The following was prepared for our church's 125th anniversary in 2016. A short video of the special service marking the occasion can be seen here.
An Incomplete History
In 1891 a mine explosion killed 109 people in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, Britain was linked to Europe via telephone, Spam was marketed for the first time, Thomas Edison patented the motion picture camera, James Naismith invented a new game called basketball, hail killed six horses in Rapid City, South Dakota, Benjamin Harrison was president, and a little Baptist church launched in Chicago in a small white frame building on the corner of Fullerton and Artesian. Within twenty five years they had grown out of that location, and built a small block building two blocks away on the corner of Maplewood and Altgeld. The church would occupy this building for decades until moving to our current location mid-century.
A snap shot of those early years can be seen in a 1925 church directory. Our church had two Sunday preaching services led by a young pastor William J. Fuchs, morning and evening. It conducted Sunday School, a midweek prayer meeting, a Friday night choir practice, a BYPU (Baptist Young People’s Union) meeting, and a ladies’ society meeting twice a month. One hundred forty six names, including children, are in that directory, as well as a Statement of Faith. The latter identifies a clear understanding of the whole point of having a church.
“The purpose of this church shall be to promote the interests of the Kingdom of God, evangelize the unsaved, and edify those of the faith. To this end the church shall maintain regular meetings and seek to create and cultivate an interest in and devotion to missions at home and abroad.”
The 1930s were up and down. For a time things went well, and we even voted to spend $5 on publicity for our 45th anniversary in 1936. But money was tight, and attendance was down when Pastor Sommerschield came in the Fall of that year. He was brought on as a part-time pastor, but over time the church grew. In April of 1939 notation was made that 37 new members had been added in the previous year. Maplewood “has experienced a decided improvement during the past year. Attendance has been stabilized with the adoption of a Baptist pin award system. The regular offering has been greatly increased by the pledge and envelope system. Teachers have become more interested in their classes and more faithful in their obligations. The men’s class has grown, and a recently reorganized women’s class appears to have a bright future! Last Sunday, Easter, was set aside as Decision Day, and thirty or more children from the Primary, Junior, and Intermediate departments professed to take Jesus as Saviour. …We feel that the our Lord is looking down upon us with favor, and that the future holds bounteous blessings for us.”
The war years in the early 40s saw another new pastor, B. A. Martens. The Sunday School averaged 106 although finances were still tight: “books in excellent condition with all bills paid and a balance on hand of $7.93”. In a sense 1942 was a peak year with an average attendance of 130 and 25% of the offerings given to missions, but unfortunately some sort of disagreement arose and by the end of the year 35 members had left.
That disagreement may or may not have been related to Maplewood’s membership in the Northern Baptist Convention. We do know that during these years there was quite a bit of disagreement about that membership. Maplewood began as a church plant via the Northern (now American) Baptist Convention. As it matured it paid the Convention back for its property and obtained a complete deed to it in July of 1929. Over the next several decades a battle royal waged in American Christianity over the accuracy of the Bible, and the truth of Who Jesus Christ is. Religious liberals captured denomination after denomination, including the Northern Baptist Convention. All over the country in those years fundamentalists (those who still held to the old beliefs, those fundamental to the faith) withdrew from now corrupted organizations and launched new ones. In 1952, Maplewood Baptist Church, under the leadership of Pastor J. Fred Young, led our church out of the Convention. Pastor Young had carefully prepared the way for this by discussing it with the pulpit committee before he even accepted the pastorate. He even went so far as to solicit the opinion of Maplewood members then currently enrolled in Northern Baptist Convention seminaries. In a contentious business meeting in April of that year the motion to leave the Convention passed thirty four to three.
Just a few months ago Mandy Brennan was at the church one day packing up some gift bags for children in Central America. A sixty year old man came to pick them up so they could be shipped. To his delight and ours he turned out to be Pastor J. Fred Young’s son. He was just a young boy when his father pastored our church. We shared some happy memories, and rejoiced in God’s goodness that our church was still preaching the fundamental truths of Scripture.
In 1955 Maplewood chose to incorporate under the laws of the state of Illinois, and the incorporation papers reveal a firm understanding of Baptist doctrine:
“This Church is a religious, autonomous, self-governing, independent Baptist Church holding the Bible to be the Infallible Verbally Inspired Word of God; that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Son of God, Deity told out, Virgin born, Crucified, Risen, and Coming Again, The Saviour of the World, The Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the World, atoning vicariously for the Sins of the World on the Cross of Calvary; that Separation of Church and State is right and Biblical; that there the individual priesthood of the Believer is right and Biblical; that there are two Scriptural ordinances only, namely, Baptism by Immersion in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.”
