Fear not them that kill the body but are not able to kill the soul.
Setting foot on the free soil of St. Paul in the spring of 1863 was as threatening for Hickman and his followers as had been fleeing through the Confederate-guerrilla-infested Missouri countryside and ending up drifting on a barge on the calm waters of the Mississippi. A mob in St. Paul, already agitated by the rumor that this boatload of contraband had been brought to the city to take jobs from white laborers, stoned the boat until the captain ordered that they continue upstream to Fort Snelling, where they could safely disembark. But their Promised Land was not there under the protection of Union arms nor in the surrounding countryside, nor on the farmland they passed as they sailed northward, land that required the kind of labor they hoped to leave back in Missouri. Most of them came to realize that, despite the hostile reception at Lowertown, it was within the city of St. Paul that they faced the greater prospect of finding a new kind of freedom.
They found temporary housing in an old building located on the bluff near the corner of Hill and Third Streets and remained there until housing and employment were secured, holding prayer meetings wherever they could, including in the home of a black woman named Mrs. Caroline Nelson, on Fifth Street between Washington and Franklin Avenues. In November 1863, the group succeeded in renting the lodge rooms of the Good Templars in Concert Hall on Third Street between Market and St. Peter, meeting “once or twice a week.” In time, being too strapped to pay the rent, they were forced to worship in several other locations around the commercial district.
By the end of the year, realizing they needed help in order for their church to secure a stable footing, they decided to approach the one church that was best situated to help. Thus, in January 1864, Hickman and group member Thomas Scott wrote to the largest in the city, the all-white 162-member First Baptist Church. On behalf of the fifteen “Colored Baptist members of Saint Paul,” they said, “we have organized ourselves but we do not feel satisfied without been [sic] united to the church and then bee [sic] a branch from your church buy [sic] a request from the members.” J. H. Randall, church clerk for First Baptist, later reported:
In the month of January, we read a communication from a company of col’d people then meeting in the Ancient Hall requesting to be a branch of our church. They being Baptists, their request was granted and since then we have had them under our watch care and supervision as members with us of the Church of the Living God. Of the [numbers] rec’d by baptism 9 were from the Col’d branch and 13 col’d people have been rec’d upon the Christian experience. We have been compelled to exclude 4 of the col’d members for grievous sins.
The “grievous sins” that compelled First Baptist to exclude nearly a third of the people who had escaped from slavery in Missouri were left discreetly undefined. Thus, the mission for the colored Baptists of St. Paul was created, worshipping under the tutelage of First Baptist. The word “pilgrim” had not yet become their formal name.
Within mission status, members of the colored branch wished to receive the sacrament of baptism from an ordained minister; and since Hickman was not ordained, they had to go to First Baptist. Thus, throughout the winter members of the mission attended church services at First Baptist “to relate their Christian experience at the Colored Branch and ask for the sacrament of baptism.” Still, Hickman recognized that as supportive as First Baptist had been, it was time to move closer to his dream of an independent church. In October 1866 he and a delegation of his members took the first step. “A letter from the Col’d Branch [was] signed by nine of the members requesting letters of dismission so as to enable them to form a separate organization. On motion the following committee was appointed to meet and confer with them—Deacon Cavender, Bros. Prescott, Sherie, Randall, and Merrill.”
In light of the quick succession of major decisions, three key issues were addressed: the sincerity of their calling to be an independent church, their commitment to remaining with the small but growing Minnesota Baptist Association, and the acquisition of a permanent place for worship. It was during these meetings that Hickman probably laid out the long-term vision in which he foresaw Pilgrim Baptist Church as the center of all manner of religious, social, and educational uplift for the small but growing black community of St. Paul. Hickman’s ambitious and enterprising spirit impressed the men from First Baptist, all people of considerable standing within the business community of St. Paul. It had to be gratifying to hear the aspirations of those who, so recently out of slavery, were highly motivated and best poised to advance their race and larger community all in the service of their Lord and Savior.
