By Theodora Winton Youmans
From a paper read by her at Big Bend at a meeting of the Waukesha County Historical Society in September 1925
The Freewill Baptist Church of New Berlin was organized long before Wisconsin became a state, long before Waukesha County came into existence as a political unit. It was one of the very early church organizations of the section which later became Waukesha County.
The first line on the first page of Church Book No. 1, giving a record of the organization, is dated “New Berlin, Wisconsin Territory, July 11th, 1840”, and recounts a meeting held at the home of “Elder” Rufus Cheney “for the purpose of finding out the minds of the people with regard to forming a church.” The meeting was adjourned to the home of “Elder” Nathan P. Kendall and at that time, to continue the record, “six came forward and were united into church fellowship by Rufus Cheney, called the Freewill Baptist church of New Berlin.” The six founders of the church were: Rufus Cheney, Ruth Cheney, Aretus Whitcomb, Lydia Whitcomb, Daniel Gilbert, Caty Gilbert. It was “voted that Daniel Gilbert be Church Clerk. Voted that we hold monthly meetings on the first Saturday of every month in the afternoon.”
“Elder” Rufus Cheney, the leading spirit in the founding of the church, was born in New Hampshire, grew to manhood and married there, and was ordained to the Baptist ministry in 1810. He lived in various eastern states, first visited Wisconsin in 1836, came to Franklin, Milwaukee Co. in 1838, and settled in New Berlin in the fall of 1839. The organization of the church followed the next year. The Rufus Cheney home, where most of the meetings of the church organization were held, later passed into the hands of Thomas Faulkner, and then to his son Elden R. Faulkner, where it still remains. Mr. Faulkner told me that the first meeting for the church organization was held in the room in which I sat a few weeks ago to secure information from him for this history. The house has been enlarged and changed since then, but the then kitchen, now the sitting-room, remains substantially the same as it was in 1840. The house with its surrounding acres lies at the foot of Prospect Hill, to the south on the Muskego Road.
The Gilberts were also Wisconsin pioneers. Daniel Gilbert was born in New Hampshire; he lived in Vermont and New York and came to this state in 1839 by way of the Great Lakes, settling in New Berlin. Both the Cheney and the Gilbert families have a large share in the early history of this part of Waukesha County.
Of the Whitcombs I know nothing except that later it is recorded in the book that Aertus and Lydia Whitcomb were dismissed by letter. Evidently they moved away.
Daniel Gilbert, chosen first church clerk, provided a good official record of each meeting, being inserted regularly and neatly, but to our infinite regret, very briefly. We want to know so many things of which it gives no information.
Records of the first meeting are typical: August 1, 1840, Monthly meeting at N.P. Kendall’s. Elder R. Cheney present peace and harmony prevail all appear to be steadfast.” Sept. 5, Monthly meeting at Elder R. Cheney union prevails but few present.” Oct. 3, Monthly meeting at Elder R. Cheney’s the little few seem determined to progress in the divine life.” No punctuation marks at all appear in these early records.
The first accessions to the church, in July 1841, were Brother C. Monger and Sister Monger and Brother S. Dexter. Other early members received were Sister Eliza Whitcomb, John Cheney and Annliza, his wife, Harry B. Cheney and Saloma, his wife, Rebecca Houck, Almon Holcomb, C. Randall and Lucy, his wife. Both the Cheneys were sons of Rev. Rufus Cheney and followed that intrepid pioneer to the new country, making their homes near him. Both joined by letter from the church at Attica, N.Y., as did several others later. If any church is to be regarded as the mother to the infant organization in Wisconsin which we are considering, that church was the one at Attica, N.Y.
The first death recorded has brief notice: “Sister Annliza Cheney was buried yesterday, December 31, 1842.” Her sojourn to, or in the new home was short. Here may well have been the first grave in that plot of God’s acre, later known as Sunnyside Cemetery, though of this I have no personal knowledge.
Communion services were held in the little church group several times during its first year. In the last meeting of the 1840s “the brethren met with us to consult on the propriety (of) forming a quarterly meeting.” There was one formed at the time.
