Photo by Jon Meadows, High-End Headshots

Caleb Morell

In this interview, Caleb Morell, Senior Pastoral Assistant for Research at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, shared his knowledge of the church's history.

When Morell researched church history for material to include in an adult education class, he found enough interesting stories to write a book. At the time he was interviewed, he had almost completed his history of the congregation after three years of research and writing. Names, dates, and circumstances that led to creation of the church almost 150 years ago were fresh in his mind, including its history as the first Baptist church formed by factions previously alienated by the Civil War and secession. He hopes the book will illustrate what he sees as the impact faithful people can make pouring their lives into the local church.

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Interview Date
September 11, 2023
Lynne Boyle
Betsy Barnett
Bernadette McMahon

Full Directory

Interview with Caleb Morell[BM1]
Interview Date: September 11, 2023
Interviewer:   Lynne Boyle
Transcriber: Betsy Barnett
Editor: Bernadette McMahon

photo by Jon Meadows, High-End Headshots.

This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

[This interview with Caleb Morell was conducted by Lynne Boyle at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, 525 A Street NE, on September 11, 2023. Caleb Morell is the Senior Pastoral Assistant for Research at the church and has written a history of the church.
The first several minutes of the recording, during which the interviewee completed the project’s standard release form, are not included in the transcription.]
BOYLE: So, thank you for doing this.
MORELL: My pleasure.
BOYLE: So, my first question is what are you doing? As I understand it, you’re writing a history of the church.
MORELL: Yes. I’m writing a book on the history of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, formerly Metropolitan Baptist Church, formerly Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church—and the book will, Lord willing, come out in 2025.
BOYLE: Is it a church production or publication or …?
MORELL: It’s going out with a Christian publisher called Crossway Publishers. And, yeah, it should be book length. I’ve written 95 percent of it. I’m finishing up the final chapter and it’s all going to go through stages of revision. But it’s been a three-year research project.
MORELL: Yeah. Thousands of pages of primary sources, dozens of interviews, lots of different archives. But, yeah, it’s been a great local history project.
BOYLE: Right. Hadn’t you said you’d looked at Capitol Hill history, our website []? Have you gotten any information from our website to help you with your project?
MORELL: Yeah. As a matter of fact, there’s at least a few interviews that I went through on your website that mentioned this church. I’d have to look up the exact names. But, yeah, various details here and there. Of course, the most famous intersection of Capitol Hill history with this church in living memory is probably the tearing down of Mary’s Blue Room.
BOYLE: [Laughs]
MORELL: That frequently comes up. So, I expect that to play no small role in this conversation today.
BOYLE: Well, I …
MORELL: But that certainly came up as part of the history project.
BOYLE: Well, are you going to put that in your publication?
MORELL: Sure, yeah.
[In 1972, despite the protests of neighborhood preservationists, Capitol Hill Baptist Church demolished a Victorian-era building the church owned on the northeast corner of Fifth and East Capitol Street. This action is widely regarded as the trigger that eventually led to passage of a DC historic preservation ordinance and to the creation of the Capitol Hill Historic District.]
BOYLE: Okay. So, it was a wild day in the neighborhood. What do you think happened that day, from the church’s perspective, since you’re …
MORELL: The church’s point of view—I call this chapter in the book “Jesus Doesn’t Need a Parking Lot”.
BOYLE: Really.
MORELL: It was the words written on one of the placards protestors held in front of Mary’s Blue Room on East Capitol Street as, you know, bulldozers were trying to bulldoze the buildings. And, so, The Washington Post reported that in one of the articles I read. Jesus doesn’t need a parking lot. And it gets to a very important moment in this church’s history, as through the 50s and 60s, into the 70s, the church had increasingly become a commuter church. There was alienation between church and neighborhood for various reasons. But it was first in the 19—when, am I getting this right?—in the 1950s and 60s that the church first built parking lots, which itself is a picture of how the neighborhood’s changing, how the church was changing demographically, how the city was changing demographically. Up until then the church had been 70, 80 years without parking lots. And that’s because folks could walk.
BOYLE: Walked.
MORELL: Or take the tram. You know, there’s still the tram folks can take. The streetcar down East Capitol Street—before that was torn up. [DC’s streetcar system was dismantled in the early 1960s.] And, so, there’s these different developments where members are moving outside of the city because of rising rates of crime, fears of urban living, racial aspects. All this is wrapped up in the need for parking lots suddenly. So, to build the parking lots to accommodate the members, the church throughout the 50s and 60s had been acquiring properties. Including the property on the corner of Fifth and East Capitol Street where historic Victorian era home, which had previously [housed] a number of various establishments but was then known as Mary’s Blue Room, was under ownership of the church. It was leased to the owners [of Mary’s Blue Room]. Two things from the church’s standpoint happened. First, there was a fire.
BOYLE: I don’t recall the fire.
MORELL: Yeah. Apparently, there was a fire at some point that didn’t cause great damage but it caused some damage and at least that raised concerns with the church trustees as to, well, how well managed the building was. And, then, second, the tenants defaulted on rent payments.
