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Early Baptists of Philadelphia, 1877

by David Spencer


MUCH that is exceedingly interesting clusters around the early history of the Baptists of Philadelphia, coeval as it is with that of the city itself. William Penn received the charter of Pennsylvania March 14th, 1681. He did not, however, reach the site now occupied by the city until the early part of November, 1682. An old record of a meeting held at Shackamaxon, on the 8th of November, says: “At this time Governor Penn and a number of Friends arrived here, and erected a city called Philadelphia, about half a mile from Shackamaxon.”

The frame of Government as established, was in the main on the broad platform of Religious Liberty. The thirty-fifth law of the statutes as. agreed upon May 5th, 1682, declared

“That all persons living in this Province, who confess and acknowledge the Almighty and Eternal God to be the Creator, upholder and ruler of the world, and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.”

The Welsh Baptist historian (J. Davis) claims that “Wales is to be considered as the parent of the Baptist denomination in Pennsylvania.”

The question is sometimes asked, where did the Baptists start from? Those who know no better say from Roger Williams, in Rhode Island. Philadelphia Baptists trace their origin to Wales, and the Welsh Baptists have traced their history back to A.D. 63. From that date to Christ in Palestine, it is not difficult to track out the New Testament doctrines and practices which still distinguish us as the followers of Jesus.

Between Penn’s reception of the charter and his arrival in Philadelphia, the sale of land had commenced. In his letter to Philip Ford, dated May 22d, 1682, the name of John Holme is given as one of the first purchasers of land in this city. It is not improbable that he is the same man of whom Morgan Edwards says, “In the year 1686, one John Holmes, who was a Baptist, arrived and settled in the neighborhood.” He was the ancestor of the Holme family, for many years associated with the Holmesburg Baptist Church of this city, and of Rev. J. Stanford Holme, D. D., of New York.

Rev. Thomas Dungan was the first Baptist minister who located in these parts. He came with a colony from Rhode Island, where he had been a member of the First Baptist Church of Newport, and settled, in 1684, at Cold Spring, in Bucks county, about three miles north of Bristol. Here he founded a Baptist church—the first one west of New England, except one in Charleston, S. C., constituted in 1683. As the exact line between Bucks and Philadelphia counties was not fixed until April 1st. 1685, as Dungan naturally visited this city before finally locating where he did, and as the Cold Spring interest “was, in the end, absorbed by the” Lower Dublin Church, of this city, the history of this first church in Pennsylvania legitimately belongs to that of Philadelphia. Between Penn and Dungan there may have been a friendly, though, necessarily, a short intimacy, as the former returned to England August 12th, 1684.. The reasons for this supposed intimacy may be given. Admiral Penn, the father of William, Benedictf1 says, was an “English Baptist.” William Penn himself, though a Quaker, entertained strong Baptist sentiments. In enacting laws for the government of Pennsylvania he recognized those rights for which Baptists have so earnestly contended, and which had already been incorporated by Roger Williams in the statutes of Rhode Island.

Rev. Thomas Dungan was born in Ireland. Owing to the bitter hostility to Baptists, under the reign of Charles II., he came to America, only to find in New England the same spirit of persecution. Coming thence to Philadelphia, his settlement at Cold Spring. was not accidental. Here is a most remarkable spring, throwing out a strong and steady stream of clear, cold water, whose temperature is the same all the year round. It is thought by some to possess qualities of great medicinal value. Tradition tells us that the Indians were accustomed to assemble about it twice a year, and bring their sick to enjoy its healing qualities. At the change of the seasons, the time of their semi-annual gathering, a mist would form over the spring, which, to the Indian’s fancy, assumed the shape of a spirit, whose good will they desired to enjoy. In selling their lands to William Penn, when speaking of their value, it is not impossible they spoke of this spring, located in a most beautiful spot on the banks of the Delaware. So, when Dungan came to purchase land, desiring a quiet region, where he could end his days peacefully, Penn, from the love he bore to the Baptists, and for his sympathy for those who had come out of terrible persecutions, offered him this celebrated place.

With the church at Cold Spring it is supposed the father of the celebrated Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was associated. He was buried in the graveyard adjoining this church. At that time Philadelphia had a population of 2500 persons.

Upon the restoration of Charles II. to the throne of Great Britain, commenced a series of fearful persecutions, in which the Baptists suffered a large share. In Wales, for twenty-eight years, during his reign,

“they had to meet,” says Davis, “in the most secret places by night, somewhere in the woods, or on the Black mountain, or the rough rock. They were obliged to change the place every week, that their enemies might not find them out. Often the friends of the infernal foe diligently sought them, but found them not. While the wolves were searching in one mountain, the lambs were sheltering under the rock of another. But, notwithstanding all their care and prudence, they were sometimes caught, and most unmercifully whipped and fined. Their cattle and household furniture were seized to pay the fines and expenses of the executioners of the law. The safest place they ever found was in the woods, under a large rock, called Darren Ddu, or the Black Rock. It is a most dreadful steep, and the roughest place we have ever seen.”

