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Key West: Baptist Church

Key West: The Old and the New


THE earliest recorded data of any Baptists meeting for worship in Key West, was on December 20, 1842, when "agreeably to appointment, after prayer and deliberation, the brethren met at the residence of J. H. Breaker for the purpose of ordaining Brother Charles C. Lewis to the gospel ministry. Prayer was offered by Brother Breaker on behalf of the candidate, during which the laying on of hands was performed by Brothers Elim Eldridge, J. A. Wolfe and 0. T. Braman. Charge was then given by Brothers Breaker and Asa Sawyer, and the right hand of fellowship by all the brethren present."

This method of ordination was not strictly in accord with Baptist usage. After leaving Key West, Rev. Mr. Lewis was pastor of the Asia Minor Church, as it was locally designated, but properly, the Second Baptist Church of North Stonington, Conn. At the first meeting, this church acquainted the North Stonington Baptist Association with the manner of Mr. Lewis' ordination, and inquired if a reordination would be necessary. The old fathers after mature consideration, decided that Mr. Lewis was scripturally and regularly ordained, and thus placed the stamp of regularity on the acts of the little band of Baptists on the island, and established Mr. Lewis' title to being the first pastor of the Baptist church in Key West.

As there were no Baptist churches in Florida with which the Key West church could be associated, they applied for membership in the North Stonington, Conn., Association, and were willingly received. For many years they annually corresponded with this association, until it was ascertained that the church in Key West had a member who owned slaves, and they were notified that if they permitted slave owners to be members of their church, they could not continue their membership in the association. The Baptists here saw no reason to exclude from membership a person who was holding property sanctioned by the constitution and laws of the United States and the State of Florida, and upon their refusing to comply with this demand, were dropped from the North Stonington Union Association.

Subsequently the church sent Pastor-elect J. H. Breaker to Mobile for regular ordination. On December 23d of the same year they met for covenant meeting at the residence of Mr. J. H. Breaker, who was chosen clerk. Articles of faith and covenant -ere read, and ten persons examined and received for baptism, Catherine and Lavinia Johnson, John Pent, William Richardson, John Park, Reason Duke, Druscilla Duke, Mary Arlege, Martha B. Arlege and Susan Sands, who were baptized on Sunday, Christmas day, 1842. This was the first baptism by immersion performed on the island.

The formal constitution of the church took place March 11, 1843. Six persons, members of churches in Connecticut, Mr. J. H. Breaker, Mr. Ben Sawyer, Mr. 0. T. Braman, Mr. J. A. Wolfe, Mr. Asa Sawyer and Mr. Elim Eldridge, with several others, solemnly entered into a covenant as the "Key West Baptist Church."

The first celebration of the Lord's Supper by the Baptists occurred March 26, 1843. There is no record of- the election of any pastor at this time, but the records state that "in April, 1843, Elder Lewis left the church to go north on account of the ill health of his wife, and the church was left without a pastor."

In November, 1843, Elder Tripp assumed the pastoral care of the church. He preached twice on Sundays at the court house.

The first movement towards building a house of worship was made April, 1844, and the pastor was sent north to solicit funds for that purpose. He met with little success, abandoned the work, and never returned to Key West. The church, though pastorless, maintained regular prayer services. In 1845 Rev. Mr. Doolittle took charge, and it is recorded that "He preached twice on the Sabbath in the Episcopal church." This did not seem strange to the Christians who were in Key West at that time, although it may appear so to denominational people of today. In April, 1847, Mr. Doolittle returned to his northern home, when Mr. J. H. Breaker became pastor, and preached at the court house, and in the Methodist chapel.

During Mr. Breaker's pastorate the first meeting house was contracted for; the price being six hundred dollars. This house was opened for worship January 2, 1849.

From 1852 to 1890 the records of the church are lost. The church however, was not prosperous, the constant change of pastors preventing any progress.

During the Civil War the white Baptists drifted into other churches, and the church building was taken possession of by the negro Baptists, who held services there until the fall of 1879, when Rev. William F. Wood, who had been a chaplain in the Union Army, came to Key West and revived interest in the Baptist church. He continued as pastor until early in 1900, when he went to Fernandina, where he died. During his pastorate in Key West he served as a missionary in Cienfuegos, Cuba, for about two years. He was the first evangelical missionary to that island.

In 1866 the church building was destroyed by fire, and the present Baptist church was shortly afterwards erected, largely through the generosity of Mr. John White, who was for more than forty years a member of the congregation. A handsome memorial window to him now adorns the front of the edifice.

The names of the succeeding pastors are Reverends H. M. King, W. W. Bostwick, J. L. D. Hillyer, R. F. Hart, W. H. House, T. J. Porter, James L. Rogers, H. H. Sturgis, J. W. Tucker, M. A. Clonts, who served twice as pastor, W. A. Norwood who served a few months in the interim, and Earl D. Sims. Rev. C. E. W. Dobbs, the present pastor came here in September, 1910.

