A Century of Baptist Faith

1864 - 1964, written by Maud Stevens, Church Historian. Want a copy of this book? Copies are available in the church library.

The Church is Established

Exciting and turbulent events were taking place throughout the world during the late 1850's and early 1860's, the effects of which would challenge the church and nation for a century ahead. The Communist Manifesto had been in circulation for a decade, Darwin was publishing his theory of evolution, the serfs in Russia were being emancipated, and Bismarck was being made the prime minister of Prussia. In the United States, the Civil War was beginning, Kansas was due to become a state, and the territories of Colorado, Nevada, and Dakota were being created. Congress was bringing the Homestead Act into force, and the first day of January, 1863 found President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Along with these forceful events, the 1858 gold rush to Colorado was gaining momentum, and by April 5, 1860, the flourishing towns of Auraria and Denver City, on the west and east sides of Cherry Creek,  respectively, were becoming consolidated under the name, Denver City. When Congress established Colorado Territory in 1861, Denver City became a part of Arapahoe County.

Ever alert to events and conditions that might affect the lives of people, the churches followed in the wake of the gold rush to the West for the purpose of Christianizing and bringing a consciousness of the worth of religion in the development of the new communities. This adventure of bringing Christ to settlements where skeptical and indifferent religious sentiment prevailed is the story of dedicated men of all denominations, but for Baptists in Denver and Colorado, the heroic devotion and zeal of Christ's cause will always be identified with the young Walter McDuffie Potter, founder and first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Denver.

Mr. Potter visited Colorado early in 1863 in search of health. Impressed with the spiritual needs of the communities, he returned East and reported conditions to the American Baptist Home Mission Society. The Society immediately appointed him general missionary to Denver and vicinity, Colorado Territory. On December 20th, 1863, Mr. Potter and his sister, Miss Lucy, arrived in Denver after a coach ride across the plains of three nights and two days. That week he called on all the Baptists he could find, and on Sunday, December 27th, 1863, he preached to a congregation of ten people in a little hall.

By January 1864, the little congregation, which had increased to sixty, was meeting in the United States Court Room on Ferry Street, now Eleventh. Here, on March 14, 1864, the First Baptist Sunday School was organized.

In April, 1864, Mr. Potter reported to the Home Mission Society that he was encouraged with the prospects of the Baptist work and that he had good reason to hope that the church would be self-sustaining by the end of the year, and that a building could be started by fall. Members of other denominations in the vicinity encouraged his work by calling on him and contributing over a hundred dollars to help him get his work started. On May 2, 1864, the First Baptist Church of Denver was organized with nine constituent members: Rev. Walter McDuffie Potter, Miss Lucy Potter (later, Mrs. Ezra Humphrey), Francis Gallup, Henry C. Leach, Mrs. A. Voorhies, Mrs. L. Burdsall, Mrs. L. Hall, Mrs. A. C. Hall, and Miss E. Throughman. Mr. Potter was unanimously elected pastor, Francis Gallup, deacon, and Henry C. Leach, clerk and treasurer.

The Holy Dugout

From the first, plans for a place of worship of their own had been in the hearts of the little congregation, and arrangements had been made to occupy the Methodist Mission building when this group had to move to their new church home. However, hopes were dashed when the memorable Cherry Creek flood of May 21, 1864, swept away the city hall and many other buildings, including the Methodist Church. Cut off from West Denver, the Baptist congregation held services for a time in the People's Theatre on Larimer street between 14th and 15th streets.

In August, 1864, the church granted Mr. Potter a leave to go East to raise money for a church edifice in Denver. In a letter dated March 25, 1865, from Providence, Rhode Island, he wrote the Home Mission Society that he had raised nearly $9,000 from Colorado capitalists in the East, and thought he could secure $3,000 more on the field. During Mr. Potter's absence, Rev. Norman McLeod of the Congregational Home Mission Society, preached for the congregation.

Denver's population was increasing encouragingly, so when Mr. Potter reached Denver, he was advised by Deacon Gallup and others to invest in Denver lands. Accordingly, he purchased four lots at 18th and Curtis streets where he built a one-story frame building for a parsonage. For the church site, he paid $1,150 for four lots on the northeast corner of 16th and Curtis streets which [was then] the site of Neisner Brothers, Inc. store. After excavating the cellar and walling it up four feet above the ground, Mr. Potter found that nearly all the money had been spent and the church could not go on with the building. However, in order to make use of the basement room, a temporary roof was put over the structure and it was used by the church until the winter of 1872-1873.

