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FAIRWATER FREE BAPTIST CHURCH
Historical Sketch from the Church Records, 1850-1937
Loma Knapp Klossner

    

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The Old Church

Loma Klossner is the daughter of Walter and Mae Knapp, granddaughter of U. L. Johnson, a deacon of the church. She has donated the original reconds from which this history is taken to the Fairwater Historical Society.


I was a part of the church from my earliest memories, when my dad would stop my swinging feet before they hit the back of the pew ahead of me, through Sunday school classes in the basement, where we made paper dolls to tell the Bible stories and sang "Brighten the Corner Where You Are." As a pre-teen I was drafted as the church pianist—I’m sure it was in desperation on the part of the church members—but my music lessons became preludes and hymns and Miss Sherwin did her best to make me competent. Summer church camp and Association Youth work were encouraged by pastor and church members alike, and those experiences formed the bases for my involvement in church related activities later in life. We even entertained an Association-wide youth conference with more than 100 guests—housing them in our homes and feeding them hearty farmer’s meals. (Fairwater had no hotels or restaurants during those years.)

In 1933 I left for college and, except for weekends at home and the one school year when I lived at home while teaching school, was not involved in anything beyond the Sunday morning service. In fact, after 1940 I was not even home weekends, so I missed the details of the slow demise of the church. Many of the members had come from the Dutch Reformed tradition and chose the Baptist church when the Alto Evangelical church was closed. The Theune’s and Daane’s made up nearly half of our membership during the 1930’s and 40’s. When the Reformed Church started a congregation in Brandon they returned to their roots. Children of other member families were scattering, especially during WWII, and few new families were moving into the community.

When I came home in 1944 as my husband was sent overseas, the last pastor had resigned. My folks and I moved to Fond du Lac that fall, and I do not remember the closing, sale, and razing of the church building.

Transcribing these minutes has been a fascinating experience—I knew that this church had been part of my mother’s family since she was a small child, but I was not aware of the years before then. I have tried to summarize nearly one hundred years of existence into a couple of pages. I hope that you share my gratitude that faith kept the fellowship alive for so many years.

The Free Will Baptist Church of Fairwater was organized in 1850 by eight people—meeting in faith—and lasted nearly a century. As I read the minutes of meetings held during that period I was particularly astonished by several facts.

During at least a part of that century there were two Baptist churches in the village. I have no knowledge of the Regular Baptist church, except the mention made that apparently there were doctrinal differences. One couple came from the Regulars to the Free Wills, apparently so they could be ordained, although no subsequent information confirmed that action. The Regular Baptist church was invited to join in "evangelism meetings" so its members must have shared some basic beliefs, but there was no record that they did participate in the revival.

The first building—on Church Street in Bill Town—was constructed before 1860, and a janitor was hired for one shilling a week. (Were shillings legal tender then?) A bell was purchased, and the sexton ordered to ring it. A few years later the parsonage was built, followed by a barn.

By 1860 attention was turned to concern about members who were not adhering to the covenant on which the church was founded, and suspensions and expulsions resulted. I can understand breach or neglect of covenant, drunkenness, dancing, Sabbath breaking, idleness and profanity, but I am at a loss to know what "unchristian" or "disorderly walk" (both given as reasons for expulsion) might be. Even "refusing to settle difficulties according to Gospel rule" and "long continued neglect with no prospect of restoration" are believable when the covenant is very specific in its requirements. However, with confession, sins as serious as stealing merited only a suspension of participation for three months. The last expulsion listed was in 1895, although members were dropped for unnamed reasons until the end of the record.

By 1862 the church was strongly anti-slavery, having passed a resolution commending the pastor for his firm and vocal commitment to this position. One woman was excluded for "non-attendance and her pro-slavery position." Lincoln’s death in 1865 was mentioned as having a depressing effect on their covenant meeting that week.

The janitor (sexton) was a vital staff person, whether he was paid one shilling a week, $3 per month, $40 per year, or $2 extra because of special meetings—all of these salaries are mentioned. For that stipend he "had to ring the bell for all services, sweep the building, build the fires and fill and trim the lamps."

Some of the interesting chronology included:

The dollar amounts seem laughable to us today: the pastor’s salary in 1860 was $350, and by 1940 it was $500. No wonder the pastor often supplied two small churches so that his income might be doubled. Total income for the incidentals ranged between $600 and $700. The "new" parsonage was built for less than $1500—there is no record of the cost of the church building. One year’s end found the outstanding debt totaled $18.59.

Even the name of the church evolved over the years. The word "Will" was dropped in 1873, and sometime in the early 20th century even the "Free" disappeared. During that time the regional and state organizations for the Baptist Churches also were modified so that when the church dissolved the assets went back to the Wisconsin State Baptist Convention. Another change had occurred about 1935. The Ladies Aid broadened its appeal to women of the community and was known as the Baptist Womens’ Club, with many of its members not affiliated with the church, but all of them sharing its volunteer activities.

After the Rev. Swedberg resigned in 1944, the church disbanded, the property was resold by the Wisconsin Baptist State Convention to individuals who razed the church building (not wanting it to be converted into a store or tavern as had happened to the original building on the hill), and they built a house on the site. It brought closure to nearly 100 years as a Christian presence in the village.

Loma Knapp Klossner
Fitchburg, Wisconsin
May, 2000

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