History of College Baptist Church

(Photo courtesy of Greg Stewart)


When Hillsdale College moved to Hillsdale in the fall of 1855, its leaders were interested in forming a Free Will Baptist Church.  On November 24, four college associates and four Hillsdale residents signed the first Articles of Association of the church.  

The church met in the chapel of Hillsdale College for its first ten years.  On March 7, 1865, the church sought incorporation to meet the state requirements for holding property and entering into legal contracts.  The church was legally known as the First Free Will Baptist Church of Hillsdale (its informal title of College Baptist Church became legalized in April of 1926).  On March 29, 1865, the trustees of the church voted to raise funds to build a meeting house.  W. H. Reynolds offered to sell the church his lot at the corner of Manning and Fayette.  

In 1865, Professor Ransom Dunn traveled throughout Europe and the Holy Land and studied the cathedrals of the old world.  Dr. Dunn’s 22-year-old son Wayland, who accompanied him on this trip, made sketches of the cathedrals they visited.  Upon their return to America, Dr. Dunn took these sketches to a Chicago architect, who used them to design the church.  Construction began on March 10, 1867.  The Hillsdale Standard wrote on October 29 that the church would be “when finished the largest church in the west.”  The newly completed building was dedicated on January 5, 1868. 

The building was constructed so that as many people as possible could come hear the preaching.  The platform at the front of the sanctuary was much smaller than it is today, and the rooms that serve as offices for the pastor and secretary today were about half their current size, so pews extended on either side of the platform.  The ceiling rose 25 feet above its current location, and amphitheater seating extended into the area which is now the Upper Vestry.  There were approximately 1600 seats when the church was originally built: 800 each in the sanctuary and balcony.  In 1952, the Riker Room was completed, which provided a place for small gatherings and Sunday School classes.  In the 1960s, Rev. Reynolds established the church library.

In the early 20th century, College Baptist became affiliated with the American Baptist churches. On August 4, 2004, the congregation voted to realign with the Baptist General Conference (which shortly thereafter changed its name to Converge). In October of that year a Recognition Council of the Michigan BGC examined and approved our membership in the regional body, an affiliation affirmed by vote at the annual meeting of the MBGC in April of 2005. The MBGC in turn recommended CBC to the annual meeting of the national churches, whose affirmative vote in June, 2005, completed the affiliation process.

College Baptist is currently planning to build an addition, "The 4:12 Center" (Eph 4:12 -- for equipping the saints and for building up the body of Christ).  The plans include a large fellowship hall with seating for nearly three hundred people, a large kitchen with a pass-through counter, two classrooms, a conference room, a larger nursery, larger handicap-accessible bathrooms, and larger offices for the pastor and office manager.  We hope that this new construction will match the building's historical integrity as well as enhance all the work that CBC seeks to accomplish.



We are a Baptist Church because we believe God’s Word, inspired by His Spirit, has set primary responsibility upon the individual to accept Christ’s offer of reconciliation by faith, and then publicly to acknowledge that trust in baptism; and because we believe that God’s Word sets primary responsibility upon the local congregation to interpret and decide matters of corporate faith and practice.  

Under the authority of the church, CBC members elect individuals, committees, and boards in order to exercise certain administrative responsibilities and duties.  The Trustees take care of business matters, the Elders oversee  spiritual well-being, the Christian Education Board oversees biblical education for all ages, the Deacons care for those in need, and the Mission Board supports and promotes evangelism in Hillsdale and around the world.

College Baptist is part of the denomination called Converge Worldwide, formerly known as the Baptist General Conference.  CBC has changed its denominational affiliations over the years from Free Will Baptist to American Baptist to Converge Worldwide to ensure that it is part of a Bible-believing community rather than one which is pulled to and fro by cultural or societal trends.  Converge Worldwide is devoted to being one movement that is spiritually dynamic, missionally driven, relationally devoted, and culturally diverse.  



During the church’s first one hundred years, College Baptist was characterized by religious revivals.  It was not uncommon for each pastor to welcome between fifty and one hundred members into the church, baptizing dozens of them, during his ministry.

Scripture tells us that the church is necessary for having fellowship, encouragement, and accountability among the covenant community (Acts 2:42, Hebrews 3:13, 2 Timothy 4:2); reading Scripture in public (1 Timothy 4:13); teaching the Word (Colossians 3:16); praying (Acts 2:42); praising God (1 Peter 2:9); singing (Colossians 3:16); breaking bread (1 Corinthians 11:23); and baptizing and making disciples (Matthew 28:19).

Those who attend church without becoming members can take part in some of the benefits of the church, but not all. The local churches throughout the New Testament were well-organized.  They kept track of how many joined (Acts 2:37-47), and the leading body of each church disciplined and cared for its flock (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-5). Christians become more like Christ as they live in membership in the Church—His Bride.