This first building was such a humble and ridiculous looking place of worship, and looked so much like a potato cellar, that in waggish humor, people began to call it "The Holy Dugout."

The Potter Highlands

During this time, Mr. Potter, with his uncle, W. Gaston of Boston, bought fifty acres of land at the foot of Nineteenth street. On the north side of Denver, he had his sister preempted 320 acres under the Homestead Act. This area today includes the land between West 32nd and 38th Avenues, and between Zuni and Federal Boulevard.

By fall of 1865, Mr. Potter's health was failing rapidly, and in December, he was granted a leave to return to his him in the East. His condition grew worse and in April, 1866, he died at the age of twenty-nine. Mr. Potter's death revealed the fact that he had willed his property to the Mission Societies with the thought that if the Denver church failed to materialize, the property would serve as payment for the money he had collected in the East and invested here. But the membership maintained that the Potter lands belonged to the First Baptist Church and were meant to be used by the Societies for this church. In the meantime, the Societies neglected to look after the properties since they considered the lands to be of little value. But Deacon Gallup, a devoted member of the church and a great friend of Mr. Potter, took care of the lands, fought off "claim jumpers," and paid the taxes on the property to the amount of $2,000.

When Dr. Winfield Scott assumed the pastorate in December, 1871, it was understood that a new church edifice would be completed and appropriately furnished as soon as providentially possible. During the first year, the lots at 18th and Curtis Streets, valued at $4,000, were procured from the Home Mission Society and the Missionary Union. The Home Mission Society deeded its interest in lieu of the pastor's salary for one year, and the Missionary Union did the same in lieu of the services of Deacon Gallup in protecting the Potter properties which he gladly gave to the church. A building 36 by 77 feet, and costing about $12,000 was erected as proposed.

As a result of a union meeting conducted by Rev. E. P. Hammond, an evangelist, in a large hall on 16th Street in January, 1873, the First Baptist Church received about fifty new members. By this time the edifice at 18th and Curtis Streets was enclosed, the furnace and baptistry installed, and chairs rented. There was rejoicing on that day, in February, 1873, when the newly inspired church and congregation and the converts bade farewell to the "Holy Dugout" and entered the new but unfinished building. Within three months, 75 new members were added and trhe church building was finished piece-meal. A pipe organ costing $3,600 was installed, and the church was dedicated on August 31, 1873. When the Stout Street Church was erected in 1883, this organ was installed there and served until 1937 when it was moved to the Zion Baptist Church.

In building the church edifice, at 18th and Curtis Streets, it was found necessary to sell the site of the old "dugout" for $7,500, and to borrow $3,000 from the American Baptist Home Mission Society. A clause was included in the deed that the property should not be sold without the consent of the Society nor used for any other than church purposes. These same conditions were transferred to the Stout Street property and release was not made until 1893. The church also borrowed $2,000 from Samuel Crozer of Upland, Pennsylvania, bringing the church debt to $15,000 at the close of Dr. Scott's ministry in 1875.

During this time the question in regard to the "Potter Lands" between the Home Mission Society and the First Baptist Church had not been settled. However, when A. H. Estes, A. C. Fiske, and O. D. F. Webb were elected trustees of the church, it was decided to do something about settling the controversy. In their correspondence with the Society, they took the position that since the Society and the church were working for the Master's cause, they should work in harmony. They presented their views so persistently that the Society sent Dr. Nathan Bishop of the Home Mission Board to investigate the situation. He was not favorably impressed with Denver and asked the church for evidence of the church's claim. A paper setting forth the claims of the church was made, and Rev. James French, member of the church, and general missionary for the Society in Colorado, agreed to present the evidence in New York. Just at this time, Mr. Crozer arrived in Colorado and informed Mr. French that he was coming to Denver to foreclose the mortgage on the church. Mr. French and Mr. Estes explained the pending negotiations with the Society, and persuaded Mr. Crozer to act as Mr. French's assistant in these efforts to effect a full settlement with the Society making it possible to pay him. Though many church members had no faith in these efforts to settle this long-standing controversy, Mr. French met the Home Mission Society Board in New York according to agreement, and effected a full settlement of the dispute. By this settlement the church paid the Society $3,000 and $2,000 additional; Mr. Crozer was paid his $2,000; $1,000 was paid to Ezra Humphrey for the Lucy Potter Claim and all other debts were paid leaving about $14,000 in the treasury. The four lots at the corner of 27th and Stout Streets, on which there was a brick building suitable for a parsonage and a Sunday School room, were to be given to the Calvary Church when it should be established.