These men, no doubt seeing Hickman’s potential, could help him avoid being ensnared by unscrupulous speculators by introducing him to the right people, prominent realtors and bankers—men like Charles Oakes, the senior partner of St. Paul’s largest and oldest banking house, Borup and Oakes, and brother of George H. Oakes, a member of First Baptist Church. And knowing the impecunious status of the group of the new arrivals, the men of First Baptist understood how to sort through the intricacies of capital and property while acting fully within the service of their faith, their church, and their colored Baptist brethren.
It would prove to be the thirty-two-year-old Daniel David Merrill who became central to the work. Born in Comstock, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, on February 16, 1834, and educated at Kalamazoo College from 1851 to 1854, Merrill brought a remarkable degree of business acumen and experience to service. He came to St. Paul in 1855, when the city was in its infancy, to immediately become engaged in real estate before taking office as deputy city treasurer. In 1856 he joined First Baptist Church, by letter, and helped to organize the YMCA in the city, serving as its secretary and treasurer. Meanwhile, his considerable business skills helped him to soon become eminently successful.
During the Civil War, Merrill was secretary and treasurer of the United States Christian Commission, and would become treasurer of the Minnesota Baptist State Convention from 1865 to 1890, when he would be elected its president for the next four years. In 1857 he stumped the territory with Carl Schurz, Galusha A. Grow, Schuyler Colfax, and other nationally prominent Republicans of the day. Within a very short time he had impressed powerful men in the financial and political quarters of the city and soon-to-be state. As such, he was in the optimum position to negotiate a property deal on behalf of the Baptists.
His service was very much in keeping with his family legacy of religious and educational entrepreneurialism that started in Maine at the turn of the century. “There has, without any doubt,” noted D. T. Magill, a chronicler of the family, “been no family which has had so large and so long-continued an influence in Baptist affairs as the Merrills of Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, and Maryland, from 1805 to 1907.”
His grandfather, the Reverend Daniel Merrill, was born at Georgetown, Massachusetts, and at seventeen enlisted in the militia, serving until the end of the Revolutionary War. After military service he attended Dartmouth College and studied for the ministry; once ordained he settled in Nottingham West, New Hampshire, and afterward at Sedgwick, Maine. He was for years a member of the Governor’s Council, and was one of the founders and promoters of what is now Colby College, at Waterville, New Hampshire. His impressive skills in organizing and weaving political favor were quite evident in his work to build a society of Baptists. In 1805 Daniel Merrill, pastor of the Congregational church in Sedgwick, Maine, was converted by his own studies to the Baptist faith and was baptized by immersion along with 120 members of his church. The town voted to call their society a Baptist church, and elected Daniel Merrill as its pastor. When the Sedgwick church was a Congregational church it was the largest and most influential church in Maine. Merrill was evangelistic and had a number of young men studying for the ministry. He had formed an educational society, of which he was the president and the chief contributor, to help these young men. This society received some funding from other churches. When he became a Baptist the society and its work went with him, and it was for several years the first and only Baptist educational society in America.
From the start Merrill called for the establishment of a college and seminary in the Maine district. In 1811 he secured a charter for the Maine Literary and Theological Institution, which later developed into Colby College. He was a member of the first board of trustees and remained one of its most important and influential members until his death. He was also chairman of a committee whose action resulted in the organization of the Northern Baptist Educational Society and of the Newton Theological Institution.
Three years before Merrill converted to the Baptist faith, his third son, Thomas Ward Merrill, was born. “The most natural fruit of the thought-provoking circumstances in which he was reared was to create in the boy an energetic loyalty to Baptist principles and prospects and a love for knowledge.” In 1820 Thomas entered the Latin school at Waterville (later to be known as Waterville College) and was under the instruction of George Dana Boardman, who would later join the Baptist board for foreign missionary work in India. Thomas Merrill was one of the young men who came to him with the intent of becoming a missionary. After four years of study, he graduated from college and entered Newton Theological Institution, graduating in 1828, to teach in the New Hampton (New Hampshire) Literary and Theological Institution. Within the year he set out westward for the frontier in Michigan.
