IDAHO HISTORY: Boise was slow in getting its first church buildings

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANMay 5, 2013 

Editor's note: This is the first of a series on early Boise churches .

In September 1865, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman printed an item submitted by Baptist Pastor Hiram Hamilton lamenting the fact that although Boise was approaching its second birthday it still had not a single church building. "A good house of worship is much needed in this city. For more than a year past worship has been maintained in places inconvenient and uncomfortable. The prosperity of this city and valley demands the erection of a good church. This fact needs only to be stated to be seen and appreciated by all who have at heart the best interests of society and the welfare of the country."

The Rev. Hamilton, who had organized a Baptist church in Idaho City a year earlier, announced that as a missionary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society he had been authorized to build a church in Boise: "The work is begun. Three good lots, in a body, on Idaho Street have been presented and deeded by Mr. S.A. Adams, for the purpose, and a subscription of over seven hundred dollars has already been secured. Mr. Robb has drawn a plan, which, if executed will be an ornament to the city."

Episcopal Rev. St. Michsel Fackler told the Statesman in June 1866 that construction of an Episcopal church at the corner of Sixth and Idaho Streets had begun. Editor James Reynolds quipped "The location selected is in a quiet, religious neighborhood - being next lot adjoining the Statesman office on the north." (We'll tell the story of the Episcopalians in Idaho in a future column.)

In February 1867, pioneer Methodist missionary William Roberts preached in the new Baptist church at morning and evening services. It is not clear why the Baptists gave up those hours, unless they were temporarily without a pastor of their own. The Statesman said of Roberts: "This distinguished divine has favored our citizens with several interesting discourses on former occasions, and they should not lose the present opportunity of hearing him again." On Nov. 21, 1868, it was announced that Roberts would preach in the Baptist church on Sunday morning and that he would give a lecture in the evening on "Impressions of Travel, or a Visit to America." The paper thought it would be "highly gratifying to those of our citizens who have frequently had the pleasure of listening to the reverend gentleman's learned and instructive discourses on previous occasions. It is a fine theme, and one well suited to his happy and effective manner of speaking. We hope it will be merely the first of a series of lectures."

Roberts and his wife Hannah had arrived in Oregon in 1847 after a nine-month sea voyage from New York around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. He had been appointed superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Oregon Mission, a position that took him to California that same year, shortly before the discovery of gold that led to the rush of 1849. A history of the First Methodist church of Sacramento describes him as "a noble and distinguished man." In 1852 he was in Olympia, soon to become capital of the new Washington Territory, by which time he had been called "one of the greatest circuit riders of all time." It comes as a surprise, therefore, to read in the Statesman of Aug. 25, 1874, that "In the conference of the Methodist Episcopal church, now sitting in Portland, Oregon, charges were preferred against Rev. Wm. Roberts, formerly of this city, of immoral conduct and of embezzling church funds in Idaho City, about eight years ago." The minutes of conference of 1874 reveal that action was deferred until the annual conference of 1875, at which time Roberts was cleared of the charges.

In 1873 Rev. R.M. Gwinn led efforts to build a Methodist church. "He has not only succeeded in drawing a congregation from church-going men, but those who seldom ever go to church have seemed to follow the tide of public feeling and become regular attendants at these meetings. Templar hall, where the meetings are now being held, holds between 400 and 500 people, and is generally filled. Judging from the faces of those present last Wednesday evening there was not more than a single guard left in most of the saloons, stores, or shops around town."

In August 1874, when Rev. Guinn was about to be transferred out of Idaho Territory, a testimonial to his service was signed by the church board. It was then announced that ground would be broken for the First Methodist church.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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