Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1987 Volume 25 Number 3, Pages 99–104

All in the Family

Chester T. Winters

Page 99

From time to time I am asked why there once were two Baptist churches in Berwyn. The answer goes back a little more than 100 years ago, to 1886, when Berwyn, up along the railroad, was -becoming the center of population and most of the members of our church and the community lived there.

Back then we had a business meeting every month, not like it is today with semi-annual meetings twice a year. At the meeting held on December 8, 1885, Isaac Cleaver introduced a resolution: "Whereas we believe that it is necessary, in order to perpetuate and strengthen the Great Valley Baptist Church, to establish a chapel along the line of the Pennsylvania Railroad where population is drifting and centering, therefore: Resolved, that this Church respectfully request its trustees to take such action, as they may deem expedient, having in view the erection of such Chapel in the Village of Berwyn, Pa., and report their action to the church as speedily as practicable."

(Isaac Cleaver -- I feel that I've gotten to know this fellow -- was sort of the "big man on campus" in Berwyn and our Church at that time: trustee, deacon, treasurer, Sunday School superintendent. He came out of the Civil War--he took sick while serving in the Civil War--and opened a general store in Berwyn and became one of the leading members of the community.)

Well, that resolution was passed in December 1885. On April 4, 1886 it was reported that plans for the Chapel had been prepared for the trustees, and on May 2 they had bids totalling about $5000. At their meeting that month it was unaminously agreed to go ahead with the project, even though they thought the cost was about $1500 more than they could afford.

Page 100

They accepted the bid of H. Morgan Ruth, of Duffryn Mawr, for $3979. (It was just for the building and did not include any work on the inside.) A half acre of ground on Cassatt Avenue a half block north of the Pennsylvania Railroad station was purchased for $561 from Henry Dewees, a church member. (When you stop to think about it, it was built for less than $4600 in 1886 and we sold it for $25,000 in 1953; I suppose it would go for $200,000 or more today!)

Ground was broken on May 10, 1886 by a number of members and friends, who "engaged in digging out the cellar, the contractor deducting [the] cost of excavation from [the] contract price". (That's different from today too -- the members of the congregation dug out the cellar themselves!) After several weeks of rain had held up work, the construction was vigorously pushed forward, and by the first week in September the building was under roof and closed in.

On Tuesday afternoon, September 7, there were special ceremonies for the laying of the cornerstone, and the opening of a great Bazaar which ran each evening until Saturday, September 18. Held at seven o'clock each evening, the Bazaar raised $720 -- and it was conducted on strict Christian principles, "with not a 'chance' nor a 'vote' [an auction] taking place to mar its conduct", although very much more could have been raised if such activity had been allowed.

The Chapel was first occupied by the Sunday School on Sunday, November 28, 1886. It was 52 feet by 52 feet. It was carpeted. The basement had a ceiling ten feet high, done on purpose. The tower was nearly 80 feet high, with a 325-pound bell purchased from the Norristown Baptist Church for $48. (They tried to get the Norristown church to contribute part of the price, but they wouldn't give any reduction.) The Chapel seated 350 people, in folding arm chairs. There were beautiful exposed beams in the ceiling, and stained glass windows. It was the first church in Berwyn to have electricity, and ther auditorium was lighted with a large double reflector chandelier with eight electric burners. And, of course, it had a Baptistry. In January of 1887 horse sheds, which could stall seven teams of horses, were added.

The actual total cost -- inside and out -- was just over $6800, and it was all paid off by January 1, 1888, or in a little over a year.

I have a list that Isaac Cleaver made of the contributions received for the erection of the Chapel. Isaac Cleaver and his wife gave $1000; S. D. Cleaver gave $400; Eugene Cleaver, $100; and Jennie Cleaver gave $100 -- so the Cleaver family all told gave $1600 of the about $6800 collected. He was not only the "big man on campus" in Berwyn, but he had money -- and it is really unusual for a Baptist to have money!

Page 101

The Baptist Chapel in Berwyn : drawing by Franklin Wandless

As time went on, the Chapel was used more and more and the Valley church was used only in the summer. On the first of October they'd go to the Chapel, and have church services there all winter.

