First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden - Ontario Heritage Trust

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First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden

On November 20, 2011, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the First Regular Baptist Church unveiled a provincial plaque at the First Regular Baptist Church in Dresden, Ontario, to commemorate the First Regular Baptist Church.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:

FIRST REGULAR BAPTIST CHURCH, DRESDEN

The First Baptist Church of Dawn – established by former slaves and free African Americans in the 1840s – held its meetings in private homes, then in a log chapel at the British American Institute. In the 1850s, a Baptist congregation met on Main Street in Dresden, until a lot was purchased from parishioner George Johnson on the present site. A church was built by the congregation and the inaugural service of the First Regular Baptist Church was held on November 15, 1857. Reverends William P. Newman and Samuel H. Davis, the church’s “founding fathers,” were prominent abolitionists and former British American Institute headmasters. Newman raised much of the funding, and Davis oversaw the construction of the church, donating 100 cords of wood to pay for the sawing of the lumber, which forms the original structure of the chapel to this day. For generations, the church has been an integral part of community life in Dresden. Today, it stands as a testament to the faith, fortitude and determination of these early pioneers.

FIRST REGULAR BAPTIST CHURCH, DRESDEN

La First Baptist Church de Dawn – créée par d’anciens esclaves et des Afro-Américains libres dans les années 1840 – organise ses réunions dans des résidences privées, puis dans une chapelle en rondins au British American Institute. Dans les années 1850, une congrégation baptiste se réunit dans la rue Main, à Dresden, jusqu’à l’achat d’un lot sur le site actuel, appartenant au paroissien George Johnson. La congrégation construit une église et l’office d’inauguration de la First Regular Baptist Church a lieu le 15 novembre 1857. Les révérends William P. Newman et Samuel H. Davis, les « pères fondateurs » de l’église, sont des abolitionnistes connus et d’anciens directeurs du British American Institute. La majeure partie des fonds levés est due aux efforts de William Newman. Quant à Samuel Davis, il supervise la construction de l’église, faisant don de 100 cordes de bois pour payer le sciage du bois. Ce bois constitue encore de nos jours la structure originale de la chapelle. Depuis des générations, l’église fait partie intégrante de la vie communautaire de Dresden. Elle symbolise toujours la foi, le courage et la détermination de ces premiers pionniers.

Historical background

On his tour of Canada West in 1859 – outlined in his book, The Under-Ground Railroad – Baptist missionary Reverend William Mitchell wrote of Dresden that it was quite prosperous, with well-cultivated farms. He went on to report that his brother missionary, referring most likely to Reverend William P. Newman, had just finished erecting a small chapel, which had taken four years to complete. Since there was no school in the community, he supposed that the church would double as a schoolhouse.1 Mitchell was no doubt making reference to the First Baptist Church of Dresden. This church, also known as the Queen Street Baptist Church, has a long and storied history, and can rightly claim the mantle of being the first Baptist church established in Dresden. Because of its history as the first Baptist church founded in Dresden, and since it was established and built by former slaves and free Blacks who came to the area, it is a church of great historical significance.

Hilda Dungy wrote – in her family narrative entitled Planted by the Waters,2 based on family documents and interviews – that her grandparents, the Solomon Browns, attended the “First Baptist Church in Dresden” from as early as 1848, held at first from house to house and later in a little cabin near the “Institution [British American Institute].” The forests were so thick at that time that it was necessary for the men to blaze a trail with their axes, cutting bark from tree to tree to enable worshippers to find their way to and from the church without getting lost in the woods. This comes from the personal papers of Effie Davis (Kersey) Wells, who, Hilda Dungy tells us, kept well-written records of her church and family history.3 According to Dungy’s grandfather, Elbert Jones, there was a meeting place of the “First Baptist Church in Dresden” in a house on Main Street near the river. When the present site of the First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden, on Queen Street was purchased, the community came together to cut down trees on their farms and haul them to the sawmill at the Institute to be sawed into timber for the new building. Reverend Samuel H. Davis, a mason by trade, likely oversaw the construction, donating 100 cords of wood from his farm to pay for the sawing of the lumber.4