So great was the hostility of the public authorities that the Baptists were not permitted to bury their dead in the graveyards. They humbly petitioned the King for protection, concluding their appeal thus:—

O, King, we dare not walk the streets, and we are abused even in our own houses. If we pray to God with our families, we are threatened to be hung. Some of us are stoned almost to death, and others are imprisoned for worshipping God according to the dictates of their own consciences and the rule of his word.

This plea was disregarded, and the persecutions from 1660 to 1688 were most bitter. During all this time the annual meetings of the Baptist Association were not held, but the opening of Pennsylvania was a source of hope to these distressed children of God, and two years before the persecution in Wales ended, by reason of its bitterness, several members of the Baptist Church of Dolau, with their families, sailed for America. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1686, they settled on the banks of the Pennypack Creek. These, with others, subsequently constituted the Pennypack, now Lower Dublin, Baptist Church, of this city. Its ancient records state:—

By the good providence of God, there came certain persons out of Radnorshire in Wales, and over into this province of Pennsylvania, and settled in the township of Dublin, in the county of Philadelphia, viz.: John Eatton, George Eatton, and Jane, his wife, Samuel Jones and Sarah Eatton, who had been baptized upon confession of faith and received into the communion of the church of Christ, meeting in the parishes of Llandewi and Nantmel, in Radnorshire, Henry Gregory being chief pastor. Also John Baker, who had been baptized, and a member of a congregation of baptized believers in Kilkenny, in Ireland, Christopher Blackwell, pastor, was, by the providence of God, settled in the township aforesaid. In the year 1687 there came one Samuel Vaus, out of England, and settled near the aforesaid township, and went under the denomination of a Baptist, and was so taken to be.

It was, however, shortly after learned that he had never been baptized, and when confronted on the subject by the pastor, he acknowledged his imposition, and ceased to be one of the church.

It is to these lands, and, perhaps, to some of the very Christians named in the foregoing, that the following copy of an Indian deed refers:—

“I, Richard Mettamicont, Owner of ye Land on both sides of Pemmapecca Creek, on the River Delaware, do hereby acknowledge yet of my own accord and freewill, I have offered given and disposed of, and by these presents do give and dispose of all my Land, situated as above mentioned, for me and my Heires forever, unto William Penn, Proprietary and Governr of ye Province of Pennsilvania, &c., his Heirs and Assignes forever, In consideration of which I confess to have received by Order of ye said. Governor, one match coat, one pair of stockings and one shert; And I do now promise never to molest or trouble any Christians so called, settled upon any part of ye aforesaid Land, by authority of Governour Penn. Witness my hand and seal, Philadelphia, ye 7th ye 4th munth (June), 1684.

His mark.

Sign’d, seald and delivered in ye presence of

Indorsed partly by Penn.—“Rich. Mettamicont Deed for Lands on both sides of Pemmapecka Creek.”

The word Pemmapecca, in the above, leads us to say the stream of that name was thus called at first, then Pennepek. Now it is generally written Pennypack. It means, a pond, lake or bay; water not having a current. To avoid confusion, we hereafter speak of the Pennypack Church under its present name of Lower Dublin or Pennypack interchangeably.

About the same time, Elias Keach, a son of the celebrated Baptist minister, Rev. Benjamin Keach, of London, settled in Lower Dublin. He was born in England in 1666, so that he was only twenty years of age when he came to this country. Morgan Edwards says of him:—

On his landing he dressed in black, and wore a band in order to pass for a minister. The project succeeded to his wishes, and many people resorted to hear the young London divine. He performed well enough till he had advanced pretty far in the sermon. Then, stopping short, he looked like a man astonished. The audience concluded he had been seized with a sudden disorder; but on asking what the matter was, received from him a confession of the imposture, with tears in his eyes, and much trembling. Great was his distress, though it ended happily; for from this time he dated his conversion. He heard there was a Baptist minister at Cold Spring, in Bucks county, between Bristol and Trentown. To him did he repair to seek counsel and comfort; and by him was he baptized and ordained.

The site of his baptism is one of the most beautiful, for such a purpose, to be found along the Delaware river. The sloping bank with its pebbly bottom, and the bend in the river, giving a view up and down for miles, is very fine. From then until the present, this same location has frequently been the scene of Bible baptism. The Christian Church, of Tullytown, one mile above, baptize their candidates here. After his baptism, Mr. Keach at once devoted himself to the work of the ministry at Pennypack. Success attended him, and on November 21, 1687, he baptized Joseph Ashton, Jane Ashton, his wife, Wm. Fisher and John Watts.

So far as known, this is the first record of a baptism in what is now Philadelphia, and it probably took place in the Pennypack Creek, at a charming point, which, to this day, is used by this venerable church for the same purpose. Of this spot the late Rev. William T. Brantly, D. D., wrote in 1829:—

A flat rock, which projects into the stream at a certain point, and leaves an easy slope into the water, has been for a series of years the platform on which the administrator of Baptism has stood to propound the way of truth to the surrounding. multitude, and from which he has conducted into the yielding elements below him, the placid forms of new converts.