BOYLE: I didn’t hear you.
MORELL: The tenants defaulted on rent payments.
BOYLE: Oh. Mm-hmm.
MORELL: At some point maybe was missed.
BOYLE: The tenants on East Capitol Street or …?
MORELL: Yes. Who owned Mary’s Blue Room. From what I’ve read in various minutes. And the plan was, you know, need for more parking lots, some concerns about the tenants, led to a plan to demolish the building. So, from what I understand, this would be in—is it 1972?
MORELL: Do you recall?
BOYLE: I meant to look that exact date up, but, yes. It just was an explosion, as you know, in the neighborhood.
MORELL: Yes. [Interviewer laughs] And, if I recall correctly from what I’ve read, our—either he’s the chairman of the trustees or chairman of the deacon board, an attorney for the church—I’ll think of his name in a second [C. Vinton Koons]—he was overseas in business at the time it was happening. But he had given instructions to bulldoze and, so there was a protest. Somehow word got out what was going to happen and there were protestors lined up, from what I’ve read, in front of Mary’s Blue Room with placards and standing in the way.
BOYLE: With placards. People were hanging sheets out of their windows and …
MORELL: It was quite the catalytic event.
BOYLE: It was quite a day. Or week, or however long it took. Who was the pastor at the time? Do you recall? And, the next part of my question is …
MORELL: It may have been Wade Freeman. Hold on. No. We may have—John Stuckey. Uh. [Bell rings] You know, I’m not remembering off the top of my head. Sorry about that. That was my phone. I’m not recalling who was the pastor and it’s possible that it happened during a transition between pastors. But I’m not recalling off the top of my head. [Pastor was Rev. C. Wade Freeman, Jr.]
BOYLE: Would the vestry have made that decision or how …?
MORELL: It would have been the Board of Deacons that made the decision.
BOYLE: Uh-huh.
MORELL: Some members felt that it was, from interviews I’ve done, felt that it was a seedy bar, that maybe it was—they thought there was some impropriety of different kinds going on there. It’s hard to say.
MORELL: It was kind of vague recollections 50-some years later.
BOYLE: Well, sometimes when people are heated, they—they need to recall …
MORELL: Anyway, the construction crews and the protestors were at loggerheads for several days.
BOYLE: Yeah.
MORELL: And, then, early in the morning one day, as I write in the book, before even the most vigilant Hill protestors were awake, the crews came in and bulldozed it. And it certainly sent shockwaves through the community. I’ve read quotes from various organizers, local pastors saying things like the church has declared war on the community. So, that would certainly be a low point in community relations.
BOYLE: Right. But I think I have to comment. Your bringing this up right off the bat kind of gives it a very different perspective …
MORELL: That’s true.
BOYLE: … from your …
MORELL: We could go back to the very beginning and start from scratch, but that’s at least, I imagine for folks who read transcripts of the interviews and in living memory that’s certainly an important event.
BOYLE: Well, it was an important event in the neighborhood. We’ve already said that. So, you were trying to accommodate parishioners who were now coming from out of the city.
BOYLE: Where are your parishioners coming from now?
MORELL: Yeah. That’s a good question. So, I don’t know the exact numbers but somewhere between a quarter and a half, probably 50 percent of the members, would live on the Hill or [within] walking distance or short driving range. And, then, there’d be some in Virginia, some in Maryland. But since the 2000s, the church has again resembled the community more than it has in the past. So, I’ve done this. I’ve gone back and looked at the addresses of all members and created maps based on where members live and you can see over time the shift.
BOYLE: Good.
MORELL: Which goes along with the shifting patterns of the city, suburbanization. But, you know, it was in the 1930s, 40s, 50s that you have larger sections of the church members moving to Southeast, [?], Anacostia, Ward 7, Ward 8, some more in Virginia. And, then, in the 60s, 70s, you kind of have peak suburbanization. A majority of members of the church living outside of the District of Columbia. And that begins changing in the 90s and 2000s. Some of that was intentional efforts. Beginning in the 1990s, we asked the senior pastor of the church to begin living on Capitol Hill. Started [?] bringing the staff back. For a few decades they had lived in a parsonage in Northern Virginia. So, symbolically saying, no, the pastor should be here with the church. And, then, I think a more concerted effort on the part of the church to seek to be a neighborhood church, to seek to be embedded in the community. And, in terms of kind of significance of history in the District of Columbia, so many churches moved out to the suburbs during those decades, 1950s, 1960s.
BOYLE: They did.
MORELL: And it is unusual in some respects to have churches that stay on Capitol Hill. We had the two churches, two of the three churches that were part of organizing this church back in the 1870s—they were Calvary Baptist Church, E Street Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church. E Street and Second both moved. Calvary is still in Chinatown. But E Street moved and became Temple Baptist Church, moved to Northwest. Second Baptist moved up to College Park, Maryland.
BOYLE: Right.
