A testament to faith
... Green Street Baptist Church celebrates 100th year
by Brigid Alverson of the Melrose Free Press
The winter of 1903 was a cold one for the members of the Free Baptist Society of Melrose Highlands. Financial problems and internal strife had forced them to dissolve their church. With no coal for their furnace, and no janitor to tend it, they met in a small room that was heated only by two oil burners, and they planned a new church to rise from the ashes of the old.
If they could be here today, those pioneer members would be warmed by the sight of the church they founded, now the Green Street Baptist Church, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month (April) with a strong and vigorous congregation.
"This is a great little church," said Rev. Larry Starr, who has been the pastor for over 20 years. "It has a great spirit. there is no undercurrent of unhappiness in this church. It's a happy, comfortable place to be together.."
It wasn't always so easy, according to a history of the church written by George Woodland, a founding member who lived to be 102. Writing in 1952, Woodland tells the story of the people whose faith kept the church from going through the decades despite disagreements, outside pressures, and financial difficulties.
In 1893 Emma Prince, a dressmaker, and George MacCallum, a bookkeeper, began organizing gospel services in an old schoolhouse on Franklin Street. A preacher of a nearby town or a member of the congregation would give the sermon. "We were a happy family group," Woodland wrote. "Great grace seemed to be upon us. Converts were continually being added to our number."
The first struggle came when the group decided to choose a denomination: Calvinistic or Free Baptist. When the Free Baptists won by a wide margin, the superintendent, a Mr. Spurr, rose in anger, shook his fist in MacCallum's face, and stormed off, vowing to start his own church. Spurr tried to persuade Woodland to go with him, but, Woodland wrote, "When I saw how this straight-jacketed Baptist acted, and the humble way the leaders of the Free Baptist Society took his vile insults, I decided right there and then to cast my lot with the Free Baptists."
In the 19th century, "regular" Baptists believed that only a finite number of people could be saved and some put this at 144,000, while Free Baptists believed that salvation was open to everyone. Over time, the Free Baptist view prevailed.
On Feb. 5, 1894, the group officially became the Free Baptist Society of Melrose Highlands, with 33 members. Rev. George Howard, pastor of a Baptist church in Lowell, agreed to be its first pastor on the condition that the congregation build a church within a year. "The challenge was accepted purely on faith," Woodland wrote. "From a secular view the task looked hopelessly beyond our financial status."
The congregation bought a plot of land at the corner of Green and Farwell Streets, an area that was mostly vacant land at the time, and hired Woodland to build the church piece by piece. Soon Sunday services were being held in the partially completed auditorium. Over the next few years, the church grew, a little at a time, on borrowed money and the donations of its members.
As the church grew, so did its troubles with its pastor. Howard quarreled with Prince, and she was expelled from the church. He ordered building materials and expensive furnishings that the church had no money to pay for. When the church was heavily in debt, he went to Guatemala to try his hand at mining, returning with less than he started. Rumors began circulating of the pastor's misconduct with women. Attendance and donations fell off, and the church was divided. Finally Howard resigned, and to resolve its financial crisis, the church officially disbanded in November 1902 and turned over all its assets to the General Conference of Free Baptists.
That was the end of one church but the beginning of another. The General Conference appointed a committee to continue services in the church building, and that committee soon made plans to organize a new church. Their work bore fruit on April 23, 1903, when, in a "beautiful and impressive service," the Melrose Free Baptist Church came into being with 25 members.
New troubles followed almost immediately. In July someone broke into the church and stole the gas chandeliers. Gas poured out of the fixtures. the church did not blow up, but the gas bill did, and Woodland had to negotiate a discount with the gas company.
A more serious problem was the church's reputation. Word had traveled throughout the community of its troubles, helped along by a prominent member of the First Baptist Church, who opposed the Free Baptists and did all he could to discredit the new church and promote Spurr's church.
"We kept on our seemingly insignificant and humble way," Woodland wrote, "trusting God to bring us safely through our harrowing experience." Each year the congregation grew, and within 10 years, the church had over 100 members -- some of whom had come over from Spurr's church. In 1912, the Free Baptist and regular Baptist churches united, and the church officially changed its name to the Green Street Baptist Church.
From the beginning, the church had a strong Ladies Aid Society and Sunday school. As the church grew, its members took on more and more activities: a choir, a men's class, a women's group. During the revivals and mass evangelism of the 1920s, the legendary Billy Sunday spoke in Boston, and many outside evangelists came to the Green Street. Church members also held prayer meetings in their homes, and the church had 220 members by 1925.
