Handsome and straightforward, Jackson’s First Baptist is the kind of workhorse brick church that you can find in almost every town across Michigan and the broader Midwest.

1922 postcard via the James R. Tanis Collection of Church Postcards, Princeton Theological Seminary Library / 2022 photo.

Built in 1872 by local builder J.R. Lewis, First Baptist gestures at Romanesque Revival with its round arches. During construction, parish finances were so precarious that parishioner (and, luckily, mason) Ben H. Mosher ended up doing most of the masonry work himself, for free.

Home to a congregation founded in 1939, membership of First Baptist Church of Jackson peaked in 1941 at more than 850–today it’s mostly an older, white, middle-class congregation,  and quite a bit smaller than that.

So what’s changed in the 101 years since this postcard was sent? The new building next door is the obvious one–the parish education building was completed in 1961. It looks like a chimney was taken down, as well as a few stray bits of ornament. It’s not visible in the postcard, but the church used to also have a third spire in the back. The dramatic asymmetric front spires, which required repainting every eight years to keep them looking fresh, were clad in vinyl in 2001 to save money.

First Baptist was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1984, a process the congregation initially kicked off as a (flimsy-but-ultimately-unnecessary) shield as Jackson considered a plan to demolish parts of downtown and convert some of the rest into a weird enclosed mall in 1979.

Pushed by Minnesota developer Orrin A. Ericson, their plans here failed, but you can look at the Ericson Development Company’s mall in downtown Mankato, Minnesota to get a sense for what they wanted to do here. …it’s pretty weird, although maybe an understandable response to the way legacy urban downtowns were emptying out as the state subsidized suburban development and malls. Erect a roof between a few old commercial buildings, connect them with some artificially lit corridors, demolish a few buildings to build a big-ass parking lot or two, and voila–a modern mall. It was the 80s, people loved a mall (...they didn’t, particularly–the disinvestment of downtowns was obviously a much more complex phenomenon than just a lack of malls and parking). Regardless, it’s interesting that–given the sometimes tetchy relationship between churches and preservation–the congregation identified the state historic designation as a potential tool in an effort to protect themselves in the face of disruptive change.

1979 article in the Columbian from Vancouver, Washington, where Ericson Development was aiming to build a similar project to their mall in Mankato and their failed plans for Jackson

Production Files

Further reading:

While in town to dedicate First Baptist in 1872, the pastor also stopped at the Michigan State Prison in the city–really underlines how central a role the prison has always played in Jackson's history

Can't say I've ever seen someone promise a more pretentious program, as a good thing

"Dear Minnie and family, How are you folks? I have every fire going now. Mother and I were over to see your mother yesterday. She looks fine. We saw Miss (?) last night. She is better. Kiss little Paul for Aunt Rose." Postcard verso via the James R. Tanis Collection of Church Postcards, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.