History of Immanuel Baptist Church
These are the stories of 3 individual Baptist churches. Each of them began in Portland, Maine; 2 of them standing separately, but then joining together to become the 3rd. They believed that such a unified and reborn fellowship could accomplish a more significant and vital ministry in a common and central, urban location, as that ministry clearly reflected a personal discipleship in Jesus Christ. Another common denominator which made their union possible was a commitment to soul liberty, or religious freedom. So here they are: 3 churches.
One of them was The First Free Baptist Church, often referred to simply as, “The Christian Church.” It grew out of a missional effort, emerging from its discipleship to Christ, in 1810 by Elias Smith. What he started as a free and Baptist-like church predated, and was arguably the pattern for, The First Free Baptist Church, and it involved a good many of the same people. It grew and ministered over the succeeding 112 years until 1922, despite a few experiences of disorganization, inactivity, and resuscitation.
The other was The Free Street Baptist Church, which was founded in 1836, when 55 members of what was known as The Federal Street Church [but was actually The First Baptist Church of Portland] voluntarily requested dismissal in order to begin a new ministry. Like the First Free Baptist Church, anchored to a profound discipleship in Christ, The Free Street Baptist congregation also grew, continuing its mission until 1922 when it and The First Free Baptist Church united. In that year, on November 27th, the newly merged congregation organized, selecting the name Immanuel Baptist Church.
Their free-spirited commitment to Christ continued, and to accommodate the combined ministries of these churches, 2 adjacent lots at the corner of High and Deering Streets were purchased, where Immanuel’s facilities would be constructed. This included a modified-English-gothic Nave, Parish House, and Chapel, with a connecting, cloistered garden and also a small parking lot. Groundbreaking and the placing of a cornerstone took place four years after the 1922 merger and the completed structure was dedicated in 1928. Within a year an exceptionally fine organ was built for the Sanctuary, twenty percent of which incorporated selected stops from the pipe organs of each of the two former churches. Also, the installation of a series of magnificently beautiful, stained glass windows was begun. During the eighty-plus years that followed, the property was carefully maintained and regularly improved. This included the completion and dedication of all the stained glass in the 1960’s and 70’s; the 1990’s installation of a state-of-the-art, institutional kitchen; the 2001 upgrading and digitalizing of the pipe organ; the 2002 creation of an efficient Administrative Center; the 2007 acquisition of a concert grand piano; and the 2008 restoration of the church’s handsome, stone tower. Back in 1926 a copper capsule had been placed in the cornerstone, containing historical records from each of the churches of the merger. Some day, when church historians open that capsule, the materials in it will reflect that the roots of Immanuel Baptist Church are spiritually traceable to the year 1810, when the pulse of Soul Liberty began to beat in the veins of free-spirited Baptists in Portland. It is indeed quite appropriate that today the masthead of the church’s monthly newsletter bears the title, THE CORNERSTONE.
Immanuel’s priority has always been to establish a dynamic, working facility rather than an ornate, monumental edifice, with the objective that it would help the church, as committed disciples of Christ, serve the community in the best, possible way. With that goal in mind, gifted leaders, along with energized organizations of children, youth, and adults, have guided all of Immanuel’s efforts of ministry, including those of First Free Baptist and Free Street Baptist churches before them. Soul liberty has never been forgotten, and ecumenical attitudes toward Christian education, evangelism, social action and mission have consistently been embraced. Immanuel Baptist has always felt energized by a Biblical understanding of personal discipleship toChrist, reflected in broad, Christian, social activism…doing the Gospel with compassion and creativity.
In the year 2010, Immanuel Baptist Church of Portland, Maine, celebrated the bicentennial of a continuing, colorful, urban-oriented, soul-libertarian, ministry-for-Jesus Christ, which began in this city, in this spirit, and in this Name, 200 years earlier…in 1810.
Some might conclude that this account of what transpired could be called a revisionist effort rather than a true historical record. But it is an honest review of an unending discipleship in Jesus Christ, traced via the spirit of soul liberty in Portland to 1810 and the work of Elias Smith. His may not have been institutionalized specifically as a Freewill Baptist group, but it surely was a free-spirited one, and records indicate that Smith did attempt to align it with the Freewill Baptists. The Freewill Baptists, however, weren't too receptive about recognizing him and his followers, though they were remarkably congenial. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that the church Smith gathered was certainly free, and it was devotedly Baptist, even though it often was referred to as just plain "Christian." That initial Portland congregation dwindled and then grew; flickered and then was rekindled; failed and then succeeded. It lived under the guidance of Elias Smith, and then for a number of years under Samuel Rand. [It’s possible that there were other leaders in between.] Shortly after that organization finally folded in 1843, it sold its property to an umbrella group, the Free Baptist Home Mission Society, who began and guided still another free and Baptist style of church to continue in Portland; that lasted for fifteen more years. Because the records indicate that some of the same people were involved, it is appropriate to conclude that it was the same spirit and, as a matter of fact, an extension of the same church, which resulted. That congregation dissolved in 1858, but four years after that, in 1862, it re-started under the pastoral leadership of a D.M. Graham. The remainder of the journey of that congregation is very well chronicled, until 1922 when it merged with the Free Street Baptist Church to form Immanuel. So, while the details and postulations of what transpired between 1810 and 1862 may be moot, the seeds that were planted, the periods of nurturing which followed, and the ultimate harvests which resulted are quite clear.
There might be a legitimate argument if one were trying to create an exacting history. This story, however, attempts only to be histrionic, in the sense of the spirit of a movement, and not historic, in the sense of reciting a chronological record. The process, therefore, has not overstepped a boundary of significant importance at all. It is the Christian spirit of soul liberty that is the motivation and not necessarily academic specificity. One researcher said, “As long as we make it clear that there is no known organic connection between Immanuel Baptist Church and 1810 we might still celebrate the Freewill Baptist witness in Portland of which Immanuel Baptist Church is the only living example.”[*] Indeed, Elias Smith’s efforts did start and stop; they did cough and sneeze; and they did belch and maybe even gag a bit. But the church which he envisioned, and which ultimately resulted from his prophetic work [and that of several other prophetic leaders and followers], never capitulated; and now it lives on, healthily and vibrantly…as Immanuel Baptist Church!
[*] Observation in email of April 8, 2009
[#] Historical research currently documents the fact that 400 years ago, in 1609 and 1610, the first group ever to call itself a “Baptist“ church was established in Amsterdam, then moving to England. It began when John Smyth baptized himself and about 40 others in his congregation, in a dramatic testimony to the belief that there is neither precept nor example in the New Testament of any infants being baptized by John or Christ’s disciples, and that intellectual knowledge of commitment always preceded the act of baptism by immersion. Smyth also wrote in article 84 of his long, Confession of 100 Articles of Faith, prepared in 1612: That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions [Romans 13], injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience. [James 4:12] A History of the Baptists, Robert G. Torbet .
Therefore, this means that 1609 or 1610 is the 400th birthday of every Baptist Church…in the world!