MORELL: So, yeah, the church managed to stay but, in the process, you have that alienation with the neighborhood. And, then, you have, I think, in recent years, an attempt to kind of reintegrate.
BOYLE: And did your racial population change during that time?
MORELL: Of the church? Yeah, the church’s first African American member joined in the 1960s—1969. Mrs. Margaret Roy. She certainly is a woman worth knowing about. I think she was principal at Dunbar High School.
BOYLE: Would she be somebody that might be interested in being interviewed for the …?
MORELL: She’s since passed away.
MORELL: I think she passed away in 2002. But she lived a remarkable life. She left behind—someone conducted the interview with her shortly before her death. And, so, we have a transcript summarizing some of her life experience. But, yeah. There’s a lot more we could get into on the racial sides of the church but, yeah, in terms of—she would have been the first African American member to join and there were several others who followed shortly after.
BOYLE: And she was welcome and no problems or … I know that’s hard to speak to.
MORELL: Yeah. No. Well, the pastor at the time, Dr. John Stuckey, he really believed in being a local church, being a metropolitan church, being a kind of city center church. And he made a concerted effort to reach out to the community as it was changing, including Margaret Roy, inviting her to join the church.
BOYLE: And you’re spelling that Ward?
MORELL: Roy, Margaret Roy. R-O-Y.
BOYLE: Okay.
MORELL: And, yeah, she did face some hostility from some members, who were few. There were, apparently, a few who left the church when she joined. But she resolved to quote “kill them with kindness” and just always turn the other cheek and be kind. And it soon turned to lasting friendships.
BOYLE: Nice, very nice.
BOYLE: Just the biggest of coincidences. I have a basement apartment in my home and I had an intern pastor, [Gus] Pritchard …
BOYLE: … who was in my apartment. He and Catherine were in my apartment while he was interning from theology school.
MORELL: Wonderful. Yes. Wonderful.
BOYLE: Yeah.
MORELL: Yes, that refers to the church’s pastoral internship program.
BOYLE: And he was an African American. [Correction: Gus is South African.]
BOYLE: She was white.
MORELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gus. Yeah.
BOYLE: Yeah. So.
MORELL: Yeah, I don’t know how much you want on the church’s history itself.
BOYLE: Well, some of both. Again, I asked about who started your publication and was it your interest or …
MORELL: Yeah, how this project came about.
BOYLE: Yeah.
MORELL: Yeah, I was teaching—we have a church history class, over 13 weeks cover the history of the church.
BOYLE: Here at the church?
MORELL: Yeah. Just, we teach as part of an adult education class, going from the book of Acts to the present. And the last class is on the history of this church and there wasn’t a lot of material in it. And, so, I went back to the sources and started digging up through our records and minutes just to see what was there and kind of brought out some fresh materials for the class. And everyone was so encouraged they thought there’s more here than we thought and someone should work on this. And I had long dreamed of writing the history of this church and they said, well, you wouldn’t be interested in doing this, would you? I said, actually, I would. And, so, that’s how it happened. They were very kind. Gave me work time to work on it and, yeah, it’s been the majority of what I’ve been working on for the last two years.
BOYLE: If you think about some of the many things you’ve learned while being here, what, aside from Mary’s Blue Room, [laughs] what would be the opposite of Mary’s Blue Room? The opposite …
BOYLE: Sort of community outreach or, I guess it wouldn’t be that sort of thing.
MORELL: Yeah. The main story of the church that I hope to tell in this book is the impact of ordinary lives over time and just how much good can be done by faithful people pouring their lives into the local church. I do think the most important thing that happens at any church is supernatural. It’s not, it can’t even be measured by human measurements. It’s the worship of God, it’s the preaching of his word, it’s the fellowship of the saints. And the kind of ripple effects of those faithful lives who poured themselves into the local church for over a century is why the church is still here today. And their lives are continuing to have an effect.
BOYLE: Your pastor’s name is Dever?
MORELL: Mark Dever.
BOYLE: Mark Dever. Right. Dr. Dever, is he a theological doctor? Shall I call him Dr. Dever?
MORELL: He is a doctor. He has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in Ecclesiastical History.
BOYLE: Right. So, is there any interaction between him and the other pastors of the other denominations in the neighborhood.
MORELL: Yes, that’s probably varied over time. We have strong relationships with many churches in the District of Columbia of various denominations. So. And that would be partly his personal relationships with the pastors. Some of that would be kind of events, organizing pastors’ fellowships. Some of them might be closer cooperation with other like-minded Baptist churches but also strong personal relationships and evangelistic, partnering evangelism with other local churches of different denominations. Yeah.