Hilda Dungy’s information dovetails with other known facts about Baptists at the British American Institute (BAI). In the fall of 1850, the BAI came under the control of the American Baptist Free Mission Society, and Reverend Samuel H. Davis was recruited to teach and manage the school.5 Born free in Temple, Maine, in 1810, Davis studied for the ministry and as a teacher at Oberlin College in Ohio, taught in schools for Black children in Buffalo and became active in the anti-slavery and Black convention movements. He was more than qualified to take on this role. It can be assumed, at this point, that Davis conducted Baptist services at Dawn. In addition to this, the minutes of the Amherstburg Baptist Association (ABA), the umbrella organization of Black Baptists in Canada West and some churches in Michigan, reveal that on August 17, 1850, a letter from the “First Baptist Church of Dawn” was read at the annual meeting for the first time. The exact contents were not spelled out, but Baptist minister and Oberlin graduate, Elder William P. Newman, former headmaster and member of the executive committee at Dawn from 1845 to 1846, was present as a visiting minister for the first time at an ABA meeting – as was George Johnson, a farmer who was on the executive committee of the BAI and a delegate from this new church.6 It is clear that a Baptist congregation at Dawn had formed by 1850.

The Baptist Church at Dawn did not join the ABA at this time. In 1849, the ABA had joined the American Baptist Free Mission Society (ABFMS) – an American anti-slavery Baptist society that had founded two interracial colleges in the United States.7 However, subsequent “suspect” practices of the ABFMS caused a split within the ABA. Some churches remained in the ABA, which severed ties to the ABFMS, and others kept their affiliation with the ABFMS and formed a new organization called the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association. The Dawn Baptist Church was a member of this latter body. The Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association churches included: Dawn, Chatham, Buxton, Colchester, London, Mount Pleasant and Detroit. Churches that remained under the ABA were congregations at Amherstburg, Sandwich, Colchester, Chatham, Hamilton, as well as Marshall and Battle Creek, both in Michigan.8

At the third anniversary meeting of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association held September 2-3, 1853, in Mount Pleasant, Canada West, the minutes indicate that a letter forwarded by George Johnson of the Dawn Church disclosed the existence of 21 members of this church. Neither Reverend Newman nor Johnson were present at the meeting.9 It is clear, however, that this congregation was no longer connected to the BAI. In late 1852, in a now controversial move, John Scoble of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society moved to Dawn and assumed the management of the Institute and its lands. He removed the ABFMS from any further involvement, even though by all accounts, the ABFMS had brought the Institute back on its feet after several years of inconsistent management and funding.10 While this was a well-intentioned act on the part of the British and Foreign AntiSlavery Society at the time, it turned out to be the death knell of the Institute. This may be the period when the church moved from a cabin at the Institute to a house on Main Street in the village.11

Additional gaps in church history can be filled in by perusing the Provincial Freeman newspaper. On August 22, 1855, the Provincial Freeman printed a notice, sent by Corresponding Secretary W.P. Newman, of a meeting of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association to be held at the First Baptist Church of Dawn in September. At that fifth anniversary meeting, Davis was appointed clerk and Newman was appointed corresponding secretary of the proceedings. The two were also to be delegates to the next ABFMS meeting.12 On November 24, 1855, another communiqué from Newman was published in the Provincial Freeman appealing to the public for funds to help build a “house of worship in the village of Dresden C.W.” The article went on to state that: 

. . . no people are more deserving of help, in such a case, than the Baptists of Dawn. They are few, and poor. They have bought a lot for the house. . . Few Churches have been more exemplary than this Church. We look forward with pleasure to its future usefulness. It must have a house of worship! Reader, what can and will YOU do to help us? I am requested to say, by the Church, to the Sisters of sewing circles, that boxes of goods, such as they make up, can be converted into the building, and will be acceptable. The house is to be a neat and plain one, and will cost about Two Hundred Pounds. Anything for the above object, may be directed to Elder Wm P. Newman Dresden, Canada West.

