Pennepack Baptist Church … 325 Years and Counting

 

New state historical marker for Pennepack Baptist Church, unveiled June 1, 2013 | Photo: Jack McCarthy

New state historical marker for Pennepack Baptist Church, unveiled June 1, 2013 | Photo: Jack McCarthy

A small Northeast Philadelphia religious congregation celebrated a very big anniversary recently. Pennepack Baptist Church in Bustleton, the oldest Baptist church in Pennsylvania and seventh oldest in the United States—and mother church to many Baptist congregations in the mid-Atlantic region—marked its 325th anniversary with a two-day festival on June 1st and 2nd. A highlight of the festivities was the unveiling of a new Pennsylvania state marker honoring the church’s rich history.

Much of the history we celebrate in Philadelphia revolves around the pursuit of freedom—political freedom, freedom of expression, freedom from bondage and oppression. Long before the pursuit of these freedoms took center stage, however, Philadelphia was a haven for those seeking religious freedom. William Penn envisioned his Colony of Pennsylvania as a “Holy Experiment,” a place where people of all faiths could be free to worship in peace. In 1683 a group of five Welsh Baptists arrived in Philadelphia in search of that freedom and settled on Pennypack Creek near present day Bustleton. By 1688 their numbers had increased to twelve and, led by Reverend Elias Keach, they established their congregation, using Pennypack Creek for their baptismal services.

After meeting in members’ homes for some 19 years they constructed their first church building in 1707 on what is now Krewstown Road, on the edge of Pennypack Park. That same year Pennepack Baptist joined together with four other Baptist churches in the region to form the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the first Baptist association in the new world. The 1707 church building was enlarged in 1774 and then replaced by the present building in 1805. In 1885 the congregation built and occupied a new building about a mile away, but in 2006 they sold this building and moved back to the original 1805 church, where they remain today.

Pennepack Baptist Church, founded 1688. Current building constructed 1805. Photo by Jack McCarthy

Pennepack Baptist, also known at times as Lower Dublin Baptist Church, grew from the original twelve charter members in 1688 to a congregation of over 300 by the early nineteenth century. Among its notable pastors and parishioners were Samuel Jones, pastor for 51 years (1762-1814), who was an early graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and who went on to help found Brown University in Rhode Island; Ebenezer Kinnersley, who became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and worked with Benjamin Franklin on his experiments with electricity; and a number of Revolutionary War veterans who are buried in the church cemetery. The latter include Dr. Enoch Edwards, a leading patriot who was an attending physician to George Washington during the War and who helped draft Pennsylvania’s 1776 and 1790 constitutions, and several members of the Holme family, the prominent local family for whom the neighborhood of Holmesburg is named.

In recent years membership in Pennepack Baptist has declined and the congregation is now back to around a dozen active members, the same size as the original founding group. Pennepack Baptist does not presently have a pastor, but is led by a lay leader, Cheryl Carlson. She and the other members of the small but committed congregation work hard to preserve the religious tradition and physical history of the Church. In 2010 they established the Pennepack Baptist Historical Foundation, a separate non-profit whose mission is to preserve the Church and promote its history.

One of the activities at the 325th anniversary celebration was an excursion through the woods to “Baptismal Rock,” a large rock on Pennypack Creek about a quarter mile from the Church that, according to tradition, was the site of member baptisms from the earliest days of the Church. Standing on the rock along a peaceful stretch of the Pennypack that looks almost untouched from the time of those late seventeenth century baptisms, one hopes that Pennepack Baptist Church can survive and continue to be part of the religious and historical fabric of Philadelphia.

Baptist Rock, circa 1910.

Baptist Rock, circa 1910.

Baptist Rock, June 1913. Photo by Jack McCarthy

Baptist Rock, June 1913. Photo by Jack McCarthy

About the author

Jack McCarthy is a certified archivist and longtime Philadelphia area archival/historical consultant. He is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical institutions. He recently concluded work as consulting archivist and researcher for Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio, an audio documentary on the history of Philadelphia Black radio, and served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2012-2013 Leopold Stokowski centennial celebration. Jack has a master’s degree in music history from West Chester University and is particularly interested in the history of Philadelphia music. He is also involved in Northeast Philadelphia history. He is co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, founding director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame, and president of Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History.

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1 Comment


  1. I remember wandering around the old graveyard there some 25 or 30 years ago, just looking at the old headstones, when I came across something interesting just outside the church building. It was a carved Bible maybe 5” x 10” and 3” to 4” inches thick (don’t hold me to those dimensions). With a cover, spine, pages & the word “Bible” on front, it looked like an old weather-worn marble book. It seemed to be set maybe an inch or two in the ground near an even older looking grave marker, but at too odd an angle and distance to have been deliberately placed – kinda like it had just been dropped there. Stooping to take a closer look, I couldn’t help myself. One gentle tug and, lo and behold, it came right up! It wasn’t a fixed stone, but rather a loose one just sitting there on the surface as if waiting to taken in hand, opened and read. I wondered how may places it had sat in that graveyard, and how many others over the years had held it too. I even thought for a moment about setting it down someplace new to help it along on its journey and give it a different view. But then again, it seemed to belong where it was. So I carefully set it back in place where I’d found it, only turned around to face a new direction.

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