BOYLE: Right. This is, as you’ve been finding out, a pretty close-knit neighborhood and, so, some of the pastors of the very different denominations do have—I think it’s called Capitol Hill Group Ministry. And I don’t know how often they meet but I think that there is cooperation between, communication, that’s a better way to put it, between all the denominations. Do you know if Pastor Dever is …
MORELL: I’m sure he did. I know when he first came here as a pastor, he made sure to have lunch with every pastor in the neighborhood. I think a distinctive of this church would be it would almost certainly be more theologically conservative, doctrinally conservative, than many other local churches. Which isn’t to disparage them. I think it’s just stating an accuracy—I think that’s what other pastors would say about this church. Which goes back to long-standing differences between modernists, fundamentalists, that have gone on for a hundred years or more. So. But this church would be a strongly doctrinal, confessional, historic Baptist church, which means it would be easiest for us to have close fellowship and cooperation with other confessional, doctrinal churches of other denominations and other Baptist churches. But less so with churches of more modernist persuasion.
BOYLE: What church would you say would be modernist?
MORELL: A modernist church would be a church that wouldn’t uphold the authority, inerrancy, and the infallibility of the Scripture.
BOYLE: Right, right.
MORELL: And perhaps place less emphasis on doctrine, more on social service. Good things, but perhaps placing the emphasis on other things than doctrine.
BOYLE: Right, right. Back to your population. What are you doing to encourage neighbors to come? This is a beautiful building. I’ve actually never been in it.
MORELL: Oh, well, it’s good to have you. I’ll just show you around the sanctuary.
BOYLE: Yes, it would be wonderful to see.
BOYLE: And it’s over a hundred years old?
MORELL: Yeah, the building was built in …
BOYLE: In perfect condition, it appears to be.
MORELL: Yeah, it’s been well maintained. It was built in 1911, finished in 1912. Finished just a few weeks before the Titanic sank.
BOYLE: Before what?
MORELL: Before the Titanic sank.
BOYLE: Okay.
MORELL: So, 1912 is when they finished the building. They built it and furnished it for under $50,000.  So, it’s a remarkable building. Built by Appleton [P.] Clark, who was the architect who did a number of different churches and buildings in Washington, DC. A fairly well-known architect, Appleton P. Clark.
BOYLE: Right. Since we’re having a discussion about architecture, the houses on Sixth Street [NE], are they owned by the church or are they—is that …
BOYLE: That used to be church property.
MORELL: Yeah, that’s right. So, yeah, we built five townhouses about three years ago. Finished the project three years ago in 2020. Five new townhouses used for church staff, sabbatical for missionaries, pastoral interns. Yeah. They’re all used by the church. We didn’t sell them. We planned to use them.
BOYLE: Right. So, as I walk back down toward East Capitol Street those are houses for the church?
MORELL: On East Capitol?
BOYLE: No, on Sixth.
MORELL: On Sixth, yes. So, the church owns housing on Sixth Street, on Fifth Street, and on East Capitol—four townhouses on East Capitol Street, as well.
BOYLE: So, as you turn the corner and go toward Fifth—or when you go …
MORELL: Yeah. So, on Fifth Street, there’s 17 Fifth Street, which is a four-bedroom unit used by the church for church housing. We’ve quite a large staff and pastoral training program. And, then, on East Capitol Street, there’s 508, 512, 514, 516, which are all owned by the church, used for pastoral housing. And, then, if you go from East Cap, you take a left on Sixth Street, if you walk by that first [older] housing, then you have [the new houses: 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 Sixth Street NE].
BOYLE: That’s a lot of property.
MORELL: Yeah and, I mean, the church was buying them back in the 60s when, I mean, when they were  buying these large townhouses on East Capitol Street for $30,000.
BOYLE: Yeah. And, like many city neighborhoods, people were leaving the city for, I mean, just, for the same reason they left the church. They were leaving the city for schools and things like that. So …
BOYLE: … at some point. Now, it’s just the opposite. The crush to come back into the city is big.
MORELL: Yeah, it is.
BOYLE: Which is good.
BOYLE: Which is good if you think about things like climate change and stuff like that—walking to church.
BOYLE: Walking to wherever.
BOYLE: It’s all good. Yeah. So, when do you expect to finish your book?
MORELL: I’ll hand in the manuscript January 1, 2024, and, then, expect it to be published in 2025.
MORELL: It’s been a wonderful project to work on.
BOYLE: Oh, yes. Is this your first …
MORELL: First book, yeah.
BOYLE: Wow. And do you mind saying the name of the book …
MORELL: Yeah. I think it will be called A Light on the Hill.
BOYLE: Okay.
MORELL: A Light on the Hill. It combines two images from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew—the light on the hill and, then, a city on a hill.
BOYLE:  Uh-huh.
MORELL: So, a light on the hill, Jesus says, cannot be hidden. And that’s what the church is supposed to be.
BOYLE: What?
MORELL: And it’s just a light. It’s not the light. This church is not the light of the [Capitol] Hill. It is a light. By God’s grace there are many lights shining for Christ’s church on the Hill and we’re just trying to be a light. And I trace that motif through the book showing how that sometimes that light has burned bright and sometimes that light has flickered. But, throughout this history, the Lord has sustained the church.
BOYLE: Yes, and beautifully. If you think about some of the parishioners who have come here through the time that you’ve been here, are there any senators or—I mean, are you allowed to talk about that or …
MORELL: Sure. It would probably be unusual to have a Sunday without an elected representative present. But, because of their schedule, many wouldn’t be members. It would be some time since we had a member of the church.