During Mr. White's life, and the pastorate of Mr. Wood the church thrived to a remarkable degree, and became one of the foremost evangelical influences in the city. After Mr. White's death the congregation not being wealthy, funds for the support of the church were hard to raise, and it was difficult to secure and keep the services of a pastor, so the congregation gradually dwindled away.

During the pastorate of Rev. M. A. Clonts it regained its old time membership. Mr. Clonts first came to Key West in August, 1901, and stayed until October, 1902. Air. Norwood succeeded him and served nearly a year. The church was again left pastorless from August, 1903, until Mr. Clonts returned in April, 1904. It was then that the church started on its present era of prosperity. During his pastorate the old First Baptist Church was formally dissolved, and the Eaton Street Baptist Church organized on March 23, 1905. On March 3, 1901, the old church unanimously voted to transfer the property to the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, but nothing was done towards the transfer until Mr. Clonts' second pastorate, when it was finally consummated. The church was then repaired and improved by the addition of the new front, with its attractive columns, and a pastorium was erected. Mr. Clonts ended his pastorate here September 30, 1908, and had a church for a short time in Jacksonville. He has since been engaged in life insurance, and has prospered.

Rev. Earl D. Sims was pastor from June, 1909, until July 31, 1910.

The church under the pastorate of Rev. C. E. W. Dobbs, has grown in membership and grace, and is now one of the strong religious influences on the island.

The Baptist pastors of Key West have had the hardest tasks of any of our ministers, as each one has found the small congregation badly scattered, and have had to "Watch the things they gave their. lives to, broken, and stoop and build them up with worn-out tools."


The First Congregational Church is one of the later institutions of worship in Key West. Like some of the others it had its origin in a disagreement among the members of an older church. Sparks Chapel, one of the Methodist churches, had a subsidiary organization among its members, known as "The Band of Prayer," one of the leaders of which was suspended from the church on a matter of discipline. Thirty-one other members of the band voluntarily withdrew, and without immediately perfecting any other church organization, met for worship at the homes of the different members. Finally in July, 1892, the leaders of this churchless band of Christians determined to organize an independent church. The Rev. Charles W. Fraizer was called to advise the brethren, and on July 20, 1892, the church was organized, with Rev. Mr. Fraizer as its first pastor, at the home of Mr. Samuel Roberts. The meetings were thereafter held in an "upper room" used as a sail loft. Mr. John A. Harris was the first convert of the church, his regeneration having taken place at the initial meeting of the Band of Prayer. It was through him that the church obtained its present site on William street, upon which the commodious brick church was erected.

The corner stone was laid by Rev. S. F. Gale, home missionary superintendent of the denomination for Florida, on the twenty-seven of June, 1903. From the small beginning of thirty-two members this church has become one of the foremost places of worship of the city. The present membership is two hundred and fifty-six. Mr. Fraizer served as pastor from July, 1892, to September, 1901; Rev. Charles Campbell from September, 1901, to September, 1902; Rev. William E. Todd from October, 1902, to September, 1903; Rev. H. R. Vau Anken from November, 1903, to May, 1905; Rev. Neil McQuarrie from May, 1905, to October, 1908. Rev. H. B. Gibbons from October, 1908, to October, 1911.

One of the peculiarities of this church is that its membership has always had a preponderance of male members.


In 1897 some of the devout disciples of Mrs. Eddy met at the residence of Mrs. Elenor Hellings, on Duval street, to hold services in accordance with the custom of that sect.

Under the influence of this little band of Christians several converts were made, and it became necessary to secure larger quarters for their services, and in 1899 they moved to the Masonic Hall on Simonton street, where they worshipped until 1911.

In 1904 a church was organized with fifteen charter members: Mrs. Elenor Hellings, Mr. and Mrs. F. A. Beckman, Mrs. Rosalie Maloney, Mrs. Ida Atkins, Mr. H. T. Mathews, Mrs. E. May Mathews, Mrs. Mary E. Maloney, Mrs. Annie L. Delaney, Messrs. Theodore L. Kinsey, H. J. Kinsey, 0. C. G. Urban, Alfred A. Berghell, Ira M. Richardson and Mrs. Elizabeth Knowles.

In 1911 they bought a lot on the corner of Division and Georgia streets, and erected thereon a concrete church, where services are now conducted. Their membership is nearly forty.


About fifteen years ago the Salvation Army sent a captain to Key West to begin their customary warfare against vice. In season and out of season, through good report and evil, too, they have worked hard and diligently. They work in the Master's vineyard apart from the others, and reach a class that would never hear religious admonition but for them.

In 1907 Hon. W. Hunt Harris permitted them to use, free of rent, a lot on Margaret street, where they erected a tabernacle for indoor worship.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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