A Brief History of the First Baptist Church of Williamson, NY
Although our Baptist history can be traced back to the early 1600’s in England, we will begin in Colonial America at the time of the Revolutionary War. It was in the years around the Revolution that the Baptist congregations began to grow in number and moved westward into the yet unsettled frontier. The Baptists had been very active in working to secure religious liberties and freedoms, and became instrumental in getting freedom of religion clauses into the United States Bill of Rights. What the early Baptists lacked in formal training they made up in hard work and a strong evangelistic spirit. Unpaid men, often farmers or artisans, formed most new congregations across the frontier and many were laymen during the week and preachers on Sunday. The primary goal of those early churches seemed to be a vision of winning the west for Protestantism, and for the early settlers the simple message of the hometown pastor was appealing to many.
It was in this spirit of evangelism, newfound freedom and the rapid movement to settle the west that this church took root in Williamson. Roads were almost non-existent and travel was limited to foot, horseback or ox drawn carts. Houses were few and far between and made mostly of logs cleared from the once densely wooded area. The Township of Williamson had been set off from Sodus for only six years when in 1808 Elder Seba Norton, then pastor of the Sodus Baptist Church, started the first mission church here in Williamson. Mr. Norton was at the time a well-respected physician and later served as Commander of the American Forces at Sodus Point when the British threatened our shores in 1813.
On March 25, 1821 the church was formally organized as an independent church with 39 charter members, 19 men and 20 women. The original name of the church was The Second Baptist Church of Williamson because another Baptist church had been organized in the village of Marion, which was still a part of the Township of Williamson.
Elder Norton was called to be the first pastor of the newly formed congregation. In 1826 as Marion was set off from Williamson Township, the church was renamed The First Baptist Church of Williamson by action of the Wayne County Baptist Association. In that same year a congregation of only 30 members built the first church building on the present site. The first structure was a wood frame building. The sanctuary was said to have galleries on three sides. All the members of the congregation supported the building effort by offering subscriptions of grain or hours of manual and ox team labor. Pews were rented to pay church expenses throughout the 1800’s with the pastors’ salaries ranging from $150-$300 per year.
The first major tragedy to strike the young church occurred in 1843 when the first church building was completely destroyed by fire. A brief note in the clerk’s record book dated February 7, 1843 reads simply, “Our meetinghouse burned down.” Work began immediately to rebuild on the same site. It was not surprising that during the cobblestone era the present cobblestone structure was built. The building was formally dedicated in May of 1846. The original structure of the cobblestone church measured 40’ wide by 56’ long and was faced with cobblestones gathered by church members from the Lake Ontario shoreline.
The church was nearly stifled in 1880 over what was called “a split over the actions of the pastor.” The congregation was devastated; and the history nearly ended there but for a very generous man, Hiram Cogswell of Marion, who took it upon himself to finance the church for many years until it could get back on its feet. In 1899 a business meeting was called and the Trustees were given the authority to sell the church building. The church survived its challenge and in 1900 Mr. Cogswell donated $1000 to help build the present parsonage which is just to the west of the church building. At the same time horse sheds were built in the rear of the church building.
The next several years saw steady growth in membership and a large amount of work was done under Rev. John C. Henry’s leadership from 1907-1913. Included in the improvements were new inclined hardwood floors of maple, new pews of which we have one remaining, a large reed type organ was purchased, and electric lights were installed. Also the basement, which formerly housed the sexton and his wife, was remodeled to provide a prayer room, kitchen and dining room. By 1928 the congregation had grown to 150 members strong.
In 1946 a Memorial Organ Fund was formed and enough money was raised to purchase a new pipe organ. The installation was delayed, however, until 1949 due to shortages of materials during wartime. The next major change to the look of the church occurred in 1964 under the leadership of Rev. Lawrence vanHeerdan. In that year the Josephine Catchpole Education Wing was annexed to the rear of the cobblestone structure. Mrs. Catchpole was a major contributor to the building fund but many others donated very generously to make the addition a reality. The original plans were drawn on the pastor’s desk by Rev. vanHeerdan.
On June 1, 1973 in less than thirty minutes the original cobblestone structure was completely gutted by fire. It was a major event in many folk’s lives, and many members still recall where they were and what they were doing when they first heard that the church was on fire. Under the leadership of Rev. Clint Barlow a meeting of several members met that same day and resolved to begin rebuilding immediately. Eighteen months and 100,000 dollars later the sanctuary and basement were completely refurbished. The church building was re-dedicated on Thanksgiving Sunday November 24, 1974.
From humble beginnings, meeting first in the log homes of the earliest settlers of Williamson, and right up to the present day this congregation has seen many growth spurts as well as declines in membership. From the original thirty-nine members the church grew to 237 members in the 1840’s and shrank to just a handful in 1880. Our active members list today numbers around 70 with an equal number of currently inactive or non-resident members. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the church’s theme was “We Do Not Lose Heart,” and it served the congregation well during some difficult struggles. The 1990’s saw efforts move from building repairs to spiritual renewal and the empowerment of the laity. The pastors called to serve during the last three decades all came with very different gifts to lead the congregation on its journey into the new millennium. Among these pastors was Rev. Maryjo Williams who was the first woman pastor to be ordained and called to serve by this congregation. In 1996 a new slogan was adopted for the 175th Anniversary Celebration. “This Little Light for God, We’re Going to Let It Shine!” was the new slogan reflecting the congregation’s movement toward mission outreach.
As the 20th century drew to a close the congregation received the teaching that “We Are the Church.” An effort was made to remove any “barriers” within and around the church building that could be identified. In July 1999 an amplified sound system was installed to aid the hearing impaired. On Thanksgiving Sunday, November 18, 2001, the “Love Lift” was dedicated. The new lift allowed wheelchair bound and physically impaired members and friend free access to the second floor of the Education Wing and the church sanctuary by way of a new ramp system. Also included in the $25,000 project was the replacement of several doors and the upgrade of one bathroom for handicap access. Also during Rev. Williams tenure the laity began to take a greater role in ministry with emphasis placed upon discovery and development of individual spiritual gifts. During this time two members, Dorothy Howland and Wayne Schultz, completed the course of study offered by ABC/NYS and the Wayne Baptist Association and were recognized as Certified Lay Ministers. Following the resignation of Rev. Williams the two worked together as co-pastors during the interim period.
In January of 2004, Francis Gasparri was called to be the minister of the Church. He was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Painted Post in July of 2004 and continues to bring a new vision to the church. Since his beginning, he has pushed for church members to not just go to church, but to Be The Church. In 2014, we adopted a new discipleship journey and slogan for our church. Worship, Grow, Love, Serve. This was big step for our church to let go of some of the activities of our church to focus on what is most important in becoming a God-centered, loving and caring community focused on spiritual growth and mission. We endeavor now with God’s help to fulfill his vision and calling for FBC.