Click the image to learn more. Many of Milwaukee's early Baptist churches were established within specific ethnic communities. The Polish Baptist Church, pictured here in 1930, was located in Milwaukee's Polish neighborhood on the city's south side.

Baptists were among the earliest faith communities in Milwaukee, holding their first meeting in 1836. As fervent believers in congregational self-determination, Milwaukee’s Baptists have become a diverse and multi-confessional group. In 2010, over 45,000 Baptists worshipped in the greater Milwaukee area as part of at least thirteen denominational bodies. The organizations with the largest number of adherents were, in descending order, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the Southern Baptist Convention, and the American Baptist Churches in the USA.[1] Through local and national conventions as well as independent congregations, Baptists have left a variety of imprints on Southeastern Wisconsin.

The first Baptist services in Milwaukee were held in 1836 in various homes in Walker’s Point as well as in a schoolhouse.[2] Led by a missionary from the Baptist Home Mission Society, this small congregation was only the second Baptist church in Wisconsin. An earlier congregation near Lake Winnebago had been formed by Brothertown Native Americans while the Milwaukee church was the first to minister to Yankee-Yorker migrants.[3] Without a permanent pastor or church building, the Milwaukee congregation was abandoned in the late 1830s.[4] A few years later, in 1841 and 1842, new congregations (both with ties to the original Milwaukee group) established themselves as the First Baptist Churches of Milwaukee and of Greenfield (now West Allis).[5] Milwaukee’s congregation erected its first permanent building in Juneautown in 1844.[6] Another church then formed west of the Milwaukee River in 1857; these two congregations briefly unified from 1865 to 1867.[7] In 1855, what would eventually be titled the First German Baptist Church was founded. A half century later, roughly twenty percent of Wisconsin Baptists belonged to either German or Scandinavian churches.[8]

Despite nineteenth-century steady growth on the American frontier, the Baptist Church, like many American denominations, became divided over appropriate responses to slavery. This disharmony led to the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.[9] While most Milwaukee Baptists and their Northern coreligionists were opposed to slavery, congregations differed in their embrace of abolitionism.[10] Wauwatosa’s Underwood Memorial Baptist, for instance, was founded by and for abolitionist Baptists seeking greater church involvement in the anti-slavery movement. However, Enoch Underwood, the church’s pastor, was considered too politically radical by many of his local contemporaries. [11] After the Civil War, divisions between northern and southern Baptists became further entrenched. Northern Baptists coalesced into a convention, the precursor to the American Baptist Churches in the USA, in 1907.[12] Free Will Baptists, who among other beliefs were staunchly abolitionist, founded one of their first Wisconsin congregations in New Berlin in the 1840s and joined with the Northern Baptist Convention in 1911.[13]

The abolition of slavery had a profound effect on the growth of African-American Baptist communities, including those in Milwaukee. The city’s first black Baptist congregation, originally called Mt. Olive (and now Calvary Baptist) was founded in 1895.[14] The congregation met at various locations around the city, including its first 1897 church building on what is now St. Paul Avenue, before dedicating its current building at 2959 N. Teutonia in 1971.[15] In the early 1900s, Calvary joined the Wisconsin Baptist Convention.[16] As more even migrants arrived in Milwaukee from the South, however, many new Baptist congregations aligned with the historically-black National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc., which became the largest Baptist body in the region by the 2000s.[17] Many of these new congregations, beginning in homes or storefront churches, reflected their working-class membership.[18] By 1945, Milwaukee had at least twelve black Baptist churches. The influence of these churches on both the local community and the larger Baptist communions continued to increase.[19]

In 1952, Milwaukee hosted the National Sunday School and Baptist Training Congress of the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc., drawing around 5,000 attendees to the city.[20] While Milwaukee had hosted Baptist conventions in the past, including the Northern Baptist Convention conferences in 1938 and 1948, this large meeting of African-American Baptists drew local white attention to Milwaukee’s growing African-American community.[21]

In the postwar years, local Baptists became involved in the civil rights movement. Social involvement was not new to Baptists in Milwaukee, however. In addition the abolition movement, Milwaukee’s white Baptists had advocated for temperance and had pursued social programs for new immigrants.[22] In 1921, the Baptist Women’s Association founded the South Side Milwaukee Christian Center as a settlement house for Eastern European immigrant youth. African-American congregations, including Calvary Baptist, provided similar resources for newly-arrived black Milwaukeeans.[23] During the 1950s and 1960s, Milwaukee Baptist pastors, especially within historically black churches, pushed for the political and economic enfranchisement of Milwaukee’s black community.[24] This push took different forms in different congregations. While some Baptists worked for the assimilation of new migrants into Milwaukee society and advocated political involvement, others embraced social activism including tactics such as boycotts and strikes.[25] Although these activities were predominantly led by African American Baptists, some white Baptist congregations also participated.[26]

At the same time that Milwaukee Baptists were confronting the region’s racial disparities, they encountered shifts within the makeup of Milwaukee’s Baptist communities. Established Baptist churches in Milwaukee faced the suburbanization of their congregants. At the same time that new churches were established in suburbs like Oak Creek, older Milwaukee congregations shrunk.[27] When a 1974 fire destroyed the First Baptist Church of Milwaukee (by this time located at 911 E. Ogden Avenue), the small congregation decided not to rebuild.[28] After meeting in rented locations for eight years, First Baptist dissolved in 1980.[29]

