Rev. Joshua Haney gently opens a fragile book that dates back to the origins of First Baptist Church in Waupaca.
Faded, handwritten notes record that “a few brethren met to consult in regard to the propriety of organizing a church” on Jan. 21, 1854. They would ask Rev. D.A. Peck, an itinerant preacher, to be their first pastor.
“After consultation, it was determined that it was time for us to raise the standard of the cross as a number were ready to unite and sustain a Baptist interest here,” the book records.
Within a few months, the leaders of First Baptist included Isaac West as the clerk and Alonzo Vaughn as the deacon. Other members included E.W. and Eliza Churchill, Carolyn West and Alfred Dunham.
“When they wrote these things I highly doubt they thought that 160 years later we’d be going through them,” said Haney, who currently serves as the church’s pastor.
He recalled how a few years ago, the records of the church’s early history were nearly shredded and pitched.
“It had been sitting in an attic for years,” Haney said. “We found this book down in the bottom of this box. I started going through it and realized we had found a gold mine.”
In 1854, Waupaca was a pioneer village in a state that was less than six years old.
Vaughn, who was also the county sheriff, provided space for the early services at his farmhouse in the town of Lind, according to a history of the First Baptist Church written by Bobbie Studzinski and published in 2004 in the Waupaca County Post.
Studzinski noted that members voted on Oct. 28, 1854, to adopt the “Articles of Faith and Rules of Order,” as contained in the New Hampshire Confession of Faith which is a statement of distinctive Baptist beliefs.
Haney said Peck was pastor at First Baptist from 1854-1859.
“A lot of the early pastors were here for three to five years. Being a frontier town, life in Waupaca was probably tough,” Haney said.
Members of First Baptist purchased a lot on the corner of Randall and Division streets in Waupaca and the first church building was consttructed in 1863.
“Kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves furnished the light and warmth. Horse sheds were erected to the north and west sides of the building to fill the parking needs of those days,” according to a history of the church written in 1970 for the dedication of the current church building at 1500 Roman Road near Waupaca Learning Center.
First Baptist has also survived some challenging times during its long history.
Throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s, First Baptist struggled with its finances. The church had no pastor from 1887 to 1892.
The difficuylty of these years can be seen in a note written in the church record book by an unkown member: Nov. 29, 1890 … Prayer meeting today and I sit here alone.”
At one point, the building was closed due to the lack of finances. However, a small group of women climbed through a window to hold their prayer meetings. Their determination kept the church open.
In 1892, Rev. R.H. Colby became the new pastor at First Baptist. He helped rebuild the church’s finances, grew its membership, and oversaw the addition of Sunday school rooms.
Tragedy would strike again when the church caught on fire on the evening of Jan. 27, 1914.
“In a few hours, that which had cost years of toil and sacrifice were reduced to ashes,” according to an unknown historian from the late 1910s.
Another historian recalled, “As the bell rolled down from the tower during the fire, it tolled mournfully, with what asounded like a sad farewell. The motto which was above the baptistery, ‘Not to be ministered to, but to minister,’ could still be read, even after the fire.”
That devastating fire is part of First Baptist Church’s collective memory. Every history of the event includes not just the destruction, but the community’s response. Other churches throughout Waupaca pitched in and helped the Baptists rebuild their church. The Baptists were invited to hold their services and Sunday school classes at the Methodist, Danish Baptist and Our Saviour’s Lutheran churches.
“The fire is an inspiring story,” Haney said.
In less than seven months, the debris was cleared and the new church was built.
At its dedication ceremony, the pastor of First Baptist, Rev. M.B. Milne, waved his hand toward the tower and said, “Let the bell ring out.”
First Baptist would endure other tribulations, such as the influenza epidemic that swept the nation in 1919 and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
After World War II, First Baptist grew and prospered. Although there were numerous expansion and remodeling programs in the 1950s and ‘60s, the building became inadequate for the church’s needs.
First Baptist broke ground for a new building in June 1969 and opened the doors for its first service there on July 19, 1970.
In 1975, First Baptist Christian School opend with 17 students. This year, 45 students attend the K-12 program.
There are currently about 280 members of First Baptist Church.
“We’re pretty much filled to capacity,” Haney said, adding that the church is now considering expansion.
Haney said the pioneering spirit and determination of the early members of First Baptist continues to inspire members of the church today.
“Sometimes they struggled, but their faith in God kept them moving forward and reaching out to be a presence in the community,” Haney said.