BOYLE: They would just come for a Sunday service.
MORELL: That’s right, that’s right. Or our Wednesday night bible study.
BOYLE: I belong to St. Peter’s and …
BOYLE: And for that very same reason we have members [of Congress] show up. Nobody’s a member of St. Peter’s but we certainly have …
MORELL: That’s right, that’s right.
BOYLE: So. I do understand that. I just wondered if there was any members.
MORELL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I don’t think we’ve ever had a sitting U. S. president attend service or a former president, as far as I know. But many senators, congressmen. Our most famous pastor was a former congressman, former governor back in the 1890s named Green Clay Smith [1826-1895]. He was part of the Clay family of Kentucky and he was our church’s fifth pastor, 1890 to 1895.
BOYLE: And he was also a congressman?
MORELL: He had formerly served as a congressman during the Civil War. He was a close friend of Lincoln’s, a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral. And he had served as a general, also, a brigadier general during the Civil War, serving mainly in his home state of Kentucky. And, then, he had been appointed territorial governor of Montana after the Civil War.
BOYLE: Oh, my.
MORELL: And, then, after his service in Montana, he decided to become a pastor, a Baptist pastor. And spent most of that in Kentucky and, then, his final pastorate was here at this church. We were known then as Metropolitan Baptist Church and he came here in 1890 and he died in June of—I think it was June—of 1895. So, he served here for five years. We’ve had a number of illustrious pastors. I think our current pastor is the sixteenth pastor we’ve had over almost 150 years. But there are a lot of stories to tell.
BOYLE: Right. Back to—was it Clay Smith that you just said?
BOYLE: Yes. Do you know where he’s buried? And I’m asking that for a particular reason.
MORELL: Yeah. Arlington …
BOYLE: Oh, Arlington.
MORELL: Arlington National Cemetery.
BOYLE: Okay.
MORELL: He’s [?] gravestone, not Congressional Cemetery.
BOYLE: How did you know that’s where I was going with that question. [Both laugh]
MORELL: Because you’ve worked there [at Congressional Cemetery].
BOYLE: I do.
MORELL: Yes, you work there.
BOYLE: Well, I’m  a docent there.
MORELL: Yes, okay. Yes. Very good.
BOYLE: Yes. And, so, when you talked about Lincoln, we have so many people buried there who touched Lincoln’s life in one way or another.
BOYLE: So, I just thought if I give a tour, I could point out that particular gravestone and so on. Yeah.
MORELL: Yes. So, Green Clay Smith. Lots of stories to tell about him. Yeah. He seemed to have been an incredible preacher, a very gifted orator. He was famous in Congress for his speeches so he must have been a gifted preacher. The church grew under his leadership and it really seemed to flourish and thrive under him. It was a key turning point for the church. Another pastor whose record we have, whose life intersected with Lincoln’s, was our second pastor, but our first full time pastor. His name was Joseph Parker [1805-1887]. He was our pastor 1879 to 1882.
BOYLE: You’re great with dates. [Laughs]
MORELL: Yeah. He was born in Vermont in 1805 and mainly pastored in the New England, Boston area, several churches in Boston. But, during the Civil War, he was appointed head of the New England commission which raised funds for aid for African Americans to—freedmen in the South. And, so, he traveled extensively with the Freedmen’s Bureau, organizing colleges, schools, churches for African Americans, which often brought him to the District of Columbia. He helped organize Wayland Seminary here in Washington, DC, which was the first training college for African Americans here. But, while in the District of Columbia, a member of his church back in Boston who was in the Navy had been falsely accused of corruption because he had reported corruption. So, he was reporting corruption in the Navy related to contracts and sales. And, then they pinned it on him.
BOYLE: I see.
MORELL: And, so his pastor was appealing—and frequently met with Lincoln appealing. And Lincoln tells him you have to let the process … I can’t interfere in the process until the judge has made his decision. But then I will review it. The judge made his decision and found him guilty. But Lincoln reviewed the evidence, as he promised, and overturned the ruling. And he made that action three weeks before his death.
BOYLE: Oh, my goodness.
MORELL: So, even up to the end, Lincoln was carefully and methodically reviewing cases like that.
BOYLE: Wow. This has been an amazing interview. I am trying to be cognizant of your time. I don’t know what time …
MORELL: I’ve got thirty more minutes.
BOYLE: Okay, good. So, is there anything special about the church, other than the things I’ve asked—the people, the …
MORELL: Yeah. I would go back, if I were to tell you about the church, the way I plan to tell the story in the book—not to give away too much.  But when I asked the former director of the DC Baptist Convention what the significance of this church was, he told me that, as far as he understood—and this is Robert Cochran. He’s a historian in his own right. He said the significance of this church was that it was the first church formed by previously alienated factions after the Civil War. So, DC was very divided during the Civil War. It was a largely Southern city but a lot of secessionist sympathies. That was also true among the churches. So, the church from which this church came was called E Street Baptist Church.
