How it all started
On May 16, 1870, a group of young men from the Young Men's Christian Association of the Tenth Baptist Church of Philadelphia decided to establish a mission in a rapidly developing section in the northern part of the city. They secured a hall at Twelfth Street and Montgomery Avenue and began meetings to determine how to attract more souls to Christ. The outpost was known as The Kennard Mission.
Among the young men were Alexander Reed and Henry C. Singly who went on to become deacons at Grace Baptist Church. Frederick B. Greul, D.D., became a pastor at the Berean Baptist Church. Another, John A. Stoddart, was the first superintendent of the Sabbath, or Sunday school at Grace Baptist.
The mission was formally organized on February 12, 1872 with 47 members.
The Kennard Mission flourished and on August 25, 1872, they moved out of the hired hall and built a tent with a seating capacity of 500 at the corner of Berks and Mervine Streets. In Robert J. Burdette's The Modern Temple and Templars, he notes there was much zeal and enthusiasm at the dedication. "They lighted lamps before the Lord; here the prayers from hearts enkindled with the Holy Spirit were sent forth as incense, and the uplifted hands of the praying workers were as the evening sacrifice."
A baptistry was constructed in the tent. On a cold wintry night, February 3, 1873, the first converts were baptized. Others followed, and the house of faith soon outgrew the tent.
The tent was moved to a neighboring lot, where it was used for mission work. Homeless wanderers were given food and shelter in it, and helped to a useful life. From this work grew the Sunday Breakfast Association of Philadelphia.
In January 1874 there were over 200 people who worshiped there, and the Sunday school had a membership of nearly 400. Financially, times were tough. A panic caused the failure of the great banking house of Jay Cooke & Company, Philadelphia, and this was still felt.
The cellar was dug, the foundations laid, and the basement of the new building completed. Here they paused, unable to proceed further. They roofed over the unfinished house, and tried to determine how to finish the project. Bills could not be paid; judgments were entered, and finally the sheriff descended and foreclosed. But after much persuasion, the mortgagor agreed to wait and the little band of workers bent with fresh energy to the task of raising money and holding their church together.
This was the church Russell Conwell met when the call was made to him--an unfinished building with a mortgage of $15,000. But according to Agnes Russ Burr, in her book Russell H. Conwell and His Work, failure and debt did not daunt him.
She writes, "He came to Philadelphia and looked over the field. He quickly saw that a live church could do much good in the rapidly developing section of the city. And the earnestness of the church members--their willingness to work and sacrifice--touched him. They were of a spirit kindred to his own and he decided to accept the call."
The work went steadily on, and in the fall of 1882, after the call to Rev. Conwell, the building was completed. A council was called to sit in the Tenth Baptist to recognize the church and determine a name.
On the naming of Grace Baptist Church, Dr. Frederick B. Greul, wrote: "I remember well the discussion that arose about the name Grace. ...At that time, churches were being named by number, or the locality in which the church property stood, or possibly the street on which the meeting-house faced. Such names as Grace, Ephiphany, Trinity, Temple, Messiah, Gethsemane, were not popular. ...At this council considerable objection was raised to the name Grace. Dr. Cathcart headed the opposition. He got off one of his telling appeals to history, and wound up by saying, 'Grace church! Why, bless you, suppose this church should get some graceless rascal for a pastor, which a pitiful plight it would be in!' But Grace has triumphed, and the outlined calamity has not visited the church, for which we all thank God."
According to John Wanamaker, on the celebration of Conwell's seventieth birthday:
"Thirty-one years ago a poor Baptist minister, of whom none of us had then heard, came to Philadelphia and took charge of a little, struggling church."
Although criticized and misunderstood, Russell Conwell went ahead. The church was soon completed and the financial obligations when they came due, were easily met. The church became an influence in the community. Not only was the immediate neighborhood stirred, but people from all parts of the city thronged to hear him. He soon had Philadelphia as much aroused as Lexington, (MA) when he began tearing down the old church there.
The same spirit permeated the membership. The church fairly radiated kindliness, cheer and help. Religion was not merely preached as being able to give satisfaction to life; but the fact was demonstrated. The pastor and the people embodied it. The church became more and more crowded. In less than a year--although the seating capacity was increased to 1200--people stood throughout the services. It finally became necessary to admit the members by tickets at the rear, as it was almost impossible for them to get through the throngs of strangers at the front. Upon request, cards of admission were sent to those who desired them.
As a partial solution, the proposition was made to divide into three churches; but each wanted Conwell as pastor, so the idea was abandoned. Still, the membership grew, and the need for larger quarters faced them. The house next door was purchased, which provided more Sunday school rooms. And this leads us to the story of Hattie May Wiatt... for next time.