traveled the countryside around Ames, looking for Baptist families. They found five. An announcement was made soon after that the Baptists would hold a prayer meeting at 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon in the back of Frank Hays’ harness shop. The prayer meetings continued and on July 11, 1868, eight individuals signed the roll as charter members of the First Baptist Church. By the end of the year, the church had 23 members. Among the members were people who had been a part of the Squaw Creek Church. So, we are what became of the Squaw Creek Church.
Interestingly, just like Squaw Creek, the new church was led by laypeople at the beginning, with various supply preachers. It did not have a pastor for its first two years.
Now, I would love to go on and on talking about history, but the bigger question is: what does this have to do with us, who are carrying on this tradition started 158 years ago?
First, our church began as a frontier church. Life then could not have been more different. There were no computers, no phones, no TV, no cars, no indoor plumbing. And the Republicans were the radical liberals. It was a different time.
Yet I want to suggest that as different as things are today, different in ways people back then could not have dreamed of, some things are actually fairly similar.
In 1861, the churches in that association had from 10 to 40 members. Do you want to know how many churches today have 10 to 40 members? A lot. A couple of years ago I heard that the median attendance for United Methodist Churches in Iowa was 35. Marshall Peters said that our number would be similar. There are all kinds of small, struggling, rural churches. Small as we are, ours is one of the stronger churches in our region. In some ways, we are back to the days of the frontier. It is a frontier because things are changing quickly.
The fastest growing religious group is the “nones,” meaning those with no religious affiliation. A large number of folks describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” which often means that they are interested in matters of the spirit but not particularly interested in the church. This is a time when things feel up for grabs. Folks are doing church in new ways – some with house churches, some with dinner churches that meet in smaller groups where worship includes a meal – again, groups of maybe 10 to 40 people, just like on the frontier.
It is a time of improvising and making things up as we go along, because we keep facing new challenges and new situations. But that’s OK – that’s the way we started out, and ministry on the frontier is part of our church’s DNA.
It also strikes me that lay people started the church. And not just Squaw Creek Church; it was lay people like Captain Brown who re-started the church as First Baptist. They did not have a pastor to depend on, but that was OK. Everyone had gifts to share and shared them.
The church is not defined by the building – we have met in homes, in a school house, in a harness shop, in a room in a commercial building downtown, in the Memorial Union, in the Roger Williams House, and in 3 church buildings in two locations. And the church is not defined by the pastor or staff members, as charming and talented as they may be. Not the buildings, not the formal leadership, but we are the church – all of us. Remembering Squaw Creek may help us to remember that.
I also noticed something in the reports of those early churches. One of the sister churches was Swede Bend – a church of immigrants, worshiping in another language. All these years later, we are still having national conversations about immigrants and language and diversity but the fact is, from the very beginning, we have embraced whoever would join us in worshiping the God of all people and all creation. We were multicultural from day one. It is also true that when there aren’t many folks around, when there is a population density of 7 people/square mile, as there was in Story County in 1860, you have to be able to get along and work with everybody. You can’t afford to worry about folks being different. Maybe we could learn something there.
And I think of Ira Rees, packing up and heading west just before fortunes changed. Like Rees, we have known “years of dearth and walking by faith and not by sight.” Sometimes hope can seem elusive. Sometimes we can have a hard time seeing that help is just around the corner. Part of our calling is to be people of hope, to reminder each other of the great hope we have in Christ, and to support each other through the difficult times.
Adde read for us this morning our scripture from Hebrews. The writer speaks of a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us and are now sitting in the bleachers, cheering us on as we run our race. That cloud of witnesses includes Rev. Rees and Kendrick and Lydia Brown and Father Sparks and all of those hardy frontier souls who met in the Hoggatt School and worshiped as the Squaw Creek Baptist Church. In faith and in hope and in gratitude, we carry on that tradition. Thanks be to God. Amen.