A Brief History of First Baptist Church

26, April 2011

First Baptist is the oldest extant black church in the city of St. Louis. Its storied history dates to 1817 when two Baptist missionaries, John Mason Peck of Connecticut and James E. Welch, a native of Kentucky, arrived in St. Louis at the behest of the Baptist Triennial Missionary Convention based in Philadelphia. They were charged with establishing schools and churches with orders from the convention to pay particular attention to “the Fox, the Osage, the Kanses and other tribes of Indians.” Reaching St. Louis in December of 1817, they quickly set about fulfilling their mission. In addition to their general orders from the convention they saw a need for the religious instruction for persons of African descent. As a result, they divided their Western Mission Academy into three departments, one of which catered specifically to the establishment of a Sabbath School for Negroes. It initially opened with an attendance of 14 persons. In a brief two months that number had increased to nearly 100, ranging in age from 5 to 40 years. Most were slaves whose admittance was contingent on certificates (permission) from their holders. It is unclear if women were in this first cohort as there are indications that Mrs. Peck intended to open a school for “Negro women” at her home.

First Baptist Church in St. Louis. Missouri History Museum.

One of those who did enroll was a free black man by the name of John Berry Meachum, who is critically important to the inception and development of First Baptist. Meachum was unusually talented and industrious. Born enslaved in Virginia in 1789, he was taken to Kentucky by his holder. By the time he was 21 he had earned enough money to obtain his freedom and shortly thereafter traveled back to Virginia, where he purchased his father’s freedom as well. From Virginia, he and his father made the 700-mile trek back to Kentucky on foot, where his mother and siblings were still held in bondage. They were freed as well, and with the exception of Meachum settled in Harrison County, Indiana. He remained in Kentucky, where he had met and married an enslaved woman, Mary. When she was taken to Missouri he followed her there, arriving in St. Louis in 1815 nearly penniless. Due to his many skills—Berry was a cabinet-maker, cooper, and carpenter—he soon had amassed enough money to purchase his wife and his children.

Meachum’s father was a Baptist preacher who had a profound influence on Meachum’s profession of faith. It was only natural that he would gravitate toward the mission church and school founded by Peck and Welch. He developed a particularly close relationship with Peck that would evolve into a lifelong friendship. At this early juncture, however, he became an assistant and protégé. In 1821 Meachum began preaching and a year later headed a separate “colored branch” of the church and school. Peck ordained Meachum in 1825. By that time virtually all the churches in the city had divided along racial lines, and Meachum established First African Baptist. Peck continued to supervise Meachum and the congregation until 1827, when the church became independent. In 1829 Meachum purchased land on the north side of Almond Street (now Market), near the present-day Arch grounds, and erected the first church building. The congregation at that time consisted of 220 members, 200 of whom were enslaved. By the mid-1840s there were more than 500 members and the Sunday school had an attendance of anywhere from 150 to 300, according to Meachum.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Meachum maintained several businesses, including a barrel- and cask-making shop and a steamboat that supplied other boats along the Mississippi. He also accumulated property (two brick houses in St. Louis and a farm in Illinois) with an estimated value of $25,000. As a passionate abolitionist, he purchased a number of slaves, trained them in his businesses, and emancipated them. He believed strongly in education as the key to racial advancement and operated a school in the basement of First Baptist. Previously with Peck he had also established a day school for blacks called Candle Tallow under the guise of a Sunday school. According to lore, when the Missouri Assembly passed a law outlawing the instruction of “negroes and mulattos,” he outfitted a steamboat with a library and started a school on the Mississippi River, beyond the state’s jurisdiction. This “Freedom School” gained national attention.

Meachum and First Baptist had a tremendous impact on the history of the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri. The church educated hundreds of blacks who otherwise would have gone without instruction, including John Milton Turner, who went on to become the first U.S. minister to Liberia in 1871 and the second black in the country to become a diplomat. Turner was also instrumental in the founding of Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University) and helped to establish more than 30 schools for African Americans in the state of Missouri. Turner cited John Berry Meachum as an early mentor who helped to shape his character, as he no doubt did for countless others. Another Berry student was John Richard Anderson, cofounder of the Second African Baptist Church (present-day Central Baptist) the second oldest black Baptist congregation in St. Louis.

In 1854, fittingly enough, Meachum died in the pulpit. A year after his death, it was discovered that Meachum and his wife were actively involved in assisting men and women seeking escape from slavery. His house (last known address 136 N. Second Street) was found to be a station on the Underground Railroad. Both the Missouri Republic and the Missouri Pilot reported in their May 22, 1855, editions the arrest of several “runaway slaves” who disclosed that their rendezvous site was the home of “Mrs. Meachum,” the widow of John Berry Meachum (one of the few instances of solid documentation of the clandestine railroad). She was arrested and jailed. However, the final disposition of her case is unknown, as the pages of the court record book have been removed. Mary Meachum’s efforts in assisting runaways are commemorated in the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, a National Park Service Historic Site.

First Baptist is currently located at 3100 Bell in a building it has occupied since 1920. It remained on Almond until 1885 when it relocated to a building on Clark Street. From Clark the congregation moved to Bell in a church that dates to 1882 and was designed by noted architect C. K. Ramsey. In 1942 the structure suffered a fire and was subsequently rebuilt.

According to First Baptist, it maintains an archive where sermons and other documents relative to Rev. Meachum and other members are kept and made available for public use.

—Gwen Moore, Curator of Urban Landscape and Community