In the meantime, in October 1886, the pastor, James Meminger Guthrie, who had come to the Church in 1883, had resigned to build a Baptist Memorial Church at Valley Forge. (We are told by the minutes that as early as in 1884 he had spent much time trying to build up the church there, "where crumbles the ruins of a Baptist Church" that dated back to 1834, and had looked for help from the Philadelphia Baptist Association and from other churches to "bring back" the Baptist Church in Valley Forge.)

He was succeeded at Great Valley by Harrison B. Gardner, When he left, in 1893, the Rev. John G. Booker was in turn called.

Otherwise, things went along fairly uneventfully until, on Friday morning at about six o'clock on July 26, 1895, a great cry went up: "The Baptist Chapel's on fire!" The first to discover it was Samuel H. Burns, the sexton, on his way to work. Smoke was coming from every opening. The fire was mainly in the west wall, in the partition and studding of the building, and all the walls were so hot and there was so much smoke that no one could get near it for over an hour. Everybody in Berwyn came out to help put out the fire, along with the newly-formed fire company.

Finally, with the help of the many residents the fire company succeeded in punching holes in the walls and, using its chemical apparatus, sprayed out the fire. Much of the reason for the great heat was the varnish used on the furniture and on the beams and other woodwork; when it melted it 'ruined much that was not burned by the fire. The building was very badly burned, and was saved only by the heroics of many people.

The trustees immediately set about restoration. The congregation met temporarily in the Odd Fellows Hall in Berwyn for Worship, and the Hall was also used to store everything that had been salvaged, including the organ, the Pulpit, many books and hymnals, and other items.

Page 102

The renovation cost just about $3000, almost half what it cost to build the building nine years earlier. About half of this was paid by the insurance and the other half was raised by the congregation, the insurance paying $1437 and the congregation raising $1570.

It was believed that the Chapel was now even more beautiful than it had been, and it was now completely lighted by electricity throughout the whole building.

I never preached in the Chapel. When I came here in 1953 the idea was to try to bring the center of the Church back into the Valley and to reconcentrate our efforts out of the old meeting house. And this we did. We broke ground that year for a new Church School building and parsonage here in the Valley. And we were fortunate that at that time the Christian Scientists, who were meeting at the Neighborhood League up in Wayne, were looking for a place to go, and when we offered the old Chapel for sale they bought it within a month or so and took it over and remodeled, it. On the 100th anniversary of the building in 1986, they were kind enough to invite us up to see what they had done to it. It was the first time I had been there since 1953.

But going back to 1895: at the end of that year there were nearly 200 members in the Church, the most until recent times; all bills were paid, and things were seemingly in pretty good shape. Pastor Booker had successfully seen the Church through the fire and the reconstruction.

Yet there seemed to be signs of the beginning of trouble, and of differences of opinion between the Rev. Booker and Isaac Cleaver. Now obviously, when you're the minister of a church you're either going to get along with somebody like Isaac Cleaver or you're not -- and if you don't, there are going to be problems! It appears that the Rev. Booker was of a different frame of mind in some respects from Mr. Cleaver, who, I think, was more traditional. The minister wanted to have more evangelistic or revival kinds of meetings, which I don't think Mr. Cleaver went for. Of course, there was a lot more to it than just that, but this is what I feel was the basic difference.

Anyway, we learn from a letter from Brother Preston W. Lobb to Gwendolyn Marquette that at the trustees' meeting in February 1896 Mr. Cleaver remarked that he did not feel spiritually right toward the pastor, that he was too domineering, and that he would not have him any longer. (If you read between the lines, Isaac Cleaver was getting his toes stepped on by a minister who was not bending enough towards Mr. Cleaver's views.)

There was increasing tension, and then at the monthly business meeting on February 19, 1896, as I describe it, "all hell broke loose"!

Page 103

Up got Sister Annie B. Walton, who arose and "stated in a very excited, and boisterous, manner that Mr. Cleaver had interfered with her usefulness in her Sunday School class by telling Mr. J. G. Francis of the Methodist Episcopal Church that she [Annie Walton] had induced two members of his church -- members of her Sunday School class -- to go into the inquiry room in an after-meeting during the revival services held in our Church during the preceding week" -- in other words, that she was proselytizing two Methodists. Sister Walton continued to violently assail and denounce Mr. Cleaver "as a hypocrite and liar and unfit to belong to the Church". Using such expressions as "Whipping the Devil around the stump" and "Put that in your pipe and smoke it", she then sat down.

