Friday, October 21, 2016

At the Center, Even As Things Change

One-time Baptist Church building
now fitness center
downtown Catskill, NY
Recently, I discovered I was at the center of the known Baptist universe.

Well, in 1817.  And among "Northern" (now "American") Baptists.

Late last month, I was in Catskill, New York, for a meeting with a fellow Baptist.  Arriving early, I had time to explore the downtown area, and I noticed this very beautiful church in the midst of the downtown district.  Alas, the church building itself was now repurposed for a completely different reason.  A fitness club now occupied the large space once filled by the sanctuary's pews, altar and other fittings.  It shared the facility with a center offering physical therapy.

It is not that uncommon these days to be in a historic town in upstate New York, southwestern Vermont or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and discover a number of church buildings now closed, up for sale or completely repurposed for secular/commercial use.  I follow an entire Facebook group ("Congregational Seasons") dedicated to the challenges many churches face when facilities threaten to eat up increasingly high margin of offerings, if not endowed funds, for upkeep and maintenance, leaving very little for mission, ministry or even adequate clergy compensation.

What church used to worship here?, I wondered.  Given my spare time (and the fact I am increasingly a church history arm chair scholar/nerd/lost cause), I began to sort out what I could learn.  With no cornerstone or external signage/plaques, etc., and ironically a card access only to the building for work-out or therapy staff, I had no immediate way of gleaning basic information.

Instead, I found myself conducting two forms of "on the fly" research.  One version is increasingly familiar: using one's smartphone to look up online resources.  I find that strategic use of Google can often turn up some interesting facts or connection points. With my burgeoning know-how, I was able to learn that this building was built originally for the Second Baptist Church of Catskill, NY.  The congregation is still in existence, in another location elsewhere in town.   I was able to spot contact information for local historical societies, however, given the volunteer nature and available hours of said places, I was not able to call at that time of morning.

The second form of research is still my favorite: asking a local.  I happened across an older gentleman sitting on the bench.  Back home in Kansas, a lot of the retired farmers and ranchers would spend time sitting on benches, watching the slow paced world of small town life.  You could always count on them sitting there, until of course, the weekly paper brought word of their passing.  A few of them were Baptists, so I also remembered seeing them in the same pew, week after week.  They did not say much, but they loved to talk about what they remembered.  They also had opinions on politicians and voting, but their commentary now seems so tame and eloquent in these days.

I honestly cannot remember their names.  But their absence after years of seeing them on the benches outside the local hardware store made me realize that a town loses a lot the locals passed on.  Sometimes, print and online resources are just what happened to be written or recorded.  Other bits of history are kept in the oral tradition, no matter how many devices we develop and tote around.

Here, I surely found a similar person around downtown Catskill.  I asked if he knew much about the church across the street from the courthouse.  About twenty minutes later, I learned a great deal about the history of the building since Second Baptist relocated.  A Pentecostal church had been there once after the Baptists moved on.  Then a developer bought the building in hopes of converting it into a restaurant.  When plans were not able to move forward, the building remained "on the market" (or "dormant", depending on who was telling the story apparently) until the health club and therapy center moved in.

The great surprise, however, emerged when I was Googling my way through the various online resources.  In the "Google Books" search I did for "Baptist church" and "Catskill, NY", I discovered a real treat.  In the early 19th century, the Catskill Baptists ordained to ministry a very noteworthy Baptist:  John Mason Peck.   Peck was likely ordained by the First Baptist Church of Catskill, NY, as Second Baptist (where the building above used to host their worship and congregational life) was not yet formed.  I believe also First Baptist, Catskill, is also continuing as a worshipping group, however, neither congregation happens to be presently affiliated with ABCUSA, the successor name of the Northern Baptist Convention.

For a Midwesterner, the name of John Mason Peck carries a great deal of lore.  He made his mark on spreading Baptist churches across the developing country during that time period. While native to New England and ordained in the Catskills in New York, his story goes well beyond the immediate area.  His remarkable career included work as a church planter, preacher, anti-slavery advocate and progenitor of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (the first of two Societies formed among Northern Baptists for "home" mission that continue onwards today).  You can read the Wikipedia entry via:  His legacy is shared by many other Baptists, including Luther Rice, but Peck himself is quite noteworthy for his industry and sense of call to minister, kindled by early Baptist congregations in the Catskill Mountains.

One book digitized through Google Books provided the insight about John Mason Peck's work, observing that Catskill, NY, happened to be then the center of Northern Baptist churches in the 1810s.  How appropriate that the place where Peck was ordained in 1813 was at the center, for thanks to Peck's work alongside his contemporaries, the center kept shifting ever westward.  Indeed, Peck ensured the seeding of many churches throughout Missouri, beginning in St Louis and then moving westward.  That the "Northern Baptists" could rename themselves "American Baptists", having presence in many states in the North and even in the South, by the mid-20th century was surely also thanks to Peck's faithful work.

Standing in the one-time "center of the Baptist universe" (for at least when considering just my own denomination's reckoning of Baptist presence in the burgeoning United States), I stood before a church building now repurposed into something completely different than its builders intended.  Such adaptive use of church properties for sacred and yes even secular purposes is to be expected.  No one institution or movement or organization can stay upwards without change, variation, set backs, and the reality that things "morph" even when each generation thinks to itself that "it can't get better than it is now" (or more likely of late, "what happened to what was?"). 

I took a photo and noted some opportunities for further research when I got back home and had time to continue my armchair inquiries.  Then I went into a great little bookshop and browsed.  Then I went to my meeting and talked about how to keep Baptists in upstate New York encouraged, faithful and willing to risk. 

Hopefully the spirit of John Mason Peck is not just consigned to history and nostalgia.  At our meeting over Subway sandwiches, two Baptists hoped for the same call to go and share the good word in places near and far.


To read more about John Mason Peck, click this link to a Google Book scan of a 1917 retrospective on Peck and the 100 years (by then) of Home Mission written by Austen Kennedy De Blois:

To read a 1914 history thesis on Peck written by Matthew Lawrence, a student of the University of Illinois, click:

A special collection highlighting Peck's career and links to some writings:

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