The Stout Street Church

Following the settlement of the "Potter Lands" controversy in 1879,  the First Baptist Church proceeded to make plans to build a more commodious building on the 18th and Curtis Street property costing $30,000, using the building already there for a lecture room, and for Sunday School rooms. This was the situation when Dr. Reuben Jeffery assumed the pastorate in November, 1880. However, in 1881, all these plans were changed when the church decided to seek a new location. Finally, a decision was made to purchase four lots on the north side of Stout Street between 17th and 18th Streets. Led by a building committee composed of J. J. Joslin, Nelson Forbes, and H. N. Chittenden, the church planned to build a structure with an auditorium having a seating capacity of 1,200 the cost of the building to be about $65,000. Dedicated on May 8, 1883, this superb edifice was reputed to have one of the finest auditoriums in the West, with almost perfect acoustical properties.

In these early years, all churches were plagued with debt because of intermittent financial depressions and the lack of a systemic plan of giving. When Dr. J. Q. A. Henry came from Chicago to take up the pastoral work in 1888, the debt on the Stout Street edifice was $20,000. Though he managed to reduce the debt by $15,000, building repairs and improvements caused the debt to increase again, and, by 1892, just before the panic, the floating debt had risen to $3,000 with a funded debt of $24,000. It remained for Dr. George B. Vosburgh's pastorate to see the debt wiped out with the church unencumbered. At the time of the mortgage burning on June 3, 1904, the property value was $150,000 and the membership stood at 1,100. This famous edifice served as the home of the First Baptist Church for fifty-four years.

A New Building

It was in 1911 that the church took the first official action looking toward the present building. A proposition was presented to the church that the Stout Street building be sold for not less than $150,000, and that lots be selected for a new church edifice in the residential section of the city. The church voted against the measure because of the indefiniteness of the location of a new site. Dr. Vosburgh resigned shortly after this and accepted a position as lecturer with the University of Denver.

The church was without a pastor until Dr. A. H. C. Morse assumed the pastorate in September, 1912. Both pastor and congregation were well aware of the need for a more adequate and up-to-date building. During the following years, a committee consisting of Dr. Morse, John V. Barker, superintendent of the Sunday School, N. H. Griffith, E. T. Wilson, and K. A. Spence, trustees, was appointed to study the possibilities of remodeling the Stout Street edifice, and also, to bring information regarding a new church site. On February 1, 1917, this committee reported that improvements on the Stout Street building would be prohibitive in cost and that the building would still be inadequate for meeting modern trends. The committee further reported that sites were available at Cleveland Place, at Colfax and Sherman, and at Colfax and Grant ranging in price from $52,000 to $150,000. About this time the Tritch estate was being settled and it was found that these lots at 14th Avenue and Grant Street could be obtained for $25,000. On the recommendation of the committee, the church voted to approve the purchase of the property, and by July, 1919, more than $25,000 was pledged and the First Baptist Church came into possession of the strategic site on which the church stands today.

Attempts were made during the following years to get a building program started, but the unsettled conditions following World War One, and later, the beginning of the depression, discouraged any progress on the project, though the church was aware of the urgent need for a new building, and more adequate facilities for meeting these very conditions.

After Dr. Morse's resignation in January 1930, the agitation for a new church edifice became more insistent. The Pulpit Committee recognized its responsibility for procuring a pastor with the ability to build a church. But the world depression was in its worst phase, and rather than make a hasty decision, the church agreed to the acceptance of an interim pastor. Dr. Edwin D. Pratt assumed the leadership of the church in this capacity from April, 1930, through August, 1931. In the summer, Dr. William Graham Everson accepted a call from the church and was its pastor from September, 1931, to January, 1933. A well-organized drive for funds was started under Dr. Everson's guidance and continued to the end of his pastorate. After Dr. Everson's resignation, Dr. Pratt was called again as interim pastor and served from March, 1933, to March, 1934. Dr. Pratt never lagged in the performance of pastoral duties, and he kept the church looking to the goals to be achieved when the new pastor would come. On November 12, 1933, Dr. Clarence W. Kemper, vice president of the Northern Baptist Convention, on a tour of the West, stopped in Denver to preach at the First Baptist Church.