BOYLE: This one?
MORELL: Yeah, this church. Its members came from three different churches—Calvary, E Street, and Second. But a number of them, including the founder who I’ll tell you about in a moment—Celestia Ferris—she came from E Street. And E Street was the most prominent Baptist church in the city arguably. It was pastored, at various times, by the president of Columbian College, George Whitefield Samson  [1819-1896]. That college is now George Washington University. So, it was kind of center city, right there in what’s today called Chinatown, on E Street. So, a popular thoroughfare. But that church, according to numerous sources, on the Sunday after the firing on Fort Sumter—so, [April 14, 1861].
BOYLE: Yes, yes.
MORELL: You know the firing began I think on Friday, the siege. And, then, all Saturday reports are circulating.
BOYLE: Right.
MORELL: But, then, Sunday no papers are printed. And, so, the last word is Saturday night, what’s happening at Sumter.
BOYLE: And so how was this church involved …
MORELL: Yeah. So, Sunday morning …
BOYLE: … because that was the beginning of the Civil War.
MORELL: Right.
BOYLE: That firing on Fort Sumter.
MORELL: That’s the beginning of the Civil War.
BOYLE: Right.
MORELL: So, Sunday morning comes …
BOYLE: Do you mind backing up and saying how the church was …
MORELL: So, this church did not exist yet.
BOYLE: Oh, okay.
MORELL: So, we’re talking here of E Street Baptist Church.
BOYLE: E Street Baptist Church. Sorry.
MORELL: And, so, when the pastor of E Street, whose name is Joseph Kennard [1833-1899], gets into his pulpit Sunday morning, very tense, he begins his pastoral prayer by praying for Abraham Lincoln and the Union.
BOYLE: Oh, really.
MORELL: He doesn’t pray for Jefferson Davis. He doesn’t pray for the Confederate States of America.
BOYLE: I would say that’s unusual, wouldn’t you?
MORELL: And what happened across the country and this city on that day, April [14], 1861, is pastors were having to choose. Do they pray for both? Do they pray for just one not the other? And it differed depending on what church you were at. But, in any case, reports later said that the Southerners in the congregation stood up and withdrew. So, that just gives you kind of symbolically the kind of tensions going on in the city. And that led to a conflict eventually at E Street Church, which led to a split, which led to the formation of Calvary Baptist Church. So, Calvary Baptist Church—are you familiar with that church? It’s also in Chinatown.
BOYLE: I think I am.
MORELL: A large red brick building …
BOYLE: Yes. Yes.
MORELL: That church was formed by a minority who left E Street Baptist Church over various concerns. And, so, you have these two churches who split at some point during the Civil War over various concerns, various conflicts. And those are the two churches that later come together to send members to start this church.
BOYLE: I see. Were there any Chinese people?
MORELL: No, this was before the Chinese immigration …
BOYLE: Okay.
MORELL: … which would come later.
BOYLE: Okay. That was much later but, just as an aside from me, I just did a tour from the 1882 Foundation. Rutherford Hayes.
BOYLE: That was that ban on Chinese workers.
MORELL: Yeah, that’s right. And, at least in the 18—when would this have been—1880s, 90s, at some point this church printed a statement. I could find it if you were interested. This church put out a statement against the Chinese Exclusion Act. So, this church protested the Chinese Exclusion Act back in [June 1893].
BOYLE: I think all of this history is important because it places this church in a very different light than perhaps we all don’t know about.
MORELL: Yeah, I think especially the early history. So. You have these two conflicted churches, Calvary and E Street, and they are reunited in part through the efforts of Pastor Joseph Parker, who I’ve already mentioned, who met with Lincoln and appealed to him on the behalf of a prisoner. He was the one who then helped bring peace between these two churches.
And, eventually, one of the members of E Street Baptist Church, her name was Celestia Ferris [1844-1924], she in 1867 called together friends to hold a prayer meeting to pray for a church to be started on Capitol Hill. So, this would have been in November 1867. She was in her 20s, she was newly married to a Civil War veteran named Abraham Ferris [1833-1877], who served with a regiment from Virginia. [Correction: Ferris served as a corporal in Company K of the 7th Regiment of New Jersey and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.]
And they just began praying. They called together their friends. They said let’s pray for a church to start on Capitol Hill. That prayer meeting eventually led to a Sunday school, which Celestia Ferris started for children. And they met on Seventh and A Street NE, in an old schoolhouse [from 1871-1874]. And, on Sundays, they would just invite neighborhood children to read the bible, pray, learn hymns. And this was a time when you have a lot of—you still have the alleys going on, the alley children who didn’t have formal education. There was a lot of immigration. Capitol Hill wasn’t a kind of the thriving neighborhood that it is.
