Born in the Acre, Baptized—by Fire—on the South Side

Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1867 by Reverends W. W. Mitchell and Asa Fitzgerald. Fort Worth’s first Baptist church remained Fort Worth’s only Baptist church until September 1882.
That’s when, B. F. Riley writes in History of the Baptists of Texas, “Major [W. E.] Penn [an evangelist from Jefferson] held a remarkable meeting at Fort Worth, and before quitting the city was instrumental in constituting a new church, which was first named the Southside Church . . .”
“Remarkable” indeed. After that meeting a group of First Baptist Church members not only left the church to form a new church but also took First Baptist’s pastor with them!

That pastor was John Smith Gillespie. Gillespie was born in Pennsylvania in 1820. In 1848 he was licensed to preach in Kentucky. From 1853 to 1877 he pastored churches in Indiana and Ohio, during which time among the converts he baptized were his parents.

In 1878 Gillespie became pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, which at the time was located on Throckmorton Street.

As the year 1883 began, Gillespie and his breakaway congregation named their new church “South Side Baptist” with plans to build a home south of the Texas & Pacific reservation.
By one account the organizers of the new church broke away from First Baptist because they wanted to more aggressively proselytize local sinners.
And the new church put its tithe where its mouth was: It located its first home in Fort Worth’s Sin Central: Hell’s Half Acre. While saving money to build its permanent home, the congregation worshipped in rented space “opposite the drug store of E.M. Wells.” Wells owned a drugstore at 1600 Houston Street in the southern end of the Acre.

As this 1885 map shows, “opposite the drug store of E.M. Wells” places the church upstairs over the Barr & Lane grocery store at 1601 Houston. See that “Female Boarding” across West 15th Street? “Female boarding [house]” was a euphemism for “brothel.” In addition to a brothel, the new church’s neighbors included two saloons (“Sal.” on map). (Also note “Chinese laundry” and “colored lodge.” Fort Worth’s small Asia-American community was confined to the Acre. The African-American community was confined to the Acre and the eastern edge of town.) The church and brothel were located at the southwest corner of today’s Water Gardens.

But early in 1885 the congregation bought a lot on Broadway Avenue at St. Louis Avenue. The congregation continued to pass the plate for the building fund and by April 1886 had built its new home. Finally South Side Baptist Church was on the South Side!

This photo of the new church building was taken by David Swartz. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Star-Telegram Collection.)

The year 1890 brought two changes to the church. The church changed its name to “Broadway Baptist Church.” And Reverend Anderson E. Baten, prominent in Texas Baptistry, took the pulpit from John Smith Gillespie.

In 1893 Baten surely fulfilled the expectations of that breakaway congregation of 1882. One night Baten disguised himself and went on a vice tour. Guided by a missionary of the Union Bethel Mission, which was located in the Acre, Baten toured the Acre: its saloons, its gambling houses, its variety theaters, its brothels. Baten saw the Acre, the Gazette wrote, “from the hut of the negro prostitute to that of the more debased white woman, and from these, the lowest, to the highest of the gilded palaces of sin.”
Baten then preached a series of sermons based on what he had witnessed. But Baten railed against not only the sins of the Acre but also against city government for allowing such sins. He said he saw police officers on duty in the Acre blatantly ignoring violations of city ordinances.
In fact, the theme of his sermons was “Municipal Meanness.”
The Gazette often printed Baten’s sermons verbatim and sometimes on the front page:
“Now, I appeal to the good people of Fort Worth. Brethren and friends, there is a great crisis upon us. The dragon that would destroy our children moves his great bulky, massive, slimy, sinuous, spiral form up to our very doors. He spreads his jaws wide open, and he says, when a child is born, ‘make haste and get big enough for me’; and when the little one is just getting of sufficient age to be the pride of his parents, into the mouth of the monster he goes and is crushed. The dragon that I refer to is composed of the deadfalls and the rotten places in the city of Fort Worth. . . . That illustrates, my beloved, how these evil places and this general lawlessness is destroying our children. I love my four babies, but as dearly as I love them I had rather dig four little graves, and I had rather lower them down in four little coffins and cover the earth over them, than to see them grow up to fall into the snares and be ruined as many of our sons and daughters are being ruined in Fort Worth.”
Although Baten received words of support from ministers elsewhere in Texas, locally he received verbal and written threats. Fort Worth had always been ambivalent about the Acre, alternately bemoaning its vice but celebrating the money that its vice produced.
In March 1893 a police committee was formed to investigate Baten’s charges. Among witnesses testifying were Baten, his missionary guide, and police officers. The city promised reform.