While established congregations struggled, new congregations (many of them members of the Southern Baptist Convention) established themselves. Southern Baptist congregations, of which the MilwaukeeRacineKenosha area had eight by 1965, fell under the leadership of the Baptist General Convention of Texas until the establishment of a Minnesota-Wisconsin Convention in the early 1980s.[30] By 2010, the Southern Baptists had eclipsed the American Baptist Church in the USA to become greater Milwaukee’s second-largest Baptist convention.[31] Local Baptists continued to expand their outreach to new immigrant groups, especially within the Spanish-speaking community, in the late twentieth century.[32]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, “Metro-Area Membership Report: Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI, Metropolitan Statistical Area” (Association of Religion Data Archives, 2010), accessed April 24, 2017.
  2. ^ Frank Abial Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Pre-Historic Times to the Present Date (Chicago, IL: Western Historical Company, 1881), Archives Unbound, accessed February 2, 2017, 838; Mabel Florence Greeson, The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis (s.l.: First Baptist Church of West Allis, 1970), 1-2.
  3. ^ Greeson, The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis, 1-2; Lawrence H. Janssen, The Road to Today: A Sesquicentennial History American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin 1844-1994 (Green Lake, WI: Cedars Press, 1994), 5-6.
  4. ^ Janssen, The Road to Today, 6; Jerome Anthony Watrous, ed., Memoirs of Milwaukee County from the Earliest Historical Times Down to the Present, vol. 1 (Madison, WI: Western Historical Association, 1909), Archives Unbound, accessed April 10, 2017, 367.
  5. ^ Greeson, The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis, 6, 9.
  6. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 838.
  7. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 839-840.
  8. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 844; Hugh Heath Knapp, “The Social Gospel in Wisconsin 1890-1912” (MA thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1968), 49.
  9. ^ Eldon G. Ernst, “The Baptists,” in Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements, ed. Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 565.
  10. ^ Edgar L. Killam, The Centennial History of the Wisconsin Baptist State Convention (Oconomowoc, WI: Wisconsin Baptist State Convention, 1944), 25-26.
  11. ^Our History,” Underwood Memorial Baptist, accessed April 22, 2017; Greeson, The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis, 10-11.
  12. ^ Ernst, “The Baptists,” 567.
  13. ^ Theodora W. Youmans, “A Pioneer Church at Prospect,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 9, no. 3 (1926): 321; “Records and Histories of the Wisconsin Churches,” Wisconsin Freewill Baptist Historical Society, accessed April 28, 2017.
  14. ^ Vi Johnson, “Three Quarters of a Century,” Milwaukee Star Times, February 22, 1973.
  15. ^ Johnson, “Three Quarters of a Century.”
  16. ^ Janssen, The Road to Today, 30.
  17. ^ Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 122.
  18. ^ Trotter, Black Milwaukee, 130, 208-209, 218-219; Kevin D. Smith, “‘In God We Trust’: Religion, the Cold War, and Civil Rights in Milwaukee, 1947-1963” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999), 171.
  19. ^ Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 16.
  20. ^ Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 54-56; “Church Parley Poses Problem,” Milwaukee Journal, February 8, 1952; “Youths Offer Mission Help,” Milwaukee Journal, June 20, 1952.
  21. ^ Greeson, The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis, 29, 35; Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 54-56.
  22. ^ Greeson, The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis, 4, 11, 17.
  23. ^ Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 83; Trotter, Black Milwaukee, 128-129; Erica Lashanda Metcalfe, “‘We Need to March!’: Black Working Class Protest Politics in Milwaukee, 1920-1970” (PhD diss., Howard University, 2016), 133.
  24. ^ Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 94-95.
  25. ^ Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 75, 176-178, 306-310, 323, 404-405. For examples of these different approaches, see responses to the 1958 police killing of Daniel Bell in Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 69-70, 314-322; Metcalfe, “‘We Need to March!,’” 130-131, 138-139, 153-154; and Patrick D. Jones, The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 36-39.
  26. ^ Smith, “‘In God We Trust,’” 281, 305, 309-310.
  27. ^ Janssen, The Road to Today, 77; “Congregation Warm to Fuel Saving Shift,” Milwaukee Journal, December 8, 1973; Richard L. Kenyon, “2 Churches Thrive by Joining Forces,” Milwaukee Journal, July 28, 1979.
  28. ^ “Fire Ravages 1st Baptist,” Milwaukee Journal, November 29, 1974; Janssen, The Road to Today, 78.
  29. ^ “Baptist Church Here Reaches End of an Era,” Milwaukee Journal, December 27, 1980.
  30. ^3 Associations Created in Wisconsin-Minnesota,” Baptist Press, October 22, 1965; Louise Winningham, “Minnesota-Wisconsin Convention Increases Budget by 6 Percent,” Baptist Press, November 4, 1991.
  31. ^ Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, “Metro-Area Membership Report: Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI, Metropolitan Statistical Area.”
  32. ^ Janssen, The Road to Today, chapter 6; “Home Missionaries, New Staffer Named by Board,” Baptist Press, February 18, 1974.

For Further Reading

Flower, Frank Abial, ed. History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Pre-Historic Times to the Present Date. Chicago, IL: Western Historical Company, 1881.

Greeson, Mabel Florence. The History of the First Baptist Church of West Allis. s.l.: First Baptist Church of West Allis, 1970.

Janssen, Lawrence H. The Road to Today: A Sesquicentennial History American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin 1844-1994. Green Lake, WI: Cedars Press, 1994.

Smith, Kevin D. “‘In God We Trust’: Religion, the Cold War, and Civil Rights in Milwaukee, 1947-1963.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999.


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