Later Expansion and Progress
If we were writing a detailed history, the stories of conspicuous beginnings could greatly be multiplied, for nearly every one of our churches has had an interesting and oftentimes impressive background. In a certain sense we have had men and women on the frontier during all of our history to this very hour, and in so far pioneering in our widely spread mission fields has not yet ceased. But we are drafting an outline sketch and, therefore, what has been written concerning our earliest churches must serve as illustrations of what could also be written of many of our later churches, more specially of those interesting groups of churches in the great prairie states and in the western provinces of Canada, whither the streams of German immigration flowed from the seventies onward, and where our missionary pastors in many cases shared the privations, defeats and triumphs of the earliest settlers.
Some Outward Factors.
In evaluating correctly the expansion and progress of our churches during the seven decades which followed the earliest beginnings, it will be necessary to remind ourselves of some outward factors that had a determining influence on their development.
1. There was practically no limit to the missionary opportunities in the ever expanding field of those years, except that arising from the small number of men who could be sent into that spiritual harvest. The missionary reports are filled with the Macedonian cry for help, but they had to go unheeded in hundreds of cases, for men and money were not obtainable to meet the great wants. Our missionary pastors oftentimes were obliged to spend about as much time riding crosscut over the prairies in getting from one mission station to another, as they did in their own homes. Naturally, through lack of spiritual nurture and more adequate internal organization, the young interests would suffer correspondingly. It was only when the resources of our churches multiplied, when our missionary organizations became more efficient and a larger supply of capable men was forthcoming, that the great opportunities of a practically limitless field could better be made use of.
2. German immigration before the Civil War was about equally divided between city and country. The Germans were scattered over the northern and eastern sections of our country. This immigration took an upward leap during the sixties, in the years following the close of the war, but it was retarded again in the years following the Franco-German War. It took another leap during the eighties and nineties, but receded again toward the end of the last and the early part of the present century. A very large percentage of German immigration since the seventies went to the agricultural sections of our middle, northwestern and southwestern states. The statistics of all German Protestant bodies of our country reflect these changes.
3. There was a considerable influx of German speaking people from Russia, Romania und Hungary in the nineties, these immigrants likewise seeking the open country, notably in the Dakotas and in the western provinces of Canada. A goodly number of these had been under Baptist influences before they came here, others among them were Baptists. This factor has entered largely into the expansion which our churches in these sections of our land have recorded.
Immigration from Baptist churches in Germany to this country has not played so prominent a part in the numerical increase of our later churches as it had in the earliest years. Yet it did not entirely cease. The churches in the large centers like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Winnipeg received those additions to a greater degree than did the other churches.
5. The greater number of churches in the periods we are thinking of, were founded either by families coming from some older Baptist center, usually from the east, to a new locality and starting a new mission, or they were the result of the efforts of missionaries and colporters sent out and aided by some of our missionary organization-in most cases by the American Baptist Home Mission Society
We are ready now for statistics. In 1851, when our Conference scribes first began their statistical tabulation, there were eight churches with a membership of 405 scattered over the whole country. The latest figures obtainable, those for 1923, place the number of churches at 284 and the membership at 31,826. These are found in 27 states and in 5 provinces of the Dominion of Canada. To these figures we may add 861 Sunday schools, with a total of 8129 teachers and officers and a total of 30,768 scholars; 212 Young People's Societies with a total membership of 8683; 207 Women's Missionary Societies, having a membership of 6831. The contributions for local purposes during the year 1923 were $674,722.26 and for missionary and benevolent objects, $260,061.99; the value of the church property is given in the reports as $8,898,288.00. To this latter item ought to be added the property value of the Publication Society in Cleveland, O., that of the Educational Society at Rochester, N.Y., that of the orphanage at St. Joseph, Mich., the property holdings of the three Homes for the Aged, in Philadelphia, Chicago and Portland, Oreg., the Deaconess Home at Chicago and the Girls' Home in New York City. Surely these figures make a princely total. May we ponder them with humility of spirit and not be forgetful of the fact, that they do not represent the gifts of rich people, but that they are the consecrated offerings of wage-earners and farmers, that make up the rank and file of our churches. To them God had given the willing heart as the result of much earnest effort and prayerful consideration.
We should look upon these figures, I think, as a monument to the fidelity and consecration of a people who have chosen to follow the commands of the Scriptures, as they have understood and interpreted them through their own Christian experience.
Some Deeper Factors
Great opportunities, however conscientiously and successfully made use of, do not fully express the work our German churches have stood for, nor does the numerical success tell the whole story. The fundamental characteristics of the movement, its simple, evangelical type of Christian life and worship, the pecuniary sacrifice entailed in its progress and the peculiar obstacles that were to be overcome-all these must not be forgotten if our evaluation should be as correct as it can be made. May we enumerate some of these?