He spent the summer and early fall of 1829 traveling by foot to the western part of the territory. In October he was at Ann Arbor village, preaching there and in the vicinity. On November 23, he opened a school in Ann Arbor but was denied a charter from the territorial legislature. Instead, the legislature granted a charter to an academy whose trustees were residents of the village. By the fall of 1831, Merrill’s school had closed, leaving an open field for the rival. The chartered academy eventually became the University of Michigan. That September Merrill went to Pontiac to present and receive endorsement for a new academy to the Michigan Baptist Association. Traveling to New York in October, he gained an endorsement from the Baptist Convention “by the leading brethren present,” and later, on April 27, 1832, from the American Baptist Home Mission Society in New York. Later that year, the society would grant him its first commission. Eventually, on April 22, 1833, with the help of important political allies, he received at last a charter for the establishment of the Michigan and Huron Institute, “location not designated.”
With the school now chartered but not yet located, Merrill made “long journeys over primitive roads to meetings” at Clinton, Troy, Comstock, and any number of other towns, both large and small. Finally, after several frustrating letdowns, Merrill secured a site at Bronson (now Kalamazoo), where the school was set in operation and developed into what eventually became Kalamazoo College. Thomas Merrill served for many years as one of its trustees and later as endowed chair of practical theology. In 1847 he moved to Lansing, where he lived for thirty years, during which time he amassed a considerable fortune and attended all meetings of the association conventions as the agent of benevolent societies. At his death he left a considerable estate to the institution he had founded.
Thomas Merrill’s younger brother, Moses, followed in the family tradition, when, at the age of thirteen, he was converted by a sermon his father preached. Licensed to preach in April 1829, he left Sedgwick to join his brother Thomas in Ann Arbor to help him establish the school. But in the summer of 1832, Moses and his wife accepted an appointment to work among the Indians at Sault Ste. Marie; by the spring of 1833, the board ordered them to “a more promising field in the great Indian Territory of the West.” In late fall they arrived at Bellevue, now Nebraska, where the Otoe Indians were located, two hundred miles from the nearest white settlement. There they built a school for children, preached through an interpreter until they had learned the language, and provided medical assistance. It would be here that Moses succumbed “to tubercular troubles” on February 6, 1840, and was buried on the eastern bank of the Missouri River.
The tradition of religious leadership continued with the Reverend S. P. Merrill, the son of Moses and a graduate of Rochester Theological Seminary, who held pastorates in New York and Maine, and who served as secretary of his alma mater for over fourteen years. G. E. Merrill, son of St. Paul’s D. D. Merrill, would become a successful businessman like his father, who strengthened “all manner of Baptist interests” in Annapolis, Maryland. It was into this tradition—the religious, educational, financial, and missionary zeal in the name of the Baptist faith—that Daniel David Merrill, “the Minnesota Merrill,” and son of Thomas Ward Merrill, was born.
Acquiring and holding the title to the property in trust for Hickman and his followers for a mutually agreed time was considered more Christian-like than engaging the church in “the unholy practice of usury.” Protocol required, however, that such an arrangement be requested by Hickman. On November 13, Hickman formally requested the trustees of First Baptist to purchase in trust for them the lot on the southwest corner of Thirteenth and Cedar Streets. Adhering every bit as much to formality, the trustees approved the deal.
One day later, on November 14, the committee reported back to the church membership recommending that they approve the request of Hickman’s congregation to form a separate church. “After the prayer meeting the committee appointed to meet with the Colored Brothers and Sisters reported . . . the following recommendation—that all of the colored members who desired to form a new organization be granted letters [of dismission].” Trustee Merrill made the motion: “That the following named Colored Brothers and Sisters be granted the letters of dismission from this church for the purpose of organizing an independent Baptist Church.” The motion was seconded and approved. Fielding Combs, Adeline Combs, R. Hickman, Matonia Hickman, Henry Moffitt, Charlotte Moffitt, George Chambers, Eliza Chambers, Melvinia Asak, and Giles Crenshaw, all in attendance, joined in singing with the congregation; then they left as a group, as the total membership of the newly formed Pilgrim Baptist Church. Motivated by their own early history the First Baptist leadership—all New Englanders and religious descendants of America’s first Pilgrims—agreed “to assist the Colored Brethren and Sisters in forming a new church.” In this, they were carrying on the tradition that was incumbent to the soul of their church legacy. As future pastor the Reverend John Brown would later say in a sermon he delivered during the seventy-fifth anniversary of First Baptist, “In New England we find entire congregations setting up their light and their churches in the wilderness, having been driven from across the ocean for conscience sake.”