After a string of popular and energetic pastors, the church found itself divided again in 1926, when the Rev. William Webb, who had been pastor for only three months, resigned to take another pastorate, then asked to be reinstated. The board voted not to rehire him, but he stayed on for over a year, alienated from the board but supported by a group of sympathizers. In the end, the board told Webb to leave and gave him $300 to help him on his way.
It was up to the next pastor, Rev. Frank Holt, to play the role of healer. Woodland described him as "quiet, gentle, sympathetic and tactful," and credited him with bringing the church back together and, through his outside work with other Baptist churches, bringing prestige and recognition to Green Street. His successor, Rev. Frank Snell, also worked well with outside organizations, and church members were invited to speak at other churches and at Baptist conventions on their methods of religious education. One member, Eva Clarke, was ordained a minister.
Green Street went through both fat and lean times in the decades that followed. When Starr became pastor in 1984, the church had only 90 active members. "This church went through a low ebb when enthusiasm seemed low, and the flock wondered if the church would survive here," Starr said.
"Larry brought new life into the church," said longtime church secretary Gloria Ward. "He's an excellent speaker, and it just would bring people back."
In the next three years, the church's finances improved dramatically and church membership increased to over 200.
Today, Starr said, "We are a stable and viable and functional congregation, able to pay our bills and keep ourselves going." Church members worship together at Sunday services and work together on the popular monthly bean suppers and the annual fund-raising auction.
I'm proud to be a member," said Warren Shaw, who was baptized in the church in 1934. "I like the people. we all seem to get along very well. We understand each other's differences and opinions. It's a pretty smoothly operated church right now.
"I think the future is very bright, because of the attitude of the members of the church now. They work well together, they worship well together, and they have fun together."
Faith at Green Street
The Green Street Baptist Church is an American Baptist church, the same denomination as the First Baptist Church and most other Baptist churches in the area, according to Pastor Larry Starr. "We are part of the major mainline Baptist denomination you find around New England, as opposed to Southern Baptist," he said.
"Southern Baptists are Biblical literalists," Starr said. "American Baptists are more progressive in the view of scripture. Souther Baptists are more evangelical than American Baptists. They are conservative and evangelical, we are progressive and ecumenical."
Baptists believe in "soul freedom," Starr said; "We have no creed because we believe nobody should tell the person in the pew what to believe. I teach, instruct, illuminate, but the persons in the pew has responsibility for coming to their own understanding of their salvation."
The American Baptist church, Starr said, has a very distinct sense of mission. "Mission in the Baptist context involves two things that are not mutually exclusive," he said. "It involves evangelism, spreading the message of Jesus Christ, and it also involves social mission work, which involves feeding people who are hungry, healing people who are sick. we see those two as inextricably connected, and we would never do one without the other."
"Jesus is the center of what we do and why we do it," Starr wrote on the church website. "We find in the Bible the story of God's work and His revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ. In that revelation, we see a God whose primary message to His creation is a mandate to love -- to love God and to love one another. That is a full-time business .. and a challenge that lasts a lifetime of those who would take it seriously."
The largest funeral held in the church, George Woodland wrote in 1952, was not for a member but for Jewish man, a judge named Lesser. The judge regularly attended Sunday morning services, where he would read silently from a bible printed in Aramaic. He died suddenly on the steps of the Boston Court House, and people came from all over the area to the funeral.
In the 1890s, Howard Keeney, "then a child not yet in his teens," Woodland wrote, "raised $50 to pay for the carved pulpit and the two armchairs for the platform."
Two church members, William C. Boylan and Harold O. Young, who had been baptized on the same night, died in World War I. The Melrose Veterans of Foreign Wars post bears Young's name.
The church building has been remodeled nine times.
Rev. Lowell Kantzer, who was pastor from 1959 to 1969, also served as chaplain to the Melrose police and fire departments and the House of Corrections in Billerica.In 1965, an explosion in the Tower Shopping Plaza (now Johnnie's Foodmaster) shattered the large windows in the sanctuary.
For the past 25 years, the church has hosted a bean supper on the third Saturday of every month, except in the summer. The suppers began as a fund-raiser but have evolved a community event, according to Pastor Larry Starr.
July 3, 2003