Butler’s sermon came during the final day of a year-long observance of the 150th anniversary of Calvary Baptist Church, a congregation whose red brick sanctuary has been standing at Eighth and H streets NW in Penn Quarter since the Civil War.
According to church historians, Amos Kendall, a prominent District businessman, led a break from the E Street Baptist Church after that congregation opposed praying for the Union forces during the Civil War. Founded by abolitionists, the then-white Sixth Street Baptist Church was later renamed Calvary Baptist Church.
Kendall donated money to purchase land for the church’s first sanctuary, which was dedicated on June 3, 1866, according to a history of the church authored by Carl W. Tiller and Olive M. Tiller.
From opposing slavery in the 1860s to supporting the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, Calvary has always been more progressive than traditional Baptist churches.
In 1889, the church started Sunday school classes for the surrounding Chinese community, and in 1908 it founded a Chinese YMCA. Calvary Baptist was also an early opponent of the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act, which limited Asian immigration to the United States.
Calvary played a big role in supporting women who began moving to Washington to fill federal jobs vacated by men going off to fight in World War I, said Bob Abernethy, a veteran journalist and host of the PBS show “Religion and Ethics.” Abernethy’s grandfather was the Rev. William S. Abernethy, who pastored the church from 1921 to 1941. His grandmother taught one of several Bible classes the church offered for women.
“There must have been 100 members of that class,” Abernethy said. “Most were single women. They came from all over the county. Many of them were uprooted. My grandmother became a mother to scores of these women.”
One newcomer, 34-year-old Jessie Burrall, who had moved to the District from Minnesota to take a a job with the National Geographic Society, also helped teach the classes, Butler said.
What began as Burrall’s “Sunday School Class No. 24” in 1917 grew from six to more than 1,600 women over a three-year period. As a result, the class was renamed “The Burrall Class” and featured in a 1920 Good Housekeeping story.
Although its pews have held many distinguished members over the years , including former President Warren G. Harding, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes and various members of Congress, Calvary Baptist has long been a refuge and advocate for the poor and oppressed.