Unfortunately, the Northern Baptist Convention did not go quietly. We can read Pastor William Rokosh’s frustration with them in a no-nonsense telegram he sent them in 1957:
I am writing to ask your consideration in removing the name of the above Church from your mailing lists. …We are not a part of the American Baptist Convention, having withdrawn several years ago because of unbelief in the fundamental doctrines of God’s Word. Unwilling to support your program, we can see no real reason for remaining on your mailing lists.”
By the early 1970s Maplewood had declined to a low state. There were no more than twenty five active members, and the church had been without a pastor for some time. This was by no means unique to our church. Many inner city Baptist churches across the country found themselves in a tough spot as demographics changed, and crime arrived. The typical Baptist church solution of those days was to move out of the city to a suburb. Maplewood was not typical, largely because it showed flexibility. Several miles north a growing church found itself needing more space. Somehow Pastor Howard Sanford of the Bible Baptist Church heard of Maplewood’s need of a pastor. After some delicate negotiations (including specifically Maplewood’s desire to ensure the church kitchen remained intact) the two churches merged in September of 1975.
The business meeting notes of the occasion includes the following eye opening description of the event:
“Pastor of the Bible Church was described as Fundamental, Independent who will really lead and preach the gospel as we believe. They have a membership of approximately 75. He would be willing to sell their Church and parsonage and use ours… Elaine Edwards made a motion that the Maplewood Baptist Church merge with the Bible Baptist Church subject to their vote of approval that our kitchen will be retained permanently and not to ever be voted out by a majority vote. Seconded by June Larson.”
The motion carried twenty four to zero, and was neatly summed up in the report. “(A most important event of our Church and consummated in a very orderly manner in 50 minutes.)”
Pastor Sanford was a go-getter. He had led Bible Baptist into the bus ministry and he did the same with Maplewood after the merger in 1975. Twice in the next two years he attempted to build, once a Sunday School wing in the front yard and once an addition on the back of the house that would run all the way to the alley. Both efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Shortly after, he accepted the call of a Baptist church in Georgia and Maplewood was again without a pastor.
That last phrase – again without a pastor – is one that could be said over and over again in our church history. It is a sad phrase. Prior to 1981 no pastor had ever stayed longer than five years and many had stayed less. One stayed all of five months before he moved on. All of that, and indeed, almost everything about our church changed when Pastor Bob Heath accepted the call that year. He would go on to stay for nearly twenty three years, and in the process he turned this church upside down and completely remade it.
Prior to his arrival the church limped along. It had money in the bank, and a handful of members who loved to fight it out in business meetings over the most obscure details. Loosely affiliated with the spiritually declining Moody Bible Institute, they were predominantly older, white, and inwardly focused. Pastor Heath changed all of that.
From the first, he championed the bus ministry as Pastor Sanford had done. Within just a few years three buses ran every Sunday picking up children. Shortly after his arrival he promoted Vacation Bible School, and if the church had a signature ministry under his leadership it was this. Held every summer with scores of workers participating, it regularly averaged one hundred fifty to two hundred with many children making professions of faith each summer.
Pastor Heath led Maplewood to be a generous church. In his years as pastor we routinely gave thousands of dollars away to needy missionaries and ministries above and beyond their regular support. A quick glance through the business meeting minutes illustrates this. On two occasions we gave the Christian Law Association $20,000. Another time we sent $9,000 to a missionary in the Philippines. Still other substantial gifts were made to help missionaries build buildings, and pay for needed health care. The Lord blessed this generosity, and the giving remained above normal for an average sized church like ours throughout his pastorate.
Under his stewardship our property too was improved. A three lot parking lot on Diversey was purchased, paved, and fenced. A front expansion added two offices and a foyer. The second story was enlarged on the house, and the basements in both buildings converted for more efficient Sunday School use.
Historian and philosopher Henry Adams said of President Theodore Roosevelt, “He was pure act.” In many ways this same description applies to Pastor Heath. He arrived when Maplewood was at a low ebb spiritually and numerically. He threw himself into the task of aiming our church squarely at the goal of chasing sinners with the Gospel, and he held that same focus all the way through.
At his passing earlier this year Pastor Brennan paid his respects via the written word on his blog:
“I have pastored 19 years. I have scores of pastor friends. My father was a pastor for 38 years. It is incredibly difficult to change the culture of a church, and to do so without splitting it or killing it. He did. When he came it was allied with Moody Church. He led it to be loosely aligned with Hyles-Anderson College. When he came they had zero concept of personal evangelism. He developed them into a vigorous soul winning institution. When he came the church was debilitated with mutual indecision. He transitioned them to follow him. When he came the church had no outreach. He pushed and prodded and shamed and drove them into running so many buses and bringing in so many children there was not room enough for either. Somehow, he took a fossilized, hidebound, feuding declining church and turned it into a thriving evangelistic machine.