In May, 1842, states the Record Book, John Horn came forward and requested to unite with the church, which voted to receive him. He was baptized on the 14th day of the month. This is the first account of a baptism and the place of that rite is not specified. Mr. Faulkner told me that the early baptisms took place in a pool created by the big spring on what later became the Bela Farnham farm, through the woods southeast from the Cheney farm, perhaps half a mile. The little stream meandering down from the spring had been dammed for the purpose. Later baptisms were in Hale’s mill-pond and I well remember the awe with which the child, that then was I, used to watch the solemn procession of the pastor and candidate, suitably attired in old clothes, into the water until it was waist-deep or more, the quick backward submersion of the candidate all over into the water, the gasping recovery and the equally solemn return to dry land of the dripping pair. With the precarious foothold in sand, or mud, beneath the water, each baptism mush have been a test of strength and balance for the pastor, especially when the candidate was large and heavier than himself. But I cannot remember hearing that the pastor ever failed or fell.
On May 5, “Sister Mary Ann Cheney was received into the church bringing letter from Attica, N.Y. Evidently John Cheney had returned to his old home for his second wife, Mary Ann.
In 1843 we have the first “intimation” of those difficulties which appeared frequently in the church records for a number of years. The book states “it is low time with the church” and further, “The case of Brother S.L. was brought up by which it is appeared from a letter from Pike Grove Church that Brother L. had been guilty of unchristian conduct and that they had labored with him but to no good effect… Therefore voted to withdraw the hand of fellowship.”
The first deacon chosen was Daniel Gilbert, and the manner of his choosing was this: “Elder” Herman Jenkins being present proposed that there should be a private vote taken on the subject: it was then proposed by “Elder” R. Cheney that “Elder” Jenkins should take the vote. “Elder” J. then went to each member of the church (that was present) and took the vote by each member giving their vote in a whisper: he then declared it to be unanimous choice for Daniel Gilbert to be a deacon.”
In March, 1844 we have first intimation of a disagreement over a school district which made a good deal of dissension for several years. I quote: “It was a cold time and there appears to be a good deal of hardness in the church. It appears to originate from a difficulty in “Elder” Cheney’s School district about the site of the schoolhouse and the doors being opened for random members (of other denominations) to commune with the church to the grief of some of its members.” The Free-Will Baptist Church stands for open communion with all Christians, but members of the New Berlin church made their own interpretation of this provision. After much discussion at many meetings this action was taken: “Resolved that this church shall not commune with members of other denominations to the grief of its own members but the member aggrieved shall make complaint to the person with whom they are aggrieved and if satisfaction is not given the aggrieved member shall tell their complaint to the church, the church shall give the accused a right to come and clear themselves, or make satisfaction, if they choose and can.”
Another record is that “the church is not well united, not much travail unless it be in discord…Voted that for a member to be in the practice of tattling is a misdemeanor worthy of church discipline.”
There was a special church meeting to hear and judge of the school house controversy, with a moderator, a clerk, and all the approved paraphernalia. Various grievances were set forth, one of which was that of Brother Wood, “who is grieved with some of the brethren for signing a petition to set himself and Brother Whitcomb off into the Dutch district contrary to their wishes.” The school house per se had nothing to do with the church, but the church of those days interested itself acutely in all the personal affairs of its members, and did not hesitate to call them to task when such a course seemed proper to the brethren. In the ten years after its founding the church heard many controversies on different kinds of topics, and in a number of cases or instances, the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from members.
After August, 1844, the records are in new handwriting – that of Daniel Church, elected clerk in place of Daniel Gilbert, who had served in that capacity since the church was organized.
All or nearly all of the church meetings during the first five years of its existence were held at “Elder” Cheney’s house. In 1845 and thereafter, meetings were generally held at the school house. There is no record that “Elder” Cheney was actual pastor of the church at first, but in 1845 he was officially made pastor and a committee was appointed “to make some arrangements for the support of the gospel amongst us.” This is the first reference in the book to expenses and finances. The committee reported in favor of a subscription and the report was adopted. Sister H. was excluded, evidently because she had been absenting herself from meeting.
Meanwhile, many people had been coming into the church. Nothing is said in the records of revival meetings, but when 20 people were baptized at one time, as in February, 1845, we may suppose that such meetings had been held. Baptism was administered by Elder Cheney and Elder Jenkins, in a Wisconsin February, mind you, and probably in the big spring.
Committees were constantly being appointed to visit this or that delinquent member and if they did not mend their ways (“take up their walk with the church” was the phrase) they were excluded.
