As things are in the Baptist denomination, the minister of any outstanding church must be a denominational servant also. He must do his part on denominational boards and committees. If that service is not rendered, the work of the great whole lags.
Reverend John Brown
A report to the Minnesota Baptist Association told of the straits the members of Pilgrim Baptist were in, and it hinted at something deeper about the relationship between the congregation and its pastor: “The pressure of money matters interrupts our plans of building a house of worship. Have a flourishing Sabbath School, superintended by the Reverend A. M. Torbet, who also for the most part preaches to us once on the Sabbath.” Fundamentally, the Pilgrims did not recognize Torbet as their spiritual leader. He did not participate in the religious life cycle of the congregation, which convened throughout the week for prayer sessions, testimonials, socials, and for evening Sabbath services. He had no experience with black people and perhaps found it hard to relate to them. His more formal Scottish demeanor would not have fit easily with their form of revivalism, and it likely caused him to be reluctant to insinuate himself into a community that had its own way of doing things. Not since it was announced that he had agreed to “superintend the work” of the Pilgrims’ efforts to raise a construction fund had his name been affiliated with the congregation, and no funds had been raised. What relationships he had once had in 1857 with the men of influence of the day no longer seemed to bear fruit. Until his appointment, he had been away from the city for over ten years, missing the racial events of the decade, and he was now seemingly out of touch with the postwar interrelationship of race, cultural expression, religion, and politics. It remained to be seen whether he would be of any help to his still-unfamiliar flock.
In September, the Minnesota Baptist Association, which now represented twenty-three churches and a total membership of 1,062 Baptists, met at First Baptist Church in Hastings, twenty-five miles southeast of St. Paul. Normally every member congregation in the state would send a delegation composed of the pastor and church clerk to meet and confer about the state of the Baptist community in Minnesota. That year, First Baptist Church of St. Paul, befitting its prominence in the state association, sent the largest delegation, which included Abram Cavender, William Wakefield, George Prescott, and D. D. Merrill. Hickman and church clerk Johnson Discom probably joined them on their trip to the river town as they climbed aboard a train to attend a conference made up largely of white men they did not know. It was in 1863, during his escape from slavery, that he last saw Hastings, and only in passing as they were towed ever northward to St. Paul. Not since then had he been outside St. Paul. He had braved war-torn Missouri, encouraged his followers as they drifted for hours on the wide Mississippi, fully exposed to bushwackers or Confederate sympathizers who might happen along and see them, only to build a home and church in a city that did not want him. Yet, he may now have approached the trip to the convention in Hastings with a different kind of apprehension, knowing that his high-stakes mission was to have his black congregants accepted by these white Baptists. Though they were Northerners—indeed, Minnesotans—recent experiences taught him to be especially careful not to offend; the Promised Land did not guarantee acceptance. He attended the convention but was designated only as a “delegate.” Reverend Torbet was absent, the only pastor not in attendance.
It therefore had to be of some comfort to join Merrill and other brethren on the train ride to Hastings. Theirs was a weighty group, since three of the delegates filled prominent roles during the convention. Wakefield was the convention’s corresponding secretary, Prescott was the denomination’s state Sabbath school superintendent, Randall was president of the Sabbath school convention that followed the association convention, and Merrill was elected state treasurer. They were in the vanguard of the new direction that the Minnesota Baptist Association now committed itself to pursue, as reflected in the keynote address: “Dear Brethren, Let me speak of the church and the children—the today and the tomorrow of Christ’s Kingdom. The Sunday School is the tomorrow of the church. . . . The children do not quite so much exist for the Church as the Church exists for the children. . . . We must work at the sapling, and not think to straighten the mature and crooked trunk. We must shape habits while they are plastic and formative. We must popularize the Sunday School by crowding it with the ‘ancient and the honorable’ among the people, met to study God’s words and make it great.”
