Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Land of Promise: The First Fifty Years of Baptists in the Pacific Northwest

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Land of Promise: The First Fifty Years of Baptists in the Pacific Northwest

Article excerpt

Baptists in the North and South were mired in numerous controversial issues during the 1840s, including immersionist Bible translations, Calvinism and missions, coalescing Landmarkism, and particularly slavery. Baptist pioneers who settled in the Pacific Northwest during this period carried these contentions with them, flavoring a land of promise with viewpoints that are still noticeable today. (1)

This paper summarizes the first 50 years of Baptist work in the Pacific Northwest, beginning with the formation of the first Baptist church in 1844 to the proliferation of Baptist associations and conventions and the rejection for affiliation by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1894. Missing from the study are many Baptist bodies that exist today, especially Asian, Eastern European, and a variety of Conservative Baptists, groups that were not fully launched until the 20th century. Baptist work was equally slow among Native Americans and African Americans during this first generation.

Christian missions in the Pacific Northwest commenced at the end of the 18th century, stimulated by explorers such as English sea captain James Cook, who opened up maritime fur trade. In 1792 American Robert Gray "discovered" the long-sought "river of the west" and named it Columbia, after his ship. A decade later students from Andover Theological Seminary expressed interest in evangelizing this new frontier, but nothing came of it. Then Lewis and Clark arrived by overland route in 1806, and plans for settlement and Christianizing the region stirred afresh. But England and America each demanded claim to the region and shared joint occupancy from 1818-1846, when the 49th parallel became the international boundary. (2)

Finally, Hall Jackson Kelley, a Baptist spurred by Lewis and Clark accounts, called for Americans to travel to the Northwest in the early 1830s. Although Methodist Jason Lee is credited with the first missionary work, Kelley later insisted it was his own influence that inaugurated the missionary effort in Oregon. One significant result of Kelley's efforts to obtain Baptist support is found in the American Baptist Home Mission Society's (ABHMS) First Report of 1833 wherein Oregon is specifically named as a promising field. (3) Nothing, however, immediately happened. Then the great migration of 1843 began, and pioneers embarked upon the Oregon Trail.

Baptist Pioneers

The great migration brought pioneers with their covered wagons from the Mississippi Valley to the end of the Oregon Trail, and many Baptists were numbered among them. On May 25, 1844, without benefit of a minister or council, five Missouri settlers formed the first Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains in the home of David T. Lenox. His log cabin was situated on the Tualatin plains 14 miles west of present-day Portland. They called it West Union, because these early settlers in the "Wilds of the West" came "into Union." For the first nine months the church heard no preachers from its own denomination. When Vincent Snelling arrived he became the first Baptist minister in the Northwest, delivering his first sermon on February 8, 1845.

Snelling left the area after a year to settle a land claim south of present-day McMinnville. In 1846 he established two new Baptist churches: LaCreole Baptist Church, near Rickreall and eight miles west of modern-day Salem, constituted with eight members; and Yamhill Baptist Church, located a few miles southwest of McMinnville, organized with four members. (4)

Meanwhile, the ABHMS revived its interest in Oregon territory in light of the 1843 migration. Ezra Fisher and Hezekiah Johnson picked up where Kelley left off, but this time with ABIIMS support. The two men departed for Oregon in late 1844. Several months of hard travel ensued, and the team arrived at Lenox's house in December 1845. Fisher assumed the pastorate of West Union. The now 40-50 Baptists were scattered over an extended area that was beautiful but wild, populated by Native Americans, and at the mercy of unremitting rainy weather. …

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