The number and variety of churches on Capitol Hill has always been of great interest to me; particularly those that were the first to make their way to this part of the city. Today’s installment is a look at a church that was part of the Hill from the earliest days until 1957.
Second Baptist Church, also known as Navy Yard Baptist Church, dates back to 1810, when it was founded by three Virginia Baptists ministers and five locals. Services were first held in John McLeod’s schoolhouse, on D Street between 3rd and 4th Streets SE, but soon they built their own frame building. The first member, according to a Washington Post article from 1903, was Jacob Butler, who was African American, and most likely enslaved.
The next years were quiet. Other than that the famous (for the time) actor-turned-pastor Spencer H. Cone (pic), who later became a chaplain to Congress, preached his first-ever sermon there, little is said about it. The only time the church was mentioned in the newspapers of the time was to indicate when the next service would be and who would be speaking. The only way that it stood out from other churches was the speed with which it went through pastors, apparently because of the congregation’s predilection for hiring from among the students of Columbian College, who presumably soon graduated and moved on to bigger and better things.
In spite of this, the church grew. By 1822, it was solvent enough to build a more permanent structure in the form of a brick church on the corner of Virginia Avenue and 4th Street SE. Eventually, even this edifice proved inadequate, and so, in 1852, the “Ladies of the Navy-Yard Baptist Church” began raising money by holding festivals in Anacostia Hall, among other things . In January 1854, the Washington Evening Star reported that the new church was ready to be dedicated. A solid 60 by 40 feet, it was designed by John C. Harkness and built by Robert Clarke, who was commended by the congregation for the speed with which he had completed the work, as well as the fact that he had gone above and beyond the original scope of work in fitting it out.
Thereafter, the church pretty much disappears from the pages of the local news – except the occasional note that their choir will be undertaking a steamer excursion downriver – until 1870, when it was reported by the Star that,
Walter L. King plead guilty to the charge of grand larceny of chairs from the Navy Yard Baptist Church, and was sentenced to one year in the Albany penitentiary.
King was also found not guilty of having done the same crime at the Unitarian Church. The Navy Yard Baptist Church seems to have survived this crime quite unscathed otherwise, and continued to grow. In the early 1880s, they had perhaps their most notorious time, with the hiring of the impressively named Edmond Hez Swem. More on him and his influence on the Baptist churches of the Hill next week.