I attend a church that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. That means it’s old – really old – even older than me. Established in 1841, by west coast standards it’s just about as ancient as the Colosseum. It’s beautiful and has what the HGTV-folk like to say, “good bones.”
We are the oldest Methodist church west of the Rockies. We know that the church is built on the ancestral lands of the Kalapuyan tribe who made their home in the mid-Willamette Valley. We have a strong connection with Willamette University, founded by Rev. Jason Lee.
Every now and again, a piece of history that you didn’t know pops up and changes everything.
This last year on Emancipation Day (aka Juneteenth), I went on a walking tour of Salem to learn about Albert and Mary Bayless. Both were born into slavery. Albert escaped and Mary was freed. They found themselves in Oregon, married, and settled in Salem in 1866. He was a blacksmith and a volunteer firefighter. We walked to various points of interest where Albert worked and where he and Mary had lived.
As we learned more about the Bayless family, we also were reminded that Oregon’s history around race is horrifying. In 1844, Oregon instituted an “exclusionary law” prohibiting Blacks from living in Oregon. The law stated that “Blacks who tried to settle in Oregon would be publicly whipped – thirty-nine lashes, repeated every six months – until they left Oregon.” Though rarely enforced, it wasn’t until 1926, that the people of Oregon finally voted to remove the exclusionary clause from its constitution.
The impact of that law can still be felt today. The Black population in Oregon is about two percent. Back in 1866, given the exclusionary law, it was probably even less than that in Salem.
Our last stop on the Bayless tour was what is now First United Methodist Church and I was in for a shock. With thanks to Kylie Pine, researcher extraordinaire, of the Willamette Heritage Center:
Mary Ann and Albert Bayless were admitted to full membership in the church in 1870. Albert Bayless is credited with helping to finish the fundraising for the building that is now on the Historic Registry. Ben Kumler remembered:
At an official board meeting the brethren were voicing their discouragement by saying…they thought it impossible to finish the building. Finally Brother Bayliss arose from his obscure corner to tell of his debts.
He related that his rent was paid; his iron, steel and horseshoes were all paid for, but still he was in debt.
Then he, dramatically, stated that as the building was not finished, with every brick in its proper place, he was in debt; in debt to the Lord!
His speech so fired the meeting with enthusiasm that those present began at once to subscribe.
Wow. This preaches – even today.
How had I not heard about Albert Bayless and his witness?
Your church’s origin story is important. You need to tell the whole story – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a hidden gem from history that you really need to know.
One that can inspire a new generation and propel you forward.
Thank you, Brother Bayless for your faithful witness from way back when. May we always remember that we are forever in debt…in debt to the Lord.
Who’s the Albert Bayless in your history?
Photo credit: Ron Cooper