In 1846 appear two items of special interest. One is this: “Agreeable to the request of the quarterly meeting this church votes to pay ten cents per member for the support of the yearly meeting.” The second item relates the stand of the church, now first recorded, on the subject of temperance, when a committee was appointed to visit an erring Brother L., it having been reported that he was in the habit of drinking too much liquor. This committee reported later that “Brother L. denies having drinked to hurt him and seems to think he shall drink as he pleases.” The case against Brother L. hung fire for some time, but he finally agreed not to make use of liquor as a beverage and the church “voted to withdraw the labor against him.” Accusations of drinking against other members appear occasionally for several years, and finally in a covenant adopted long afterwards the church took a strong stand for temperance.
In 1848, Thomas Faulkner related his experience, was baptized and received as a member. Only a few months later Brother Hiram Hale was baptized and united with the church. Both these members remained pillars of the church, useful and devoted, during their long lives.
That same year, 1848, when Wisconsin became a state appears this record: “Voted to raise a church fund for to meet the necessary expenses of the church, each male member paying 25¢ and females 12½¢”. A few more items and we must close the first 20 years of church history. A certain Dowd was given right to “improve his gift in public as preacher of the gospel.” This same right was later given one Mevis. Elder Jenkins became pastor. A meeting was cut short to hear a lecture by Gov. Randall. Elder Keevill was made pastor.
Certain things stand out prominently in these first twenty years from 1840 to 1860. The growth of the church was amazing. We wonder how, in this new country, there were enough people to provide the constant accession of new members. It was a changing membership, members coming and going, either voluntarily by letter which probably meant they were moving farther on, or involuntarily by exclusion. A few died. As I compute the membership, there had been received into the church by 1860 about 138 members, and at that time the church membership may have been about half that number. Pastors during the period were Elders Rufus Cheney, Plumb, Belknap, Herman Jenkins, Enoch Jenkins (the two, father and son) and E.J. Keevill. Elder Keevil seems to have been remembered as a revivalist of the old school, who sometimes conducted revival meetings outside his own church. A Waukesha woman has a child’s memory of his pacing up and down the platform, holding tightly to his breast a Bible, of whose value he spoke in glowing terms.
During these first 25 years we read very little about expenses or finances of any kind. We may conclude that the church of that day paid little attention to money. There was, in fact, little money in the country.
Elder Faulkner tells us that Elder Cheney preached a free gospel freely for 50 years, without salary, and that other pioneer preachers had little, or no, salary in money—although we may suppose that sides of pork, bags of potatoes and loads of wood found their way with some frequency from the homes of members to the homes of pastors. There were few ministers among the pioneers; and with the universal hunger for religion, as proved by the amazing growth and development of churches all over this country, ministers who came were divided among as many groups as possible. The Freewill Baptist was a small denomination, and each of the few ministers must cover as large a territory as he could. Thus the meetings of the New Berlin church were held monthly, a minister coming for the Saturday afternoon meeting and remaining over Sunday. One record each month is the general rule in the 1st Church Book.
On page 87 of this book the last line, dated May 3, 1860 reads as follows: “Church edifice dedicated to the worship of God.” This was, of course, the old white church with the rising sun in the pediment with which some of us are so familiar, beautifully placed on top of the hill, facing the glorious view to the south. I could not find one word about the church building previous to its dedication. There is nothing to tell us that a church was contemplated, nothing of committees in charge, the cost, or the raising of money. Fortunately, Mr. Faulkner, whose father joined the church in 1848 and who himself, became a member in 1871, is again a storehouse of information. He remembers that the estimated cost was $1200 and that the actual cost overran the estimate. He recalls that H.E. Hale was one of the building committee and was so anxious to have a gallery that he paid for it himself; that Elder Cheney gave $300 toward the building fund, a large sum for those days; that the building was erected by Quincy W. Church. No doubt a standard plan of architecture was adopted, since churches of this type are common, both in this vicinity and elsewhere – a dignified churchly type. The site for the church was conveyed by warranty deed by one Lindsey, but whether by gift or sale I do not know. The building was erected on honor, as is proved by the fact that now at 65 years of age it is in excellent condition and due to last decades longer.
