A lot has changed for the congregation that began two centuries ago
It all started because a mother was worried about her son.
The First Baptist Church of Haddonfield’s 200-year history began when Letitia Evans asked a preacher to come to the borough because she was concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of her son, who was studying to be a smith.
That incident occurred in 1817, and, a year later, residents met and decided to organize a Baptist church in Haddonfield. It became only the second congregation to form the borough after the Friends, or Quakers, according to information provided by First Baptist.
“You might say that a woman really was the spark,” said Sandra Mezger, a church member who founded the congregation’s historical committee.
First Baptist has been celebrating its 200thanniversary throughout the year with services, a pop-up history exhibit and even a display at the borough’s PATCO station.
A lot has changed in two centuries. The current structure on Kings Highway is actually the third church building used by the congregation — or the fourth if you count the old Grove Schoolhouse where members held the first informal meetings.
John Sisty, whose portrait hangs in the current church, was the congregation’s first pastor. He responded to Evans’ call, but it wasn’t easy. Sisty, a Philadelphia resident, had to travel by boat to New Jersey where he would be picked up by a stagecoach and ushered to Haddonfield.
“He was a hearty soul,” said Mezger, who helped preserve Sisty’s original diary. “He had such a heart for this church.”
The first iteration of the church that he preached in looked nothing like the current building. It didn’t have any stained glass windows, was made of brick and almost looked like a large house.
Both the first and second church buildings were also located near First Baptist’s current cemetery, which is across the street from Haddonfield Memorial High School.
The congregation moved into its current structure near Tanner Street in 1886. It also looked much different before the exterior was redesigned in 1944.
“It was very gothic with high towers,” Mezger said.
She said the church’s stadium seating and stained glass windows were really unique and modern for its time. The building has aged well, Mezger added.
“It’s a very intimate atmosphere,” she said. “The acoustics are very good.”
A cabinet in the church not far from Sisty’s portrait holds a number of First Baptist’s historical treasures. It includes an 1886 copy of the first bulletin for the third church, velvet offering bags and a button from the 100th anniversary of the congregation declaring First Baptist “a debtless church.”
The congregation is focused on the present and spiritual world, Mezger said, but there’s nothing wrong with a little history.
“It isn’t (about) the physical, but there is something about the history of the building that is very special,” she said. “It encourages worship.”
Currently, the church has about 300 members, including Mezger, who began coming to First Baptist 25 years ago. She said the congregation has tried to spread awareness of the anniversary since the start of the year.
“I think it’s important for the community to share this happy event and historic event,” Mezger said. “Haddonfield’s all about that.”
Mezger started thinking about the 200thanniversary 10 years ago when she founded the historical committee. She and others in the church restored and preserved items of historic value and began planning for the occasion, but First Baptist doesn’t plan to stop making history anytime soon.
“We hope to be here (for) more than another 200 years,” Mezger said. “It’s not only the building. It’s the people inside and the faith that’s important.”