D. D. Merrill, also in charge of collecting the “circular letters” or church reports, assisted Hickman with Pilgrim Baptist’s report and was otherwise quite active in the proceedings. In the end, he presented “a resolution of thanks to Milwaukee & St. Paul, St. Paul & Sioux City, and Hastings & Dakota Railroad Companies, and North Western Union Packet Company for their courtesy in passing delegates at half-fare.” He would also know the implications of another report issued by the First Baptist Church of St. Anthony, a congregation that had declined to twenty-five members and whose church structure had lapsed into disrepair as bravely referenced in its circular letter: “Our candlestick still abides in its place. . . . Our prayer meetings have been interesting and profitable to the little band. We make grateful mention of our Presbyterian brethren in giving us the use of their house during the winter.”
Hickman returned to St. Paul with a broader sense of the issues confronting other churches in the state. He realized that Pilgrim’s “flourishing” Sabbath school placed his congregation well within the mainstream of the values the association held, as well as the tenets of the Minnesota Baptists, but also reflected the vision and mission of Harriet Bishop: “She invited them to come together and form [a Sabbath school], and they soon learned to love it very much, and she, too, was very happy in instructing them; and a great deal of good resulted from it.” He also learned that they, too, saw in him a soul whom their faith and legacy mandated they embrace, and that his welfare was their welfare: “In this world where gangrene is sin, with its death-producing effects, there is no curative but you.” Theirs was a working faith:
It was a turbulent and worried world to which Jesus came; his great soul stirred within them as he saw the blind leading the blind. He saw their need for light. It is a torn and worried world. Still, all the relations that affect life are disturbed and perplexing, in politics, business, scholarship, society, religion. How shall men understand their right relations to these and the way they ought to go? In that far off time Jesus said, “I am the Light.” When He passed into the shadows He said to that first group of followers, and is saying to every succeeding group, “Now you are the light.” Not creeds but you. You must be incarnation of Truth. It must radiate your community from you. There is no light that can illuminate the path from here to the gates of the Eternal City but you. From you is the light that shall lead this old world out of its bewilderment, through its revolutions, out of its political perplexities, resolve its social problems and guide men into the brotherhood of peoples which shall fabricate the commonwealth of God.
Hickman returned determined to learn more about being a Good Shepherd in the mold of the Minnesota Baptists.
On January 3, 1870, the Sons of Freedom, an organization he had participated in establishing the year before, held its first statewide convention at the Pence Opera House in Minneapolis, where between three hundred and four hundred people were in attendance, including “a goodly number of white people who were present as spectators.” It was intended to be a celebration of the seventh anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, recognition of Minnesota’s Negro suffrage amendment (the Fifteenth Amendment had not yet been ratified), and a formal launching of the state’s first civil rights organization. Most of the speeches were tributes to the valor of black troops at such notable battles as Fort Wagner in South Carolina and Petersburg, Virginia, but the most significant speech seemed to be that of Robert Banks, who cried out for the importance of education: “Great credit is due Minnesota for liberal provisions for education. It is the principle that will preserve the republic. Let all the children of the state and country be educated mentally, morally, religiously, and physically, and all will be well.” Hickman was absent from the proceeding. Instead, he was in St. Paul tending to his churchly duties. Later that month, on January 30, he witnessed the marriage of Alfred Gales, friend, fellow whitewasher, and Pilgrim member; the Reverend A. M. Torbet officiated at the ceremony.
* * * * *
But one Monday evening the pastor said to the six deacons, none of them rich at the time, “There is a growing neighborhood out Fort Street where no denomination is trying to meet the need. I have found a good lot and got an option on it. Why should not we seven men buy that lot?” All rose at the impulse. First thing Tuesday morning, D. D. Merrill made a payment for us.
