Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Berean Missionary Baptist Church
Address: 1635 Bergen Street
Cross Streets: Utica and Rochester Avenues
Neighborhood: Crown Heights/Weeksville
Year Built: 1894
Architectural Style: English Gothic
Architect: Benjamin Wright
Landmarked: No, but should be
The story: On August 11th, 1850, a group of Brooklyn abolitionists got together to found a great experiment; a fully integrated Baptist church congregation. Many of Brooklyn’s churches were nominally integrated, that is black people could attend many white churches. The black congregants were usually relegated to the back pews or the balcony, and did not participate in the social and fellowship activities of the church. They certainly did not become deacons or trustees, choir members or ministers. Although many white churches were bastions of anti-slavery activity, and lauded the fact that they hosted speakers like Frederick Douglass, and other black anti-slavery heroes, it was a fact of life that true social equality was a long time in coming, even in God’s house.
This new church was called Berean Baptist, and was originally a small wood-framed church in the vicinity of Prospect Place and Utica Avenue, a couple of blocks south of the present location. This part of Brooklyn was still largely unsettled land, except for the growing African American communities of Weeksville and Carrsville, which were settled by black folks beginning in the late 1830s. These were independent towns where black people could live on their own terms, with their own homes, businesses and institutions.
The land was not graded yet, and the first Berean Baptist Church was literally on a hill. Its first pastor was a white minister named Daniel Resse. The congregation was very much united in their anti-slavery cause, and this little church was a way station on the Underground Railroad. But the location was hard to get to for most of the white members, and the hill too steep, so the great experiment ended as most of the white congregants joined together to found a separate church on Herkimer Street.
Berean Baptist continued here until the church became too small and run down. By this time, the 1880s, Weeksville was at the eastern edge of Bedford; their isolated existence about to end forever. The Brooklyn Eagle referred to the old church as “a Negro church in a shabby looking white frame building.” It was time to build something better. Money was raised, and a plot was purchased on Bergen Street, between Utica and Rochester Avenues, still in the town of Weeksville.
Architect Benjamin Wright was commissioned to design the church. I wasn’t able to find out anything about him. I don’t know if he was white or black, either. The English Gothic style church was built for $7,400, and was dedicated in 1894. It was constructed by both members and professional builders, and is the first church, and perhaps the first building of any kind in New York City, to be built from the foundation up, entirely by African Americans. In 1914, two more wings were added, one on either side of the main building.
A Colonial Revival style parsonage was built next door in the 1920s. Berean continued to grow adding many different programs to its roster, in addition to religious services. It continued to be one of the most influential black churches in Brooklyn, and was a great support to the community during the Great Depression, serving meals and providing clothing and services. As the area’s population became more African American, Berean was one of the few historic Brooklyn black churches to already be in Bedford Stuyvesant. Many of the other large churches, such as Concord Baptist, Bridge Street AWME, Siloam Presbyterian and others, were transplanted in Bedford from their origins in Downtown Brooklyn.
In 1961, Berean decided that the old church was no longer large enough for their needs. Fortunately, they had the wisdom to not tear it down, but build a new church next door, and use the old church as a fellowship hall. The church lost its left side wing, but nothing more. The new church cost a quarter of a million dollars, but the church worked hard to pay off the mortgage, which it did in 1975. By this time, the church was sponsoring several mission churches, and decided to officially change the name to Berean Missionary Baptist Church.
Today, the church is now considered to be in Crown Heights, not Bedford Stuyvyesant, but that hasn’t changed anything else. Berean Missionary Baptist Church is 164 years old. The church now sponsors missionaries abroad; in Africa and other countries, and locally, has many programs for youth services, housing, crime prevention, food pantries, and other badly needed social programs. An institution founded by those seeking to worship together, end slavery and seek African American self-determination is still at it, and Still going strong. GMAP
(Photograph:Greg Snodgrass for Property Shark)