So, that’s how this church started. It was Celestia Ferris who called together …
BOYLE: Was she African American or …
MORELL: No, she was a white woman. She was from upstate New York. She …
BOYLE:  Celeste? Is that what …
MORELL: Celestia. Yeah, Celestia Ferris. And she began the Sunday school. That Sunday school grew into an organization which was able to acquire property here at Sixth and A Street. In 1874 they built the first chapel, just a small, one-room school building, essentially brick school building, tin roof. And they began making plans to formally organize as a church, which they did on February 27, 1878. They formed …
BOYLE: You have an amazing memory. [Laughs]
MORELL: I’ve gone through these dates so many times. But they formed this congregation, I think 31 or 33 constituent members, and that’s where this church comes from. So, prayer meeting—well, if you go back …
BOYLE: And, so, it was in this location?
MORELL: It was in this very location.
BOYLE: Really.
MORELL: Yeah, Sixth and A Street. I’ll show you where that corner is. It’s the front corner of the building now. But, yeah, so, think Civil War, church splits, prayer meeting, Sunday school, church. That’s kind of where this came from. So, 1878 is when the church was formally organized and it’s just gradually grown since then. We built a second building. We went through a church split, unfortunately, in 1884, which—you’ll be interested in this.
BOYLE:  What was the split over? Well …
MORELL: It was over debt and it was over how much debt to take on when building a second building. So, the pastor and the treasurer—I could get into so many stories. The church treasurer, whose name was L. Forrest Spofford [1843-1887], who lived at 508 East Capitol Street, which just so happens to be our current pastor’s residence … But he wanted to have the second building on East Capitol Street. He thought that would be very prominent—that’s the most prominent thoroughfare. It makes sense. Church of the Reformation is on East Capitol Street. That would just be a nice place to have a church building. So, they bought a lot when interest rates were very high. The economy wasn’t doing well in the 1880s. Interest rates were very high. And a minority in the church was afraid about whether they’d be able to make these interest payments. And eventually that led to a split in the church, between the pastor and the treasurer on one side and then the congregation on the other side, who felt that it was unwise to be so deep in debt and were concerned they wouldn’t be able to make the payments.
Unfortunately, the pastor refused to back down and submit to the will of the congregation. And, so, the property, which was—the church was overleveraged. And, in a Baptist church traditionally, we’re governed congregationally, which means you have members’ meetings where all the members can vote, men and women. And that the will of the congregation is final. The pastor has authority over teaching and he does have a real authority, but, in these kind of large matters, like building a new building, buying property, hiring a new pastor, seeing members in and out, practicing church discipline, the will of the congregation is final.
BOYLE: So, I call that a vestry. So, is that …
BOYLE: Is that a correct term or, in terms of the Baptist church …
MORELL: We would just say congregation. And, so, every member of the church would be eligible to vote and, so, they would vote on these matters. And they had voted to take on the debt …
BOYLE: And is it simple majority or …
MORELL: Simple majority.
MORELL: And, so, for about a year and a half, we had these very divisive members’ meetings ...
BOYLE: I bet. [Laughs]
MORELL: … where it’s just going back and forth and you have 50 voting against 49 and it’s just getting really tight, unfortunately. And, eventually, the majority asks the pastor to resign. And, so …
BOYLE: And what pastor was that?
MORELL: His name was Wilbur Morgan Ingersoll [1828-1911], from Ohio originally. So, that was a split in 1884. And what happens is the minority withdraws from the church with the pastor and the treasurer and they organize a rival church a block and a half away called East Capitol Street Baptist Church. Which …
BOYLE: Is not there.
MORELL: … later they moved to down by—would it be Eighth Street and South Carolina Avenue? And they organized as Grace Baptist Church.
BOYLE: Is that South Carolina or North Carolina?
MORELL: I think it’s down Pennsylvania Avenue. Do you know past the playground? That’s the new playground.
BOYLE: The new playground. Yeah. Which is at Eighth or Ninth on Pennsylvania.
MORELL: If you look east from the playground today you see Grace Condominiums [on Ninth Street SE, between D Street and South Carolina Avenue].
BOYLE: Oh, okay.
MORELL: And it’s this beautiful building.
BOYLE:  Yes.
MORELL: But that was Grace Baptist Church.
BOYLE: Really. Oh, I guess I knew that. But I didn’t know the connection.
MORELL: And, so, that church withdrew from our church to organize back in the 1880s. That’s what happened in 1884. And, so, this church almost didn’t survive. I mean, that’s a tough thing to go through just six years into our existence. But that tells you a little bit of the background of Grace Baptist Church, which is now Grace Condominiums.
BOYLE: Right.
MORELL: And, so, those were a couple—and, then, shortly after that we built our second building right next door. We didn’t build it on East Capitol Street. We just built it right next door on A Street. And, then, we, like I said, we called Green Clay Smith as our pastor. He came, the church grew, and we built this current building. So, those are just a few stories from the past. But I really want it to be prominent in the church’s history, the work of ordinary members like Celestia Ferris, just calling together friends for a prayer meeting.
BOYLE: Well, that’s important. Well, it’s important for a variety of reasons: (a) this is a Capitol Hill history project and, if she was a force in the neighborhood, that’s good to know her name. Because perhaps there’s people—Ferris—who are [descendants] of hers or …
MORELL: Yeah. I hope they would find her and learn about her. She lived at 214 A Street NE. Yeah. Right behind the Supreme Court.
