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Pioneering Albuquerque church celebrates its 150th birthday

ALBUEQUERQUE, N.M. (BP)–“Our church will thrive as long as the River of Life flows in our midst and as long as our feet are firmly planted on a mountain called ‘Calvary,'” declared the pastor of the first non-Catholic church west of Texas — First Baptist Church of Albuquerque — during the Oct. 19 celebration of the congregation’s birth 150 years ago.

Pastor Steve Taylor’s words were reminiscent of those of the church’s first pastor, Hiram Walter Read, who said, “Deo Volente (God willing), it is here to stay so long as the Rio Grande flows and the adjacent mountains abide.”

“Occasionally it does us good to ‘look back’ and consider our heritage in order that we may ‘live forward’ with the legacy of a solid foundation,” Taylor told church members.

“Our heritage points the way to love for God, evangelism, fellowship and biblical authority,” he said.

A pastor from the church’s more recent past also was on hand to challenge the church on the memorable occasion.

Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, led the congregation from 1974-79. Challenging the church to carry its legacy of faithfulness into the future, Chapman concluded his message with a simple presentation of the Gospel.

The church actually began its celebration several weeks earlier with a series of dramatic vignettes coordinated by member Ruth Hosley and presented in morning worship services preceding the anniversary celebration. The final presentation, on Oct. 12, dramatized the church’s march into the future, with many of the church’s children and youths marching into the auditorium singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

On Oct. 5, the Sunday evening service was devoted to a 55-minute multimedia presentation of the church’s history written by New Mexico Baptist historian Betty Danielson and her husband, Dale, and narrated by Christian radio news director Frank Haley.

On Sunday morning, Oct. 19, many must have wondered if they had stepped into the 19th century as several members were dressed in period costumes and many men sported beards resembling that of the founding pastor.

During the service, Taylor announced that the church had received letters of congratulations from U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, Gov. Bill Richardson and Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, as well as several former members and sister churches. Taylor read a letter from President George W. Bush and received a plaque of appreciation from David Red, the Baptist Convention of New Mexico’s director of music and student ministries, who presented it on behalf of Baptist churches across the state.

Special recognition was given to the church’s “Golden Jubilee Members,” the 67 current members who have been members for more than half a century. While many were unable to attend because of failing health, “better than half” were present, Taylor said.

After the service, the celebrants crowded into the church’s Noon Day Ministries building for a luncheon, which included a live mariachi band, a presentation of awards for the best beard (George Taylor), period attire by an individual (Mary Ann Olguin) and period attire by a family (the Jim Anderson family).

The church became the only non-Catholic church in the American Southwest on Oct. 10, 1853, when it was founded in a rented adobe building in what is now Old Town by 33-year-old Hiram Walter Read.

Four years earlier, the dust scarcely had settled behind the hooves of Gen. Stephen W. Kearney’s conquering army when the Baptist missionary, under the auspices of the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York, came down the Santa Fe Trail into the New Mexico territory.

In 1854, Read’s wife, Alzina, was severely injured when she jumped down from a buggy. The following year, Read turned the Albuquerque flock over to another missionary, Samuel Gorman, and took his wife to Boston. Read later would serve as a doctor and chaplain in the Civil War, during which he was captured by the Confederates and sentenced to hang for treason. After a daring rescue by Union troops, he was sent in 1863 by President Lincoln to help set up the territorial government in Arizona, where he would be captured by Apaches, threatened with death by fire, but then spared. Alzina died in 1864, and Read married Elizabeth Sanderson in New York two years later. After the war, he served as a missionary and a pastor in Missouri.

In 1866, the American Baptist Mission Society that had funded Baptist work in New Mexico for 17 years decided to shift its resources into work with the South’s newly freed slaves. First Baptist, Albuquerque, disappeared for a time, its members absorbed by arriving Presbyterian and Methodist congregations.

In 1880, at age 60, Read went to Nevada to pastor a church for two years, before accepting a position in El Paso as general missionary for the American Publication and Bible Society to New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas and the two northern provinces of Mexico.

In April 1887, the 67-year-old missionary, now known to many as “the Apostle Paul of the American Southwest,” rode a train from El Paso and gathered 11 Albuquerque Baptists together in the upstairs meeting room of the YMCA near Gold and Second. He stayed for a month, and the church was refounded on May 1.

The church’s first building was erected on the northeast corner of Lead and Broadway in 1891 under the leadership of pastor John H. Thompson. The church would worship there until 1927, when it went “underground” for 10 years, meeting in the basement of its current building. In 1937, pastor H.A. Zimmerman led the church in building the auditorium, which is still in use today. The adjoining five-story Sunday School building was constructed in 1949 and the expanded education wing was added in 1977.

During the sesquicentennial celebration, much was said around the church and in newspapers comparing the church’s current pastor with its founder.

Read was known as a man of great daring who traveled the region on tall stallions, and Taylor occasionally brings his mount to church to give children rides and often tells the congregation about some of the very real dangers he and his family experienced while serving as missionaries in Africa.

Taylor tells church members that the most important thing he and Read have in common is a “passion for reaching people with a passionate love for the Lord and for His purpose in the church.”

The pastor of the historic church said he looks to the future as one of “promise and potential” as the church continues to “impact the lives of those around with the transforming truth of the Gospel.”
Dale & Betty Danielson wrote the historical portion of this
article. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CELEBRATING THE 150TH and WELL-ATTIRED FAMILY.

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  • John Loudat