The Baptist Temple

Some History

It is located on North Broad Street between Montgomery and Norris, at the corner of what used to be Broad and Berks. It is just south of Mitten Hall.

The Baptist Temple, which Temple University refers to as "a historical landmark" on its web site, was completed in the 1891. Ground was broken on March 27, 1889, three years after the congregation purchased the land. The structure's cornerstone, dated 1889, was laid on July 13, 1890. On the first of March, 1891, the "house of worship" was occupied for their first service. Architect Thomas P. Lonsdale supervised its construction. The building was originally owned by the Grace Baptist Church, Dr. Russell H. Conwell's church. It replaced the church's first structure a few blocks away (Gladfelter Hall now occupies that space). Broad Street wasn't even paved with asphalt at this time. Paving over the cobblestones didn't take place until 1894.

In Conwell's first ten years in Philadelphia the neighborhood around where the University now sits was quite thickly populated, and a San Francisco style cable-car line was added to Columbia Avenue, now Cecil B. Moore Avenue. The line traveled down to Market Street and the Delaware River ferries. About the time that the Baptist Temple was completed, the cable-car system was replaced by electric trollies. Hard to imagine that most of the homes in the Temple University campus vicinity employed one or more servants, especially the more opulent and elegent fine brown stone houses on Broad Street. Many had lovely gardens with iron railings. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad had many street level crossings and the streets were paved with cobblestones.

The story of the beginning of The Baptist Temple is truly an interesting story. In 1886, a little girl, named Hattie May Wiatt was outside the small structure of the Grace Baptist Church. She was crying because Dr. Conwell was such a great orator that people filled the church each week to overflowing. Dr. Conwell grabbed her hand, lifted her on his shoulders and carried her in to the pulpit and said she could sit there this Sunday. On that day, Conwell told his flock that someday the congregation would build a new, large church. Hattie took the message seriously and started saving her pennies. A few months later, she became ill and passed away. After performing the funeral, Dr. Conwell was greeted by the child's parents. He was told how she had saved her pennies to help build the new church. Her purse contained 57 pennies. It was presented to Dr. Conwell to use as the church sees fit. Dr. Conwell tells more of the story this way....

At a meeting of the church trustees I told of this gift of fifty-seven cents--the first gift toward the proposed building-fund of the new church that was some time to exist. For until then the matter had barely been spoken of, as a new church building had been simply a possibility for the future.

The trustees seemed much impressed, and it turned out that they were far more impressed than I could possibly have hoped, for in a few days one of them came to me and said that he thought it would be an excellent idea to buy a lot on Broad Street--the very lot on which the building now stands.... I talked the matter over with the owner of the property, and told him of the beginning of the fund, the story of the little girl. The man was not one of our church, nor in fact, was he a church-goer at all, but he listened attentively to the tale of the fifty-seven cents and simply said he was quite ready to go ahead and sell us that piece of land for ten thousand dollars, taking--and the unexpectedness of this deeply touched me taking a first payment of just fifty-seven cents and letting the entire balance stand on a five-per-cent. mortgage!

And it seemed to me that it would be the right thing to accept this unexpectedly liberal proposition, and I went over the entire matter on that basis with the trustees and some of the other members, and all the people were soon talking of having a new church. But it was not done in that way, after all, for, fine though that way would have been, there was to be one still finer.

Not long after my talk with the man who owned the land, and his surprisingly good-hearted proposition, an exchange was arranged for me one evening with a Mount Holly church, and my wife went with me. We came back late, and it was cold and wet and miserable, but as we approached our home we saw that it was all lighted from top to bottom, and it was clear that it was full of people. I said to my wife that they seemed to be having a better time than we had had, and we went in, curious to know what it was all about. And it turned out that our absence had been intentionally arranged, and that the church people had gathered at our home to meet us on our return. And I was utterly amazed, for the spokesman told me that the entire ten thousand dollars had been raised and that the land for the church that I wanted was free of debt. And all had come so quickly and directly from that dear little girl's fifty-seven cents.

But that's not the complete story. The land was now obtained but there was no money to build a new church. Again the 57 pennies come into play. Conwell sold each of the copper coins as keepsakes. He raised a thousand dollars or more. It was a good start for the fund that would eventually build Baptist Temple.

In the January 14, 1887 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, it stated

There were very few unoccupied seats in the Academy of Music last evening on the occasion of a lecture on "Acres of Diamonds," by Rev. Russel H. Conwell, pastor of Grace Baptist Church.

...Acres of diamonds are to be found right here in Philadelphia, and not in California or South Africa. He then related the tradition as to the discovery of the famous diamond mines of Golconda. A man possessed a farm on the river Indus and sold it for a small sum to obtain money to go in search of diamonds. The purchaser of the farm subsequently discovered the famous mines on that very spot. A man in Upper California sold his property in that section for a few hundred dollars to look for gold in Southern California. The property disposed of subsequently produced $18,000,000.