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A Teacher should bring books with her sufficient to begin a school, as there is no bookstore within three hundred miles.
Thomas Williamson, missionary at kaposia, to william slade, march 1847
In 1846 the Board of National Popular Education was organized in New England. Its object was to supply the new settlements of the West with competent female Christian teachers—all evangelical denominations uniting in the movement with William Slade, former governor of Vermont and now its general manager and corresponding secretary. In May 1847 the first class of thirty-three teachers was convened at Albany, New York, for general instruction and individual assignment. In anticipation of this, three months earlier, Presbyterian missionary and physician Thomas S. Williamson, while at Dakota chief Little Crow’s village, Kaposia (now South St. Paul), asked his friend Slade to recommend a teacher for a school he hoped would be established “near the [principal] village of white men,” named St. Paul. He specified that the desired qualities for the new instructor must include not only competence but also racial tolerance: “A teacher for this place should love the Savior and for His sake be willing to forego not only many of the religious privileges and elegancies of a New England home, but some of the neatness also. She should be entirely free from racially intolerant on account of color, for among her scholars she might find not only English, French, and Swiss, but Sioux and Chippewa, with some claiming kindred with the African stock.”
Harriet Bishop answered the call and arrived in Minnesota in 1847, after having trained with Catharine Beecher, a reformer and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who believed that women needed to be well educated in order to devote themselves to the moral development and education of their children and their homes.
Bishop established a school in an old blacksmith shop—a mud-walled log hovel covered with bark and chinked with mud, “where on July 19, 1847 ten pioneers, Indian and mixed-blood children came to learn.” Six days later she invited them back to attend Sunday school. “The children should not only be taught to read and write,” she wrote, “but also to be taught the Word of God.” On July 25 she wrote that the first Sunday school was held. Seven students attended, and the mixture of races and ethnicities was such that an interpreter who could speak English, French, and Dakota was required. She invited everyone in town to attend Sunday worship. By the third week, Sunday school enrollment had increased to twenty-five children.
No Baptist church and Sunday school existed north of Iowa, and Bishop was the only person present to provide the community with ministry. This changed in 1848 with the overland arrival in wintry December of Abram Cavender, a blacksmith from New Hampshire. Bishop later noted that when he arrived in St. Paul in 1848, the religious element in the village was greatly reinforced. Together they carried on the work of leading Sunday worship.
Constant petitions to Heaven and to the Baptist Home Mission Society resulted in the appointment of the Reverend John Parsons as missionary to St. Paul on February 8, 1849, one month prior to Minnesota’s official recognition as a United States territory. Within six months, a church was formed of twelve members who were settling in the city, including some whose names would later be prominently associated with Minnesota history—Lyman Dayton and Charles Stearns. The island south of St. Paul and one of the largest lakes in what would be Minneapolis were both named after Miss Bishop. But in 1849, she initially only had herself to persevere in creating a religious gathering within “an utterly godless community” that “was not prepared for the rigorous gospel for which the little congregation stood. . . . It was in this village on the edge of an almost [unlimited] wilderness whose only exits were down the river and to the Red River Valley by ox carts that the First Baptist Church began to let its light shine.”
The leadership of the First Baptist Church may have felt that they could indeed relate to what Hickman’s followers must have been experiencing as these people just out of bondage had followed their “star of destiny” into an unfamiliar and isolating, if not totally hostile, wilderness to wholly devote their lives to God.
