The Ottawa Baptist Association was organized in 1836 but it was not until 1855, one year after Bytown became Ottawa, that four Baptists “and one other” met in a private home in Ottawa for prayer and consultation. In 1856, The Ottawa Baptist Association sent a minister once a month to preach at this meeting, and it was in 1857 that nine charter members finally formed the first Baptist church of Ottawa, now known as First Baptist Church, Ottawa.
Initially, the group met in the Temperance Hall, which is believed to have been located on Queen Street. The first regular minister at this location was James Mackie, who arrived in 1861. The Queen Street location proved to be inadequate, however, and the church decided to construct its own building, buying a lot on the south side of Queen Street between Elgin and Metcalfe Streets for this purpose. A substantial limestone structure consisting chiefly of a hall capable of seating 200 people was completed in December, 1863. The Rev. R.J. Langridge succeeded Mr. Mackie when the new building was opened.
In 1865, the Rev. Daniel McPhail became minister of the church. Mr. McPhail assumed some fame by riding the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Valleys on his horse, Prince, to establish and serve the congregations in eastern Ontario. He remained in Ottawa until 1871 when the Reverend A. A. Cameron took over the ministry of the sixty-member church.
A turning point in the church’s development was catalyzed by an address delivered by the Reverend Cameron in 1875 in Toronto. The Evangelical Alliance of Ottawa was outraged at the content of Cameron’s address, entitled “Baptism,” and a pamphlet war, familiar in days without radios and televisions, ensued between Mr. Cameron and the Reverend J. Bethune, Presbyterian minister of Chesley, Ontario. This dispute attracted the attention of the press, and Baptist principles and policy became popular. People flocked to hear Mr. Cameron speak, often coming back for more. Attendance swelled in response; 320 names were added to the church rolls, and in 1882 the church membership stood at 240 believers.
Officially identified by a white marble slab as “First Baptist Church, 1861,” the church was still commonly known as The Queen Street Chapel. Ottawa was growing rapidly, and soon the building could no longer service its congregation. Land was purchased at the corner of Maria (now Laurier Avenue) and Elgin Streets, and the foundations of the present church were begun in the spring of 1877. The cornerstone itself was laid by the Prime Minister, the Honourable Alexander MacKenzie, on July 26, 1877. The Prime Minister, himself an expert stonemason, borrowed a proper mason’s trowel from one of the workmen, spread the mortar, set the stone, tapped it with the heavy tool, and declared it to be well and truly laid.
The church continued to grow rapidly under the leadership of several ministers: A.P. McDiarmid, G.M.W. Carey, and R.R. McKay. At the time of Carey’s ministry in 1889, church membership stood at 405 and the newly formed Convention of Ontario and Quebec met in the church building. Pew rents were abolished in 1890. Although named by the building committee as “The Baptist Tabernacle,” the church was now commonly known as First Baptist Church. A.A. Cameron returned for a second pastorate in 1897 and stayed until 1911. During his ministry, Fourth Avenue Baptist Church was organized with 20 members from First Baptist and 10 from McPhail Memorial (1899), individual communion cups were introduced (1902), and Mr. Cameron was sent as a delegate to the first meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in London, England (1905). He was given an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree by McMaster (1906) and was elected President of the Convention in 1910. With his retirement in 1911, an era for First Baptist Church also came to an end.
The Reverend Benjamin Goodfield became minister in 1912. It was during his short ministry that the church added a new wing on the neighbouring lot on Laurier Avenue, land that had been purchased by the church in 1901. The new extension included space for a kitchen, a central heating furnace, a minister’s vestry/office, and general service rooms, together with a spacious organ chamber and new baptistry. Mr. Goodfield resigned in 1915, in the midst of the First World War, and the Rev. A.N. Marshall became minister in 1917, resigning in 1924. More short pastorates followed: the Rev. E.E. Sayles (1925-26), and the Rev. A. Robert George (1927-31).
On May 1, 1932, the Rev. Stuart Ivison became minister, opening another era for the church congregation. One of the highlights of the early part of his ministry was having the famous Dr. T.R. Glover of Cambridge University conduct three notable summer ministries in 1935, 1936, and 1937. The Second World War arrived in 1939 and Mr. Ivison entered the Forces in 1941. The interim was supplied by the Rev. R.G. Quiggin until Mr. Ivison returned to the pastorate in December 1945.
Major alterations to the church were made in 1928 when it was discovered that the roof needed repair and that the west wall had sustained serious water damage. The well-known architect A.J. Hazelgrove prepared plans by which the pulpit was moved to the south end of the church, the semi-circular pews were replaced by straight ones on either side of a central aisle, and seating for the choir was provided on either side of the pulpit. New oak paneling and woodwork supporting the pulpit, new lighting, and new stained glass windows by Peter Howarth, ARCA, were installed, and a three-panel stained glass window designed by the same artist was set in the north wall to serve as a memorial to John C. Edwards and John A. Cameron. The Edwards and Cameron families assumed the costs of the sanctuary reconstruction. The memorial window was unveiled by Governor-General, Lord Willingdon, on June 2, 1929.
In 1957, the centenary of the congregation was celebrated and a four-year appeal was launched to raise funds to cover necessary maintenance, including the sheathing of the spire with copper, the creation of “The Ottawa Scholarship” at McMaster Divinity College, and a fund to be devoted to church extension in the Ottawa area. Some seven years later the decision was taken to replace the fifty-year-old pipe organ with a new organ which would be installed in the newly-extended gallery. The new organ, made by Casavant Frères, was dedicated in a special service on Sunday, March 20, 1966.
Through the years, the church has been the home church of many significant Canadians. Notable members have included former prime minister, the Rt. Hon. J.G. Diefenbaker, Mr. Justice Roy Kellock of the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice John E. Read of the International Court of Justice, Mr. Grant Dexter, Ottawa correspondent of the Winnipeg Free Press, and the Hon. Donald S. Macdonald, PC.
For some years First Baptist Church has also been privileged to be the garrison church for Baptists of the Canadian Armed Forces and their dependants, who would otherwise lack a home church.
Since 1857, First Baptist Church has seen seventeen Pastors ministering for periods of two years to thirty-nine years. Two men, Dr. A.A. Cameron and the Rev. Stuart Ivison, covered a total of sixty-four years during their pastorates! Some significant dates:
1878 -Present building opens for worship.
1909-10 -Dr. A.A. Cameron serves as President of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec.
1914 -The side building is erected.
1928-29 -The Church interior renovated/Memorial Window installed.
1950-51 -Mr. W.D. Burden is elected President of the Baptist Convention.
1956-57 -Mrs. Mary Milne is the first woman to be elected to the position of President of the Baptist Convention.
1957 -The Church centennial is celebrated and a scholarship is established at McMaster Divinity College.
1961 -The Friendly Corner Club is started.
1966 -The organ, built by Casavant Frères, is installed.
1967 -The Baptist Federation of Canada meets in Ottawa. The opening address in First Baptist Church, This Place Where We Meet, is given by Mr. Stuart Ivison.
1967 -The Centretown Churches Social Action Committee is founded.
1970 -The first women are appointed to the Board of Deacons.
1971-72 -Dr. R.J. Cummings becomes President of the Baptist Convention.
1973 -The first issue of the newsletter, Contact, is published.
1978 -The 100th anniversary of the Church building is celebrated.
1985 -The Church building is designated as a “Heritage Building” by the City of Ottawa.
References: “First Baptist Church, Ottawa, 1857-1957″ by Rowley Frith and Roots and Destiny: Exploration into Baptist History and Thoughts of the Future