The history of St. John Baptist Church began in 1893 at 2823 Mitchell Street in the home of Paul and Retta Page. Prayer meetings were led there by two traveling Evangelists, Bros. Holliday and Johnson. For a brief period thereafter, Rev. Bell served as our first Pastor.
The first eight members of our church, at were Paul and Retta Page, Hattie Ingram, Joseph Still, Susan Wallace, Oliver Adams, Jacob and Carrie Primas. Sitting of the first Deacon Board were Deacons Page, Primas, Richardson, Wallace, Still. The name “St. John Baptist Church” was suggested by Deacon Still.
In January 1894, Rev. T. A. Brown was called by St. John. With the assistance of Rev. H.P. Wayland of Zion Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA and Rev. J. P. Gregory of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Haddonfield, NJ, our church joined the Baptist Council. This historical occasion was celebrated at the Bethany Baptist Church of North Cramer Hill, where Rev. Wayland, our spiritual advisor, administered our First Communion.
The small group prayed for a church building. Their prayers were answered with the late Mr. Coxey, of the City Mission Board, who was recommended to the Pastor to loan us funds with which to build our first edifice. They looked around for a site and bought lots from the late Bro. Harry Ingram. Mr. Coxey sent his contractor, Mr. Green, to build the church. The Cornerstone of our first church building was laid in November 1896 under the leadership of Rev. W. H. Wayland. Miss Minnie Johnson Montague was the first church organist. Sister Susan Holmes organized the Missionary Society.
Between 1897 and 1912, the following Pastors served this church: Reverends B. B. Jackson (1897- 1898), J. H. Boone (1898-1899), James Eham (1899-1903), George Hughes (1903-1908), M. R. Roscoe (1909-1910) and Wm. R. Miller (1910-1912). Rev. S. C. Hill was called to this church in 1912 and under his Pastorate, the second Edifice at 2937 Mitchell Street was constructed. St. John is one of the original founders of the Bethany Baptist Association of South Jersey. In 1916, Sister Florence Houston was baptized at St. John. Sister Houston was the oldest member of St. John for many years. On October 5, 1998, the Lord dispatched an angel to pluck this flower from our garden so she could rest with Him.
From 1925 to 1941, the following Pastors served this church: Reverends R. F. Coles (1925-1929), J. J. Banks (1929-1932), Luke Beard (1933-1934), G. D. Griffin (1935-1939), and Walter V. Chomondely (1940-1941). Under the term of Rev, Coles, Mrs. Emma Redden organized the Pastor’s Aide.Reverend J. M. Levister came to us in 1941. Through Rev. Levister’s leadership the edifice was beautified, the Daughters of Zion was founded (now known as Deaconess’) and our first Hammond organ was installed.
Exodus W. Ray spearheaded the Board of Deacons from 1939 until his death in 1957. This wonderful Christian inspired our own Deacon Arthur Ray in carrying on the works of the church. During all those periods when St. John was without a Pastor, our dynamic, spirit-filled, man of God, prayer warrior, Deacon Arthur Ray, carried the baton and held the congregation together. He has been and continues to be an inspiration, role model and mentor to all who know him. There is none like him. He never fails to let his light shine in order to glorify God.
In 1951, Reverend Clarence J. Davis, Jr. became our Pastor. Being young, energetic and dynamic in personality, he was a natural leader. Though his leadership, bold new programs were envisioned. The parsonage at 1147 Langham Avenue was purchased, the land opposite the 2937 edifice was purchased, and a building fund drive was instituted, along with many other accomplishments. Rev. Davis served St. John until 1961 but returned for many years to preach for our annual revivals.In 1962, Reverend Warren DeShields was called to St. John and remained three years. In 1966, Rev. Tommie Nobles graced our pulpit and remained until 1973. In 1974, Reverend Lafayette Riddick became our new pastor. Under his leadership, microphones and speakers were purchased along with padding for the pews. He helped organize the Bible Study Group, Youth Choir and Sunday School Choir. Rev. Riddick resigned November 1980, after six years of service.
During 1981, the Lord continued to bless St. John. Two additional lots were purchased across the street from the church, in addition to the Coleman property at the corner of 30th and Mitchell Streets.
