Nelson Baptist Church
Founded in 1851, Nelson Baptist Church in Bridge Street was the first Baptist Church in New Zealand. Church services initially took place in Campbell's School (now the Suter Art Gallery).
Two months after the arrival of the church's first minister (Rev. Decimus Dolamore), a site had been secured for a church building. After securing the site, subscriptions to the new building amounted to £77.15.0 within two months.
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The foundation stone for the church building was laid on 20 October 1852, but opening services were not held until December 1854. This delay in the church building work was due to ‘the more necessary business of building a Brewery.' The river at the back of the property was used for full-immersion baptisms.
By 1871 the building was in desperate need of repairs and deemed unsafe for use. The church was closed for four months with services held in the schoolroom across the road while repairs were carried out on the roof, and a front entrance was added to the building.
When the church property was surveyed in 1879, it was discovered that a neighbour on the eastern side of the Church had built a stable on part of the Church land, and was using a strip of land as a carriage drive. Following a legal dispute, the church’s lawyer notified the neighbour that, from 6 October 1879, trespassing would not be allowed and asked him to remove his property from the church grounds to allow for fencing of the property as shown by the survey. After 12 months of negotiation it was decided to allow the neighbour to use the ground at an annual rental.
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In July 1890 the ‘Baptist Church Re-building Fund’ was set up to raise funds for building a new Church to replace the old building, which by this time was in need of extensive repairs. Three years later £205 had been raised. By 1896, the Church brought forward its weekly services back into Campbell’s School across the road while building work was carried out.
As the old church building was being demolished, much of its building materials were used to build a Church Sunday School room.
The foundation stone for the new church building was laid on 18 November 1896, and it opened for public services on 25 April 1897. The Church anniversary, usually celebrated in October, was shifted to April, coinciding with the opening of the new Church building. The total cost of the new Church building was £600, and included large rimu beams in the ceiling.
The Church celebrated its Jubilee in 1901, hosting the NZ Baptist Union Annual Conference on this occasion. The first Baptist Conference had been held in Nelson in October 1883, following the formation of the Baptist Union in 1882.
From 1906, the Church’s Sunday School had the largest roll in Nelson, with about 250- 300 children attending. Sunday School Anniversary Services were held in the Nelson School of Music, because the Church was not big enough to hold the number of people who attended these services. A flourishing youth ministry also led to the building of tennis courts behind the church building for the young people to use.
Nelson hosted the Baptist Union Conference again in 1908 – the last conference attended by men only, as a resolution was passed at this conference to allow women as delegates in the future.
About 60 members served in the armed forces in the First World War. After the War, the ‘Peace Memorial’ Pipe Organ was built to acknowledge those with links to the Church who were involved in the Great War. The £600 needed for the organ was raised entirely through voluntary offerings.
In between the wars, the Church celebrated its 70th anniversary in 1921. Following a request from the Nelson City Council in October 1926, the Church allowed them to use a strip of land along the eastern boundary of the Church property to lay gas, water and sewage pipes as well as overhead power lines in return for £70 compensation and legal fees. In September 1932 the First Nelson Company of the Boys Brigade was formed at the Church to keep young men in the Church. They became known as the “Baptist Boys’ Brigade.” The Nelson Girls’ Life Brigade was formed at the Church in the same year.
Many young people from the Church were away on war service during the Second World War, and continuity of Church services was not fully restored until 1947.
The Church Centenary celebrations took place in May 1951 and included a Centenary Play at the Theatre Royal.
Although the exterior of the building was left almost unchanged, frequent interior renovations took place. The front entrance foyer of the Church was renovated in 1967. Between 1979 and 1980, a library was created at the back of the Church by removing some seats, and a new sound system was installed. The choir stalls were removed in 1984, and in 2001 part of the platform on which the choir stalls used to stand was removed.
The 125th anniversary of the Church was celebrated in 1976. A pulpit bearing the Baptist Union of New Zealand Crest and designed to complement other Church fittings was given to the Church in memory of Harold Nicol who passed away that year. Suggestions in 1994 that the Church be sold were never developed. The Church building was listed as a Group A Heritage Building in 1996 when the centenary of the building was celebrated. The centenary of the opening of the building was also celebrated in 1997.
The Church’s 150th anniversary was celebrated during Queen’s Birthday weekend in June 2001. As New Zealand’s oldest Baptist Church, celebrations in Nelson set the standard for other Baptist Churches across the country. Minor building alterations and refurbishment took place in preparation for this celebration, including the construction of an ‘orchestra pit’ to accommodate the growing number of church musicians, a large new entrance window, and a new lighting system.
Sources used in this story
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Further sources - Nelson Baptist Church
- The Baptist churches in New Zealand 1851-1940. (1940) Wellington [N.Z.] : Baptist Union of New Zealand
- Kershaw, C. (1951) A Short History of the Nelson Baptist Church: 1851 to 1951. Institute of Printing & Publishing Society: Auckland
- N.Z. Baptist Research and Historical Society. (2002) Baptists in colonial New Zealand : documents illustrating Baptist life and development. Auckland : New Zealand Baptist Research and Historical Society
- Roberts, A. (2002) Nelson Baptist Church: The Journey Continues, A Narrative of the Years 1951 to 2001 (Nelson Baptist Church, 2002).
- Opening of the Baptist Chapel Nelson (1854, December 20) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 2
- New Baptist Chapel (1852, October 23) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.2
- Baptist churches of New Zealand - our story. Retrieved 20 February 2012
- Nelson Baptist Church. Retrieved 20 February 2012
- The early days of Richmond Baptist Church : transcript of a recording made during the Centennial Celebrations of the Baptist Church in Richmond [interviews about the Church] (1950's)