Membership transfers (or “letters of dismissal/admission”) were an important aspect of early 20th century protestant churches. This post will explore some of the features of membership transfers, using First Baptist Church, Vancouver as a case study. I will present scans of actual membership transfer correspondence between First Baptist and other churches. The correspondence on which I’ll comment in this post, for the most part, occurred when FBC was in the building shown above.¹
One of the first tasks of a group of believers who wished to form a church was an exchange of letters of dismissal (from their previous church home) and admission (to their new home); this action would be repeated again and again in church meetings as a congregation moved forward.
The following is an excerpt from the earliest document of First Baptist Church: the minutes of the meeting held to incorporate the church (March 16, 1887):
Address by Chairman Rev. R. Lennie on object of formation of churches and qualifications essential for church membership and relationship members should bear each to the other.
Rev. J. W. Daniels then read letters of dismissal and commendation for the purpose of forming church at Vancouver on behalf of the following members, viz.,
Bro[ther] E. J. Peck, Bethesda, B. C. [Baptist Church], La Conner WT [Washington Territory]
Sis[ter] Mary Peck, Bethesda B.C. [Baptist Church], La Conner, WT
Sis J. C. Alcock, Olivet [Baptist Church], New Westminster, BC
Sis Isabella McLean, Calvery [Baptist Church], Victoria, BC
Sis Seraph Crandall, Salisbury, New Brunswick
Sis Nellie Evans, Emerson [Baptist Church], Emerson, Manitoba
Bro Henry A. Morgan, Calvary [Baptist Church], Victoria, BC
Bro J. H. Carlisle, 1st [Baptist Church], Seattle, WT
Sis Sarah E. Hamilton, Calvary [Baptist Church], Victoria, BC
Bro Abram Broulette, Emerson [Baptist Church], Emerson, Manitoba
After reading of letters those present whose letters were read came forward and declared it their desire and intention to unite and be organized into a Baptist Church.
If some of the language above reminds you of phrases you have heard in a marriage service, I’m not surprised. Membership and especially the transference of it to/from other congregations was taken very seriously in First Baptist Church Vancouver in its earliest days.
When Letters of Transfer Were Truly Letters
The letter above (A), sent regarding Mr. and Mrs. Waine from the Church Clerk at “Central Fairview Baptist Church” in Vancouver to First Baptist is very typical of the earliest of such correspondence. In what ways?
First, it’s a letter, rather than a standardized form (for an example of a form, see (B)). This was typical of smaller, newer, less institutional congregations.
It is also a typical piece of transfer correspondence in that it was from one church clerk (that is what the “CC” abbreviation following J. S. Brookes’ name stands for) to another (at FBC, the clerk was Mr. Thompson). For a rarer example of pastor-to-pastor communication, see (C) below.
Third, Fairview’s clerk makes makes it plain that he isn’t acting on his own authority in making this request: “I am requested to write for letters of dismissal…” The request was made to him indirectly from the Waines and more directly from his congregation.
This was probably roughly the order in which things happened (still relying principally on the case of the Waines, to illustrate):
- Mr. and Mrs. Waine had been living somewhere in or near downtown Vancouver and had been members at FBC. They then moved to Fairview, for some reason or other. There wasn’t much choice among Baptist churches in Fairview at that time; and for most Baptists in this period, it would have been quite exceptional for them to consider moving to a non-Baptist church. So choosing a new body of believers with which to unite in their the new neighbourhood would not have been a big decision for the Waines.
- They notified the Fairview church, probably through its pastor, that they wanted to make Fairview Baptist their church home. The pastor would pass their names along to Fairview’s Clerk, Mr. Brookes.
- This is the stage at which the Brookes/Thompson correspondence was initiated by Mr Brookes.
- Upon receiving the request from Fairview, Thompson would have put Mr. and Mrs. Waines on his ‘little list’ of those who had requested letters.
- Thompson’s actions at the next FBC congregational meeting (which in 1908 would have happened weekly) would have been recorded in FBC’s minutes in language similar to this: ‘Bro. Thompson presented request from Mr. and Mrs. J. T. Waine to join Central Fairview Baptist Church.’ And, assuming that FBC’s congregants approved: ‘On motion, granted.’
