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First Baptist Church  celebrating  175 years in Elgin

Pastor Greg Huguley Becky Towner look through old photos First Baptist Church Friday. November 16 2012. First Baptist Church Elgis

Pastor Greg Huguley and Becky Towner look through old photos at First Baptist Church Friday. November 16, 2012. First Baptist Church of Elgin is celebrating its 175th anniversary. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Celebrations coming

Members plan celebrations all through 2013 to mark First Baptist’s 175th birthday:

During the four Sundays in February, members will re-enact historical vignettes showing landmark events in First history.

A picnic will be held on the actual church birthday — July 14, 2013.

A banquet will take place in October, followed by a commemorative worship service.

The church still has a Bible signed by the 13 founding members in 1838, and that will be put on display.

One wall of the church will be turned into a gallery of historical photos, probably to be unveiled in October.

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Updated: December 24, 2012 6:23AM

Another in an occasional series about Fox Valley churches that are celebrating major anniversaries.

ELGIN — Founded just three years after Elgin was settled, First Baptist Church has gone from meeting in a log cabin to fighting against slavery, recovering from a tornado and today singing “contemporary Christian music.”

It has drawn the city’s first black residents, given Elgin arguably its two best-known church pastors, and established the first four-year college here.

But in an age of what current pastor Greg Huguley calls consumer-oriented church shopping, the congregation remains committed to spreading the Gospel and helping the needy in the Fox Valley and around the world.

Becky Towner, who chairs the committee planning the church’s 175th-birthday celebration next year, said the first settlers in 1835 included both Congregationalists and Baptists.

Harriet Gifford was the city’s first teacher and the sister of city pioneers James, Hezekiah, Abel and Asa Gifford. She wrote that “the very first Sunday A.M. after we came to brother’s log house out here in the West, we all sat down together and sang and read a passage from the Bible and I read a sermon from a book of them we’d brought with us.”

Soon the Congregationalists had formed what is known today as First Congregational United Church of Christ, the city’s first church. Gifford wrote that she and others who held the Baptists’ “special beliefs” sometimes worshipped along with them and sometimes traveled on Sundays down to Little Woods, north of St. Charles, where a group had formed a Baptist church.

By 1838, she wrote, Elgin had 13 Baptists. So they decided to form a church of their own. The first meeting took place on July 14, 1838, in the log cabin of Hezekiah Gifford. The group included west-side pioneer Nancy Kimball, whose maturity was appreciated by Harriet Gifford.

“It was good to have a mother like Mrs. Kimball among us,” she wrote. “She was 50 and most of us were so young. Abel was just 20, and I 24, and none of the others much older.”

Four buildings

Towner said the Congregationalists and Baptists banded together in 1839 to build a log-cabin church, measuring 28 by 24 feet, at what is now DuPage and Geneva streets downtown. Called “the Union Chapel,” it housed joint Sunday services for both congregations, with a Congregational preacher leading one week and a Baptist minister the next week.

“We did not worship as Congregationalists or as Baptists, but as Christians,” Harriet Gifford would write.

As the city and the church membership grew, in 1843 the Baptists bought out the Congregationalists’ share in the chapel and made Union Chapel their own. In just five years, membership had zoomed from that original 13 to 139.

In 1850, the log cabin was sold and moved to another location, to be replaced at DuPage and Geneva by a bigger house of worship nicknamed “The Cobblestone Church.”

Membership kept swelling, to 406 in 1878, 770 in 1888, and 1,046 in 1893.

Veteran First member Don Nisch said one thing that drove growth in the 1800s was that, in this era of unpaved streets and horse transit when even getting downtown could be tricky on a Sabbath morning, the church set up satellite Sunday school mission houses.

“Sunday school attendance was a lot larger than worship attendance,” Huguley said. “The focus on evangelism was in the Sunday school.”

In 1871, First built and moved into a big brick building, with two soaring steeples and stained glass and a pipe organ, at East Chicago and Geneva streets. That would be its home for the next 100 years. Ironically, it was next door to the building that now held First Congregational.