Acquainted with Dr. Kemper's notable achievements as a builder of churches, and impressed, that day, with his splendid ability as a preacher of the Word, and the evidence of his devotion to the building of Christ's kingdom as a paramount goal in the life and ministry of the church, the Pulpit Committee sensed that he was the man. And before Dr. Kemper left Denver, the committee invited him to take into consideration the prospect of a call to the pastorate of this church.

Rev. Dr. Clarence Kemper and The New Building

When Dr. Kemper began his eleven-year ministry with the First Baptist Church of Denver, in March, 1934, he immediately identified himself with the church. Its heritage became his, and together, people and pastor looked forward to a worthy future for the church and its mission.

Acting upon his philosophy that before undertaking a building enterprise itself, the promotion of every department of the church work must be just as intensive and effective in its work as the overall project of the building activity, Dr. Kemper proceeded to capitalize on the aspects of the church program which showed promise. Here was a flourishing Sunday School supported by a strong officers' and teachers' council which led to the immediate establishment of the first Board of Education with Mrs. H. R. Shaw, chairman. As superintendent, Mr. John L. Griffith was bringing strong dedicated leadership to the church school and helped to develop a significant "Men's Bible Class." Again, through the Sunday School, there had developed a splendid singing group under the direction of Miss Maud Stevens. No thought had been given to organizing a church choir since it was the era of the "professional quartet" in most of the large churches. However, Dr. Kemper incorporated this "Choral Club" into the evening service of the church, and the trustees arranged to pay the director a salary. This enthusiastic singing group proved to be a vital nucleus for a large chorus choir developed by Mr. Oliver Gushee when he became minister of music in September 1935. Of these two groups, Mrs. Mabelle Hackler, Miss Blanche King, Mrs. Annie Strasinger, and Mr. Carl Bentzen remain loyal members of the present choir. 

On May 6, 1934, came the challenge to the church to "rise up and build" when Dr. Kemper preached the anniversary sermon, "Seventy Years Look Down Upon Us." A strong building council was already in action studying plans, and on May 5, 1935, the drive for funds was successfully initiated. From then on, the building enterprise moved ahead dramatically. All the usual procedures and appropriate ceremonies in keeping with such projects were observed. The people responded with faith and trust to each occasion in the spirit of, "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it," (Ps. 127:1)

Some of the significantly high moments were Dr. George Truett's sermon on ground-breaking day, June 23, 1935; the last service in the Stout Street Building, May 2, 1937; and the year and a half period of worship in the "educational building" of the Central Christian Church with the Sunday School meeting in the YMCA building. But the most thrilling occasion of all was the first meeting in the new church building on Sunday, November 27, 1938; the sanctuary was packed for the vesper service as Dr. Kemper spoke on the scriptural text, "If I Forget Thee." The following Tuesday, a preaching mission by the famed Dr. George Truett of Dallas, began, culminating in the impressive dedicatory services on December 4, 1938. On that day the $50,000 completion program was fully subscribed, and five years later, on March 26, 1944, the mortgage burning took place.

Dr. Kemper chose this memorable occasion to indicate to the church his intention of closing his work as pastor during the ensuing year of 1945. He expressed the deepest appreciation for the earnest and devoted cooperation of the church in the accomplishment of the goals which pastor and church had set out together to reach. He emphasized again a feeling of thankfulness for the generosity of Mr. M. L. Foss for his gift to the church of the beautiful 160-acre mountain retreat.

When Dr. Kemper closed his notable pastorate with "Old First" on March 31, 1945, the church made him pastor emeritus for his distinctive and devoted service.

A short interim pastorate by Rev. A. R. Smith ensued, after which the ten-year pastorate of Dr. Erdmann Smith began. All phases of the church work continued to advance and by September, 1946, Rev. Herman Benner was established assistant minister and directory of Christian Education. He served until 1949, when Rev. Harvey Kester assumed this position until 1951. By 1950, the Aeolian-Skinner grand organ was installed in the sanctuary adding worshipful beauty to the church service. The music program proved to be an incentive to the development of the overall program of the church.