Our Church History
American Baptist work began in Shelby County, Iowa on January 21, 1868 when nine people met in the Court House at Harlan to organize the First Baptist Church of Harlan. The ensuing year was eventful, among other achievements was the addition of a “Danish Branch” when Danish Baptists who began settling in the East Nishnabotna River bottoms, presented their certificates of membership to the church with a request to have services in their native tongue. Two years later a wooden chapel was constructed which was constructed to house the First Baptist Church during the first eighteen years of its existence. In 1886, James Long donated a new brick building to the First Baptist Church and the old wooden building was given to the Danish Baptists for a church of their own. Here the work continued prospering to a degree, when in 1929; a merger between the two churches ended the eventful history of the First Baptist Church.
Almost simultaneous with the merger in 1929 came the great crash in the New York Stock Exchange followed by economic depression, but in spite of this an adequate brick building was erected and dedicated in January of 1936. This church was called Bethel Baptist Church and existed on the corner of 7th and Victoria Streets. In 1954, a goal of 500 in Sunday school in April was almost reached but an outbreak of chicken pox curtailed the goal.
It all began in the spring of 1958 when a group of dedicated people, feeling the need for the distinct testimony of an American Baptist Church in our community, held several meetings at the Baptist Memorial Home to discuss the possibility of such a project. After much discussion and prayer, it was decided to proceed. The name of “First Baptist Church” was chosen.
We were fortunate to secure the Old Park School Building in which to hold our services. Those of us who were involved will never forget our “work day” on May 22, 1958. A couple who had recently moved from California became invaluable to us as janitors. Art Jacobsen was always there when needed to fix leaky pipes and many other repair jobs needed in the old school building. He and Sarah continued their janitorial duties for many years after we moved into our new church building.
The first service of this group was held on Sunday, May 25, 1958 at the Old Park School with 90 in attendance at Sunday school and 145 in the Church service. Ninety-six Baptists signed as Charter Members on that day. Charter membership was closed on December 31, 1958 with 204 members.
When first beginning to think of the “History of the First Baptist Church”, you think of the various people who played an important part in the organization of the church, but then you realize that you cannot do this. After looking back over the past 10 years, you find that so many contributed so greatly to the organization and since that time that you decide the entire membership deserves at least some credit. Below is just an attempt to give a brief history of the important dates and milestones in the history of First Baptist Church.
June 11, 1957 – Our first meeting. Around 100 people met with Reverend Neil berg of Clarks Grove, Minnesota. Temporary Clerk and Committee of 10 were appointed. This committee worked hard all the rest of 1957 and called another meeting February 3, 1958 with Dr. A.J. Knight in charge. This night is was decided the “we band ourselves together for the purpose of raising a witness for the American Baptist Cause and to encourage a cooperating Baptist Church in this community.”
April 4, 1958 – Meeting led by Dr. Paul Smith, Sec. of the Iowa Baptist Convention. It was decided that night to have Sunday Evening Services asking Reverend Lawrence Thompson, who was a member of our group, to be our speaker. We had Sunday Evening Services from the first part of April through May 18, 1958 at the Baptist Memorial Home with good attendance. Reverend Lou Eckols had several of our services.
April 27, 1958 – The Church name was decided upon as FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
May 25, 1958 – Our first Sunday morning services with 90 in Sunday school and 145 in church services
June 1, 1958 - Our first Communion Service
June 3, 1958 – Our first Family night
July 6, 1958 – Our first baptismal service in joint services with Cuppy’s Grove with 5 baptisms
July 26, 1958 – Articles of Incorporation were completed
August 21, 1958 – First election of officers
October 1, 2021 – First Baptist Church Harlan voted to leave the American Baptist Church Demonination
The first moderator of our church was Gerald Larson, Arthur Knudsen was chairman of the Board of Deacons and Howard Rasmussen was chairman of the Trustees. The church Clerk was Ila Jorgensen and the Treasurer was Don Blakely. Norman Sondergard was our Sunday school Secretary and held that position for many, many years in our new church building. Ruth Sorensen and Margaret Pauley were the first people to do church calling for prospective members.
On July 6th we held a joint baptismal service with the Altamont Baptist Church at Cuppy’s Grove. July 26th the Articles of Incorporation were compiled and signed.
Our first Pastor, Reverend Robert B. Willhoite, was called on September 21, 1958 and a parsonage was purchased on October 1, 1958 on 7th Street. On October 29th we held an installation service for Reverend Willhoite and his family. Another baptismal service for 10 persons was held at the Altamont Baptist Church on December 14th. By the end of 1958, 204 people had signed as charter members.
On May 29, 1959, a contract was signed with the Harlan Contracting Company for our new church building. Ground breaking services were held on May 31st. A corner stone was laid on August 30th. The building committee was divided into three separate committees, namely: Structure; Interior: and Grounds, with Howard Rasmussen as general chairman. Our church was fortunate to have the guidance and excellent advise of one of our members, Morris Frederickson, who had been a building contractor in Harlan for many years.
The very first meeting in our new church building was our Christmas program held in our partially finished basement on December 20, 1959 at which a most interesting guest was a little mouse. Our seats consisted of planks set on cement blocks.
The move from Park School to our new building was made during the week proceeding May 29, 1960, and on that Sunday we met in our new building with songs of praise and much joy in our hearts. Our membership now numbered 222. June 17-20 were “Days of Dedication” which included 2 banquets, a night of music and a very fine historical pageant written by Esther Stofferson. It was truly a memorable time as we celebrated the occupancy of our new House of God.
Our first church paper (monthly) was started during this year with Arlo Sondergard as editor with postage being 1 ¼ cents per copy.