1. The Personal Experience of Religion
It was most fortunate that the pioneers--all of them-were men of deep religious convictions, and that these centered in a personal religious experience. Themselves coming out from religious bodies where formalism and sacramentalism reigned supreme, this experience was esteemed the more highly because of the contrast. The burden of their preaching was the necessity of a new birth, strikingly evangelistic in its emphasis. A change of life was to them the essence of New Testament Christianity. This emphasis has never become lost or displaced in our churches, and it has been a leading factor in the testimony of our people. It has made prayer-meetings, revivals and so-called "protracted" meetings possible, because much time is there given for the personal testimony of what the Lord had done for the individual. It has made alive and very real an entire group of hymns that treat of the mystical side of Christian life, and these hymns are gladly used. There has never been any great opposition to believers' baptism in our evangelistic efforts, on the part of those who accepted Christ by the gateway of experience. The ordinance rather has seemed to be most appropriate in marking the boundary in their own lives between the old and the new.
2. The Missionary Spirit
It ought not to be surprising to say that the message our churches had to offer was unpopular. It was not otherwise in the days of the Master and his apostles. Man seems to be born into this world with his back, instead of his face, toward God, and it often takes a hurricane to make him face about. If we add to an unpopular message some such deterring circumstances as small numbers of plain people and small chapels, we can understand that any success under? such circumstances must have been attained by much personal solicitation and prayer. And this has been the rule rather than the exception in the work of our churches. We could instance many examples from our past records where churches, now strong and influential, began with a baker's dozen of people whose hearts were filled with missionary zeal. In the days of small things, and they have not yet passed, personal service and loyalty to the truth have had their testing, and their influence on the churches as a whole has been most wholesome.
The venturesome missionary spirit in the work of our German churches is reflected in the records of the planting of new churches, which makes exceedingly interesting reading. In the decade from 1853 to 1868, 48 new churches were organized, and the total membership of all our churches rose from 864 to 1858; in the twenty years following, the number of new churches was 65 and the total membership 10,809; from 1883 to 1903 there were 126 new churches catalogued and the total membership was 24,012. The statistics for the last twenty years are not so favorable, for only 32 new churches were organized during this time, and the total membership of the churches was only augmented by 8,754. This does not mean a loss of the spirit for missionary advance; there are other factors which can account for this relatively slower growth, notably the falling off in German immigration and the steady losses from our lists of such who transferred their membership to English speaking churches. And still our German churches on the whole have held their own, when measured by the statistical growth of all Protestant bodies in our country.
The following table visualizes what has been said. It also shows that the average membership of our churches has steadily risen, but is still small. We still have a very large number of numerically small churches which need the pecuniary assistance of their older and stronger sister churches.
Year 1853 1863 1883 1903 1923 Churches 25 73 138 264 284 Membership 864 3,139 10,809 24,012 31,826 Average Membership 35 43 78 90 112
The number of accessions by baptism is also a criterion by which the evangelistic and missionary spirit of the churches can be gauged. The following table is constructed from the Conference reports:
Year 1851 to 1860 1861 to 1880 1871 to 1880 1881 to 1890 1891 to 1900 1901 to 1910 1911 to 1922 Total Baptisms 2,100 3,788 5,765 9,005 12,730 14,705 15,467 Yearly Average 210 378.8 576.5 900.5 1273 1470.5 1546.7
To this missionary feature much of the success of our German churches must be attributed. It has had a marked influence on the prayer life of the individual church, and it has strengthened faith. It has taught the churches not to despise small beginnings but rather to persevere when outward surroundings were unpromising and to wait on God for the ultimate success. And it has kept alive among us the custom of emphasizing "Missions" through sermons and addresses at every larger gathering of German Baptists.
3. The Sacrificial Spirit
One hesitates to say much in the praise of sacrifices in a distinctively Christian work, for they are a necessary part of it. They are referred to here in order that the progress we are describing may be better understood.
Obviously, the poverty of the rank and file of our people, coupled with the missionary character of this work, made many sacrifices necessary. May it be said by way of "honorable mention" that, as they have wrung prosperity from the soil by the. sweat of their brows, or have made a living in the heat of the workshop and factory, they have builded for themselves houses of worship and parsonages, supported their pastors, given for missions and contributed toward helping sister churches to secure houses of worship also. The yearly missionary statistics with their six figures in the dollar column become exceedingly eloquent. if one knows the sources from which these sums have come.
The membership statistics do not by any means represent the entire numerical gains our churches have made in this specific undertaking. Of necessity they were obliged to make use of the German language in a country the language of which is English, but that fact meant a constant and accelerated loss of members from their ranks to their sister churches where the English language is used. This is the Gulf Stream of our German work in our country, alike beneficial to the German churches who-are the losers in numbers and financial strength, and to the English speaking churches who are by far the greater gainers, for the drain toward them is of the younger and more substantial elements, which it was, and still is, impossible to replace. The gain for the losers consists in the breaking down of a supposed barrier between the racial segments of our large denominational family and in the disarming of a criticism on the part of those who have misunderstood the real objective of the German churches. These churches are for a time the foreign missionary agencies in the ranks of that larger Christian body whose motto is North America for Christ." No correct estimate can be made of the loss by transition to English speaking churches. It has been put as high as ten thousand.