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Cartwright, Carol Lohry; Shaffer, Scott; Waller, Randal / City on the Rock River : chapters in Janesville's history
(1998)

12. Religion,   pp. 208-226


Page 209

12.
Religion
Carol Lohry Cartwright
he churches of Janesville have been an important part of the community's life since its
founding. Many of the early churches had strong ties to ethnic groups. But as the city
grew, some of these ethnic ties lessened, and churches began to serve specific religious,
social, and/or geographical needs of the city's residents. Many of Janesville's early churches
were located in the city's downtown, because their members desired a central location. Today,
there are still churches downtown, but most churches are now found in suburban neighborhoods.
Many of the Catholic and Lutheran churches in the community have supported primary
parochial schools that added to the diverse educational resources in the city (see Education
chapter). While many of Janesville's congregations erected architecturally significant
buildings in the city, this chapter will focus on the history of the church congregations and
their potential significance in Janesville's history.
Baptist
The Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in America. In Wisconsin, Yankee
immigrants formed Baptist churches soon after communities were settled in the mid-nineteenth
century. In general, each Baptist congregation exercised a great deal of individual control,
unlike more hierarchical religious groups. But in Wisconsin, some Baptist churches did
affiliate with synodical groups. A number of Baptist churches in Wisconsin had strong ethnic
ties, the most predominant being the Scandinavian (Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes). A
number of African-American Baptist churches also formed in the state, particularly in larger
urban areas. The German Baptist church, one of the smaller ethnic Baptist churches in the
state, formed in areas of high German settlement in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee,
Waukesha, and Dodge counties. (Wyatt 1986: vol. 3, Religion, 2-1-2-8)
The oldest and only historically significant Baptist Church in Janesville is the First Baptist
Church. Thirteen Yankee settlers formed the church in 1844, and by 1856, church membership
had grown to 137; by 1859, to 212. During the church's early years, the congregation met in the
Rock County Courthouse. In 1851, they built a church at 102 S. Cherry St., then sold it in 1867
and relocated to temporary quarters until a new church at 67 S. Jackson St. could be built (not
extant). By 1879, church membership had grown to 325. When the church on Jackson Street
burned in 1884, a new church was quickly erected. By 1908, the first Baptist Church, with 710
members, claimed to be the largest Baptist church in Wisconsin. The congregation remained at
67 S. Jackson St. until 1974, when it relocated to a suburban site at 3414 Woodhall Dr. (City
Directories; Butterfield 1879:556; Guernsey & Willard 1856:165-166; Brigham 1859:123; Brown
1908:293; "First Baptist to Celebrate 140th Anniversary" 1984:sec. C; 1)
The First Baptist Church is historically significant because it has roots in the early settlement
period of Janesville. The first permanent home of the church at 102 S. Cherry St. is still extant,
although it has been somewhat altered. Still, the building is potentially individually
eligible for the National Register because it represents the historic early years of the
congregation. It is already listed as a contributing building in the Old Fourth Ward Historic
District. The long-term home of the church on South Jackson Street is not extant, and its current
home on Woodhall Drive is too modem to be significant.
Janesville has two other Baptist churches. The Southside Baptist Church at 2300 S. Jackson St.
formed in 1965, and the Bethal Baptist Church formed in 1967. Bethal was first located at 3315
E. Milwaukee St., then moved to its present location at 3300 Mt. Zion Ave. These churches are
Religion
209


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