The very rich history of Myrtle Baptist Church began with Newton’s early black residents, several of whom made their home after relocating from the west end of Boston in the mid-1800s. In 1873, records show that there were 130 blacks living in the City of Newton. First Baptist Church, now Lincoln Park Baptist Church, became their first spiritual home, some having been members since 1869. Nonetheless, feeling the need to worship in their own tradition and the freedom to sit in the front of the church as well as in the rear, they were encouraged to separate, “not with feelings of of unkindness toward our white brethren but simply for the best good of all concerned.” As a result, Tomas Johnson opened his home to like-minded neighbors, inviting them to worship with him in the old way. According to an article written by a former pastor of Myrtle, the Reverend Wade Ryan, it was “as if by divine appointment,” Deacon Thomas met Reverend Edmund Kelley in Charlestown. Kelley purportedly asked, “Don’t you people want a church in Newton?’ In response, Deacon Thomas invited him to preach to the small group. Reverend Kelley organized them into a society and remained pastor from 1874 to 1876.
A former slave, Kelley was an extraordinary man in many ways. While still enslaved, he was licensed to preach by the Mission Church of Columbia, Tennessee in 1842. He was ordained as an evangelist there in October, 1843 and organized the First Negro Baptist Church. After gaining his freedom, he traveled extensively, preaching and organizing churches in several states among which were Calvary Baptist Church. After leaving Myrtle, he went on to be an important figure in the beginning of the NationalBaptist Convention, was an officer in the New England Missionary Baptist Convention and was among the organizers of the American Baptist Missionary Convention in New York. Reverend Kelley was also among the delegates of black pastors who met with both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. Reverend Edmund Kelley died October 4, 1894 at the age of 76. He was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, MA.
At the monthly meeting of the First Baptist Church, September 25, 1874, it was voted that the people who applied for letters of dimission in order to form another church be granted their letters. Among those persons were, Thomas Johnson, Lymus Hicks, Sarah Simms, Henrietta Rose, Jane Brewer, and Henry Jones. Although the dimission was completed with dignity and integrity, Nathaniel T. Allen, a prominent educator and abolitionist expressed his deep regret that “our fellow colored citizens of this village have organized a church on the single basis of color…it seems that it was God’s will, for whatever His purpose, that a church called Myrtle become another proclaimer of His word among His people…”
The first church structure was built in 1875 on land given as a gift by D.C Sanger, a Deacon at Lincoln Park Baptist Church. The dedicating sermon, For the People Had a Mind to Work, was preached by Reverend H.J. Patrick, Pastor of Second Church, Newton, MA.
Reverend Peter Randolph was the second pastor and served until 1879. Under his leadership, the congregation grew from the original 18 to 39. In an article written for the Boston North Baptist Association, Reverend Wade Ryan stated, “About this time a great revival broke out in the church and many souls were converted.”
On October 22, 1897, a fire destroyed the original church. Within a year, the church was rebuilt upon the same site as the original building. At that time, two beautiful stained glass windows, depicting “Philip Baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch” and “The Ascension” were installed. The design and building of the windows are attributed to the studios of the prominent Boston stained glass maker, George W. Spence of Spence and Bell of Scollay Square. They were brought to Myrtle on a wagon bed. It has never been corroborated, but it has been the belief that the windows were the gift of a Mr. Edwin B. Haskell who was one of Newton’s most distinguished citizens. They were not signed, but the windows have great sentimental value for the church community. Reverend Charles Morris (1896-1899) supervised their unveiling.
The mid-twenties was a time of discord within the church. Some members chose to dismiss themselves from Myrtle and form a new congregation, Mt. Zion Baptist Church that was located on Washington Street in West Newton. When Mt. Zion was dissolved as a church, many of its members returned to the Myrtle Baptist Church fellowship. So much has happened since that time it is not possible to include it all here; nonetheless, it is worth highlighting those people and events that are significant to its history.
Reverend Wade Ryan (1909-1923) was said to have been especially known for his eloquence. It was also though his influence that The Daughters of Myrtle, the oldest organization of the church, was formed with a charge “to serve the church and community spiritually and financially”.
Reverend Louis Ford has had the longest tenure to date, as pastor of Myrtle. He remained in the pulpit from 1933 to 1963. Born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Reverend Ford graduated Morgan State College in Maryland and later, Boston University where he came to the attention of Professor Mark Dawber who helped him to find a scholarship. He ultimately earned a Master of Divinity degree there.
At an early age, he learned the trade broom-making from his grandfather. As a broom-maker, Reverend Ford became one of the most highly regarded manufacturers in the area, supplying brooms to some of the most prestigious stores in the Boston area. It was said, however, that his first love was the church and he taught by example. “He believed that to serve God, one must use their will, emotions and intellect.” He encouraged his flock to be givers, not takers. One of his proudest accomplishments was the retirement of Myrtle’s indebtedness to the Massachusetts Baptist Convention. Myrtle has always been the focal point of the black community in West Newton. During the time between 1962 and 1965 many members of the church had their lives disrupted due to their homes being taken by eminent domain for the extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike. As a result, the church lost about half of its members due to relocation outside of the area.
In 1968, Myrtle became a place of refuge on the occasion of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not only for the black community, but for the entire city of Newton. “The church was filled. People lined the walls and over-flowed into the street.” Dr. King had frequently preached at Myrtle while a student at Boston University.
Nineteen seventy-four saw the completion of the renovation of the downstairs facilities and a total renovation and reorientation of the sanctuary. The changes allowed for the expansion of the Sunday School and creation of the Reverend Louis E. Ford Memorial Fellowship Hall.
The 1980s brought the church to a new juncture with the installation of one of its own sons, Reverend Howard M. Haywood as pastor, on June 16, 1985. A life-long resident of Newton, his family had resided in the city for 7 generations. Second only to Reverend Ford, Reverend Haywood was shepherd to his flock for 23 years, retiring on May, 2008.
Under Reverend Haywood’s leadership a new addition to the church was completed in 1987 which gave the church adequate space for the Helen Cooper Evans Day Care Center, a vital ministry to the church community. It also provided additional fellowship space, a new pastor’s study and church office.
With Reverend Haywood’s consistent message of love, Myrtle has striven to become “the church where love abides.” As a result of the malicious arson of New Hope Baptist Church in Moro, Arkansas, Reverend Haywood, along with a small group of members, traveled there to bring both spiritual and financial support. With his encouragement, the Missions Committee began its international outreach through its involvement with the Kinyago-Dandora Schools located in the slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
About eight years ago, two students from a Boston University preservations program submitted the name of the Myrtle Baptist Church neighborhood as a candidate for nomination to the National Register ofHistoric Places (NRHP). On December 11, 2008, “The Myrtle Baptist Church Historic District” was accepted for inclusion into the NRHP.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina, called America’s “worst natural disaster in modern times,” devastated the cities of New Orleans, Louisiana and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Through the effort of Myrtle’s Dr. Keith Crawford and with the support of Reverend Haywood, a group of Myrtle men traveled to Mississippi with a truck-load of food, clothing, toys and necessities that were distributed among the victims of the hurricane.
In Reverend Haywood’s words, “I believe there is only one true test of a church’s collective love of Jesus Christ…the real test of our love of Christ is whether we obey Him or not and His commandment…to love one another.”