History

 

The origins of the Southampton Baptist Church can be traced back to a dispute which occurred within the Society of Friends in 1691.  George Keith, a prominent Quaker, who had been Surveyor of East Jersey, and later head of the Penn Charter School, had become convinced of the need for Friends to adopt a profession of faith.  Relations between the leadership of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Keith and his followers rapidly deteriorated to the point where the two factions no longer worshipped together.  One of these groups of "Keithians" met regularly at the house of John Swift in Southampton, with John Hart as their minister.

Painting ~ William Penn

 

Shortly before his death of smallpox in 1702, John Watts, a prominent local resident, persuaded the Southampton group (who, like other Keithians, practiced adult baptism by immersion) "to make but one Meeting" with the Lower Dublin (Pennepack) Baptist Church.  Services were still held in houses in the Southampton area on the third Lord's Day of each month.  This continued until 1731, when John Morris gave one acre of ground for a Meetinghouse and cemetery, as well as a 112-1/2 acre "plantation" to be used "for the Support of the Ministry."

 

In 1745, 55 members from the Southampton area petitioned to sever ties with the Pennepack Church and become an independent body.  The petitioners emphasized that distance between the communities, not any doctrinal conflict, was their motivation.  The petition was approved on April 5, 1746, and the church covenant was signed the same year.  It is interesting to note that the signers of the petition and charter are almost evenly divided between men and women.  Also, from this early period, there were black members of the Church; however, it was decades before the descendants of local Dutch settlers began to worship with the Baptists.

 

In 1772, additional ground was purchased to the north of the cemetery, and construction of the current Meetinghouse was begun, using material salvaged from the 1731 structure.  By 1814, the number of worshipers had increased to the point where a subscription campaign was undertaken to enlarge the building.

 

The early 19th century was perhaps the church's most dynamic period.  The minister was paid a salary, rather than having to farm to earn his living.  The Parsonage Farm, or "plantation" was rented out, although it still supplied wood to heat the church.  Additional income came from pew rentals.  A sexton cared for the Meetinghouse and cemetery.  There was a Poor Fund to aid the community.  There was also a school, started in the mid-1700's on the property.  The Church had the only Sunday School program in the area.

 

By the 1840's, serious divisions among the worshipers became apparent, involving both doctrinal and organizational issues.  From the beginning, there seems to have been a distinction between those who were accepted into full membership ("the Church") and others who, nevertheless, regularly participated spiritually and financially in the group ("the Congregation").  The arrangement was formalized when the Southampton Baptist Corporation was registered in 1791 with the new Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The bylaws provided for an eleven-member board of trustees:  Five from "the Church," five from the "Congregation," and the minister (or in his absence, the Head Deacon).  A proposal to have the Meetinghouse used by the opposing factions on alternate Sundays was rejected.  In 1849, there was an acrimonious split, with one group leaving to form the Davisville Baptist Church.

 

The second half of the 19th century saw a renewal of activity.  The altar was rebuilt in the late 1850's.  Coal stoves and a kerosene chandelier were installed.  The "plantation" was sold and a new parsonage built.  A hymnal, which was widely used by Old School Baptist Congregations, was prepared.  "Association Meetings" were held during the summers, bringing together representatives of the Delaware River Old School Baptist Association for days of singing, sermons and pot-luck meals served on the lawn.  Baptisms were held in the creek which flows just south of the cemetery, the water level being raised by the creation of a temporary dam.

 

Although the Church was not changing, Southampton was.  In 1878, the railroad line to Philadelphia was opened.  New families arrived, and old-time residents could take advantage of easy access to the city.  By the 1920's, the number of members and attendees of the church was in decline.  One electric line was installed to provide a light on the pulpit "to illuminate the Word of God," but otherwise, no modernization was undertaken.  There was no longer a resident minister; services were held with decreasing frequency, and eventually discontinued.  The last member died in 1984.

 

The Southampton Old School Baptist Meetinghouse and Cemetery survive as reminders of the history and heritage of this region.  The Meetinghouse has remained virtually unchanged since the 1850's.  A stroll through the cemetery reveals a virtual "Who's Who" of local residents of the past three hundred years, including veterans from the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.  Church records, from 1746 to the present, offer a wealth of genealogical information as well as providing insights into daily life in past centuries.

 

The Board of Trustees of the Southampton Baptist Corporation is working to restore and maintain the site, making it a resource for our modern community, while preserving its historic, esthetic and spiritual legacy.

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