We may presume that a new era opened for the church with the dedication of the new building, though for some years the records remain of the same general character. Gradually they became less restricted, and the work of the church takes on characteristics with which we are more familiar. There was no word about abolition when that question was rending this country in twain. But Mr. Faulkner tells me they were all abolitionists; that during the Civil War the church had a Soldiers’ Aid Society with meetings in the church building, and that this Society sent to the soldiers of the south a quantity of ketchup and a keg of horseradish (the keg holding several gallons) and various vegetables.
Elder Keevil remained with the church until 1863. He was followed in order by Elder Edwin Berry, Elder Plumb, and Elder O.D. Augir. I have a childish memory of Elder Augir as a tall austere man, with a black beard and a long ministerial coat.
The records of the 1870s contain notice of a meeting to consider paying off the indebtedness on Rochester Institute, a school owned and conducted by the quarterly conference at Rochester, Racine County. The support of such a school must have been a heavy burden to the few churches in the conference. It, indeed, proved too heavy, was abandoned after a struggle and passed into other hands.
Pastors up to the close of the century were Elders A.P. Bunnell, Frank B. Moulton, Roswell Cheney, M.G. Pett, G.H. Hibbard, A.H. Whittaker, F.E. Butterfield, J.P. Hewes, R.R. Kennan and L.L. Sowles.
The Wisconsin yearly meeting of the state organization of the Free-Will Baptists met twice with the Prospect Church, first in 1877, when our house seemed full of awesome ministers, and again early in the present century.
Let us take up briefly the associated activities of the church, the first of these being the Sunday-school. We have a book dated 1844, entitled Sunday-school Library Record, that contains much of interest. It is surprising to learn that the Sunday-school started out with a library of 250 books, including 33 publications of the American Tract Society. The titles show the kind of books which were considered proper nourishment for the child mind eighty years ago. Here are a few of them: Child’s Book of the Sabbath, Treatise on Religious Affections, Youth’s Friend and Scholar’s Magazine , Ann or the Conflict and Trial of Faith , An Alarm to Unconverted Sinners, Family Conversations, Harriet and Her Scholars, Murdered Mother, Frank the Irish Boy.
In the first records of the Sunday-school there were 7 teachers, classes being small. Lessons consisted, in part at least, in the commitment to memory of Bible verses: and the number of these verses, by individuals and classes, were carefully computed. In the first five weeks we read, 492 verses were committed, one person having a record of 42 verses and another of 42. Later the grand total of verses rises to 1,018 and even to 1,182. The Sunday-school records touch mostly on books taken out of the school library and verses committed, and these only in the early years.
Women had little part in the life of the church for a number of years. The sisters are recorded as having been admitted to the church and sometimes as having left the church by letter, by death, or occasionally because they were excluded. Of course, they did church and Sunday-school work, but no official recognition came to them until, now and then, a sister was appointed on a committee to labor with some recreant member – a thankless task one would think, in the early days always performed by men. Later women were chosen delegates to the quarterly meetings and, still later, were occasionally elected officers of the church.
But the main activities of the women centered in the Ladies’ Aid Society, which for nearly 40 years has upheld the hands of the church, raised money for various church and benevolent purposes, and still exists, vigorous and forceful, and as busy as ever. It is, of itself, worthy a longer paper than this – and I have the records for such a paper, 3 secretary’s books filled and a fourth half-filled with the detail of the activities of the Society – the work it did, the money it raised and expended, the officers it elected. It is all there neatly written and set down – a truly remarkable record of devotion and of service, and of secretarial efficiency. The Society has now been in existence 39 years, from 1886 to 1925. It has held during that long period between seven and eight hundred meetings.
In 1916, when the 30th anniversary was celebrated, a member estimated that $1200 had been raised and expended. The sum is, of course, much larger now. The Aid Society, for so many years auxiliary to the church, has now absorbed the church and its property.
But before detailing this final chapter let us note some of the later ministers in charge: Elders Barry, Cooper, Bain, Beecher, Meyer, Roberson, Moody, Humphries, Hanson, Parson, Barbour.
Meanwhile the church was not receiving accessions in the same degree as it lost membership. Conditions were changing. It became more and more difficult to keep up the congregation and maintain a pastor. New Yorkers and New Englanders had built up the church but the fathers had passed away and most of the sons and daughters had gone elsewhere. Those who came to take their places, till their farms, live in their homes or build houses of their own, were of different religious faith.
