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Baptist beginnings in the Pacific Northwest.

Baptists were mired in numerous controversial issues during the 1840s. Baptist pioneers who settled in the Pacific Northwest during this time carried these contentions with them, flavoring a land of promise with viewpoints still recognizable today.

This paper summarizes the first fifty years of Baptist origins in the Northwest, beginning with the formation of the first Baptist church in 1844 to the rejection of one Baptist organization's request for affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1894.

The Pioneers

The great migration of 1843 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, five Missouri settlers formed the first Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains in David Lenox's log cabin, situated fourteen miles west of present-day Portland. The settlers called the church West Union, because in the "Wilds of the West" they came "into Union."

When Vincent Snelling arrived nine months later, he became the first Baptist minister in the Northwest. Snelling left after a year and established two new churches to the south. (1) Meanwhile, Ezra Fisher and Hezekiah Johnson, with American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) support, arrived at Lenox's house in late 1845. Fisher assumed the pastorate of West Union for awhile but soon moved to Clatsop Plains. He eventually established a church there in 1848. Johnson ended up in Oregon City. "Camp fever" prevented Johnson from the hardy work others were doing, yet he still managed to form the Oregon City Baptist Church on July 4, 1847. The church built a twenty-by-thirty-foot structure in 1848, which became the first Baptist meetinghouse west of the Rockies. (2) In 1848, these five fledgling churches formed the Willamette Baptist Association. The association split in 1856 into the Willamette and Corvallis Associations with disagreements about slavery being a contributing factor. (3)

Baptist work progressed much more slowly in Washington Territory. An 1860 census put Washington's population at 11,138 compared to Oregon's 52, 645. (4) Not until October 25, 1859, was a church organized at Mound Prairie, Washington, fifteen miles southeast of Olympia. Thomas Harper founded the church and became its first pastor. The second and oldest existing Baptist church in Washington was the Brush Prairie Baptist Church, nine miles northeast of Vancouver, founded in 1863. The first Washington association, the Puget Sound Association, formed in 1871 with four churches. (5)

For these pioneer Baptists, the devil and the frontier proved to be their chief enemies. Yet the cultural, political, and religious battles being fought back East ultimately plagued Northwesterners as well. Because of these battles, two new Baptist groups formed in the Northwest: the Missionary Baptists and the Primitive Baptists. The former comprised the majority in the Northwest. They were moderate Calvinists who were open to organized mission activity. The latter group produced conflict.

In the 1820s, the introduction of "new measures" promoted by Baptists prompted some to rebel against mission and Bible societies, Sunday schools, ministerial education, and revivalism. The division between "primitive" and "missionary" Baptists was complete by 1840, and both entered the Northwest as distinct groups. They ministered side by side and were numerically equal through the 1850s. But Primitive Baptists' ever-hardening Calvinist stance, fear of innovation, and fear of the future created a remnant mentality. They even called themselves God's "little flock." (6)

The first Primitive Baptist church was established on February 27, 1847, east of Salem. North Carolinian William Simpson constituted the church with nine others. By 1853, three Primitive Baptist churches formed the Siloam Association. The association reached its peak of membership and influence in 1881 with seventeen churches that included a few "arms" in Washington Territory. By now, however, Missionary Baptists outnumbered them twenty times over since most of the faithful Primitive Baptists had grown old and died. Albert Wardin concluded that "the 'little flock' was to continue to grow smaller. They had reached the peak of their strength and the world was leaving them farther and farther behind." (7)

Ethnic Inroads

American migration was not the only source for Baptists in the Northwest. Chinese-born immigrants began arriving in the Northwest during the 1850s, and a Chinatown soon developed in Portland, drawing an interest for Baptist missions. Yet, not until Baptists obtained the services of Dong Gong from San Francisco was a Chinese Baptist mission established in the Northwest. Dong agreed to be the pastor, and on October 15, 1874, the first Chinese church in the Northwest was founded. Interest in Chinese work was not limited to Portland. Baptists in Oregon City, Albany, Astoria, The Dalles, and Salem also initiated work among the Chinese. In fact, Baptists conducted the most extensive work of any denomination among the Chinese in Oregon during the 1870s. In addition, Dong's visits to the Puget Sound area in the Washington Territory resulted in Chinese mission work being done there. (8)

The first Swedish Baptist work in the Northwest was a short-lived mission attempted by Charles Sandstone in 1875. (9) The real impetus, however, came with the arrival of Olaus Okerson. Okerson landed in Portland in 1881, having received his appointment from the ABHMS. He found the Portland area to be a challenging place in which to establish Baptist work due to difficult travel conditions, the small Swedish population, clashes with Swedish Lutherans, (10) and the overall indifference of the general population to religious matters. Therefore, Okerson broadened his ministry area and toured throughout Oregon and Washington, logging 1,500 miles and laying vital groundwork for Swedish Baptist ministry. Without local assistance, he established houses of worship in Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. Though "Scandinavian" was in the title of these churches, they were predominately Swedish, and the Portland church changed its name to Swedish Baptist Church in 1894. (11)

The first German Baptist work in the Northwest can be traced to immigrants who settled north of Beaverton, Oregon, in 1876. Local Baptists heard about these German Baptists and influenced the group to form a church. The church began with twenty-five members and ordained John Graf as its first pastor. Unfortunately, Graf changed from a closed to an open communion stance, which was an non-Baptist-like doctrine at the time. The turmoil over CraPs beliefs produced a split. Frederick W. Schaelike, who arrived in the area in 1879, led the closed communion group to form a "regular" Baptist church and to adopt J. M. Pendleton's Baptist Church Manual as their guide. (12)


