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.