The Prospect post office had been discontinued when free rural delivery was instituted. The hamlet lost its character as a neighborhood center. The church dwindled.
A deceased member, Mrs. Jane Killips Harris, had left a bequest of $1,000, the interest of which was to be used in keeping up preaching in the church. But the will was so worded that the administration of this legacy was in the hands of the national Free-will Baptist Association, and this organization would pay no expenses of this kind except for ministers of its own denomination. The burden became too heavy for the handful of active members. They decided that it was useless to try to retain the church organization any longer. But a way opened by which they could retain the building and have it of use in the community. By arrangement with the Ladies’ Aid Society, that organization changed its constitution to include any church members, men or women, who might wish to join, changed its name to the Prospect Aid Society, and the church property was legally deeded to this Society. The only conditions provided were that it should never be used for dancing, card-playing, or raffling, and that if the Aid Society should cease to exist the property should revert to the American Red Cross Society.
This consummation was effected in January, 1925. The old church is now in fact a community home, usable for church services, for meetings of the Aid Society or other suitable purposes, subject to the exceptions named.
Excerpts from the Church Book
March 25, 1854
Meeting at Schoolhouse. Church appointed Elder R. Cheney, S. Randall, H.B. Cheney, N. Eastman Delegates to set in Quarterly Meeting Conference.
Voted Br. Nathan W. Eastman & Sister Phebe Eastman have letters of commend from the Church.
Q.R. meeting Conference voted to License Br. Mevis for one year.
Br. Joseph P. Eastman was present at meeting; requested a letter from himself and sister, Weltha Eastman (since Root). Church voted them letters.
Covenant meeting at Schoolhouse. Church appointed Br. Mevis, Br. Munger and Br. D. Church Delegates to Quarterly meeting at Honey Creek in April. We requested the next meeting.
April 15, 1855
Church voted to give Sister Kendall a letter of dismission.
July term of Quarterly meeting held with us, a good interesting meeting.
Sept. 25, 1855
Sister Ruth Cheney died. Funeral sermon by Elder A. Comes, Text—To die is gain.
Covenant meeting at Schoolhouse, but few present. Chose Delegates to Q.M. at Wheatland, Oct. 6th, Br. Munger & Mevis.
March 29, 1856
Monthly meeting at Schoolhouse. A goodly number present. Quite an interesting time. Sister Martha H. S. Scagel presented her Letter and united with this Church.
Church voted to have the Q. meeting Conf. Renew Br. Mevis License. Voted to request the next QM Meeting with this Church to be holden in July next.
Appointed Br. Mevis, H.E. Hale & D. Church Delegates to Q.M. at Racine, April 5th and 6th.
July 11, 12,13, 1856
Quarterly meeting. Session quite interesting. On Sabbath, the 13th, the Sisters Susan Cheney, Betsey Farnham and Margarett McKelvie went forward in Baptism and united with the Church here.
Oct. 25, 1856
March 28, 1857
Covenant meeting at Schoolhouse. Church appointed Br. Mevis, Randall & Church Delegates to Q.R. meeting at Honey Creek in April. Voted to request the Conference to Renew Br. Mevis’s license.
May 1, 1857
Eld. H. Hunkins commence labor with Church for one year one-half time.
May 23, 1857
Elder H. Jenkins united with Church by letter.
May 24, 1857
Sabbath. Elder Jenkins Baptized the following persons who united with the Church and received the hand of fellowship: Wm. Killips, J.T. Babcock, Delinda Mevis, Margaret Loomis, J.T Babcock, Elizabeth Killips, Jane Killips. Sister Mevis united with Church by letter.
July 25, 1857
Br. Grant united with the church by letter.
August 29, 1857
Covenant meeting at Schoolhouse; interesting time. The following persons Related their Experience: Chauncy Green, Benona Grant, Juliette Hale, Ann Hunter. The day following Elder Jenkins baptized the above named persons. They received the hand of fellowship and became members in full fellowship with the Church.
Oct. 11, 1857
Church voted Sister Susan Cheney, now Church, a Letter of Commend she being about to remove.
Nov. 28, 1857
Covenant meeting at Schoolhouse. A general attendance. Church in union. Br. Gaius & Sister Munger present requested Letter of Dismission for the purpose of organizing a Church at Mukwonago. Church voted to give them letters.
