In 1681, King Charles II granted land to William Penn in settlement of a debt owed to Penn’s father. The land, named Sylvania (Latin for woods), would later be renamed Pennsylvania to honor the senior Penn. In 1682, William Penn, accompanied by a group of Quakers, founded Philadelphia. He envisioned a city where residents would be free of religious persecution; able to worship freely. Within thirty years, Philadelphia would grow from a few hundred residents to over 2,500. The City’s pledge of religious tolerance attracted many religions and the population consisted of Germans, Irish, English, Welsh, and Dutch among other settlers.
On the second Sunday in December of 1698, when Philadelphia was still in the early stages of growth, the First Baptist Church was formed.The original members met in the Barbadoes Storehouse, a small, abandoned structure near 2nd and Chestnut Streets. The small Baptist congregation shared this assembly space with members of the Presbyterian Church. At this time, neither had a regularly appointed pastor and were served by visiting ministers. At some point, the relationship between the Presbyterians and the Baptists became strained. There are various stories about the reason behind the rift, but whatever the cause, the Baptists moved their congregation to the Anthony Morris Brew House near Dock and Water Streets.
In 1707, at the invitation of the Keithian Quakers, the First Baptist Church moved to the Keithian meeting house on Lagrange Place. The Keithian Quakers, also called Christian Quakers, were named for prominent Philadelphia Quaker leader and schoolmaster George Keith. The wooden meeting house was built about 1692 near 2nd Street just above Market. The Baptist congregation continued to meet there, however, the Keithian Quakers ceased meeting in the early 18th century. The wooden structure was replaced by a brick building in 1731 and again in 1808 when a larger building was needed.
By 1852, First Baptist Church had outgrown that building as well, and planned a move and construction of a new church on the corner of Broad and Arch Streets. The cornerstone was laid in 1853 by current pastor, Dr. George Burton Ide, prominent minister and composer of the well known hymn “Shall We Gather at the River?”
First Baptist, like most other churches of that era, had its own burial ground adjacent to the church building. On June 4, 1763 it was voted that “Every person who has subscribed toward the building of the meeting house, or who pays for a seat in it shall be buried in the grave yard for one Dollar, and that none other shall be buried for less that Two Dollars.” Throughout the next 100 years, due to the expense of maintaining the burial ground, fees were raised several times. With the pending move to the new Broad and Arch Street location (which had no burial ground), a large lot was secured in the recently chartered (1855) rural, Mt. Moriah Cemetery. By 1860, the remains of those interred at the Lagrange Place burial ground were removed to Mt. Moriah, Section 112.
In 1882 a granite monument to the pastors of First Baptist was erected in Mt. Moriah with funds donated by Mrs Ann D. Coffin.
In the 1890’s, First Baptist and Beth Eden Baptist Church merged. The two churches sold their respective buildings and a new structure was built halfway between the two prior locations. Dedication of the new church at 17th and Sansom Street took place on October 14, 1900 and First Baptist moved for the final time. The church, which predates the founding of our nation and provided a place of worship through the Revolution, the Civil War and two World Wars, faced dwindling membership, rising maintenance costs and limited financial resources in 2014. These obstacles resulted in the sale of their building to Liberti Church. Under a lease agreement with the new owner, the First Baptist congregation continues to worship at this location.
Quote and pictures from The Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Founding of the First Baptist Church of the City of Philadelphia, edited by William Williams Keen, MD, LL. D.