Founded after the harvest season of 1821 by 23 people in Danby, New York, the church moved a few miles north to Ithaca in 1826. The first home for the First Baptist Church in Ithaca was built in 1831, with a young Ezra Cornell serving as one of the carpenters. Upon the building’s destruction by fire in 1854, a second structure was built and used until the growing community required a larger building. The present structure was completed in 1890, with financial assistance from John D. Rockefeller. Its architect was William Henry Miller, who designed a number of major buildings on the Cornell campus and in downtown Ithaca. Now widely recognized as an example of Romanesque architecture, the building has been called the “Jewel of DeWitt park.” In 1971 it was designated a historic landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission of the City of Ithaca. It is also listed on the NYS and national Registers of Historic Landmarks. During the early 1970s the congregation explored ways to create a better, more workable church space, included selling the building and moving, demolishing and rebuilding on site, or renovating the interior. The congregation voted to renovate the interior of the building February 1, 1976. St. John’s Episcopal Church shared their chapel and office space with First Baptist for 9 months, until basic work was completed, which included an open and inclusive remodel of the Sanctuary. Worship resumed in the First Baptist Church building for Easter, 1978.
From its beginnings, First Baptist has been involved in strategic ministries. In the late nineteenth century, our church became a center for the women’s suffrage movement in upstate New York: in 1902 meeting of the Tompkins County Suffrage Association took place in the church parlor, and in 1914 a mass meeting of suffragettes from nine counties met at the church. First Baptist was willing to take real risks because it saw the marginalizing of women as a biblical justice issue.
The church was willing to stand up and be counted during the civil rights turmoil of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and First Baptist met with Calvary Baptist of Ithaca to affirm the message of Martin Luther King. The church protested the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The first Planned Parenthood office and clinic in Ithaca were housed in First Baptist during the 1970’s. The pastor was a board member, and a congregation member supervised the clinic and helped start the education program. Before Roe vs. Wade, the pastor was part of a clergy service to assist women in locating a safe abortion. In the 1980’s, the church joined with the Quakers as leaders of the “sanctuary” movement in the Ithaca area, calling “upon the U.S. government to acknowledge the right of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees to political asylum.” First Baptist declared its opposition to the deportation of “refugees as long as persecution, torture, and murder of civilians continued.” The church has continued its active support of refugees to the present. It has helped refugees to resettle in Ithaca from Vietnam, Haiti, Romania, Cambodia, Kosovo, Belarus, and other countries.
For decades First Baptist has been a champion of inclusiveness. It has long been a home to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. In 1997, as a result of the current move by some within the American Baptist Churches of the USA to disfellowship welcoming and affirming churches, First Baptist became a member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The immediate past executive director of AWAB sought out First Baptist as the sponsoring congregation for her ordination. In 2007 the church joined the Tompkins County Workers’ Center to assist in the campaign for a living wage for all workers. The pastor worked with Ithaca College students to get a living wage for food service employees at the college; he also addressed the needs of migrant farm workers. First Baptist is a living wage employer, and in Ithaca there are 106 certified living wage businesses with over 3119 workers (2016). In 2105 the church sponsored a trip where 12 of us, 7 adults and 5 youth, went to Guatemala to assist and learn about people’s lives there.
Our congregation identifies all members of the church as ministers, and some young people upon leaving Ithaca have decided to attend seminary and pursue ministerial careers. (The church has ordained five ministers in the past 25 years.) Our membership includes an unusually large number of retired ministers, and ordained ministers doing non-pastoral work, from both the ABC and other denominations. Over the years the church has had links to the international community through the presence of foreign students, members who have lived abroad during sabbatical and/or study leaves, and missionaries taking courses at local colleges while on furlough. Students and others here for a few years keep in touch; a few return to Ithaca to rejoin us. A significant number of members after leaving Ithaca maintain contact, sending appreciative notes for receiving our newsletter, The Visitor, some continuing to provide financial support, visiting us when in the area, and expressing the wish that “they could find another church like First Baptist!”
- Rev. O. C. Comstock 1826
- Various short-term Pastorates 1827 – 1880
- Rev. Robert T. Jones 1880 – 1915
- Rev. George Baker then Rev. J.H. Gagnier 1915 – 1919
- Dr. A. H. Boutwell 1919 – 1949
- Rev. William S. Hicks 1949 – 1956
- Dr. J. D. W. Feter 1956
- Rev. Christian B. Jensen 1957- 1966
- Rev. David M. Evans 1966 – 1994
- Rev. Joseph A. Leonard, Jr., Assistant Pastor 1967 – 1974
- Sister Loreta Jordan, Assistant Pastor 1974 – 1975
- Rev. Ruth Phillips-Hyuck, Assistant Pastor 1975 – 1978
- Rev. Ivy Merril-Ferrin, Interim Pastor 1989 – 1990
- Rev. Margie Ann Paterson Latham, Interim Pastor 1994 – 1995
- Rev. Wendy DeMott Fambro 1995 – 2005
- Rev. John Laney, Interim Pastor 2006-2007
- Rev. Richard Rose 2007-2015
- Rev. Dr. David G. Johnson, Interim Pastor 2016-2017