The last two groups that comprised the first generation of Baptists in the Northwest were the Seventh Day Baptists and the Southern Baptists. Save for Sabbatarian convictions, Seventh Day Baptists (SDB) differed little from the pioneer or even the present-day Baptists. In an 1852 issue of The Sabbath Recorder, SDB leaders proposed a plan to colonize Oregon, and four wagons carrying members of this group arrived in Salem soon afterward. More settlers followed but no evidence exists that they established church during this first migration. (13) Wardin suggested that the smallness of the SDB group might be traced to unfair connections made between this group and the Seventh Day Adventists who penetrated the Northwest in the 1870s. (14) A second SDB migration was successful in organizing a church in 1894 at Talent, Oregon, near the California border. Nonetheless, this group never experienced strong numbers. (15)

Like all Northwest Baptists, Southern Baptists in the Northwest trace their Pacific lineage to 1844, a full year before the SBC was created. A large percentage of Southern Baptists came to the Northwest from the South and considered themselves a part of the SBC even though no official affiliation existed. Many of these early Southern Baptists adhered to Landmark theology. While complete agreement on all issues did not exist, they did agree on the tenets of the kingdom of God as the aggregate of local Baptist churches, closed communion, no alien immersion, no ecumenism, and Baptist successionism, and thus, the majority of Landmarkers were painted with the same brush. (16)

The conduits that spread Landmarkism in the South could be found in its Northwest penetration as well. The writings of J. R. Graves, J. M. Pendleton, and A. C. Dayton found sympathetic readership, especially with Cleveland Riley, a revivalist who settled in Oregon in 1853. Riley's preaching and distribution of Landmark materials helped plant Landmarkism in the region for generations to come. (17) The premier Baptist historian of the era, Charles Mattoon, was a Landmarker, "a cognomen he rather relished and acknowledged." (18) Mattoon's statistics demonstrated that Landmarkism was widespread among Oregon Baptists by the 1870s. (19)

The 1880s were a decade during which several organizations formed, dissolved, re-affiliated, and renamed. One such organization, the Baptist Convention of Eastern Oregon, was a Landmark body that applied for SBC affiliation in 1894 but was refused. The major reason for refusal seemed to do with disagreements between Northern and Southern Baptists over territorial boundaries. A few months later, the two Baptist groups held the Fortress Monroe Conference, one of several meetings held to settle conflicts concerning which convention should expand their work into the newly opened territories.

Despite initial rejection by the SBC, many of these churches considered themselves Southern Baptist and continued to channel funds through SBC agencies. Yet, the slow acceptance of Northwest Southern Baptists by the SBC is still reflected by their low numbers today when compared to other geographical regions. (20)

The pioneer spirit spurred Baptists westward in the nineteenth century, and they carried their cultural and theological baggage with them along the Oregon Trail. Their call to a new land of promise resulted in an invigorating mosaic of Baptist witness during the first generation.

(1.) Clifford Miller, Baptists and the Oregon Frontier (Portland: Oregon Baptist Convention, 1967), 16-26. See Charles Mattoon, Baptist Annals of Oregon: 1844-1900, vol. 1 (McMinnville, OR: Telephone Register Co., 1905), 3-7.

(2.) Miller, Baptists and the Oregon Frontier, 30-35. This church exists today as First Baptist Church, Oregon City (ABC-USA). West Union's building was not constructed until 1853, and its structure survives today.

(3.) Ibid., 34, 51-58.

(4.) Cecil Sims, Roy Johnson, and Max Daley, Northwest Southern Baptists, 1884-1998 (Vancouver, WA: Northwest Baptist Historical Society, 1998), 18.

(5.) Ibid., 41. See also J. C. Baker, Baptist History of the North Pacific Coast (Philadelphia: ABPS, 1912), 139-254. The Brush Prairie Church affiliates with Conservative Baptist Association today.

(6.) Albert W Wardin, Jr. Baptists in Oregon (Nashville: Curley Printing, 1969), 129.

(7.) Ibid., 131-41. Today there are four small congregations in Oregon and one in Washington.

(8.) Ibid., 142-49.

(9.) Mattoon related, "Brother Landstone [sic] has charge of the Scandinavian mission and his labors have been blessed. Six have confessed their faith in Jesus by baptism." But nothing more came of it. See Mattoon, Baptist Annals of Oregon, 315.

(10.) Lutheranism was the state church in Sweden, and Baptists were considered heretics, a label that followed them to America. See Virgil Olson, "Neither Jew Nor Greek: A Study of an Ethnic Baptist Group, the Swedish Baptists, 1850-1950," Baptist History and Heritage 25, no. 1 (January 1990): 32-42.

(11.) Wardin, Baptists in Oregon, 149-54. See Baker, Baptist History of the North Pacific Coast, 181-91. Present-day Temple Baptist Church in Portland is traced to Okerson. (12.) Wardin, Baptists in Oregon, 154-58.

(13.) Albert Rogers, "The Long, Long Oregon Trail," The Sabbath Recorder 196, no. 3 (March 1974): 12.

(14.) Wardin, Baptists in Oregon, 121.

(15.) Rogers, "The Long, Long Oregon Trail," 12, 29. Today, two churches in Oregon and six in Washington survive. See Don A. Sanford, A Choosing People: The History of Seventh Day Baptists (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992).

(16.) H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 447-53.

(17.) Wardin, Baptists in Oregon, 112.

(18.) Baker, Baptist History of the North Pacific Coast, 445.

(19.) Wardin, Baptists in Oregon, 219.

(20.) The Northwest Baptist Convention has 426 churches.

Michael Kuykendall is associate professor of New Testament studies and teacher in Baptist history at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Pacific Northwest Campus, Vancouver, Washington.
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Author:Kuykendall, Michael
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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