At the first service of the not-yet-organized church, on Sunday, November 10, 1855, the church borrowed an organ from two female students.  Two male students were sent to carry the organ from the girls’ room to the chapel.  One of the girls was not yet dressed for church, so she hid in the closet while the men took the organ.  She discovered after they left that she was locked in, and as her roommate had followed the boys to the chapel, she was forced to remain in the closet for an hour and a half while the service was conducted.

In 1868, the church purchased its first organ.  In 1905, the church replaced this organ with one which had been awarded the grand prize for tonal excellence and workmanship at the World’s Fair in St. Louis.  This organ was originally operated by a water pump and a hand pump, but that mechanism was replaced by an electric motor in 1920.  In 1930, the organ console was electrified.  It was rebuilt in 1963, but the maintenance costs became prohibitive.  In 1989, the church bought a new digital organ from the Allen Organ Company, and it remains in good condition.

Reinhold Zech, father of CBC organist Ellen Juroe, worked as a piano salesman and rebuilder in Detroit, and he had helped repair the well-worn pianos at CBC many times.  In 1973, he received word of an amazing deal on a Mason-Hamlin concert grand piano in New York.  He immediately contacted College Baptist and received permission to purchase the piano for the church.  The piano’s beautiful tones continue to bless our congregation today.

The organ, piano, and voices of College Baptist Church are put on full display at the candlelight Christmas Eve service every year.  Members and visitors come from near and far to sing traditional carols, listen to beautiful vocal and instrumental solos and ensembles, and hear the Scriptures foretelling and describing the birth of Jesus Christ.  At the end of the service, the lights are dimmed, and worshippers pass the flame from one candle to the next in a moving example of how God continues to spread His light into all the dark corners of the world.

Our worship services include a blend of traditional hymns and contemporary songs of praise accompanied by organ, piano, and the occasional guitar, violin, or trumpet.  We are thankful that so many of our congregants are willing to contribute their musical talents to the praise and glory of God.



College Baptist and Hillsdale College are no longer legally joined, but the two organizations have always been connected.  A number of CBC pastors were also either professors or presidents of the College, and several College faculty, staff, and students are part of the church today.

In addition to a Sunday School class aimed at those of college age, we have an Adopt-a-Student program which pairs CBC families with Hillsdale students, allowing us to delve deeper into the Christian life together.  We invite believing students to join CBC as associate members while retaining their home church memberships so that they can receive pastoral care while they are at school.  Whether working in the nursery, helping with music ministry or sound tech, or joining a Bible Study, we encourage students to use their gifts and talents for the glory of God.



The people of College Baptist Church have always worked to alleviate the burdens of others.  In 1856, the church sent aid to freed slaves.  In 1923, Rev. Roberts gave a Sunday night talk against the Ku Klux Klan, which was becoming very popular in Hillsdale.  During the Second World War, the church wrote letters to their members in the military.  In the 1960s, the church helped a Vietnamese refugee family come to Hillsdale.

The church has continued to provide help to those in need.  The Deacon Board gives monetary and spiritual assistance to dozens of Hillsdale County citizens every year.

College Baptist has always been heavily involved in mission work.  During the church’s first 100 years, a number of its members went overseas to spread the gospel in Armenia, Burma, China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Turkey.  After the Second World War, the church participated in the World Mission Crusade to restore mission fields which had been ravaged by the fighting.  In 1971, the church sent 12 of its members to serve at the Lodge Grass Indian Mission in Montana.

Today, our church continues to support a number of local and global ministries.  The local organizations we support include Alpha Omega Women’s Care, Crossroads Farm, Domestic Harmony, InterVarsity Fellowship at Hillsdale College, King’s Cupboard, Life Challenge, Loaves and Fishes, Salvation Army, St. Peter’s Free Medical Clinic, Storm’s Eye Ministry, and Tidings of Comfort.  We also support the evangelism work of Jennie Dangers with New Hope Uganda, Mary Ann Lord with Wycliffe Translators and Albino and Sandy Rodriguez with La Casa del Maestro in Peru, Scott and Mary Peterson in French-Speaking Islamic countries with GAIN, Steve and Rita Read with ACTION International in the Philippines, Tom and Robyn Scott with Campus Crusade Family Life, Paul and Erica Simone with HCJB Global, Jon and Elaine Stevens with Growing Gardens for Life, Ryan Stewart with Adventures in Missions, Duane and Andrea Tweeten with Training Leaders International, and Lucas Westblade with YoungLife in Big Sky, Montana.  CBC also supports a number of short-term mission trips; congregants have recently traveled to China, Germany, Uganda, Mexico, and the Yakima Reservation in Washington State to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

College Baptist supports several mission organizations as well.  We support the English Language Institute and Good News Foundation International, and we are an especially strong supporter of Samaritan’s Purse and one of its specific ministries, Operation Christmas Child.   OCC sends shoebox gifts to needy children around the world.  Every November, CBC has a packing party to pack hundreds of shoeboxes.  CBC is also an OCC collection center, so churches from all around the county bring their gifts to the church during the third week in November.  Every year, a team from CBC goes to an OCC processing center, either in Minneapolis or Charlotte, to help prepare the boxes to their final destinations.



