Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Baptist History: William Sawyer (1821-1909)

What does an old Bible, likely given as a “presentation” Bible to a young person, tell us about the 19th century in the Capital District of New York?

Earlier this week, I received an inquiry through the local ABCNYS Association about a family wishing to donate a Bible to an area American Baptist congregation. They were going through an elder parent’s household and found a number of Bibles. One Bible was clearly a family heirloom, given the name inscribed. Another Bible they found indeed had an inscription, but the family could not identify any connection to the family or any idea why the Bible had come into their loved one’s possession at one time in the past.

The Bible in question has a handwritten inscription to a person for their attendance of the Sunday School of the Robin Street Baptist Church in Albany, NY. The date given is 1886.

Living in Albany myself, I knew already that there is no American Baptist (formerly Northern Baptist) congregation by that name any longer. Through some Google searching, I discovered the beginnings of a bread crumb trail about the Robin Street church, which indeed has closed. One thing I discovered via Google Books was a lead on the formation of the Robin Street church.

In a two volume book on the history of Albany, NY, I discovered Robin Street Baptist was part of the efforts of church planting supported enthusiastically by businessman and abolitionist William Sawyer (1821-1909). In this Albany retrospective, we read:

In religious preferences, Mr. [William] Sawyer is a decided Baptist. In 1840 he united with the Pearl Street (now Emmanuel Baptist Church) while Elder Jacob Knapp was assisting Rev Dr B.T. Welch. In 1871, he removed his church relations to the Calvary Church. His interest in the Sabbath School and mission work of the Baptist Church has been great and constant for many years.
To it he has given much time and toil and money July 29, 1866, the Kenwood Chapel which was started in 1864 was duly dedicated, Rev. Dr. Magoon preaching the sermon. This he gave to the Albany Baptist Missionary Union as a chapel for church purposes forever. On the day of its dedication the cars of the Albany Railway made the first trip to Kenwood. The Sunday School here numbers about 100.
The Robin Street Baptist Chapel was established by Mr. Sawyer in the German Baptist Church on Washington Avenue, November 4, 1866, and removed to the Robin Street Baptist Chapel into a building formerly used as a cabinet factory which he had purchased and remodeled for that purpose April 7 1872 as an Independent Sunday School. To its interests he has ever given his most watchful care. The school now numbers about 300. The Madison Avenue Chapel was purchased by him for Sunday School purposes in the spring of 1867. The school was started August 4, 1867, and placed in charge of the First Baptist Church. It has about 150 members.
Mr. Sawyer was one of the earliest and most active workers for the establishment of the Home for Aged Men, in soliciting subscriptions, organizing, and in selecting its location. He was a member of the first Board of Trustees. He has often addressed audiences of young and old in exhortation and textual discourse. His knowledge of the Scriptures, his zealous spirit, his nervous and rather eccentric manner, have made these addresses effective.

Likely some additional research as time allows will help me connect more of the dots about how this Bible came to be presented to a young person attending the Sunday School on Robin Street. Such efforts remind us that congregations come and go, ministry efforts in a community may ebb and flow, but the furthering of the Gospel is always in the hands of one generation passing the faith onwards to the next.

Returning to the Bible's inscription, I realized that the book was presented by William Sawyer himself! 

We may not have a great statue or likely any real institutional memory about William Sawyer and his work among the churches in the area. Nonetheless, a presentation Bible mixed in with other odds and ends of a household yields a testament to sharing faith and spreading the Baptist witness in Albany, New York.  The mission work of a Baptist layman comes back to life once more, offering inspiration for those who might think about being this generation's William Sawyer, sharing the faith with a new generation!

RESEARCH SOURCES:  Behind the Scenes

To find out something regarding Robin Street Baptist, I referenced Google Books and found out about William Sawyer.


To discover Mr. Sawyer’s date of death, I played a hunch about cemeteries in the area and discovered his grave at the Albany Rural Cemetery where many luminaries of Albany’s past are interred. (For example, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur is buried there.)

LINK:  (I input William Sawyer's name and searched for a compatible date, knowing his birth date from the above source and seeing minor mentions of his name that he was still alive in the late 19th century.  Sawyer lived into his eighties!)

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