Free Baptist Church
One of several churches in the Old Eighth Ward
1881 Map of Harrisburg, John R. Fender & Co.
Dedicated on February 5, 1865, at the corner of Fourth and State Streets behind the old Capitol in the historic Eighth Ward, the Free Baptist Church represented a congregation that had seceded from the earlier Fourth Street Bethel Church of God.
The new congregation was led by Rev. James Calder D.D. who had earlier been associated with the Church of God. The church, although originally well attended partially due to the popularity of Calder, found that the congregation started to attend other churches as Fourth and State Streets became less convenient. As a result, around 1902 the Church sold its property to a growing Hebrew congregation.
The women appointed to the original Home for the Friendless Board of Managers in 1866 were Mrs. Eliza D. Calder and Mrs. Mary E. Jones.
Further Historical Retrospection
Free Baptist Church, Historical Society of Dauphin County, c. 1895.
Situated in what has been known as the Old Eighth Ward, the Free Baptist Church was just behind the old Capitol Building at Fourth and State Streets. It was completed in 1865 and was designed by noted Harrisburg architect Luther M. Simon. Simon was a prolific designer of public buildings and churches in the city including the Pine Street Presbyterian Church which was completed in 1860. Northern Italian Renaissance in architectural style, the Free Baptist Church’s spire became an important late 19th Century landmark on East State Street.
Throughout the 19th century, the Old Eighth Ward was inhabited by many African Americans as well as Jewish and Eastern European immigrants. It was the site of many residential, commercial, and institutional properties including restaurants, hotels, churches and schools.
It was a dynamic community and a melting pot of diverse ethnic backgrounds. During the Civil War it was known as an “Underground Railroad” haven for escaped slaves from the South. In particular, the Wesley Union AME Church on Tanners’ Alley in the Old Eighth Ward neighborhood became a landmark in which abolitionist Frederick Douglas spoke in 1857. While the neighborhood played a significant role in the history of the development of Harrisburg, it stood in the way of the inherent growth of State Government though the expansion of the Capitol Complex starting in 1911.
All buildings between Walnut and North Streets, including the former Free Baptist Church and later the Kesher Israel Synagogue, were demolished. The grand master plan for this was sparked by the completion of the present Capitol Building in 1906 and the ensuing emergence of Soldiers Grove and the four monumental state office buildings of today. After the Free Baptist Church’s departure from East State Street, it formed a new congregation in 1909. A year later in 1910, they built the Market Street Baptist Church at 15th and Market Streets on Harrisburg’s Allison Hill. While the original sanctuary was located to the rear of this property, a new main sanctuary was built in front in 1932.
The original 1910 structure was replaced in the 1950’s with a new wing. The church continued to grow due to the eventual move of members of the First Baptist Church at Second and Pine Streets.
Banner photo courtesy the Historical Society of Dauphin County.