The church’s reception of the people from Missouri was based, in part, on a liberal sense of ever-evolving purpose and relevance to society. “There is an inescapable social law that if an institution does not make positive and constant contributions—changing them with the needs of the time—it becomes a cumberer of the ground and is doomed either to extinction or to absorption to some larger institution.” And proof of its relevance was found in the rapid growth of its membership even during its first year of existence—from twelve members to over forty souls.
A crucial factor to this growth was in the care the church took in rejecting severe and exclusionary prescriptions of faith. In the early days, steeped in the tradition of evangelistic purpose—taking the word to the wilderness— the church was quite wary of beliefs in anything that seemed like “final creedal form,” ways that could obstruct the forging of relationships, reaching souls. In fact, at the time of the organization no articles of faith were adopted at all. Instead, that group of twelve bound themselves by a covenant of conduct and life in which the great principles of the gospel were involved but were not stated in definite language. Not until four years later, in 1853, did the church adopt what might be called a set of principles for conduct and life, rejecting the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, only recently adopted as an amendment of the same confession of 1833, which had been a concise statement in harmony with the older doctrines, but expressed in milder form. It was widely accepted by Baptists in the northern and western states; but the St. Paul Baptists chose instead to “maintain the tenets and ordinances now obtained and observed by the American Baptist Home Society and the American Baptist Missionary Union.” These two organizations, while never holding a formal creed and while always recognizing the freedom of faith among Baptists, have done much to stabilize the opinion and procedure within the denomination without exercising any direct authority over the churches whatever:
The minutes of the church are remarkably free from references of any doctrinal controversy. There are indications that at different times over-zealous persons tried to get the church to make certain statements of doctrines or an emphasis of certain doctrines which the majority of the church would not accept. Every such attempt was voted down. To this day the church has kept the reputation of the freedom of the faith without wavering. All types of mind and doctrine are represented in its membership.
Theirs, in short, was intended to be a legacy of inclusion.
In 1817 John Mason Peck, a pastor from New York and commissioner for the “domestic mission” in the Missouri Territory, established the first Sunday schools, women’s societies, and missionary societies in the region. He organized the first Baptist churches west of the Mississippi, ordained the first African American clergy in St. Louis, and helped found Alton Seminary in Alton, Illinois, which later became Shurtleff College. Peck also served two terms in the Illinois legislature and was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery. Though he faced harsh criticism from the antimission, “old school” Baptists who did not believe in Sunday schools, colleges, seminaries, or missions, and the Triennial Convention, which had instructed him to work among the Indians, Peck continued to work in St. Louis, receiving financial support from supporters in Massachusetts and the American Baptist Home Mission Society. It was there that he met John Berry Meachum.
Reverend Meachum, a former slave and skilled carpenter who bought freedom for himself and his family, assisted American Home Mission pioneer Peck with the church and Sunday school Peck founded in St. Louis in 1817. Black and white, free and bond worshipped together in First Baptist until 1822, when black congregants formed a separate branch. Peck ordained Meachum in 1825 when he founded the first African Baptist Church, the first Protestant church established for African Americans west of the Mississippi River. Shortly after a brick church was erected, Meachum and Peck opened a day school, the “Candle Tallow School,” so called because classes had to be conducted in a secret room with no windows to avoid being discovered by the sheriff. Missouri law forbade teaching free or enslaved blacks to read and write. In 1847 even more restrictive laws were enacted by the general assembly of Missouri. Undeterred, Meachum, with the help of black and white friends, raised the necessary funds to purchase a steamboat that he would sail on the Mississippi; the river was federal territory where slavery was not recognized. Within months, he stocked the boat with a library and classrooms, and christened it “Freedom School.”
It was a testament to the importance of strong leadership and it was coincidental, for it was in this same year—1847—that Harriet Bishop first arrived in the village of St. Paul. “To two persons, Miss Harriet Bishop and A. H. Cavender, are due the qualities of mind and leadership that kept the First Baptist Church alive in the first two years.” It was this same legacy that framed the discussion when the delegation from First Baptist met with Hickman’s followers on the subject of naming a pastor.