Dr. Richard F. Selcer in Hell’s Half Acre: Life and Legend in a Red-light District writes that Baten proclaimed a “‘great moral victory’ after the city council passed another of its endless ordinances to shut down the worst spots in the Acre.”

Of course, Baten’s victory would be short-lived.
Selcer writes that when the city’s latest crackdown “proved as ineffective as previous efforts, Baten abruptly resigned his pastorate . . .”
Seven weeks after his last sermon on “Municipal Meanness” Anderson E. Baten resigned. Two months later he took the pulpit of the Baptist church in McKinney.
W. O. Bailey of First Baptist Church in Houston replaced Baten as pastor of Broadway Baptist Church.
Selcer writes that Baten “was not the first preacher that Hell’s Half Acre had defeated, nor the last Baptist preacher to stake his reputation on shutting down the Acre.”
Indeed, the pulpit’s holy war on the Acre would continue—headed most conspicuously by First Baptist’s J. Frank Norris—another quarter-century.

By 1893 Broadway Avenue was the home of three churches as the near South Side flourished.

When visiting preacher Sid Williams held a revival at “spacious Broadway Baptist church” in 1901, the sanctuary was filled. In fact, people stood in the lobby and on the steps to listen. People even sat in their buggies outside under the windows and “drank in the words which fell so eloquently and earnestly from the evangelist’s lips.”

Broadway Baptist Church’s first pastor, Reverend John Smith Gillespie, died in November 13, 1903 at age eighty-three. His funeral was held at the church he helped found. He is buried in Pioneers Rest Cemetery.

Like every century, the twentieth would be plagued by disasters both natural and human-made to which churches responded. In April 1906 members of Broadway Baptist Church, like congregations of other local churches, passed the plate to help victims of the earthquake in San Francisco.

The next month the congregation moved into its new building, designed by Sanguinet and Staats. The new building seated fourteen hundred people, had a thousand-book Sunday School library, and a pipe organ that was “one of the finest in the country,” the Telegram wrote. (Image courtesy of Barbara Love Logan.)

But less than a year later Broadway Baptist Church, along with nearby Broadway Presbyterian and Swedish Methodist Episcopal Church, was destroyed in the South Side fire. The fire is thought to have begun a block south of the three churches. Wind spread the flames northward through the neighborhood of mostly wood-frame buildings.

Within days congregations of the three churches announced plans to rebuild.

The new Broadway Baptist Church building was completed in October 1910.

In 1918 came the next crisis, and Broadway Baptist and other local churches entertained “men in uniform” from Camp Bowie and Camp Taliaferro. The Star-Telegram reported that more than 140 Broadway “boys” were in uniform.

Four years later the Broadway Baptist congregation moved into a new four-story Sunday School building. The building was outfitted with a gym, swimming pool, and a roof garden for summer night services.

In the early 1920s Mrs. Lena Pope joined Broadway Baptist Church and was asked to teach the Martha Class—a women’s Sunday School class. The charity project of the Marthas was helping needy children. For example, the Marthas sewed clothing and blankets for Texas storm victims and for children of Buckner Orphans’ Home in Dallas. The Marthas also placed deserted children in private homes. At any given time a half-dozen homeless children might be living in the basement of the church while waiting to be placed in homes. From those efforts by Mrs. Pope and the Martha Class developed the Lena Pope Home.

In 1940 the church expanded again, adding a four-story educational building.

A year later came another catastrophe: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. Broadway Baptist Church, like churches around the country, bought bonds to finance the war effort.

In 1949 the congregation embarked on its most ambitious building project yet. The 1910 building was demolished and work begun on a $1.25 million ($13 million today) sanctuary designed by Wyatt Hedrick and Thomas E. Stanley and funded by oilman and church member William Fleming.
The building was completed in 1952. More than five thousand people attended three services when the new building was opened on Easter Sunday.
The building was divided into three main sections: a 1,700-seat sanctuary, a 250-seat chapel, and a 600-seat fellowship hall.
In the sanctuary one of the transepts was reserved for the deaf, the other for children of Lena Pope Home. Above the pulpit was an eighty-seat choir loft.
The new building’s kitchen could serve six hundred meals.
Fleming also funded the building’s $75,000 ($800,000 today) Casavant organ, then the largest in a church in the Southwest.