Interestingly, the very next year at the 1856 annual meeting of the ABA, the minutes reflect the fact that the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association requested to be united with the ABA. “Brother W.P. Newman,” who was visiting from the latter body, penned the letter requesting unification, which he brought to the meeting. He was accompanied by Elder S. White and Brother James Handsbrow of Chatham. Apparently, the rift with the ABFMS was also mended by this time. Newman took every opportunity to fundraise for his church. A resolution was passed at this same meeting to take up a collection to assist the “Regular Baptist Church in Dawn,” and $6.50 was collected.13

The following year, with the two Baptist associations united, the First Baptist Church of Dawn reported a membership of 44, and that they were blessed by the work of their pastor Elder William P. Newman, who doubled as church clerk. Their letter also stated that the Lord had blessed them in erecting a house of worship and they asked for “the co-operation and prayers of the churches of this Association for their prosperity in helping pay for the same.”14 Newman had raised enough funds to begin the building, but needed more money to complete the structure and/or furnish its interior.

The deed to the property on which the church was built shows, however, that it was not formally purchased until May 1858. At that time, Deacon George Johnson sold one-fifth of an acre [809 square metres] of land for $80 on Building Lot Number Three on Queen Street in the Village of Dresden, laid out on part of Lot 4 Concession 5 in the Gore of Camden.

In 1858, the Amherstburg Anti-slavery Regular Baptist Association, as it was temporarily renamed, held its annual meeting in Chatham. Quite a few members of the Dresden church took advantage of the proximity of the proceedings to attend the meeting. The church reported that there were now 90 members, 32 having been baptized by immersion that year. Davis was appointed travelling missionary for that year by the Association.15

At the 1859 annual ABA meeting, delegates and leaders of the event met, appropriately, at the newly erected Baptist chapel in Dresden. This would have been a special occasion for the new church and its congregation. Elder D.W. Anderson of the London Baptist Church was elected moderator, Samuel H. Davis, clerk, and Elder Newman was on the fivemember Prudential committee, which adjudicated on the important business of the Association. On Sunday morning, a dedication ceremony for the church was held and Reverend Newman gave a brief history. He then surprised everyone by tendering his resignation from the church and the Association in order to assume a new office in a foreign field. Newman would be leaving for Haiti as a missionary of the ABFMS to investigate the feasibility of Black emigration to this Caribbean country.16 As ministers and delegates bade farewell to Reverend Newman, perhaps for the last time, the scene was described as “solemn and affecting.”17

By 1859, Elder Samuel H. Davis was lead pastor at the Dresden church. At the annual meeting of the ABA in September 1860, Davis had the honour of being voted moderator of the proceedings, which were well attended that year. The Dresden congregation appeared to be in a flourishing state under Davis’s leadership, with a good Sabbath school and Bible class underway. The membership roll had increased to 93.

With Reverend Samuel H. Davis now at the helm, the First Regular Baptist Church of Dresden was placed on a firm footing for the future. The membership of the church rose from 21 to 116 by 1864, its highest number in the 19th century.18 This figure was later eclipsed in the 20th century when Dorothy Shadd Shreve reported a membership of 150 in 1979.19

Samuel H. Davis served the Dresden church for many years afterwards, from 1858 to 1872 and again in 1876, 1878, 1880 and 1881.20 He also served at churches in Chatham, Sandwich and Buxton. Davis was repeatedly recognized in the ABA minutes as one of the ablest ministers in the Association during his long tenure with that organization. Both he and William P. Newman lent their personal charisma, vision, leadership skills and considerable contacts within the abolitionist community to the creation of an enduring institution that has flourished over these many years.