Along the way, he dealt prudently with the finances. He expanded the footprint of our building by adding a foyer and two offices. He led the church to purchase an unattached parking lot a block away. When he handed me the keys he also handed me a healthy bank statement, two buses, three vans, six city lots, a church building, a parsonage, and zero debt. I cannot possibly express how helpful that is to the succeeding pastor.
Week after week, month after month, season after season, year after year, he shoveled the snow, scrubbed off the graffiti, repaired the vehicles, dealt with the city, counseled the troubled, handled the crises, cast the vision, motivated the workers, preached the sermons, and in the face of opposition within and without led this church forward for the cause of Christ. And he did all of this without the hint of a breath of scandal. He was compassionate. He was firm. He was consistent. He was sacrificial. He was aggressive. And he was right.
How do you measure a man's life? Surely part of that measurement must include his work. And from the perspective of the man who knows that work better than any other man living I measure it as a grand life. Two thousand years ago our Saviour said, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12.24) On April 9, 2016 Bob Heath died, and went to his reward. But the truth is that Bob Heath died many years ago. He died to himself, and his lifelong dreams and ambitions. He died to leisure, good living, and the peaceful pace of his Southern rural upbringing. Instead, he gave his life away. And in the process he rescued, nay, practically resurrected an evangelistic independent Baptist church in one of America's great inner cities. And it bringeth forth much fruit.”
In the fall of 2004 after nearly twenty three years of service Pastor Heath made the difficult decision to resign. He had experienced some heavy disappointments, and he knew it was time to go. Prior to leaving to work for a Christian legal ministry in Ohio he led the pulpit committee to call Tom Brennan as the next pastor.
Pastor Brennan and his family arrived in January of 2004. In these last twelve years he has led in remodeling the buildings to the tune of $200,000 while still giving a quarter of a million dollars to missions. Pastor Brennan has continued Pastor Heath’s emphasis on evangelism by training dozens of soul winners. The music program, the youth program, the Sunday School, and the Patch the Pirate Club have all been upgraded. The church is both deeper and wider than it was when he arrived – deeper in its understanding of doctrine and wider in the base of its worker support and offerings. Over thirteen hundred adult visitors have come through during these years. The emphasis that has been placed on men and on families is seen, for example, in a four-fold increase in attendance on Sunday nights. These increases have come in spite of our clear and continued opposition to the pragmatic philosophies of church growth that are an epidemic in our day.
As 2016 closes our 125th year of operation Maplewood is in almost all points stronger than ever. The spirit is sweet, the music is spirited, the preaching has depth, there is a heart to serve, and the church is solidly united in its pursuit of sinners with the Gospel.
You will notice these few remembrances are titled “An Incomplete History.” Maplewood Bible Baptist Church honors our past but we are pressing ahead full steam toward the future. The best days in this church’s testimony for God and service for His Kingdom are yet to come.
One hundred and one years ago that early generation here at Maplewood felt the same way. In a newspaper clipping dated March of 1915 we find two small yet compelling paragraphs:
“The tearing down of the old frame building on Fullerton Avenue at the foot of Artesian Avenue, which has just taken place, will not cause any grief perhaps to the residents of that neighborhood. To some of the members of this church however, it will serve to arouse cherished memories. This was the building that in the early 90’s [meaning 1890s] served as the meeting place of the pioneers of Baptist doctrine in this community. It was the birthplace and the cradle of the Maplewood Baptist Church. So effectively was the gospel preached in this mission for such it was and so enthusiastic were those whose lives were linked with it that ere long a larger place was needed and the building which now serves as our auditorium was erected on the property acquired for that purpose.
The erection of the cement addition to accommodate the Sunday-School, about eight years ago, marked another step forward in the history of this church. The cement block structure was designed with a view to forming the basis on which to erect a modern building later on of similar construction. Although the construction of such a building may now seem somewhat visionary who shall say but that the coming years, perhaps not far distant, will witness the fulfillment of such a vision?
If the Lord wills it so, it shall be done. His hand has surely been in the work here since the small beginning in the old mission on Fullerton Avenue in years gone by. The growth as not always been as rapid as could have been desired, but there can be no better time than the present to remove whatever stumbling blocks may remain in the way of the fulfillment of God’s plan in connection with the work in this community.”
God has brought us thus far over the first one hundred and twenty five years. His grace will lead us home. Until then, let us occupy till He come. Let us press ahead for the cause of Christ. Let us witness, teach, mentor, love, sing, study, and preach boldly, faithfully, wisely, and compassionately about Jesus Christ.