Rev. Lemuel Call Barnes, First Baptist Church, 1878–1882
In the summer of 1870, three years after he became pastor of First Baptist, the Reverend R. A. Paterson resigned from his duties. He had labored despite persistent illness virtually throughout his entire tenure, at times leaving the pulpit to be filled by visiting ministers. Nonetheless he directed his limited energies to fostering religious education for children and community outreach. “He loved the Word of His Master, and was especially gifted in winning the young to His Service. The Church nursery, the Sunday school, gave large accessions to the visible family of the redeemed ones, during his ministrations.” He also made it a point to attend association conferences, though not always participating actively, as well as programs that supported the work of the Pilgrim Baptist Society, being, for example, in attendance at the fund-raiser in December 1867. In June 1870, he officiated at the funeral of James Egbert Thompson, a dear friend and esteemed member of the church who had died suddenly: “While with his family seeking, upon the banks of a little stream, a day’s relaxation from the monotonous routine of the bank, of which he was president, he was transported to the other shore of the mysterious river.” By July Paterson himself could no longer perform his duties of the pastorate of the state’s largest Baptist church, and resigned. “His physical powers were inadequate to the demands of his time and strength, and after three years of service, he resigned for rest and recuperation.”
The Reverend E. B. Hulbert was called to succeed Paterson in November 1871, and he would serve for three years, just as Paterson had. Except for Pastor John Pope, who served nine years between the tenures of Torbet and Paterson, on average the pastors of First Baptist Church during the nineteenth century stayed slightly more than three years. A major factor in the relatively short tenures was the amount of work they were expected to do. “As I have read the story of the church,” said Reverend Brown at the seventy-fifth anniversary, “I get the distinct impression that while the ministers of this church have been honored, they have been invariably overworked. They have been compelled to carry on an immense amount of routine service which the church might, in many cases, have taken out of their hands.” The First Baptist pastor was expected to be of the community, and this required a very special kind of man.
After a number of visiting preachers and candidates, the church would take one and a half years to settle on Hulbert, reflecting the importance of finding the right man for the church. This responsibility gave the deacons influence over policy by virtue of their long-term stature within the congregation and commitment to the larger community, especially when the pastor had answered the call by coming from another church and another state, as was the case at First Baptist. Essentially, it was they, in the name of the congregation, who set the direction in which the pastor was expected to lead the church.
First Baptist had created a tradition of “render[ing] service to the community in a unique way in the ministers who [had] not only been pastors of this church but servants at large to the community itself.” Deacons, who for many years had facilitated the work of this tradition, completely owned it, and they expected pastors to likewise be “community-minded men” whose “horizons were always wide enough to take the city’s life and development.” Five months after beginning his pastorate, Paterson actively participated in the Pilgrim fund-raiser in late 1867. It was a time of political uncertainty in a city where racism could be seen in many quarters. He might have supported Pilgrim in any event, but the fact that the event itself appeared principally supported by First Baptist made his presence assured. The deacons embodied the will of the congregation. It was into four months “of this pastorless season that Brethren D. D. Merrill and J. H. Randall were chosen Deacons, November 9, 1870.”
Merrill’s influence within the congregation had already been established when he received Paterson’s endorsement, before he had left, in agreeing to an idea Merrill proposed in establishing the Walnut Street mission where George Prescott eventually became pastor.
On November 3, 1870, as the temperature dropped below 30 degrees, workmen in St. Anthony dismantled the Baptist church that had stood for twenty years. Considered an old landmark, it was the second church to be constructed in Minnesota. This humble wood-and-stone dwelling had a seating capacity of three hundred but had recently housed a congregation of twenty-five members. Now it was being taken down to be moved to St. Paul, where it would be “rebuilt as a church for the colored Baptist society of that city.” The structure was to be reassembled at Twelfth and Cedar Streets, near Wabasha, near the Chapel of the Good Shepherd that had been held in trust by First Baptist Church since 1866. “Our Colored Pilgrim Baptist Church, I am told,” Alice Merrill, wife of Deacon Merrill, later reported, “is built in a part of the material brought from St. Anthony. [These were] materials that composed really the first Baptist church in Minnesota.” The article that appeared in the St. Paul Dispatch ended, “Reverend Robert Hickman is the Pastor.”
