Tour America's Treasures

An invitation to tour America's historical sites...

Friday, December 21, 2012

First Baptist Congregational Church

Visit our Tour Destination: Illinois page to see the entire tour of the state’s
Save America’s Treasures sites.

The First Baptist Congregational Church.
© 2004 - AAA Studios/Chicago.
Photo courtesy of the
First Baptist Congregational Church.

First Baptist Congregational Church of Chicago
1613 West Washington Boulevard
Chicago, IL

The Treasure:  In the early 1870s, when Gothic Revival ideas were sweeping American architecture, the First Baptist Congregational Church (as it’s known today) building set a new standard for church design.

Accessibility:  A church known for its community involvement, First Baptist Congregational Church maintains a busy schedule of activities throughout the week. To fully experience the church, attend a service! There’s always a worship service at 11 a.m. on Sundays and sometimes an 8 a.m. service as well (since scheduling of the early service fluctuates, it’s best to call the church to check on the time). Reverend George W. Daniels, Senior Pastor, leads the services.

The front entrance to the First Baptist
Congregational Church shows the fine
craftsmanship of the carved stone work.
Background:  For over 140 years, this magnificent church building on Chicago’s West Washington Boulevard has celebrated the cycle of the Christian calendar, annually reflecting on the story of Jesus from Advent through Pentecost—that’s over 140 Christmases celebrated and over 140 Easters proclaimed. For tens of thousands of Chicagoans, it has been the backdrop for key life events: the baptisms, weddings, and funerals that mark our lives. Above all, it has been a center of community.

The story of the church begins ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War, a time when tensions ran high throughout the country. At Chicago’s Third Presbyterian Church, 48 congregation members announced they were leaving as a protest against the General Assembly’s weak position on slavery. They were led by Philo Carpenter, a successful entrepreneur known as Chicago’s first druggist, who already knew much about church planting, having started two churches previously. The small group of dissenters organized a new church—the First Congregational Church—which initially met in a small wooden chapel. Standing by the abolitionist principles that brought it into being, the new church provided a welcoming Underground Railroad stop for escaped slaves.

The area around the new church grew wealthier during the Civil War. When the church building burned down in 1869, the congregation had the means and resources to build something more ambitious. They hired architect Gurdon P. Randall who took this opportunity to creatively borrow the best ideas from the Gothic Revival style, popular among mainline Protestant denominations. Gothic Revival elements include a tower with a belfry, steeply pitched roofs, lancet windows, and amphitheater-style seating including gracefully curving balconies. The sanctuary plan brilliantly focused attention upon the pulpit, the communion table, and the large space reserved for the choir. Two years in construction from 1869 to 1871, the church (now renamed Union Park Congregational Church) became a new model for Protestant churches throughout the country and remains one of the earliest and finest intact examples of the Gothic Revival architectural style.

The communion table, pulpit, organ, and circular balcony.
© 2004 - AAA Studios/Chicago.
Photo courtesy of the First Baptist Congregational Church.
The final major signature addition to the church was the organ, installed in 1927. The largest pipe organ ever made, it was built by W.W. Kimball and Company, designed by Dr. William Lester, and donated as a gift to the church by Mr. and Mrs. Andrew R. Dole of Oak Park.

As the neighborhood continued to change, the church went through transformations as well. In 1970, the healthy and growing congregation of the nearby Mozart Baptist Church moved into the old church, ensuring the continued stewardship of the venerable building while increasing its ability to fully serve the neighborhood. Under the leadership of the late Dr. Arthur D. Griffin and the current Senior Pastor, Reverend George W. Daniels, the First Baptist Congregational Church has flourished, maintaining the church’s time-honored traditions of social activism and outreach.

Stained glass windows and theater-style seating.
© 2004 - AAA Studios/Chicago.
Photo courtesy of the First Baptist Congregational Church.

Other Recommended Sites:  The church founded by Philo Carpenter in 1851 quickly became an important way station on the Underground Railroad. Throughout the country, increasing attention has been made to preserving important and representative sites associated with the Underground Railroad. The National Park Service manages 66 sites that tell the story of the Underground Railroad. For a nice introduction to key Illinois sites, visit the Illinois Underground Railroad website, paying special attention to the “Places” list on their Websites page.

The main sanctuary at First Baptist Congregational Church, showing the
amphitheater-style seating and the grand organ.
© 2004 - AAA Studios/Chicago.
Photo courtesy of the First Baptist Congregational Church.

© 2012 Lee Price

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