Mr. Conwell spoke of the mistakes made by merchants, manufacturers, farmers and inventors, and said that greatness does not consist in holding any public office; a truly great man will be great anywhere. We think all great men come from aboard, but any man can be great in Philadelphia.

Mr. Conwell's lecture was filled with illustrations, and he was listened to with deep interest. The proceeds of the lecture will be devoted to the building fund of the new edifice of Grace Church at Broad and Berks streets (Baptist Temple).

In the March 28, 1889 issue of the Philadelphia Press, it said:

With simple but impressive ceremonies, the ground was broken yesterday for the new temple of the Grace Baptist Church... The big, barren, muddy lot was covered with a dense crowd of men and women, and the sidewalks...were blocked. The picturesque feature of the ceremony occurred at the conclusion of the speech-making and singing, when Pastor Russell H. Conwell picked up a new spade, and, in farmer-like style... plunged the glittering blade into the clayey ground. Holding up the lump of soil he called out to the crowd: 'What is bid for the first ground?' A feminine voice called: 'Fifty dollars.' There was no competition and the spadeful of clay was knocked down to Mrs. William Zindell (she was a member of the congregation and wife of a trustee of the new College) at that figure. A line of carts was standing along Berks Street, and when the sale was made, the first one drove through the crowd and the lump of clay was solemnly deposited in it. The cart then drove to (1420 North 13th Street) Mrs. Zindell's residence. Mr. Conwell dug up another spadeful of soil and invited a bid. Five dollars was offered and it went at that. About a dozen successive spaefuls were disposed of at the same figure. Then the bids ceased. (Conwell did the same thing four years later for the ground breaking of College Hall.)

...Already $70,000 towards building the church has been subscrived and Mr. Conwell does not anticipate any difficulty in raising the balance. The edifice will cost $125,000. (This was an early estimate, for when it was finished two years later the cost was more than twice that amount).

...The contract for building the new temple was awarded to William T. Wilkins and the plans of (the) Architect were approved.

The stone of which the building will be made is almost white....

The Philadelphia Press newspaper said in 1891....

During the opening exercises, over nine thousand people were present at...(its) service.

As large as were the ideas of the "Temple-Builders," it would seem that they were yet smaller than the "voice" of the crowds. Overflow prayer meetings continued to be a feature of the Baptist Temple services for many, many years. The building served as a combination church, meeting hall and community center, and seated 4,600 people, at one time during its history, the largest Protestant Church seating capacity in the United States.

Important fact!!! One large gift in its early years was $10,000 by Brother William Bucknell on the condition that the church not be dedicated until it was out of debt. The money was due to the congregation when the building was completed. The court decided that the agreement to call a building by the name of the organization (The Grace Baptist Church) worshipping there was a legal dedication. So was calling it "The Baptist Temple." Thus, the church referred to itself as, "The Temple." The name stuck. It is from this connection that the University would eventually receive its name. Baptist Temple became freed of debt in 1907, 18 years after ground breaking and was officially dedicated.

In the Monday, March 2, 1891 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper states:

Ground for the Temple was broken March 27, 1889. The corner-stone was laid July 13, 1890. The lot is 150 feet square, fronting on Berks, Broad and Ontario Streets. The dimensions of the building are 107 by 150 feet, leaving an unoccupied space 43 feet wide on the south of the church (where College Hall stands today), thus giving light and ventilation on all sides. From the sidewalk to the highest point of the structure is 90 feet.

In the March 2, 1891 issue of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, it states:

...The Western gallery is 40 feet deep, the side galleries, 24 feet deep. The speaker's position is 38 feet in front of the rear wall. The galleries and clear story are supported by wrought-iron trusses, each 90 feet long, and having a span of 78 feet. Over the front of this main room is a storage room 18x60 feet. In the lower Temple is a lecture room, 48 feet by 46 feet, a dining hall, 45 by 56 feet; an infant class room, 83 by 45 feet; four social rooms, each 18 by 34 feet; three committee room, each 18 by 20 feet; a kitchen 20 by 28 feet and containing two ranges. There are also toilet rooms, business office, reception rooms, studies for the Pastors, and all other conveniences.

