West's oldest continuous Baptist congregation celebrates
"When a church lasts 175 years, that is a testament to a certain persistence and devotion of the people to the church and to the community," noted John Withum, the current pastor who came to the First Baptist Church of Oregon City in 2019.
The oldest continuous Baptist congregation west of the Rockies, First Baptist's history reflects Oregon City's own history; the church began downtown near the river, but "grew up the hill" to its current location at 819 John Adams St.
There is something about the building, Withum said, a sense that "prayer and song — the practice of God's word have happened for a long time."
He added, "There is an abiding presence of the spirit of God."
Withum came to the First Baptist Church of Oregon City from Illinois; he is the 40th pastor to lead the church.
Contributing to the longevity of the church is the "generous, loving congregation" that welcomed him with open arms, Withum said.
"Church is all about people; church doesn't exist to make more church, it exists to follow Jesus," he noted.
Withum noted that the congregation has seen major changes in Oregon City, the state and the world.
"When the church was founded, it was illegal for non-whites to live in the Oregon Territory. But we stand now to embrace a multi-ethnic, multi-race community — all are welcome," Withum said.
The First Baptist Church of Oregon City was established on July 4, 1847, by Rev. Hezekiah Johnson and Rev. Ezra Fisher, missionaries from New York. The congregation is the oldest continuing Baptist congregation west of the Rockies.
The first church building was built in 1848 on two lots donated by Dr. John McLoughlin at 13th and Main streets in Oregon City. The second building was located on Ninth and Main Street.
In the 1940s, the congregation moved to the present location at Ninth and John Adams Street. Due to the widening of Highway 99E, the congregation of the First Baptist Church sold its downtown property.
Larry Cole is the church historian and noted that he has always been interested in what happened in the early days.
"When you look back, this country was untamed, and these people arrived from the East, came to live in a wild area and settled here with nothing," he said.
"People were sent here by missionaries and we are still a missionary church. We support missionaries around the world," Cole said.
The First Baptist Church of Oregon City has always been about supporting the community, he said, adding that the church runs a food pantry that feeds 50 to 75 families every week.
Cole also noted that one of the early pastors started Oregon City College in a church building; that became Oregon City University, which then moved to McMinnville and ultimately became Linfield College.
The celebration of the 175th anniversary of the church's founding began on July 3, when Cole presented Withum with a certificate of congratulations from the American Baptist Historical Society.
A cake social followed a luncheon after the service with scrapbooks compiled through the years.
The final big celebration will take place sometime in September, Withum said.
"We want to give something to our neighbors and have a good time," he noted.
He said he wants neighbors to come and meet each other, mingle and enjoy themselves. Children's activities will be based in the gym, and there will be opportunities for attendees to look at the sanctuary and admire the historic stained-glass windows.
"We are committed to the people of Oregon City, young or old, no matter their race, ethnicity or economic status. We are here to love and care for them," Withum said.
He added, "All people are welcome to join our small, slow and weird group trying to follow Jesus."
For more information about upcoming events at the First Baptist Church of Oregon City, visit 1baptistchurch.org.
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