The bicentennial events get underway on Friday, July 11, at 7 pm, with a presentation by former pastor David Midwood on the topic “What I learned at East Dover Baptist Church.” The next morning, Saturday, July 12, at 8 am, the community is invited to a breakfast and open house at the church. Church member Linda Sherman notes that the displays at the open house will include photos, a timeline of the church, “and displays of all the missions we serve all over the world.” That evening at 7, the public is invited to a concert presented by current and former worship team members.
At worship services Sunday morning, several former pastors will speak about their experiences at the church. The service will be followed by a potluck lunch on the church lawn.
Over much of the two centuries the church has been in existence, it has served as the “glue” holding the small community of East Dover together. But the church didn’t start out as a strictly East Dover institution. According to Nell Kull’s 1961 “History of Dover, 200 Years in a Hill Town,” the 22 Dover residents who officially established the town’s Baptist church on October 5, 1814, had been worshiping together in a meetinghouse a mile and a half to the northeast of Dover Town Common. It wasn’t until 1858 that a building was erected on the current site in East Dover.
According to a document quoted by Kull and originally written by church historian Sidney Sherman, the $700 cost of the building was financed in part by the county and state Baptist associations, with the balance “raised among the people of East Dover.”
The building has changed significantly since then, with multiple additions, a steeple, interior renovations, and even a full basement. Kull notes that the building was enlarged in 1860, just eight years after it was first built.
About 100 years later, the building was enlarged with the addition of the former Canaan schoolhouse. “The schoolhouse was originally on the corner of Snow Road and Yeaw Road, then it was moved down to the village,” says church member Patsy Bemis.
When the “new” consolidated schoolhouse (now the Dover Free Library and Kids in the Country Daycare) was built in the 1950s, the church purchased the old schoolhouse. For many years, the schoolhouse remained a separate building located behind the church. Sometime in the 1960s, Bemis recalls, the two buildings were connected.
In the 1990s, a full basement was put under the church. Also in the 1990s, the interior of the church was remodeled, reversing the direction of the pews and turning the focus from the road side of the building to the opposite side. At that time, use of the old entrance facing the road was discontinued and a new main entrance was located on the parking lot side of the building.
In her history of Dover, Kull notes that the East Dover Baptist Church is the only church in town “which has endured uninterrupted since it’s organization in 1814.” Even in 1961 it was “the most flourishing religious group in the town.” And according to current parishioners, the same can still be said of the church.
“It has been continuously open for 200 years,” notes Bemis. “We’ve had interim pastors, but we’ve never had to shut it for the summer.”
Bemis says faith is the reason the church has remained so active for 200 years. “We’ve been faithful to God’s word, and God has been faithful to us. We care for the people of the community.”
In the church’s early days, caring for the community included guarding the morals of local residents. Kull notes that
“Fellowship was frequently withheld from members” for activities such as profane language, gambling, Sabbath-breaking or “un-Christian character.” One member was reprimanded when he was “found guilty of taking from his father’s patrons too much grain as toll at the mill.”
It’s not only the local community that the church cares for, Bemis says, it’s also the larger community. The church has a long history of supporting missionary work, particularly short- and long-term missionary projects undertaken by current and former church members.
Church members have served all over the world, including Japan, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Columbia, and Ecuador. “My grandson went to Guatemala and worked in an orphanage there,” Bemis says. “He learned a great deal. My son went to Haiti and worked in a sugar cane village. It was a great eye-opener for him. Right now we have someone going to China. Her sister just came back.”
What’s in store for the next 200 years? “If the rapture doesn’t take place?” Bemis asks. “Stay faithful, that’s the thing for the next 200 years.”