By 1962 the congregation of Broadway Baptist was Fort Worth’s biggest.

But in the 1960s the near South Side, which had been swept by fire in 1909, was swept by social change. The neighborhood, which sixty years earlier had been a fashionable area (home of the Monnigs, Terrell, Paddock, Tucker, Van Zandt, Roe, Ikard, Johnson, Chase, Biccochi, Laneri) declined.
Into the 1970s demographics changed. The average income of residents fell. Crime increased, property values fell. Once-grand homes along Hemphill Street were vacant.
With economic decline, a spiral was created. Residents, businesses, and even churches abandoned the area, causing more decline, which in turn caused more abandonment.
But Broadway Baptist Church did not budge.
As its neighborhood changed, the church—mostly white, fairly affluent, with doctors, lawyers, and civic leaders among its members—changed.
In 1965 the church created its Broadway Baptist Center to provide for the physical—as well as spiritual—needs of its neighbors.
Instead of hellfire and brimstone the church delivered day care and meals on wheels.
And dental care, immunizations, counseling, classes in home economics and household arts, prescription medicine subsidies. It hosted county probation officers, Planned Parenthood, Alcoholics Anonymous. It operated a clothes shop, a food coop.

In 2009 Broadway Baptist would lose its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention after 127 years because of the church’s lenient stance on homosexuality.

In 1982 the church that had begun its life among the bars and brothels of Hell’s Half Acre celebrated its centennial. Three thousand of its five thousand members were active.
As the church began its second century, pastor Welton Gaddy pledged that Broadway Baptist would “joyfully join with all of those in the Metroplex who attempt to feed hungry people; to clothe the ill-clad; to shelter the homeless; to find work for the unemployed.”

Some views of Broadway Baptist Church:

The historical marker was erected on the church’s centennial.

The entrance of the Fleming Chapel.


Windows of the sanctuary.

The east entrance of the sanctuary.

A detail of the reveal of the east entrance.

Plaques in the curbing on the church campus honor members. Loyd Turner served twelve years on the Fort Worth school board, including six years as president (1965-1971).

The church’s spire’s top is 165 feet above the street—approximately the height of the Sinclair Building.

The Broadway Baptist spire against the twenty-four-story Omni Fort Worth hotel downtown.

For seventy years the spire of Broadway Baptist Church has been the skyline—spiritual and physical—of the near South Side.
In 1981 pastor Gaddy said a man had recently showed up at the Broadway Baptist Center and asked for $2 to buy gasoline.
Gaddy said, “The man said he had run out of gas on the South Freeway, and someone had pointed to the spire of our church and told him, ‘The people who go to that church are the kind of people who will help you.’ That’s the kind of image I would like this church to have.”

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8 Responses to Born in the Acre, Baptized—by Fire—on the South Side

  1. RFG says:

    I am the direct descendant of Rev. John Smith Gillespie and happened upon this site while doing some research.

    I believe you may have some information I’ve not been able to find about my ancestor.

    It looks like the last communication you had on this site was in 2022. Hoping you are still available. Please contact me at my email address.

    Thank you for this site. I am so appreciative of the work you’ve done.

    • Thanks for visiting this site. Unfortunately the author, Mike Nichols, has passed away. We are currently working to find a solution to best preserve this informative website.

  2. Ryon Price says:

    I am the Senior Pastor of this church and I always enjoy your work. What a gift your excavation of Fort Worth is. Thank you for being a great resource on many places, people, and things.

    You might also include Broadway’s controversial stand for its gay members which cost us our membership in the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 2000s. That adds to the important history of this congregation.

  3. Troy McKelroy says:

    I grew in a 1916 house on W. Broadway literally in the shadow of that church. It’s tall steeple was the first thing I saw from my upstairs bedroom window every morning. And yet, ‘knew little about it–until now.

  4. Stacy L. Clark says:

    Enjoyed reading every bit of this article! Lifelong Fort Dweller…married 4-24-82 at Broadway Baptist… thanks for the history!

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