University Baptist & Brethren Church

University Baptist & Brethren Church, founded in 1922, was the first Baptist church established in State College. Originally founded as University Baptist Church, it affiliated with the Church of the Brethren in 1968.

The church was founded by a group of forty men and women, most of whom had a connection with Penn State University. One of the stated reasons for founding the congregation was to provide a worship “home” for Penn State’s Baptist students.

The founders came primarily from the Northern Baptist tradition. Baptists in the United States split in 1845 over the issue of slavery and divided into Northern and Southern Baptists. In 1950, the Northern Baptists changed their name to American Baptists.

University Baptist & Brethren Church was originally founded in 1922. (Centre County Historical Society)

Among the founders were Stevenson Fletcher, author of books on agriculture and later dean of agriculture; Wayland F. Dunaway, a prominent historian of Penn State; Carl Marquardt, who founded the Artists Series at Penn State; and Hugo Bezdek, head football coach of the Nittany Lions.

The small congregation first met in classroom buildings on campus. The main church building on Burrowes Street, still in use and renovated in 2023, was completed in 1928.

A signature event in the life of the church took place in 1968 when local members of the Church of the Brethren, having decided not to build a church of their own, looked for a like-minded group with which to affiliate. They found it in University Baptist Church which took them into the congregation.

Some years later the church officially changed its name to University Baptist and Brethren Church. The Church of the Brethren is one of the nation’s historic “peace” churches.

University Baptist & Brethren maintains dual affiliations with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Church of the Brethren.

From its inception, the church had a decided progressive mission orientation. Community outreach, justice, and equity issues have always been important. In the 1930s, University Baptist housed Black construction workers in town when local hotels would not accommodate them. In the 1950s, a barber who was a member of the congregation cut the hair of Black men when local barbershops would not.

Since the 1970s, refugee resettlement has been an emphasis. The church has provided resettlement assistance to emigrants from Vietnam, Myanmar, Cuba, Romania, Russia and, most recently, Afghanistan.

Each December, the church stages the Alternative Christmas Fair where “shoppers” from the community visit the booths of more than 30 local, national, and international charities and then buy donation gifts to the charities in the names of their friends and loved ones. Since its inception in 1982, the fair has raised more than $900,000 for charity.

In 1999, University Baptist & Brethren adopted a welcoming statement embracing “… persons of every age, race, sexual orientation, ethnic and religious background, and economic means as vital and integral members of God’s family.” In the first decade of the 21st century the statement was broadened to include “gender identity and expression.”

For most of its first century, the church was a congregation of people with Baptist and Brethren backgrounds. Today, such people represent a plurality but not a majority of the assembly. The religious backgrounds of members now include representation from those who have been Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Quakers, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and people not raised in any church community.

The Rev. Bonnie Kline Smeltzer, who served as pastor for twenty years before retiring in 2022, said of the church: “We are an ecumenical congregation in the broadest sense, or as I’ve been known to say we’re post-denominational. In other words, while our Baptist and Brethren roots have shaped our character, they may no longer direct our future.” She added that the church faces “… a wonderful opportunity to continue living courageously into that future.”

Dick Jones


Sources:

Bevan Deming, Mary. The First 50 Years of University Baptist Church of State College, Pennsylvania, 1972.

Blackadar, Betty. University Baptist Church, State College, PA: A Brief History of the First 75 Years, 1997.

Disanto, Matt. “’Conscience of the Community’ Local Church Marks Centennial Through Service and Progress. Centre Daily Times, July 21, 2022.

Riddle, “50 Years After Merger Church Celebrates “Welcoming Love.” Centre Daily Times, November 25, 2018.

UBBC Centennial Committee, Living Courageously into the Future, 2023.  


First Published: July 26, 2023

Last Modified: August 3, 2023