With such a firm foundation laid by Newman and Davis, many able ministers followed in their footsteps. Elder Samuel H. Lynn, originally a Presbyterian minister from Brownsville, Pennsylvania,21 was an early member of the First Baptist Church in Dresden and a delegate for many years at the annual ABA meetings. In 1869, after being ordained in the previous decade, he was appointed missionary to the churches in the eastern district of the Association. He was pastor at Dresden in 1875, and assistant to Elder Davis there in 1880. His wife, Jane Bailey Lynn, organized the first auxiliary of the Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society of the ABA at the Dresden church in 1882 and was its first president there. This first women’s arm of the ABA was organized to support the work of the missionaries of the ABA, particularly to raise funds to enable the missionaries to travel and do their work. Reverend Lynn later withdrew from the Dresden church and organized the Union Baptist Church in Chatham Township on Concession 11.22

Another minister who laboured for many years at the Dresden church was Reverend J.H. Penick. Born in Logen County, Kentucky, in 1865, Penick was called to the ministry on August 24, 1890, and, as an evangelist, made his way to Canada, where he eventually purchased a small farm near Dresden. He served the First Baptist Church at Dresden from 1897 to 1905, and then again from 1922 to 1932. At various times, as well as during his stints at Dresden, he was also the pastor at churches in Puce, London, Chatham, Sandwich, Amherstburg, Buxton and Shrewsbury. His influence in southwestern Ontario must have been considerable given his long tenures at these different churches in the region. His wife also became involved in the Women’s Home and Foreign Mission Society and became its president in 1931.23

Elder Josiah G. Brown was another steadfast worker in the Dresden church. He was born in the Wilberforce colony of freed Blacks at Lucan, Ontario, in 1837, and moved with his family to Concession 11, Chatham Township. He served as church clerk from 1863 to 1872 and from 1886 to 1906 – a total of 29 years. His name also appeared frequently in the minutes of the ABA, where he was a delegate for many years and served as Association clerk from 1895 to 1909. Hilda Dungy remembered her great-uncle as a man of dignity who counselled those in trouble, was Sunday school superintendent and would deliver the sermon when the minister was absent.24

Women have always played an important role in the church, organizing church bazaars and other fundraisers, attending meetings, bible classes and ABA annual conventions, teaching Sunday school, doing much of the work of hosting the ABA conventions when it was their turn, and a myriad of other vital activities. In addition to the Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society, women were key participants in the Amherstburg Baptist Young People Union (ABYPU). Effie Davis Wells was elected first president of the Dresden ABYPU, organized in 1896.25 The Gleaner’s Society, established in 1926 and first led by Sybilla McCorkle as president, has continued to lend significant support to the church community’s needs.26 After a long history in supportive roles, women are now taking the lead. The church’s current pastor is Reverend Katherine Hawley, and the church clerk and historian is Sandra Browning.

Over the years, the church has been steered by many strong and experienced captains who have helped to guide the ship and keep it on course. Reverend Davis’s leadership in helping to found the church was not his only considerable contribution. His grandson, Reverend H.L. Talbot, was the pastor from 1938 to 1943 and his great-grandson, Reverend E.A. Talbot, from 1945 to 1968. Other memorable pastors have been Reverend J.C. Browning from 1934 to 1937, and more recently, Reverend Donald G. Wright, from 1970 to 2008.27 Reverend Wright was distinguished as Pastor Emeritus from 2007 to 2008 until his death in that year. In his autobiography, The Reluctant Christian, Douglas Wright gives ample testimony to his father’s strong moral character and his outstanding service to the church for 38 years.28 All of these able ministers have kept the church going and involved in the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association (renamed from the Amherstburg Baptist Association), the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, the wo of foreign missionaries, as well as such important organizations as the Foster Parent of Canada and the local food basket. While the membership has fluctuated over the years active members number about 30 today, not much different from the 35 reported by the church in Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth: A Century with the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association, published in 1940.29

Church building and historical significance of First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden

By all accounts, this was the first Baptist church erected in the town of Dresden and has the oldest surviving congregation in that community.30 The church building itself is historically significant for the reason that it is the original structure that was built by the congregation in the 1850s, albeit with a number of more recent renovations. It was built of vertical board and batten construction, meaning that boards were placed vertically in the construction edge to edge (not tongue and grooved) and that boards two inches (five centimetres) wide and one inch (2.5 centimetres) thick were put on top between them to cover up any spaces.31 The exterior walls have now been covered in aluminum siding, although the original foundation and structure made of tree trunks is still holding up the building. In addition, one of the original windows from the church has been kept as an artifact, with the date of the church painted on it.32 In 1947, a parsonage was built, and in the 1950s, a hall was added onto the back of the church. In 1979, Sunday school rooms were added onto the hall, and the front entrance was renovated in 1985 so that the entry covers the entire front of the church, where two washrooms, a nursery and a pastor’s office were added. The entry is now on the side of the church, and became wheelchair accessible after the property adjacent to the church was purchased for this purpose in 1989. During this purchase, it was revealed that the legal name of the church was the First Regular Baptist

Church. The church has used that name ever since. In September 1999, the mortgage on the property next door was discharged, and improvements to the parsonage and the adjacent property were made the following year.33

Of greater significance, however, is the fact that this church was built by former slaves and free Blacks who forged a congregation and a community in freedom during a period of tremendous upheaval and tremendous promise. Some of the important events of the anti-slavery movement played themselves out right at the BAI, where the two “founding fathers” of First Baptist Church of Dresden, Reverends William P. Newman and Samuel H. Davis, essentially got their start in Canada. Both were drawn to the promise of Dawn, and both built a life of service and activism quite independent of it as well. These two ministers were key figures in the anti-slavery community (both in Canada and the United States) and played prominent roles in the Black Baptist movement as Underground Railroad agents – certainly while at Second Baptist in Detroit, but also quite possibly in Buffalo and Cincinnati as well as other locations. They were key players in the Amherstburg Baptist Association and the Canadian Anti-slavery Baptist Association, and important community leaders in Dresden. Newman had even held the position of editor of the people’s newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, for a period. Reverend Newman died in 1866 and is buried at the Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati where he returned after the Civil War. Davis died at the age of 97 in 1907. His tombstone rests at the British American Institute cemetery at the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History (formerly Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site).34 The fact that they and their congregation put First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden, on a firm footing and carved a path for others to follow for the next 154 years is indeed remarkable.


The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Adrienne Shadd, in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2011, 2012


1 Reverend W.M. Mitchell, The Under-Ground Railroad, Reprint 1860, Westport, CN: Negro Universities Press, 1970, 150.

2 From the personal records of Effie Davis (Kersey) Wells in Hilda Dungy, Planted by the Waters, Revised Edition, Wallaceburg, ON: Standard Press, 1977.

3 Ibid., 12.

4 Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth. A Century with the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association, Merlin, ON: 1940, 82; William J. Richardson, “The life and times of Samuel H. Davis: an antislavery activist,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 1, 2009 at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/_/print/PrintArticle.aspx?id=192404032 (accessed July 15, 2011), 11. According to Bill Richardson, the Baptist congregation on Main Street may have been a different one from the one that built the church on Queen Street.

5 J.E. Ambrose to Editor of the Western Citizen, February 8, 1851, reprinted in the Voice of the Fugitive, March 12, 1851. C. Peter Ripley, ed., Black Abolitionist Paper, Volume II: Canada, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill, NC and London, UK: The University of North Carolina Press (hereafter BAP), 494n.

6 Amherstburg Baptist Association Minutes, Book 1 (hereafter ABA Minutes), August 16-19, 1850, 93, 97, Canadian Baptist Archives, McMaster Divinity College, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

7 BAP, 319n. The two colleges were New York Central College and Eleutherian College in Indiana.

8 The Constitution, By-Laws, Minutes, Circular Letter, Articles of Faith, and The Covenant of the Canada Anti-Slavery Baptist Association, Windsor: Printed at the Voice of the Fugitive Office, 1854, (hereafter CASBA). This document clearly indicates that this body had full confidence in the American Baptist Free Mission Society. BAP, 21, 365n, 494n. This document also appears to be the only surviving document of the CASBA.