When others arose to defend Mr. Cleaver, Sister Walton arose again and repeated her charges, and said that the Church "was rotten to the core." The meeting was adjourned amidst loud shouting from many sides. (The clerk, who incidentally was Isaac Cleaver, was at first instructed not to record the meeting, nor those of March or April, but this order was later rescinded.)

On March 18, at 8:30 in the evening at the close of Prayer Meeting, it started all over again. There were motions asking Mr. Cleaver to give up his important positions in the Church; there were other motions asking the minister to leave. Slowly two factions developed -- one for Cleaver and one for Booker -- each bound to get the other one out. The character of both men was questioned -- their ethical conduct -- and suggestions were made that liquor was used by each, as well as by other people in authority in the church, although Cleaver insisted that he had been a teetotaler for 18 years. There was also an attempt to get Mrs. Walton out of teaching her Sunday School class of 25 young people.

On May 27 the Rev. Booker, with the concurrence of the rest, brought out the Baptist Secretary of State Missions and the Superintendent of City Missions to speak for him. (There had also been a meeting with Dr. E. B. Palmer, the Secretary of Foreign Missions, who had recommended that both sides let bygones be bygones, and that this matter and the differences not again be discussed or be the subject of conversation.) But, because in the Baptist Church each church is autonomous - an autonomous unit - they really did not have the power to do anything about it. The congregation had to work it out for itself; no one could tell it what to do.

Finally, at the June 7, 1896 meeting, Pastor Booker resigned. His resignation was accepted, and letters of transfer were given for him to unite with the Alleghany Avenue Baptist Church in Philadelphia. On August 19 a resolution, expressing confidence in Mr. Cleaver, was introduced, and it passed by a vote of 65 to 23, each side trying to get out its supporters. Some had not been to church for a long time!

At this point Sister Annie B. Walton arose again, and said, "Take your old church, with its drunkards, and thieves, and its liars and harlots. We will go to the Presbyterian Church, and have nothing to do with your rotten church, which is a stench in the nostrils of the community!" She shouted to Brother Kauffman, "Sit down. You had better go out and get drunk again"; to another member she inquired, "Abraham, have you got your bottle with you?"; and many other things like that.

Page 104

As a result, by a vote of 53 to 31, it was "Resolved, that the hand of fellowship be withdrawn from Sister Annie B. Walton, and Brother Samuel D. Walton, and Brother Warren Stevens, and that they be placed under Church Censure for their unchristian words and actions in these public meetings of the Church."

In September the Trustees of the Church changed the locks on the Chapel building in Berwyn, and an officer of the law was placed in the building, fully equipped with handcuffs and a pistol, to refuse entrance to anyone for any reason whatsoever.

With this, on October 13, 1896, 52 members met in the Odd Fellows Hall in Berwyn. There they withdrew from the Church and took formal action to organize themselves into the First Baptist Church of Berwyn, and to build a church -- it's now an office building -- on the northeast corner of Berwyn Avenue and Waterloo Road across from Trinity Presbyterian Church.

And that's how we got two Baptist churches in the Village of Berwyn.

It has always tickled me that when I came here in 1953 William Clavius Latch was chairman of our Board of Deacons, and that his father and mother were two of those who had withdrawn from the Church in 1896. He was just a youngster then, and he went with them. I don't know when he came back into our Church, but sometime later he left the First Baptist Church and came back to Great Valley Baptist and became a member of our Board. I'm not sure what all this says, except to attest to the ridiculousness of some Baptists!

I guess it is still going on. It isn't over the same issues -- but we still have churches leaving the denomination and starting ones of their own. Now it's over abortion; it's over homosexuality; it's over the National Council of Churches; it's over prayer in the schools. Today these are the kinds of issues that are now splitting up the Baptists.



The only real record we have of the people who have comprised our Church is a record book kept by Isaac Cleaver, night after night after night. In it he listed all the members, up to about 1887, I believe. Up to about 1800 they are listed alphabetically, which is very helpful; after that they are listed chronologically. In addition to listing the names, underneath each name he added a footnote on everything he knew about that person. Just about all that we know about these people is from this record book that Isaac Cleaver kept. You can imagine the effort that he put into this work.

The record was given to us by Gertrude Bomberger -- otherwise it would have been lost forever -- and this material came largely out of this record book.


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