BOYLE: Okay. I’m just going to write that down. Northeast?
MORELL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And, like I said, we built this current building in, finished it in 1912. And we had a pastor for 43 years named John Compton Ball [1863-1950]. He’s the one who built this current building. Led the church for 43 years. Or forty-one years as senior pastor and then he retired and took the title pastor emeritus. But he served between 1903 and 1944. So, his life and ministry here spanned World War I, the Spanish flu, which we could talk about, too. That’s an interesting part of the church’s ministry. Spanish flu, World War I, and, then, up to the beginning of World War II.
BOYLE: If you could, say something about the Spanish flu. I’m worried about your time.
MORELL: Sure. I’ll let you know when I need to go.
BOYLE: Okay. Because, again, the connection back to the cemetery. There’s a whole lot—there’s an area called, well, it’s called Babyland. So many children died during that Spanish flu.
BOYLE: There’s an area. So, in what way was the church—I mean, so many people—it was decimated. People were just dying readily. So, how was the church involved in the —I’m sure you all had parishioners.
MORELL: Yeah. I think we may have lost two members. I’ll tell you a story. So, the church was impacted—again, this is the tail end of World War I and, so, it was really a devastating time.  I mean, the country’s exhausted because of war and then the flu hits the District of Columbia in October 1918. And just very quickly they had to close schools, they closed—and the death rate is soaring. And it peaks in December and there’s a second wave that comes in January. So, but the city is just devastated. The church is, too. There’s so many comparisons with the COVID 19 pandemic. A difference is then, during the pandemic, very interesting. The DC health inspector, Dr. Fowler, he doesn’t order but he requests churches to close.
BOYLE: Mm-hmm. But this is for the Spanish flu or COVID?
MORELL: Yeah, for the Spanish flu.
BOYLE: Okay.
MORELL: And churches were the last to close and they were the first to reopen. So, it’s interesting. It just showed—and, even then, the pastors agreed to submit to the regulation and it lasted three weeks. So, it’s just remarkable when we think back to the pandemic how much longer it lasted.
BOYLE: Right.
MORELL: And, in many respects, less deadly, certainly to children. But certainly deadly. But the Spanish flu devastated many congregations. We lost two members, I believe sisters and members of the choir. An organist—I think her name was Elise Callaway [correction: Jessie Callaway, d. 1919]—and her sister [Ethelyn Callaway Early], who was a member of the choir. And she was married to [Felix Early], the brother of a man by the name of Stephen Tyree Early [1889-1946].
BOYLE: That name Tyree is a very familiar name.
MORELL: Yes. So, Stephen Tyree Early comes back from serving in World War I and finds the city decimated. His sister-in-law has died. And Stephen Tyree, who goes on to have a remarkable career in journalism and later becomes Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s White House press secretary.
BOYLE: Oh, my.
MORELL: And, so, he serves during the duration of Roosevelt’s presidency. It’s his idea to do the fireside chats. He organizes the response to Pearl Harbor where they had to maintain a lot of secrecy. They didn’t want word to get out just how devastating it was to the U. S. Navy. But he was a member of this church that whole time. Stephen Early, but, yeah. So, his life intersected with Spanish flu, World War I, and then Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.
BOYLE: So, did the church take a position during COVID?
MORELL: This church?
BOYLE: Yeah.
MORELL: Yes. Funny you should ask. We submitted to the mayor’s orders, of course, but we never live-streamed.
BOYLE: I see.
MORELL: Because of our theological conviction that church is a gathering and that we all have to gather to worship. But we certainly understand in cases of illness and extreme need the need for caution out of concern for neighbor.
BOYLE: All right.
MORELL: We met, when we were able to legally, we met in Virginia for a season. We met in Maryland for a season, and, then, we requested permission to meet outdoors in the District of Columbia at a park. When that request was denied, even though comparable organizations were being allowed to gather outdoors, we filed a lawsuit with the city in order to be able to exercise that same First Amendment right that other organizations were exercising. Meeting outdoors with safety precautions. And that lawsuit was successful and we were able to begin gathering outdoors. And, then, eventually, when the restrictions were lifted, meet back in our building.
BOYLE: Wow. This has been amazing. I think it might take me a little while to close up everything.
MORELL: Sure. Well, so good speaking with you.
BOYLE: So good speaking with you.
MORELL: And there’s so much history to talk about.
BOYLE: So much history to talk about. I don’t know when this will be downloaded. When I get home this afternoon, I’m going to submit it and I certainly will let you know when it will be published.
MORELL: Great. Well, let me know if there’s anything else I can provide. And it’s been a joy speaking with you.
[BM1]Doc created 11/27/23, starting with Morell, Caleb BMcM edit for CM.docx. Edited per Caleb's email responses. 12/7/23: finished editing with final comments from Caleb.
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Caleb Morell Interview, September 11, 2023

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