The church at Lower Dublin was constituted in January, 1688, with twelve members. The account of this event is given in the church records thus:—

Sometime after, about the 11th month (January, 1687-8), by the advice of Elias Keach and with the aforesaid baptized persons’ consent, a day was set apart to seek God by fasting and prayer, in order to form ourselves into a church state. Whereupon Elias Keach was accepted and received for our pastor, and we sat down in communion at the Lord’s table. Also at the same time Samuel Vaus was chosen, and by Elias Keach, with laying on of hands, was ordained to be a deacon.

When the above record was made the year began on March 25th. March was then called the first month, and that is why September, October, November and December were called respectively, as their names in Latin signify, the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months. The eleventh month, spoken of above, would of course be January. In 1752 the calendar was changed from the old style to the arrangement as at present. Previous to this change it was proper to say that the church was organized in 1687, but when the change was made “the eleventh month, 1687,” became the first month or January, 1688. This change is the reason why Morgan Edwards gives, in brackets, the double date of 1687- 8.

Well has Dr. J. R. Murphy, in his memoir of Rev. J. M. Challis, a subsequent pastor at Lower Dublin, said:—

Thus this old church and mother of churches was organized during the very incipiency of the settlement, while yet the homes of its members were in the midst of the Indians’ hunting grounds. The Neshammies and Shackamaxons were still lingering in the old homes along the Delaware, and the echo of the Indian war-song had scarcely died away when the songs of praise to God arose from an assembled church of Christ, and the wilderness and the solitary place was glad.

Mr. Keach extended his ministerial labors into New Jersey, to Trenton, Burlington, Middletown, Cohansey and Salem. He frequently preached in Philadelphia, Chester, and other places. At that time all the Baptists of Philadelphia and New Jersey were regarded as general members of this church. Morgan Edwards says:—

They were all one church, and Pennepeck the centre of union, where as many as could, met to celebrate the memorials of Christ’s death; and for the sake of distant members they administered the ordinance quarterly at Burlington, Cohansey, Chester and Philadelphia; which quarterly meetings have since transformed into three yearly meetings and an association.

Thus, for some time, continued their Zion with lengthened cords till the brethren in remote parts set about forming themselves into distinct churches, which began in 1689 and continued until these late years. By these detachments Pennepeck was reduced to narrow bounds, but yet abides among the churches as a mother in the midst of many daughters.

The distance of the above-named places from Lower Dublin, and the increase in the number of baptized believers, led to the organization of churches at Middletown in 1688, Piscataway in 1689, Cohansey in 169o, and Philadelphia in 1698.

Dr. Benedict well says of Mr. Keach, “that he may be considered as the chief apostle among the Baptists in these parts of America.” Visiting these numerous places in that early day necessitated his absence from Lower Dublin frequently, but the little band of disciples kept up each week “meetings for Conference,” wherein “every brother might have opportunity to exercise what gifts God had been pleased to bestow on them for the edification of one another.” In this way brethren gifted in prayer and exhortation were brought out, and the church enabled always to have within her own fold those upon whom she could depend in the absence of her pastor.

Differences arose in the church relative to laying on of hands after baptism, and upon other matters of doctrine and practice, so that in 1689 Mr. Keach resigned the pastorate and devoted himself to preaching the gospel in various parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The year that witnessed the constitution of the Lower Dublin Church was also signalized by the death of Rev. Thomas Dungan.

Of this venerable father (says Morgan Edwards, in 1770) I can learn no more than that he came from Rhode Island, about the year 1684. That he and his family settled at Cold Spring, where he gathered a church, of which nothing remains but a graveyard and the names of the families which belonged to it, viz.: the Dungans, Gardeners, Woods, Doyles, etc. That he died in 1688 and was buried in said graveyard. That his children were five sons and four daughters, who formed connections with families by the names of Wing of Rhode Island; Drake, West, Richards, Doyle and Kerrels. To mention the names, alliance and offspring of these, would tend towards an endless genealogy. Sufficeth it that the Rev. Thomas Dungan, the first Baptist minister in the province, now existeth in a progeny of between six and seven hundred.

Mr. Dungan must have been a man far advanced in years, as the Minutes of the Lower Dublin Church, in speaking of him as baptizing Elias Keach, call him “an ancient disciple and teacher among the Baptists.”

December 10, 1690, Rev. John Watts assumed the pastorate at Lower Dublin. He was born in Leeds, Kent County, England, baptized by Rev. Elias Keach, November 21, 1687, and was a constituent of the church, whose pastorate he now filled. He was a man of decided talents as a preacher and writer, and most earnestly contended for the faith delivered once for all to the saints. He was, as we shall see, destined to take a prominent part in the earliest history and founding of the First Baptist Church of this city. His settlement as pastor at Lower Dublin was the last important event in the first decade of Baptist history in Philadelphia.

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