New Haven Baptist Union

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The Origin of the New Haven Baptist Union

The year, 2014, marks the 125th anniversary of the New Haven Baptist Union (NHBU). The history of this long lasting Union of laymen Baptists in the greater New Haven area, however, is not well known. This article presents an overview of the origin of the Union and its mission work in its first 27 years, from 1889 to 1916.

The Birth of New Haven Baptist Union

In the United States, the late 19th to early 20th centuries were the era of great influx of immigrants from continental Europe. In this period, the city of New Haven, CT also experienced rapid population growth as well as great demographic changes. The number of people in the city rose from 45,000 in 1865 to 150,000 in 1915. Two thirds of the latter populations, i.e. 100,000, were either first or second generation immigrants. They included Italians, Russians, Germans, Swedes, among others. Before the rising tide of immigrants, the Baptists had made a foothold in the city of New Haven. In 1816, the First Baptist Church (currently on 205 Edwards Street) was formed in the city with twelve members. Once organized, the First Baptist spread the Gospel by planting churches in different neighborhoods as fitted. Within seven decades, there were five more Baptist churches in the city which included Immanuel Missionary Baptist (1845), First German Baptist (1857), Calvary Baptist (1871), Grand Avenue Baptist (1872), and Hope Baptist (1890). First Swedish Baptist was organized in 1882, but whether it was planted by the First Baptist Church was uncertain.

William R. Harper-the key founder of NHBU (photo from Popular Science Monthly 1897)
Along these years, many Baptists in New Haven felt a need for more fellowship among themselves. As a result, they organized a fellowship of laymen from different Baptist Churches in the city. On March 18, 1889 fifty charter members gathered together at the First Baptist Church. They named the fellowship as "New Haven Baptist Social Union" and approved its By-Laws. Later on, William R. Harper, a member of the Calvary Baptist Church and a professor of Semitic Languages at Yale University, brought his vision of funding missions and supporting churches into the aim of the Union in addition to socializing. Working with many laymen of the First, Calvary, Grand-Avenue, and Hope Churches, Professor Harper helped charter the Union with the Connecticut Legislature in 1893, with thenew name of "New Haven Baptist Union". Also, The mission statement in the charter became: "advancing the interests, local and general, of the Baptist denomination in the town of New Haven and vicinity, especially by the founding and fostering missions and churches" (Hulen, 1950). The membership of the Union primarily included the laymen of the Baptist churches in the New Haven and vicinity, though with time pastors were also invited to be in the committees. The first Executive Committee included the Hon. Francis Wayland as President, H. W. Stow as Vice President, Julius Twiss as Secretary, and Oscar J. Hull as Treasurer. The necessary funds for the ministries came from fund raising in the churches of the Union's members, as well as from the annual membership fee, which varied from $1 to $10, depending on the need of the year.

1. Raising Mission Sunday School

Olivet Baptist Church on 400 Dixwell Avenue (photo from Google Map: Street View)
In April 1890, a Mission Committee of five with Professor Harper as its key member selected a site for starting a Mission Sunday School on the Dixwell Avenue in the Newhallville area. At that time, Newhallville was the headquarters of Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This Company employed more than 600 workers in the area and the population there continued to grow.

In 1890, the Union purchased an old Methodist Church at the junction of Dixwell and Shelton Avenues, at the cost of $3,100. This church building was then converted to a Sunday School. At its opening, 115 students were enrolled. During the year of 1894, this Sunday School was organized into the Olivet Baptist Church, with 36 charter members transferred from the Calvary Baptist Church. The church grew quickly and increased to a membership of 300 by 1906. With the Union's support, the Olivet moved to a new church building at 400 Dixwell Avenue in 1916.

References of this article are mainly from:

  1. New Haven Baptist Union sixty years (1889 -1949), a Handbook written by Amos B. Hulen, 1950
  2. Inventory of the Church Archives of Connecticut Baptist", CT State Library: revision 2012