On January 12, 1982, Rev. Silas M. Townsend, a young Associate Minister of First Baptist Church in Princeton, NJ and graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, accepted the call to be the Pastor of St. John Baptist Church. On January 17, 1982, he delivered his first sermon, “The Church’s One Foundation”. Shortly thereafter, he was joined in holy matrimony with the former Ida Rankin. From this union God blessed them with two beautiful daughters, Lauren Marguerite and Kristen Joy. Under Pastor’s leadership, many wonderful things materialized through trusting in the Lord while we were at the church on Mitchell Street; both restrooms were completely remodeled; closed circuit TV installed; more effective sound system installed; the purchase of property between Howell and Thompson Streets; Cedar Knolls Bible Retreats; “needs assessment” survey taken and a 3-year plan was formed.
Eighty+ Ministries/Auxiliaries have begun under Pastor Townsend’s leadership. Among these are tape ministry and tape library; Baptismal candidates class, Deacons’ Training and Christian living classes started, New Members club, The Nurses Unit, the Scholarship fund, The Brotherhood, Women’s Fellowship, Clothing Ministry, Food Cupboard, Feeding the Homeless, Street Evangelism, Marriage Ministry, Singles Ministry, Junior and Teen Church, Potter’s House, Assimilation Ministry, a wide range of Youth Ministries (including the Youth Council), and many more ministries too numerous to mention. Additional choirs have also been established to sing praises to our Savior; e.g., The Townsend Ensemble, Children’s Choir, Voices of Praise, Jubilee Choir, Sister Praise, just to name a few.Rev. Winfred J. Sanders was called to St. John Baptist Church to serve as our Assistant Pastor in 1983. What a wonderful, powerful addition to the Pastoral Staff. In 1986, our son was then called to Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Pleasantville, NJ. Our loss – their gain. We sent him with our blessings. We continue to fellowship with Dr. Sanders and Mt. Zion often.
Groundbreaking Ceremony of our present Edifice was held June 3, 1984 at the corner of 30th & Mitchell Streets. We give God the Glory for everything that has been accomplished at the St. John Baptist church. On March 25, 1985, the building was constructed without a General Contractor, with Brother Carroll Primas serving as Chairman of Construction Committee, saving over $85,000. On September 8, 1985, we marched into our new edifice and on September 28, the Cornerstone was laid.
The year 1987 brought St. John a new son, the dynamic, powerful Rev. Frank Jones, Jr. as our Assistant Pastor. Rev. Jones and Rev. Townsend were “the dynamic duo” until Rev. Jones was called to First Baptist Church, Swedesboro, NJ in 1991. We were sad to see him leave but we knew First Baptist was gaining a great Pastor and Preacher. We are blessed to have him as our guest preacher each year for our Church Anniversary Service. In 1989, St. John was able to purchase a 15-passenger van to transport those who needed transportation to church.
The year of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety will probably be noted as a year to remember. The first Sunday in January, we stepped out on faith again providing an 8:30 a.m. full church service. On March 25, 1990, a “Mortgage Burning” Ceremony was held paying off a 25-year mortgage in 4 years, saving $505,977. Several items were purchased, including a new refrigerator, a Baby Grand and Studio piano. We also acquired the property at 29th & Mitchell Streets through to Saunders Street. Deacon Fred Purnell and John Pritchett freely installed lighting for 30th Street parking lot (a job worth more than $10,000).
In 1991, Barbara J. Torres and Jackie Bailey Moore joined the Pastoral Staff as Evangelists-in-Training. Evangelist B.J. Torres subsequently became licensed to preach September 4, 1995 and Evangelist Jackie Bailey Moore became licensed March 29, 1998.
December 1992, Stained Glass Windows, which were restored and transferred from the old church, were installed in the Chapel. The dedication unveiling was by the surviving members of the families named on the windows.The Theme for the 100th year was “Celebrating a Century of God’s Goodness”. In 1993, The St. John Baptist Church Christian Youth Development Center and Day Care was constructed through the overly generous contribution from Randall Cunningham, ex-Eagles Football player. At the request of Brother Cunningham, the gymnasium was dedicated in memory of Jerome Brown, an Eagle teammate who was killed in an automobile accident. Brother Cunningham also donated a Cadillac to St. John which was sold and the proceeds used to equip the daycare center. Playground equipment was also installed in the old church’s yard for the daycare center’s use.