9 CASBA, 6-7.

10 J.E. Ambrose to editor reprinted in the Voice of the Fugitive, March 12, 1851; J.C. Brown to editor of the Provincial Freeman, April 12, 1855, published in the Freeman, May 12, 1855; J.C. Brown to Isaac D. Shadd, December 29, 1856, published in the Provincial Freeman, January 10, 1857. According to J.C. Brown, a trustee of the British American Institute and the only one who refused to turn over his trusteeship to Scoble as the others had done, the days of the Free Mission Society were the “sunny days of Dawn.”

11 According to the Canadian Baptist Registry at the Canadian Baptist Archives, McMaster Divinity College, for several years there were two congregations listed as existing at the same time: the Dawn Church and the Dresden Church. It is listed with 31 members from 1857 to 1861 but no pastor after 1858, and it starts up again in 1864 with 16 members under J. Linch and is listed until 1874, after which it disappeared from the registry. I would like to kindly thank Bill Richardson for this information.

12 “Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association,” Provincial Freeman, December 1, 1855.

13 ABA Minutes, Book 1, 182-83, 184, 185.

14 ABA Minutes, Book 1, 195. Dorothy Shadd Shreve’s Table 1 on pages 62-63 states that Dresden’s church had 90 members upon entry into the Amherstburg Baptist Association in 1857. My reading of the ABA minutes shows that in that year there were 44 members.

15 ABA Minutes, Book 1, 211. Davis’ appointment as travelling missionary is found on pages 205, 210 of the minutes. However, he is listed along with Newman as a pastor at the Dresden church in the Canadian Baptist registry for 1858. I would like to thank Bill Richardson for this information.

16 BAP, 302-3n.

17 ABA Minutes, Book 1, 216.

18 CASBA, 7; ABA Minutes, Book 1, 255.

19 Dorothy Shadd Shreve, The AfriCanadian Church: A Stabilizer, Jordan Station, ON: Paideia Press, 1983, 62-63.

20 Bill Richardson, First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden Background,” in the application to the Ontario Heritage Trust, September 10, 2009.

21 Dungy, 37. Dungy apparently received this background information on Lynn from Reverend Jennie Johnson.

22 Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth, 56. This was over the issue of closed communion, or the doctrine that only church members who had been baptized by immersion could take part in the Lord’s Supper. Lynn opposed this doctrine and established his own Baptist revival church over the matter.

23 Ibid., 53-54, 64.

24 Ibid., 62; Dungy, Planted by the Waters, 17.

25 Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth, 83.

26 First Regular Baptist Church of Dresden “Church History: 1857-2001,” in their application to the Ontario Heritage Trust, September 10, 2009.

27 First Regular Baptist Church of Dresden list of pastors, 1857-2009, from their application to the Ontario Heritage Trust, September 10, 2009.

28 Douglas S. Wright, The Reluctant Christian, Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, a Strang Company, 2007.

29 Interview with Sandra Browning, September 14, 2011; Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth, 83.

30 An examination of several histories of Dresden does not mention a church still in existence that predates this church. See Alda Hyatt, The Story of Dresden, 15, 20-22; Robert Brandon, The History of Dresden, Updated from 1954 to 1981, Dresden, ON: Dresden Centennial Committee, 1982; Marie and Jeffrey Carter, Stepping Back in Time: Along the Trillium Trail in Dresden, Dresden, ON: Catherine McVean Chapter IODE, 2003.

31 Don Spearman, Landmarks from the Past: a pictorial history of Dresden, (Dresden, ON: Stephen Lane Enterprises, 1991, 78; Bill Richard, “First Regular Church, Dresden Background, V4,” 1.

32 Interview with Sandra Browning, September 14, 2011.

33 Ibid; First Regular Baptist Church of Dresden “Church History: 1857-2001.”

34 See William P. Newman’s biography in BAP, 302-3n; see Samuel H. Davis’ biography in BAP, 494n. A more indepth biography of Davis can be found in William J. Richardson, “The life and times of Samuel H. Davis: an antislavery activist,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 1, 2009, at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/_/print/PrintArticle.aspx?id=192404032 (accessed July 15, 2011).