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BAPTISTS

BAPTISTS. The Baptists of Cleveland come from 2 distinct historical traditions, both ultimately derived from English Baptists and, before them, from the Anabaptist groups of the Continent. Cleveland's white Baptists developed fairly directly from the English tradition, as believers brought the religion from England to New England, and then to western settlements such as Cleveland. What had been a dissenting faction in England and New England developed into a religion of the well-established white middle and upper classes in Cleveland. A more circuitous path brought African American Baptists and their religion to Cleveland (see AFRICAN AMERICANS). The Baptist faith was brought from the South, spread there by white and black missionaries and shaped by slaves, and later, former slaves, to meet the needs of an oppressed minority. As the dominant religion among black Clevelanders, the Baptist faith appealed to believers of all economic levels. Black Baptists maintained a religion more outwardly expressive and pietistic than white Baptists, but shared the characteristic insistence on an affirmation of the regenerating experience of Jesus Christ.

Baptists were a minor presence in Cleveland's early years. The original church of the denomination locally was FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH (1833), the 4th-oldest of the town's churches. It was followed by Erie St. Baptist (1853, also known as Second Baptist Church) and First Baptist Church, Ohio City (1853, also known as Third Baptist Church), all formed by settlers from New England. Black members coexisted uneasily in white Baptist churches in these years. JOHN MALVIN and his wife, Harriet, among the founders of the First and Second Baptist churches, successfully resisted efforts to segregate African Americans into a separate gallery. A mission sponsored by First Baptist led in 1849 to the founding of the first African American Baptist church, SHILOH BAPTIST CHURCH. In the 1850s, Baptists in Cleveland were outnumbered by the churches of the Roman Catholics (8), CONGREGATIONALISTS (4), EPISCOPALIANS (6), METHODISTS (7), and PRESBYTERIANS (6). Local Baptist church founding surged after the Civil War, when white Baptists from New England, the mid-Atlantic region, and the Appalachians and black migrants from the South gave the denomination the largest number of churches in the city. In 1929 there were 23 black and 87 white Baptist churches. The next-closest denomination was the Catholic, with 84 churches, while the LUTHERANS had 65. The early churches mounted extensive mission campaigns. More than a dozen churches could trace their origins to First Baptist alone, including Willson Ave. Baptist (1868, later CHURCH OF THE MASTER in CLEVELAND HTS.) and Superior Ave. Baptist (1870). Home and foreign missions occupied much of the attention of Cleveland's Baptists in these years. First Baptist and EUCLID AVE. BAPTIST CHURCH sponsored city missions for GERMANS, ITALIANS, and SLOVAKS. Euclid Ave. Baptist supported 4 missionaries in the southern U.S. Most churches also funded foreign missions. Euclid Ave. Baptist was the most prominent of the Baptist churches after the Civil War, counting among its members leading industrialists and citizens of the city, including JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER.

White Baptist churches began moving to the SUBURBS in the early years of the 20th century, beginning a process that would leave only a handful within the city by the 1970s. First Baptist's pilgrimage was typical: it moved from W. 3rd (1836) to E. 9th (1855), then to E. 46th (1886), and finally to Cleveland Hts. (1927). The city's black churches grew after the Civil War, particularly during the great migration in the early years of the 20th century. Shiloh Baptist Church was the largest of these, until, as a result of a schism in 1893, about half the members left to form ANTIOCH BAPTIST CHURCH. By the first decades of the 20th century, Antioch was the largest and most influential black church, with 1,200 members in 1923. It maintained recreational facilities, numerous clubs, and extensive charitable activities which claimed to have reached 2,000 homes in 1925. Some of the financial support for African American churches came from white Baptists. John D. Rockefeller matched building-fund contributions for Shiloh and Antioch Baptist dollar for dollar. During the 1910s and 1920s, the larger black Baptist churches, including Shiloh, Triedstone, Friendship, and Liberty Hill, purchased the buildings of white churches and synagogues that moved to the suburbs; Triedstone Baptist Church, for example, occupied the building of the Jewish OHEB ZEDEK CONGREGATION. Many smaller, often storefront, Baptist churches were created, which often reproduced the fervent piety of Southern small-town Baptist churches. They generally attracted lower-income members of the black community, while the larger churches attracted the middle and upper classes.

The early 20th-century growth of white Baptist churches, while not as spectacular as that of the black churches, further solidified the denomination's status as having the greatest number of churches in the Cleveland area. In 1986 there were 337 churches listed under Baptist in the telephone book. Catholics trailed with 157, and among the other Protestant groups, Lutherans were next with 98. Approximately one-third to one-half of the Baptist churches were African American. The next-closest black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal, had 14 churches listed. The largest black Baptist church in 1986 was Shiloh Baptist, with 2,800 members, while the largest of the white churches was First Baptist, with about 700. Most suburban churches were medium-sized, with 150-500 members. In the late 1980s many members, especially of African American churches, commuted from the outlying areas to attend their "home" churches in the city. Fifteen of the area's Baptist churches, all in the suburbs, were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of the largest churches were affiliated with the CLEVELAND BAPTIST ASSN.; of the 40 member churches, 25 were African American. The association and its churches actively participated in the INTERCHURCH COUNCIL OF GREATER CLEVELAND. Many of the city's black Baptist ministers belonged to the Baptist Ministers' Conference (90 in 1988). The group met weekly and brought together churches from the major national denominational bodies, the American, National, and Progressive Baptist conventions.

The city's African American ministers were a potent political force and Martin Luther King, Jr., Day celebrations became staples of black church life. The new message of pride and power was often seen in church social groups, especially women's organizations, and in special programs. Both white and black Baptist churches involved themselves in mission work and social activities in the 1960s-80s. The Cleveland Baptist Church, an unaffiliated church of 4,000 members, established outreach ministries in nursing homes, jails, and housing projects, and was active in conservative causes. Other white churches, such as First Baptist, supported housing programs, hunger centers, and missions abroad. Among black churches, Antioch Baptist was particularly active, joining 2 other groups to build the Randle Estates Townhouses, the first church-sponsored low-income housing in the area, and Antioch Towers, which provided housing for senior citizens. In 1988 black Baptists joined with other urban African American churches in a tutoring program sponsored by the URBAN LEAGUE OF CLEVELAND. The same year, the Baptist Ministers' Conference held a one-day symposium on AIDS and the African American community.

Cleveland's black Baptist churches gained national prominence through nurses' programs and gospel music. In the 1930s, women from Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, who had been assisting members who became ill at services, began to perform nursing services for the community. Their activity helped inaugurate the church nurses' movement; in 1945 they were accepted by the Ohio Baptist Convention. Part of the national Church & Community Health Advocacy Program in 1986, local nurses received training from the AMERICAN RED CROSS, CLEVELAND CHAPTER. A number of the city's choirs received national attention, among them the Prestonians, led by Earl Preston, Jr., minister of Morning Star Baptist Church. The Greater Cleveland Gospel Choir was named the Choir of the Year in 1980 by the National Convention of Gospel Choirs & Choruses.

Michael J. McTighe (dec.)


Beck, Joseph. "The Negro Store-Front Churches and Ministers in Cleveland" (Master's thesis, WRU, 1928).

Cleveland Baptist Assn. 150 Years of Mission to Greater Cleveland, 1832-1982 (1982).

See also RELIGION.


Finding aid for the First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland Photographs. WRHS.

Finding aid for the Third Baptist Church, Cleveland, Ohio, Records. WRHS.

Finding aid for the Urban League of Cleveland Records. WRHS.

Finding aid for the Urban League of Cleveland Records, Series II. WRHS.