by Michael Dunn
In November 1886 when Swedish immigrants arrived in Kingsburg they found a wild and raucous town with, in their opinion, too many saloons and not enough churches. They were a stalwart group who wanted nothing more than to make Kingsburg a great place to raise a family according to their Christian traditions. Between 1887 and 1890 the Concordia Lutheran, the Methodist Episcopal, and the Colony Covenant churches were founded by the Swedes. Services were conducted in the Swedish language only. If English-speaking services were desired, one had to attend the Methodist-Episcopal South Church Street, of course. Efforts to establish an English speaking Baptist congregation were attempted but failed in 1888 causing Rev. L. J. Ahlstrom to conclude, “My efforts to interest the English speaking people failed and the Swedes usually came out of curiosity to hear a Swede preach in the English Language.” But Rev. C.M. Nelson of the Oakland Swedish Baptist Church was not as discouraged as he and Rev. A. W. Backlund visited monthly to help plant a new Swedish Baptist Church in Kingsburg.
On May 19, 1901 thirteen Swedish immigrants formally organized a new Swedish Baptist Church. For the next two years they met wherever they could until a triangle-shaped parcel of land was purchased at the intersection of Draper and Sierra Streets for the sum of $70. On October 25, 1903 the new 720 square foot Swedish Baptist Church, costing $1,000, was dedicated. Fifty years later, founding member Alma Satterberg Anderson reminisced, “How we thanked God when we moved into our first little church home. It was our very own, and we thought it was mighty fine.”
Soon the growing congregation realized they would have to build a new church. Construction of the second Swedish Baptist Church building was dedicated on October 29, 1905. It was rated to seat 350 people and was filled to standing room only on that dedication Sunday. The cost of the new church is unknown. What is known is a debt of $2,000 remained to be financed. Debt is one thing for which a Swede cared little. So pastor Backlund took to the pulpit and asked all who were able and willing to pledge what they could to retire the debt. Within 30 minutes, $1,700 – a sum equivalent to $45,000 today — had been pledged.
By 1919 membership had increased to 351 and the larger church was once again bursting at the seams. Local architect, Anton Johnson designed the third Swedish Baptist Church to be built at a cost of $80,000- equivalent to $1.2 million today. This was a considerable sum that would prove to be difficult with the Great Depression looming on the horizon. Through much sacrifice, the entire debt was paid in full by 1936. Construction was completed in 1920 and the first service was conducted on Christmas morning. Eventually a second entry and an elevator were added.
Like most churches in Kingsburg at the turn of the century, all services were delivered in Swedish, but as generations were added and the church grew, the youth began to demand change. English services were introduced in 1928, but only during Sunday evening services. By 1935 all services were conducted in English. In 1942, with Swedish language services in the distant past, the church officially changed its name from Swedish Baptist Church to First Baptist Church.
In 2017 the congregation voted to renovate and restore the 100 year old building. Once again the congregation raised more than $1.3 million with an additional $60,000 left to be raised. In addition, the Hillblom Foundation provided $79,000 for the restoration of the beautiful stained glass windows. The end result was absolutely stunning!
Over the last 120 years the church has become more ethnically diverse and old traditions have given way to new ways of worship. Yet their goal has remained constant over the last century; “Love God, love people and invite them to follow Jesus.”
For more information about Kingsburg First Baptist, visit https://1bk.church/