Nov. 28, 1857
Covenant meeting at schoolhouse. Not very full attendance. Quite interesting meeting. At the close of meeting D. Church requested to be discharged from serving as Church Clerk. Request granted. Appointed Thomas Faulkner, Church Clerk.
Dec. 26, 1857
Covenant meeting at the Schoolhouse. Good attendance and a good meeting. Brethren E. Jenkins, Wm. Killips, & D. Church appointed Delegates to Quarterly meeting atMount Pleasantin Jan.
Br.R. Cheney & Wm. Killips committee to visit Br. J. White; E. Jenkins to visit D. Gilbert.
Letter of Dismission voted to Br. H.S. Cheney, he having removed to Honey Creek.
Jan. 30, 1858
Covenant meeting; about 50 persons attended and nearly all spoke for God. A very interesting meeting until nearly the close when some remarks were made that made us feel very sorry.
After relating their experience Sister _____ Boyd, James Boyd, Bela Farnham, Oresta Church & Walter Grant were admitted as candidates for Baptism and _____ Green, Samuel Berdsley, James Killips, Peter Post & Joseph Forward were admitted to the watch care of the church.
Feb. 13, 1858
Church meeting to hear reports of E. Jenkins. Not a full report; and also the report of R. Cheney & Wm. Killips.Br.J. White agreed to pay D. Church $5.50 damages for his cow which D. Church wished paid towards Elder Jenkins’ salary. Considerable talk but not yet settled.
Feb. 27, 1858
Covenant meeting with good attendance. A good meeting. S. Randall & T. Faulkner appointed a committee to visit C. Mevis.
March 6, 1858
Church meeting. Elder E. Jenkins Moderator. E. B. Green was appointed Clerk pro tem. Meeting was opened by prayer by the moderator
A motion was made and carried that John White did not make satisfaction for the Church. A motion was made and carried to withdraw the hand of fellowship from him. The business with C. Mevis was indefinitely postponed.
March 27, 1858
Covent meeting. A good meeting. Mrs. Caroline Green received as a candidate for Baptism. Letters voted to Martha Scagel and Elder Enoch Jenkins. Brother Bela Farnham was elected to the office of Deacon.
Brethren Daniel Church, Bela Farnham, Eben B. Green, Thomas G. Mevis & William Killips were appointed delegates to sit in Quarterly meeting at Raymond in April next and were instructed to request the next session of the Quarterly Meeting.
Brethren William Killips,JohnCheney & DanielChurch, were appointed a committee to correspond with ministers to get one to come to preach to the Church.
Resolved that Eben B. Green be invited to take the lead of Prayer Meetings and improve as he thought it to be his duty.
March 21, 1858
Elder Jenkins baptized the following persons who received the right hand of fellowship and united with the Church: James Boyd, Jane Boyd, James Killip, Betty Killip, Nelson Lindsay, Matilda Lindsay, Oliver Perry, John Superno, Mary Superno, Alexander Stewart, Angeline Stewart, Bela Farnham, William Milton, ______ Williams. Eben B. Green was baptized before and united with the others.
March 28, 1858
He also baptized Walter Grant & Caroline Green to receive the right hand of fellowship with _____ Grant who had been baptized before.
Elder Jenkins preached his last sermon here and administered the Lord’s Supper, March 28th.
April 11, 1858
Elder Cheney baptized Archibald McKelvie and he was united with the Church.
May 29, 1858
Monthly meeting. Pretty good attendance. Appointed Delegates to next Quarterly meeting: Brethren J. Cheney, E.B. Green, A. Stuart, N. Lindsay & T. Faulkner.
July 31, 1858
Covenant meeting. About 20 attended. Good meeting.
Sept. 25, 1858
Covenant meeting. About 35 attended. Pretty good meeting, a humble spirit of confession manifest.
Appointed delegates to sit in Quarterly meeting at Wheatland. Brethren E.B. Green, D. Church, S. Randall, _____ Williams and T.G. Mevis.
By request Sister Delia Gilbert’s name was dropped from the Church record.Br.Mevis requested a license. 5 voted for it and 9 or 10 against it.
Brethren Randall & Church were appointed a committee to visit Br. Walter Grant to see if certain charges against him could be sustained and, if so, to cite him before the Church.