Beginnings of First Baptist Church
Federal Writers’ Project WPA
The story of the First Baptist Church is the story of the activities of one of St. Augustine’s most highly esteemed citizens, Mrs. Hamie Williams-Jordan, a lithe figure of about eighty pounds and almost eighty years of age.
Mrs. Jordan states that she went to St. Augustine from Jacksonville in 1874, a girl of sixteen or seventeen years, with one Mrs. Anna Welters, to raise mission funds for her church in Tallahassee where she had formerly worshipped in a board structure; while in St. Augustine, she observed the lack of Protestant Churches and freely stated her views. Upon her return to Tallahassee, Mrs. Welters told her: “You go back to St. Augustine” and although she did not know then why this was said to her, she returned to St. Augustine and took up residence in a Catholic household. She found Ivey Barnes, a preacher of Jacksonville, trying to build a church; he was holding services in homes and trying to get the people together which was very difficult because mst of the people in St. Augustine were Catholics who were opposed to the establishment of Protestant Churches.
At that time she states Washington Street (now a very popular street for Negro Businesses) was a mud-hole and the neighborhood, woods. The only deacon, Reverend Barnes had was a Mr. Jordan who later became her father-in-law; they met at his home for conferences. Finally, they held their first public worship in the Waldo Home on Keith Street, but could not organize because the Catholics were very hostile to the idea. Then, she asked Reverend Barnes about organizing a Sunday School and told him “If I can get the children, the parents will follow them,” but Reverend Barnes stated that “You cannot do that, the Catholics are too strong;” but he promised he would help. “I went to Mrs. Perry,” she said, “a white Presbyterian whom I had known in Tallahassee, attending her Sunday School and was asked to join but told them I was a Baptist; she readily told me there were no Baptists there. I asked to see the quarterly and was given one which I took along with me after telling them there should be Sunday Schools of all denominations; then they advised me to come with them in the morning and they would come with me in the afternoon, and I informed them that where I had come from Sunday School was held in the morning so I would try to organize a Baptist Sunday School. My persistence in trying to establish the Baptist Sunday School caused my ejection from the Catholic home, but another Catholic took me in.
“Monday, I set out tramping through the marsh from house to house asking for children; the first mother advised, “Niggers don’t know about conducting Sunday School; only the whites know.” I asked her to just loan me the two girls she had and finally she relented – then I borrowed two more and another two and on until I had ten; I gave Reverend Barnes five of them to teach and I taught the other five. Most of these children were of Catholic homes. We moved in the house at the Corner of St. Benedict and Francis Streets where the church now stands and I tried to buy an organ from a white Catholic, but could not. So, I sent to Tallahassee for my hand organ (because I had learned to sing and play and had won the organ in a singing contest at Tallahassee) and began playing for all of the services; when I started singing and playing, eyes were opened, people came to the church and amid great opposition of the Catholics, I started a real Sunday School – the organ drew them from north, east, south and west. Reverend Barnes began preaching – the Catholics got busy. One night, fourteen banded themselves to destroy “Jordan and Barnes” for they believed that if we were destroyed the idea of establishing a Protestant Church there would be destroyed. At that time, the city gates opened only one way so that seven got on one side and seven on the other side of the gates and waited for us to come from prayer meeting – they had threatened to take us to the outskirts and beat us to death. Just before we came to the city gate something touched me and said: “Go this way” and we turned and went around by the Abbey House; we had never been that way before, but I obeyed what I later and now believe was the spirit.
The next night they came to the church and asked if the little woman from Tallahassee were there and I invited them in; the leader said: “We want to beg your pardon for what we intended doing to you last night.” The next night this same leader, Ed English came back and expressed a desire to join our church and be baptized, but explained that he could not let the Catholics know it because they would beat him, if caught. I told the pastor that one of the strongest Catholics wanted to be baptized; he said “No” because he was afraid; I tried to persuade him but he still said “NO” and finally, I told him “If you do not, I will baptize him if I go to hell the next day.” He eventually consented – the day of the baptism came – it was held in the pond ‘ all were properly dressed and a great crowd of Catholics followed us down to the pond and threw stones at Reverend Barnes; they threw dogs in the boats and did many things to try to stop us, but the baptism went on to the finish. Then I carried Reverend Barnes home with me and shielded him from further trouble. After that we got other Catholics in and baptized them, and do you know the Baptist made out of Catholics became the best friends I had in town until their deaths; they also made the best Baptist members.
“We were now worshiping in the Church on St. Benedict Street and the members got in arrears with the pastor’s salary, then wanted to put him out; they locked up the church. I took some of the loyal members and started a small mission built of boards and took the pastor there and kept him until they quieted down, then he went back. When they heard he was back, they became angry again and came after him with clubs. I pleaded with them, but they continued, so I had to send for the officers of the law and place them under peace warrants; after that we had no further trouble and the church has prospered to this day.”
Mrs. Hamie Williams Jordan, whom I would call a little evangelist is very energetic, despite her age; speaks fluently, and is most interesting to talk with. She says she feels now as well and seems to be as active as she was over fifty years ago. She was married only once to J. C. Jordan who died about fifteen years ago.