In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) undertook a survey of church and synagogue archives as part of the Historical Records Survey (HRS). In Florida, the WPA surveyed 5,500 churches and synagogues, and generated 20,000 pages of documentation on archival records held by these institutions. The entire WPA Church Records Collection is digitized and available on the Florida Memory website. This post highlights two Jacksonville churches included in the WPA’s Church Archives Inventory (CAI).
The surveys for the First Baptist and Bethel Baptist Institutional churches in Jacksonville serve as examples that illustrate the value of the Church Archives Inventory (CAI) for researchers. One of the oldest churches in the Jacksonville area, First Baptist was founded in 1838 as Bethel Baptist Church. The six charter members included Reverend James McDonald, Elias Jaudon, their wives, and two African-American slaves, referred to in an interview accompanying the survey as Peggy and Bacchus. In the beginning, Bethel Baptist had a biracial congregation, relatively common for antebellum Baptist churches. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, Bethel Baptist counted “forty white members and two hundred fifty colored members.” During the war, the church, at that time located on West Street, served as a military hospital. Following the battle of Olustee in February 1864, federal troops brought the wounded to the church for treatment.
The Civil War left the church in a “deplorable condition.” According to Church Secretary Mrs. J. M. Aldridge, “the window panes [were] broken out, the plaster off the walls, and filth and dirt everywhere.” The Civil War also divided the congregation. African-Americans formed the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, while white members established Tabernacle Baptist Church. The 1901 fire in downtown Jacksonville destroyed much of First Baptist Church (changed from Tabernacle Baptist in 1892). Church members quickly raised $16,000 to rebuild and completed construction on a new building in 1904. The church still occupied the rebuilt structure when survey workers arrived in the late 1930s. Property owned by the church at the time of the CAI survey included a pipe organ valued at $35,000.
The African-American Bethel Baptist Institutional Church of Jacksonville held equally impressive property. The field worker who completed the survey of Bethel Baptist Institutional noted that the church building was “[e]laborately constructed…of Renaissance and Mission type,” containing “70 art glass windows.” “The Deacons,” the survey explained, “receive their communion from individual silver glasses especially reserved for them.” The file for Bethel Baptist Institutional in Jacksonville also contains a church flier of the building and the pastor at the time, Reverend J. E. Ford. Despite being torn apart by segregation and the racial tensions that characterized the Jim Crow South, both First Baptist and Bethel Baptist Institutional attained landmark status as historic churches in the Jacksonville community.
The surveys for the First Baptist and Bethel Baptist Institutional churches in Jacksonville are just two of thousands of similar documents included in the WPA’s Church Archives Inventory (CAI) files for Florida. Emerging from these seemingly mundane surveys, intended by the WPA to be collected in an assembly line fashion, are rich glimpses into the history of Florida communities and their places of worship. By digitizing the Florida CAI, the State Library and Archives of Florida hopes to facilitate public access to these valuable historical resources and further the study of Florida history.