"Man of feeling" that he is, and one who appreciates the importance of symbols, Dr. Conwell had a heart of olive-wood built into the front of the pulpit, for the wood was from an olive-tree in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the amber-colored tiles in the inner walls of the church bear, under the glaze, the names of thousands of his people; for every one, young or old, who helped in the building, even to the giving of a single dollar, has his name inscribed there. Dr. Conwell wished to show that it is not only a church, but also, in a keenly personal sense, the house of those people who built it. Dr. Conwell once said, "The mission of the church is to save the souls of men. That is its true mission.... We are here to save the souls of dying sinners; we are here for no other purpose; and the mission of the church being so clear, that is the only test of a real church." Conwell was a genius for bringing things to pass and accomplished three or four ends by the use of each means. For example, Conwell used fairs to raise money for the church. An "outsider" of the church would donate an item to the fair. This served several purposes. Outsiders were reached, money raised, sociability of church and members promoted and character developed. A 19th century author wrote about Conwell and these fairs, "An enterprise like a giant church fair brings the outsider to The Temple. He receives a warm welcome and sees how happy Christian people can be together. He is not charged an exorbitant price for what he buys, but is heartily thanked for the money he pays for every purchase. Perhaps he attends one of the many prayer meetings in session during the fair. Hundreds have been converted at The Temple during the fairs...." There was no gambling or games of chance. Conwell would not permit it. He felt that it took advantage of people who could not afford it. Mrs. Agnes Conwell Barker wrote a hundred years ago in OUR DAY, "The members...solicit donations of goods and money among their unconverted friends. If they are successful, the chances are that, before long, the friend who has given will be one of us in the church. First they come to see what they have given, then they must know what is to be done with it and finally, feeling what a good work it is, join it.... At one of our recent fairs 303 persons were brought to Christ in this way.... Why there should be so much said against church fairs I cannot understand. True, many churches have had divisions and quarrels on account of them, but they must have been carried on with money as their only object, not the converting of souls to Christ. Another thing which has cause no little comment is the prevalence of gambling in many church fairs. Why churches, when it is breaking one of the principal laws, should encourage such a thing passes my comprehension! We disapprove no more of stealing than of gambling.... Our fairs in the past, often netted from $7,000 to $9,000, and never less than $3,500." Near the turn of the century, The Temple had "The Carnival of the Centuries." Conwell once wrote "The true object of a church fair should be to strengthen the church, to propagate the Gospel, and to bring the world nearer to it."

According to a historic document in the Temple university archives, "The great auditorium, the organ, the stained glass windows, especially the big Rose window in front, and the high balcony, all drew much attention from visitors. ...The acoustic properties of the Temple auditorium have always been highly commended." This Romanesque Revival-style structure was built by Temple's founder, Russell Conwell, the preacher of this church. In 1938, the entire New Testament was read non-stop at the Baptist Temple. It took 19 hours. This structure in the sixties was used for freshman orientation. The January 1969 commencement from the University was located here. The building is owned by Temple but is no longer used.

President Harry S Truman dedicated the Chapel of the Four Chaplans. It is located inside the Baptist Temple. Dedicated on February 3, 1951, it honors the four chaplans who gave their lifejackets to others on a sinking World War II ship, the Dorchester after it was torpedoed off the coast of Greenland. One of the four was Rev. Clark Poling, son of Rev. Daniel Poling who was the pastor at that time of the Baptist Temple. In a Temple University document found in the school's archives, it is referred to as "a shrine of national prominence."

In 1974, the church's congregation moved to the suburbs, Blue Bell, Pa., and sold the property to the university for a little over a half-million dollars. Until that time, the church and the university worked hand in hand to maintain the structure. In return, Temple could use the building for university business. At one time, the building was slated to be adapted for Temple University's performing arts center, according to University documents found in the Conwellana-Templana Collection at the Samuel Paley Library (Temple University). The Temple was certified as a historical building in 1984. Because of that, Philadelphia's License and Inspections Department cannot issue a demolition permit without the approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Early in 1998, Temple University tried to get permission from the Architectural Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission to tear down Baptist Temple, or at least most of it. The facade that fronts on Broad Street at Berks would remain. A dozen years ago, Temple tried the same move and failed. At that time, they also wanted to tear down College Hall. The university believed that this historic church and structure is "a white elephant." Too expensive to renovate for new uses and too costly to maintain as it is, that's why Temple felt it is okay to rip this structure down. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "For a time, the church was used as an auditorium, but it has been closed for more than a decade because it needs repairs and fails to meet the city's fire code." Estimates are as much as $4 million dollars to get the Baptist Temple back into shape. Many people feel that the Baptist Temple is the "historical and spiritual heart" of the University.

Photo of Baptist Temple

Photo is a current day photo, courtesy of Temple University.

Photo of Baptist Temple from a 1908 postcard

The 1908 picture is courtesy of Temple University.

Here's a shot of Broad Street from almost 100 years ago. The photo was taken in 1901 and shows College Hall and Baptist Temple. Baptist Temple is the building in the center of the picture.

Photo of College Hall and Baptist Temple in 1901

The 1901 picture is courtesy of Temple University.

Here's even an older photo. This one dates from 1894 and shows Baptist Temple on the left and the brand new College Hall on the right.

Photo of College Hall and Baptist Temple in 1894

The 1894 picture is from a book published in 1899.

Photo of the Cornerstone of Baptist Temple

This picture, from February of 1998, was taken by Gerry Wilkinson.

Photo of the Top of Baptist Temple

This picture, from February of 1998, was taken by Gerry Wilkinson.

Photo of Baptist Temple interior in 1966

This picture dates from 1966 during Temple's Freshman Orientation.

Photo of Baptist Temple interior in 1897

This picture dates from 1897. It was a welcome home from Cuba rally for the Conwells.

Photo of Baptist Temple and College Hall in 1918

Photo of Baptist Temple and College Hall in 1922