In fact, Hickman was not the pastor though his stature among the Pilgrims and within the larger black community, as well as the notoriety he had acquired in 1869, perhaps led the paper to characterize him this way. Over two years had passed since Reverend Torbet agreed “to superintend the work”; his name alone, as the imprimatur of honesty, would attract prospective donors. Now, as the work began, his name was absent from notice. The expected cost to move materials from St. Anthony and to construct the church in St. Paul was $2,400. A festival was intended to defray the cost. On November 17, the Dispatch reported:
Mr. Hickman gives notice that there will be a festival given at the Odeon Hall, on Thursday evening, the proceeds to go towards a fund for building a church for colored people. The citizens generally are cordially invited to attend. Mrs. Nichols, a celebrated musician from the East, will preside at the piano.
The festival “was well attended. There was a good supper, good music, and a good time generally.” The next morning, “at half past 10,” supporters assembled at First Baptist Church, from which they once again marched “in procession to Odeon Hall, where an address [was] delivered by Rev. Mr. Hickman.” It was as if even the city’s white opinion makers recognized who the legitimate Pilgrim leader was.
By February 1871 the twenty-five Pilgrims of St. Paul, Minnesota, and their visionary leader, Robert Hickman, could finally look on with pride at the new building taking shape that would be, at last, their house of worship, and it would soon be ready for occupancy. To provide seating within the cavernous structure, First Baptist Church had donated black walnut pews. At 3:00 p.m. on March 5, 1871, “the house of worship recently erected at the corner of Twelve [sic] and Cedar” at last was dedicated. E. B. Hulbert, pastor of First Baptist Church, delivered the sermon; Amory Gale preached during the evening service.
Deacon Merrill and his brethren at First Baptist had every reason to feel proud of their service to God’s handiwork, a new house of worship to praise His Name and a shelter from evil for His children so recently out of slavery. And from here, they would proceed on to other ventures, expanding the membership and influence of First Baptist Church either by direct membership or under its sponsorship “of other Baptist interests throughout the City of St. Paul.” Pilgrim Baptist was their first mission to become a church, and more would follow, fueled by the experience they gained and the profound sense of calling. His father, Thomas Ward Merrill, would have been proud. This was a glorious day, a God-sent day to behold.
And for Hickman, this too was truly a glorious day. But unlike for Merrill, it was a day that was not without mixed feelings. It was a paradox that not since his days in slavery had he last preached to his flock as their pastor. On the free soil of Minnesota, however, Hickman could not do so, for he needed a license, bestowed by white pastors, in order to preach; and, of course, as yet, he did not qualify. Of course, on this point he would say nothing, except to express gratitude for the heartfelt support and stewardship of Deacon Merrill and the fellowship of First Baptist Church, never divulging to Merrill that Reverend Torbet, Merrill’s father-in-law, as Pilgrim Baptist’s legitimate but apathetic pastor, could never serve Pilgrim’s people in a manner they deserved. Torbet was not a dutiful church leader who shared their history and travails, a pastor chosen by them who shared their blood. But ingratitude was a bitter fruit. Instead, Hickman, a barely literate former slave who worked assiduously to be accepted by men of high education, social standing, and moral intent, would continue to attend the Minnesota Baptist Convention and to fulfill his labors as an acolyte of Torbet.
Between 1871 and 1876 Hickman would tend to a congregation that grew from thirty to seventy-five members, benefitting from being the only black church to survive the period that saw the demise of all of the other black churches in St. Paul. The church would be the site of the Robert Banks Literary Society and serve as the place where religious, educational, and social activities were held. At last in 1874, Hickman was given a license to preach but he was not present to bless let alone attend the celebration by St. Paul blacks of the Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was held at a different site. Later that year, having at last proved himself to be righteously observant of God’s will, he was ordained. Still, he would have to wait another three years before he became his congregation’s official pastor, fifteen years after he and his followers arrived in St. Paul.