The church to which Mr. Conwell came and from which has grown the largest Baptist church in the country, and which was the first institutional church in America, had its beginning in a tent. In 1870 a little mission was started in a hall at Twelfth and Montgomery Avenue by members of the Young Men’s Association of the Tenth Baptist Church. The committee in charge was Alexander Reed, Henry C. Singley, Fred B. Gruel and John Stoddart. A Sunday School was started and religious services held Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The little mission flourished, and within a year it was deemed advisable to put some one in charge who could give it his full time. The Rev. L.B. Hartman was called and the work went forward with increasing prosperity. He visited the families in the neighborhood, interested the children in the Sunday School, held two preaching services every Sunday and usually two prayer meetings during the week. In 1872, evangelistic services were held which resulted in a number of conversions. The need now became so imperative for a recognized church, that on Feb. 12, 1872, one was formally organized with forty-seven members, L.B. Hartman pastor, and John A. Stoddart, Henry O. Singley and G.G. Mayhew, deacons. The membership still increased rapidly, the little hall was crowded to discomfort, and it was decided to take a definite step toward securing a church building of their own. A lot was purchased at Berks and Mervine for $7,500, a tent with a seating capacity of 500 erected, and Grace Baptist Church had its first home. The opening services of the tent were memorable for many things.
After addresses had been made by Drs. Malcolm, Peddie, Rowland and Wayland, an effort was made to raise the twelve hundred dollars due on the tent. A wealthy layman, Mr. William Bucknell, offered to pay the twelve hundred dollars provided the members of Grace Baptist Church should henceforth abstain from the use of tobacco. The alert chairman said, “All who are in sympathy with Brother Bucknell’s proposition, please rise.” The entire audience arose. Mr. Bucknell made out his check next morning for twelve hundred dollars.
In 1874, the tent was moved to a neighboring lot, where it was used as a mission. Homeless wanderers were taken in, fed and pointed the way to a different and better life. From this work grew the Sunday Breakfast Association of Philadelphia.
A contract was made for a new church building, and in 1875 Grace Church moved into the basement of the new building at Berks and Mervine Streets. But dark days came. The financial burden became excessive. Judgment bonds were entered against the building, the sheriff was compelled to perform his unpleasant duty, and the property was advertised for sale. A council of Baptist churches was called to determine what should be done.