Church Membership Transfers

LGN 484 - [Men and women assembled outside First Baptist Church, at the southwest corner of Dunsmuir and Hamilton Streets] 1889

CVA LGN 484 – People outside the second structure dedicated to First Baptist Church worship (SE Corner, Hamilton & Dunsmuir) from various local churches, probably for interdenominational temperance meetings. 1889?.

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

Incorporation

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.

Singing.

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., 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

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(A) An example of a “Letter” Style of Membership Transfer. From “Correspondence File 1908”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC.

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.

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(B) An example of a “Form” Style of Membership Transfer. From “Correspondence 1902”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC. Note: This form alludes to ‘this blank’ which is no longer attached to the rest of the form. It would have been completed by Vancouver FBC’s Clerk and sent to San Jose FBC confirming that Mrs. Hickman had formally ‘united’ with the Vancouver church. See (D) for an example of a still-attached blank.

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(C) An example of a Pastor-to-Pastor membership transfer letter (versus the far more typical Clerk-to-Clerk style). It is plain from the context of this letter that the Pastor at Temple Baptist in L.A. was a friend or acquaintance of H. Francis Perry at FBC.

Step-By-Step Guide

This was probably roughly the order in which things happened (still relying principally on the case of the Waines, to illustrate):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. This is the stage at which the Brookes/Thompson correspondence was initiated by Mr Brookes.
  4. Upon receiving the request from Fairview, Thompson would have put Mr. and Mrs. Waines on his ‘little list’ of those who had requested letters.
  5. 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.’
  6. 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.
  7. 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
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
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(D) An example of a “Form with Blank Attached” Style of Membership Transfer. From “Correspondence File 1907”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC.

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.

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(E) Membership transfer form completed by the Clerk (probably a Clerk Pro Tem since the name of the clerk was scratched out on this form) at FBC, Cambridge, Mass. for Mrs. J.L. Campbell (wife of the incoming pastor at FBC, Vancouver). From “Correspondence File 1915”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC.

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(F) I’m including this one because it makes me smile. It was sent to FBC Vancouver, I’m guessing, by error. It is a membership transfer for a former FBC,Vancouver pastor, J Willard Litch whose pastorate was shifting from Broadway Baptist Church (in Vancouver) to FBC, Calgary. This is a fine example of the sort of confusion that can ensue when there is a First Baptist Church in most major centres in North America! From “Correspondence File 1910”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC.

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

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(G) An unusual example of membership transfer from West End Baptist Church, Vancouver. WEBC was a splinter of FBC for a very brief period (ca1904-06). Note that no ‘receiving church’ is stipulated by WEBC’s clerk. It isn’t clear whether that was because the clerk was unsure which Baptist church Ida Hooper would end up going to with her letter, or if it was a case of ‘we’re not speaking’ between WEBC and FBC. From “Correspondence File 1905”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC.

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.

Snapseed 3

(H) A clue to the history of an (ultimately) prominent figure in Vancouver and at First Baptist Church, in particular: Charles Bentall. He would become a principal of Dominion Co. and instrumental in rebuilding FBC’s sanctuary following the 1931 fire in our current (Nelson at Burrard) building. He was being transferred from Jarvis Street Baptist (Toronto) in 1909; that is the same year as Dr. H. Francis Perry left Jarvis Street for the pulpit at FBC Vancouver. Notably, Perry would be followed in the pastorate at Jarvis Street by T. T. Shields. Shields would remain there (not without considerable controversy) until his death in 1955. From “Correspondence File 1909”, Archives, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, BC.

Notes

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 below. 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.

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