College Baptist held Hillsdale’s first Vacation Bible School in the summer of 1923.  The VBS lasted for one month, and an average of 80 children attended every day.  The children built a large dollhouse, complete with cigar-box furniture, and gave it to an orphanage in Coldwater.  One of the volunteers noted that the boys worked in “the dirty west end of the basement.”  

This dirty west end played a part in our most recent VBS, when it was used as the dungeon where Joseph was sent during his time in Egypt.  This Bible School followed Joseph’s journey from prison to the palace, which was located in the church’s sanctuary.  Children and adults were immersed in the Egyptian culture by dressing like Egyptians, eating like Egyptians, and interacting with Egyptians while working on crafts and visiting Joseph in prison and in the palace.  Over 40 children attended each day, participated in a celebration time, and heard about Joseph’s experiences and how God worked in and through him.  


In total, the church has had 37 pastors, including the most recent pastor, Rev. Jason Mekelburg, who came to Hillsdale in 2006 and passed lamentably into the Lord's presence in June of 2016 and Rev. Ben Cuthbert who came in the summer of 2017 to carry the ministry forward.  These pastors, though they have all had the particular focus of communicating the gospel, went about their jobs in various ways.  When Rev. Salley spoke, his face was said to “take on a Mount-Sinai look, there was darkness and thunder.”  Rev. Patch’s sermons “were as if sandpapered, polished, and rubbed down in oil.”  

CBC was blessed by Rev. Mekelburg’s servant heart.  Although his health struggles sometimes prevented him in his last months from preaching or visiting his flock, Pastor Jason never showed any discouragement.  He brought a smile and encouraging word to everyone he met and quietly demonstrated how to follow Christ with patience and obedience. In addition to supervising the adult Sunday school class, preaching on Sunday mornings, and serving on the Hillsdale Area Ministerial Association, Pastor Jason also worked to help establish Love INC, an organization that will combine resources from area churches to help those in need.

Pastors’ wives have contributed to the life of the church in a variety of ways over the years.  Texie Roberts led a number of CBC women in stuffing advertising circulars into newspapers at the Hillsdale Daily News, and they used the money they earned for various church programs.  Mrs. Bouwman organized a number of religious dramas to present the message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  June Greenfield contributed her musical talents to the church’s worship services.  Ann Whittaker, who held a master’s degree in religious education, helped organize the children’s Sunday School classes. We are grateful for the tireless efforts of Jason's wife, Lorissa Mekelburg, who has continued, among other ongoing ministries, to serve for two years after Jason's passing as the Sunday School Superintendent to ensure rich and enlightening Sunday School classes for all ages who attend College Baptist.

After an interim period in 2016 and 2017, during which Elders Don Westblade and Leonard White, along with various invited guests, filled the pulpit, the church was blessed after a careful search with the coming of Pastor Ben Cuthbert, his wife Rachel, and three boys, Jonah, Thatcher, and Oliver, from South Church in Lansing. They began ministry in the summer of 2017 and Pastor Ben was formally installed in October. A daughter, Monroe Joy, joined their family in October, 2018.

Pastors of CBC: Henry Whipple (1855-1857), Ransom Dunn (1857-1859, 1863-1870, 1879-1883), Edmund Fairfield (1859-1863), James Calder (1870-1871), Richard Woodworth (1871-1873), A.A. Smith (1874-1878), Interim C.B. Mills (1878), D.C. Durgin (1878-1879), C.D. Dudley (1883-1884), A.T. Salley (1883-1899), Philip Graif (1899-1902), O.D. Patch (1902-1907), D.B. Martin (1907-1915), A.W. Jefferson (1915-1919), Henry M. Ford (1919-1922), W.H. Roberts (1923-1925), Earl F. Adams (1925-1929), James E. Bell (1929-1935), J. Burt Bouwman (1936-1939), Edward Greenfield (1939-1943), Philip Whittaker (1943-1950), Interim Leo J. Phillips (1950-1951), J.P. Hendershot (1951-1962), Ralph Reynolds (1963-1966), Jack Bailey (1967-1973), Interim Glenn Schaffer (1973-1974), Thomas Burke (1974-1980), James Wilbar (1981-1982), Interim William Harrington (1983-1985), Charles & Madelyn Johnson (1986-1996), Interim Dick Schulthies (1997-1999), Steven Read (1999-2003), Interims Donald Westblade and Leonard White (2004-2006, 2016-2017), Jason Mekelburg (2006-2016), Ben Cuthbert (2017-).