25 Sep 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: Second Baptist Church, Pt. 2

Edmond Hez Swem

Last week, we looked at the Second Baptist Church, located at 4th Street and Virginia Avenue since the early days of Washington D.C. It was one of the many quiet churches that saw to its parishioners’ spiritual interests with no fuss throughout most of the 19th Century. That would change in with the early 1880s with the wonderfully named Edmond Her Swem. (inset)

An 1882 graduate of Indiana Asbury University (DePauw University today), he came to D.C. shortly thereafter. That he was unlike the previous inhabitants of the pulpit could be discerned from a short piece in the Star of December 10, 1885:

Rev. Mr. Swem’s Lecture – Rev. E. H. Swem, pastor of the Navy Yard Baptist Church, delivered a lecture on “Foreign Fun,” last evening at the Anacostia Baptist church, to an appreciative audience. The speaker visited Europe last summer, and having a keen conception of the humorous, kept his eyes and ears open, and returned with a rich fund of amusing and instructive incidents with which he delighted his hearers for upwards of an hour and a half.

Sadly, no examples of these “amusing and instructive incidents” were memorialized. To be honest, Reverend Swem seems to have changed over time. A few years later, the Washington Post caught him after he had been back to Europe. This time, he delivered a lecture entitled “A Sunday Spent in the Worst Parts of London.” It seems to have been remarkably free of “amusing and instructive incidents.” After explaining that there was no problem for him to go there, as he had taken his wife, he described the scene at the bird fair:

Jews and Gentiles mingled with each other and offered articles of every description for sale. Horses and carts were being driven past over the stony streets with such noise that when we attempted to sing and preach it was almost impossible to hear ourselves. There was no Sunday in this part of London.

Picture of Bird Fair from Henry Walker East London: Sketches of Christian Work and Workers, London, The Religious Tract Society, 1896. (University of Chicago Library via Google Books.)

When not traveling, Swem set about rebuilding the church. This is how, in 1893, a new church was erected on the old spot: a mixture of Romanesque, Moorish, and Gothic architecture.

Swem eventually became quite a problem. He began by quitting his pastorate after 25 years of service, declaring that “I have had enough.” He did not elaborate, but the new church he started was free of “entertainments, theatrical exhibitions and eating in the church building,” so those may have been the issues he had with the old one.

His new pulpit was the Capital Baptist Church in Typographical Temple. This did not mean that they worshiped printing plates, but rather that they met at the hall of the Columbia Typographical Union on G Street NW. Accordingly, Swem began poaching his former pastorate’s members, according to members of the Navy Yard Baptist Church. Unsurprisingly, this sort of conflict was just the sort of thing the newspapers of the time enjoyed printing at great length. Within a few years, the Swems’ new church merged with the Centennial Baptist Church. In 1956, Centennial moved to Hyattsville MD.

Swem had retired from Centennial in 1934, and died in 1936. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery.

The Second Baptist went back to its placid ways, and only returned to the pages of the newspaper in 1934 when it moved from its original location to 17th and East Capitol Streets, across from Eastern High School. This remained their location until 1957, when they moved to College Park and ended their 147-year run on Capitol Hill. The church building was demolished to make way for the SE freeway.


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