The First Baptist Church (FBC) of Oregon City is preparing to celebrate its 175th anniversary in September. “When a church lasts 175 years, that is a testament to a certain persistence and devotion of the people to the church and to the community,” declared Senior Pastor John Withum.
Although the FBC calls itself small, slow, and weird, leadership adheres to traditional Christine doctrine. Its pastoral staff consists of Rev. Withum and Melissa Meilinger, the Assistant Pastor of Worship & Youth. In addition to Sunday worship, Bible school, and Young Church for 6th to 12th-grade students, the church houses the HOPE Food Pantry.
Pastor Withum told the Portland Tribune that the building’s history could be felt upon entering the church: “There is an abiding presence of the spirit of God” and the feeling that “prayer and song — the practice of God’s Word have happened for a long time.”
As the 40th pastor to lead FBC, he was welcomed by the “generous [and] loving congregation.” Rev. Withum, a graduate of the Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, added: “Church is all about people. Church doesn’t exist to make more [churches], it exists to follow Jesus.”
The Reverand noted the congregation had experienced many changes since its inception. Most notably, the First Baptist Church of Oregon City “was founded [when] it was illegal for non-whites to live in the Oregon Territory.” However, pastor Withum wanted to remind everyone that “we now stand to embrace a multi-ethnic, multi-race community — all are welcome.”
First Baptist Church of Oregon City’s Origin
It is “the oldest continuous Baptist congregation” west of the Rockie Mountains, according to the Portland Tribune. The church’s website indicates its first location was downtown near the Willamette River. Rev. Vincent Snelling and David T Lenox founded the church on July 4, 1847. They led services for seven congregants out of Deacon H. Hatch’s home, a member of the Congregational Church.
The newly-formed church performed its first baptism on Feb. 6, 1848 — three congregants declared their commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
By May, the construction of the First Baptist Church of Oregon City commenced. While the exact date that the building was finished, the church’s website reports: “The house was completed in the fall, or early in 1849.”
As a result of the state’s plan to widen the highway separating downtown Oregon City and the Willamette River (Oregon Route 99E), the First Baptist Church was forced to find another location.
The congregation sold its downtown property at 13th and Main and bought its current site in 1940. They moved into the partially finished new building the following year. The building that “dominates the southwest corner of 9th and John Adams Streets” was completed and formally dedicated in 1945.
Oregon City’s Building and Planning Department designated the Gothic Revival-style church as a Historical Site. However, it is not on the national registry, but researchers submitted a review of the site that was recorded in April 2002.
Pastors Withum and Meilinger hope that everyone joins them and the First Baptist Church of Oregon City congregants in celebrating its 175th anniversary.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Portland Tribune: West’s oldest continuous Baptist congregation celebrates, by Ellen Spitaleri
First Baptist Church of Oregon City
Oregon City Building and Planning Department: 819 John Adams Street – First Baptist Church of Oregon City