Two new extensions were added to the Missionary Board – AIMS (Adults in Missions) and Junior Missionaries. We supported a family relocating from the Ivory Coast to the United States – the Gaye Family. We also helped sponsor a foreign missionary, Daisey Whaley.
Junior Church began with Minister Kent D. Carpenter in charge. Rev. Carpenter is a product of St. John Baptist Church and the community. In 1997, St. John birthed a daughter church, St. John Baptist Church, Haddonfield, NJ (now in Pennsauken, NJ), under Rev. Carpenter’s Pastorate. A Giving Tree, which hangs in the Narthex, was donated by Mrs. Elaine D. Primas, in memory of her husband, Trustee Theodore L. Primas, Esq. (who passed away April 1999).
In 2000, Stained Glass Windows – “Sunday Morning”, designed by Sister Dresser Smith, were installed in the Main Sanctuary.
In 2001, St. John Combined Choirs recorded their first CD – Oh Sing unto the Lord a New Song. CD design and logo created by Dressler Smith and design dedicated to the memory of her mother, Mary Scott Smith, St. John’s organist for many years.
Eugene Lee Gilbert was licensed as a Minister to preach the Gospel in 2001 and became Reverend Gilbert in 2003. He had served on the Deacon Board from 1993. In October 2010, Rev. Gilbert was called to First Refuge Missionary Baptist Church, Camden, NJ. Prior to leaving, the now First Lady Gloria Gilbert had served as a Deaconess and Pastor Townsend’s Administrative Assistant for many years, in addition to the many other hats she wore at St. John.
On May 30, 2002, the Lord called from labor to reward, Alvin Pegram, Sr., the finest Chairman of the Deacon Board on the planet. He lived the life that he taught. We miss him dearly. The Chapel was renamed in his memory December 2002.May 6, 2005, our Assistant Pastor, Rev. Norman W. Bailey, was called home to be with our Lord. He had served as our Assistant Pastor since 1998. The Pastoral Study was renamed in his memory in the Fall of 2005. Bertha Dunlap and Christine Robinson became licensed as Evangelists in 2005. Mary Korden and Lela Morgan became Evangelists-in-Training in 2005. Terrance Morrison also joined the Pastoral Staff as a Minister-in-Training.
2007 brought us another Evangelist-in-Training, Frances Ecchevarria and Minister-in-Training, Malcom Morton.
The following were licensed as Ministers of the Gospel in 2008: Terrence Morrison, Albert Lawrence and Lester Bethea. Evangelists Mary Korden and Lela Morgan became licensed to preach in 2008.
In 2009, our beloved Trustee Arthur Brown was called home to be with the Lord. What a great loss we suffered. Trustee Brown was instrumental in creating a room for the CD/DVD Ministry. The Trustee Room has been renamed the Arthur Brown Community Room. He is truly missed. Pastor Townsend was honored by Women of 2001 which is only one of numerous honors/awards which he has received over the years.
The year 2010 brought many significant events including purchase of new Hammond Organ; purchase of a new Sound System; a Hearing Assistance System installed and Buffet tables purchased. Deacon Melvin Cade and Brother Brian Lawrence became Ministers-in-Training.
Sadly, on March 29, 2011, our old church on Mitchell Street had to be torn down due to major structural damage. The area was graded and fenced in. During 2011, our main sanctuary was refurbished with fresh paint and new carpeting. Also, the video room was expanded and a projector system was installed in the sanctuary. Our girls’ basketball team, Lady Phoenix, won national honors under the leadership of Jonathan Taylor. All of the seniors on the team received full scholarships to nationally recognized colleges. Evangelist Frances Ecchevarria and Minister Malcom Morton became licensed to preach the Gospel in 2011.
St. John continues to pursue its vision to glorify God by being like Jesus in every aspect of our lives through a discipleship that is Loving, Warm and Friendly, Christ-centered and Bible-based.