- Thompson would send Fairview a ‘letter of dismissal’ from FBC membership. There are no surviving copies of FBC’s dismissal letters, but judging from letters of dismissal sent to First, the letter may have included a proviso that if FBC didn’t receive confirmation that the Waines had ‘united with’ Fairview in membership within a stated period, the dismissal would be assumed null/void.
- Upon receipt of FBC’s letter, it would be Fairview’s turn to have a meeting. At the Fairview congregational meeting, the names of Mr. and Mrs. Waine would be raised as desiring to join Fairview. The language used in Fairview’s minute book was probably something like this: “Bro. and Sis. J. T. Waine were received by letter.”²
- It was then incumbent upon Fairview to communicate to FBC that the Waines had become members at Fairview – this is the ‘letter of admission’ side of the equation. (A large congregation would likely eventually adopt a form rather than a letter as a way of communicating this membership transfer info between churches. At this stage, if FBC had adopted a form system – and I do not know when/if they did so, though it seems likely – Fairview would have returned the blank at the bottom of the form to FBC confirming that the membership transfer had been finalized. See (D) below for an example of a ‘blank’ attached to another church’s ‘letter of dismission’ form.
- Finally, FBC, upon receiving Fairview’s final correspondence regarding the Waines, would make a note in FBC’s membership roll that the Waines had withdrawn their membership and were worshipping at Fairview.
No Respecter of Persons (Nor of Congregational Politics)
The membership transfer system was no respecter of persons. All were treated equally, at least on paper. Members wanting to unite with FBC Vancouver who had come from a lonely rural Alberta church followed the same steps as did an incoming pastor and his wife whose previous pastorate had been at Cambridge, Mass. See (E) below.
Likewise the membership transfer system operated in the same fashion no matter which congregation was involved – even if the congregation was a splinter sub-group of First Baptist Church: West End Baptist Church (see (G)).³
Clues for Researchers
Clues to church history abound in membership transfer correspondence. If you should happen across them when assembling documents for a church archive (or under other circumstances), I’d urge you not to pitch them out. They can tell you a great deal about both churches involved in a transfer: hints as to congregational theology (it is not safe to assume that a congregation’s contemporary theological stance was always the same – indeed, it seems to me safer to assume that it was not the same in the past), church governance style, and the background of individuals being transferred. These are among the clues that can be revealed when membership transfers are taken as seriously today by church historians, archivists and others, as were transfers when the transfers were first issued.
¹Letters of transfer came into play (perhaps obviously) only for those people who had been members ‘in good standing’ at a ‘regular’ Baptist church. Without getting into a detailed discussion of Baptist denominational distinctives prior to the 1920s, suffice to say that non-Baptists could not have their membership from a non-Baptist church transferred to a Baptist church in the fashion described above. They would need, most probably, to be baptized in order to receive Baptist membership. (Today, a person could become a member at First Baptist from a non-Baptist church without being baptized “by experience” if adult immersion baptism was practiced at their previous church).
²I don’t know what Fairview Baptist Church’s by-laws required at this time regarding votes on admission of new members. But the earliest by-laws of First Baptist Church, Vancouver, indicate such a vote must be unanimously in favour in order for the person to be admitted. However, “Should any objection be made the case shall be postponed and the objection inquired into. If the church on inquiry shall regard the objection as unscriptural, it may be overruled.” (Handbook, First Baptist Church, 1889)
³West End Baptist Church was made up of about 50+ former members of First Baptist Church, Vancouver between 1904-06. The members who left the mother church to form WEBC were loyal to the most recent pastor, Rev. Dr. Ronald Grant (who, apparently, had been urged by the FBC powers-that-be to seek work elsewhere). Grant preached at WEBC for a few months, but left Vancouver soon after. Rev. Dr. M. L. Rugg was called by WEBC to become their pastor and he remained until the members decided in 1906 to reunite with FBC. During its brief life, WEBC met at Pender Hall (SW corner, Pender at Howe) and also in a building on Granville between Nelson and Smythe.