In early 1850, in what is now Nevada City, a collection of tents, brush shanties and a few board houses were beginning to take on the appearance of a town. The quest for gold was in full swing and every man had to fend for himself. To give up even the Sabbath for a day of rest and worship was to give up the yield of that day's gold which few felt they could afford. However, there were those who realized the importance of their religious beliefs and sought to abide by them.
There were some missionary preachers among the fortune seekers. History tells of the first religious services being held in the streets of Nevada (later called Nevada City) under some trees.
During the summer of 1850 a Mr. Stamps who was Chief Magistrate of the town and a Mr. Lamden, an ex-minister, helped get a small shake building erected on the lot where the present Baptist Church now stands at 300 Main Street. Shakes were nailed to posts driven into the natural contours of the ground which made the dirt floor very uneven. Boxes and whiskey barrels were used for seats. This building was used for all denominations and called "Washington Monument Church." A church built later on this same site was dedicated "Congregational."
In 1851 fire destroyed most of the town including the little shake church. Soon, new buildings were begun and the strongest religious denominations began to build their own churches.
As the various religious groups were well into their building projects, it was not uncommon for the ministers to go among the townspeople asking for donations to further their cause. Historians tell of the saloon patrons when the pastor entered to solicit funds. The game tables would be covered and drinking ceased until the minister had made his plea, taken up a collection and departed.
Records show the first religious service named "Baptist" was held in the Jenny Lind Theater in December 1854, by a Rev. Winn for the American Home Mission Society. This theater was above the Broad Street bridge and spanned the creek itself -- resting on supports on each side of the creek. Baptist services were also held in the Temperance Hall on lower Main Street.
In 1855, under the direction of a Rev. Stone, the Baptists built a church on the corner of Pine and Spring streets. The owner of the National Hotel gave the property to the Baptist people. It was in this church where Emma Nevada sang her first solo -- thus beginning her famous career.
The Democrat Newspaper published in 1855 gave these statistics of the City.
Number of families - 156
Churches - 5
Newspapers - 2
Banks - 4
Jewelry Stores - 2
Physicians - 15
Sawmills - 8
Arriving and leaving stages - 20
Another fire struck the town in 1856. Four churches were destroyed including the Baptist church. Not until 1860, under the leadership of a Rev. Brierly, did the Baptists begin another building on their lot at Pine and Spring. This was a frame building which, after many changes, stands today as the Powell House.
Just three years later, on Sunday, November 8, 1863, the town again suffered near total loss by fire. Many business houses and churches were destroyed but the Baptists' frame structure stood untouched. The Congregational Church, a brick structure at 300 Main Street (now First Baptist), was almost totally destroyed, but walls were still standing and it was soon rebuilt as it very much looks today. After this fire, the Baptist people opened their doors to the various religious groups for services. Surely it would take people of great courage and faith to begin again in the face of two disasters in such a short period of time, but some did not look back and soon went forward with rebuilding.
The Church on Spring and Pine continued to prosper and became incorporated in 1874. Records are unclear as to what happened until 1878, when a renewal is recorded, and the name listed as "The Nevada City Baptist."
The lust for gold was waning or possibly becoming harder to find, so many people were leaving the area. This definitely had its effect on businesses and churches. By 1895, the Baptist congregation had ceased to function or even exist, and the church building was sold. There seems to be little or nothing recorded from that date about the Baptist denomination until 1947 when John and Marilyn MacDonald, with their small daughter Kathleen, came to Nevada City from Stockton to establish a Baptist church.
The first worship service under the leadership of the MacDonalds was held in a small store building on Commercial Street, October 19, 1947, with 7 people present. This new organization grew steadily and was incorporated as the Community Baptist Church in 1948 with 24 members.
Soon this growing congregation needed larger facilities and a "New" home was purchased. The Gold Trail Hotel on Sacramento Street was available and looked promising. It was bought for $15,000 and a few faithful men and women began the huge task of converting it into a more desirable meeting place. It was in use as their "new church" by spring of 1952.
Change was inevitable and Nevada City was growing. A new freeway was to be built through the town and the church had to be removed.
The Congregational Church at 300 Main Street had not been used as a church since about 1914. It was used as a Christian Science meeting place for several years. A mortuary occupied the building for a short time and it was later made into the Church Apartments. The owner, Mrs. Van Duzer wanted to sell the building and had a real desire to have it be used again as a church. The Baptist people felt it would be the perfect church home so it was purchased in 1954 for $12,600 and another restoration was begun.
Congregational Church, Nevada City
The City had rules that required the building be made earthquake proof. This took more time and money than was anticipated. It wasn't until October 1958 that church services were again held in the "Old Congregational Church" this time as The Community Baptist.
The building has had some structural changes over the years, both inside and out. In 1967 the name was changed from Community Baptist to Nevada City First Baptist. The building was dedicated in 1987 as an Historical Monument by the Native Daughters of the Golden West.
Painting by G.F. "Guff" Vesely (1962) behind the baptistry
In 1996, the old theater seats which had been used since 1958 were replaced with new pews. The Sanctuary was completely refurbished keeping the colonial theme as near as possible. Behind the baptistry is a large painting by local artist G.F. "Guff" Vesely (1886-1966) of a river scene dated 1962. The congregation remains today an active church in Nevada City and the community. We invite you to visit us soon.
First Baptist Church of Nevada City as it stands today