Disaster struck on March 28, 1920, when the “Palm Sunday Tornado” slashed through the downtown minutes after church services had adjourned. Seven people died, three of them in First Congregational Church and one at First Baptist .

In the 1960s, members decided to move out of the downtown because of a shortage of parking and a need for expensive repairs. The congregation bought 8.5 acres on West Highland Avenue, close to St. Thomas More Catholic Church, and moved into its current building there in 1970.

Star pastors

Two of First’s pastors belong in any Elgin Clergy Hall of Fame — the Rev. Adoniram Judson Joslyn and the Rev. Willis A. Reed. In fact, both changed the history of the city beyond the church walls.

Joslyn led First Baptist from 1844 to 1855 and came back from 1861-63 while his successor, the Rev. Benjamin Thomas, was serving in the Civil War.

Joslyn became a fiery, fearless leader in the Fox Valley’s movements to abolish slavery and prohibit liquor. If even talking about slavery was a hot potato, Nisch notes, imagine what the reaction must have been when Joslyn arranged to bring 110 freed slaves into Elgin to live. Thomas wrote from Alabama that the Union army had been freeing slaves, on grounds that they were “contraband” property of the nation’s enemies. “How many do you think can find homes at or near Elgin?” Thomas wrote. “The time to prove our faith by our works has come with regard to the Negro.”

Soon, Thomas arrived with two boxcar-loads of these “contrabands” and worked with Joslyn to settle them on Elgin’s northeast side — “arousing a storm of hostility by some of Elgin’s good citizens,” a 1988 history of the congregation notes. Thomas was beaten once by a racist white critic.

Joslyn organized most of the new black Elginites into a congregation of their own, Second Baptist Church.

‘How much you care’

Better known to today’s Elginites was the Rev. Willis A. Reed. Besides serving longer as First’s pastor than anybody else (1956-1983, followed by years as a part-time “minister of outreach”), Reed met almost everybody in town through his ministry to the sick. While other Elgin pastors would visit only the hospital patients connected to their congregations, Reed would go from room to room, visiting every patient in Sherman and Saint Joseph hospitals.

It was a carryover from Reed’s time comforting dying, hurting and scared soldiers as a combat chaplain during World War II.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Reed would tell church members as he urged them to go into the world with a love like Jesus showed.

In 1963, Reed was influential in persuading fledgling Judson College to locate on the Deuterman family’s estate on Elgin’s northwest side. It was also during Reed’s time in the pulpit that the church moved to West Highland Avenue and spun off the new Meadowdale Baptist Church in fast-growing Carpentersville.

Reed’s son, Dan, followed him into the ministry and today is First’s pastor of children’s ministry.

Greg Huguley, a 48-year-old with 20 years in the ministry, was named senior pastor five years ago after serving a church in Owensboro, Ky. He heads a staff of five pastors, one of whom leads a Christian counseling ministry.

Changes and challenges

Huguley said the congregation has changed with the times and today uses a mainly informal “contemporary” style of worship in its services, somewhat like the style used by megachurches such as Willow Creek, Christ Community and Harvest Bible Chapel as they pull in worshippers by the thousands while smaller Protestant churches often struggle to get and keep members.

“It’s not as contemporary as Willow Creek would be, or Harvest,” Huguley said. “But we use mostly contemporary Christian music, with a few traditional hymns.”

Today, worship attendance averages 375 to 400 per Sunday, and active members number about 600, Huguley said.

Nisch said that is down slightly from the 500-a-week attendance when the congregation moved out of the downtown in 1970. As with most of the old “Holy Hill” churches that called downtown home in the late 1800s, it is down considerably from that 1,000-plus membership in the 1890s.

As it moves toward 200 years, Huguley says, First’s biggest challenge is “to convince people that the church is a mission for God, as opposed to a consumer commodity. We’re all working together for the Lord’s cause, but people perceive church the way they do any other product or service,” looking at what they get out of it and being ready to drop it or switch if they feel dissatisfied.

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