During the 1800s, the American west saw a massive explosion in growth. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the East and West were connected and hoard of people began the vast migration. With the discover of gold, the growth increased even more. Along the railways, towns grew up. When gold was discovered, the city was grow to thousands overnight. When the gold was depleted, those thousands would leave and the city would be left empty overnight. Lawlessness and immorality was common in these towns and many of the Churches back east watched with great concern as the West grew more wicked and lost every day. Something had to be done.
Smith was one of the few missionaries who were trying to make a difference in the growing West. He was working in Minnesota to start Sunday Schools for the children and to turn those schools into Churches by reaching the parents. Two problems always stood in his way: the lack of places to meet and the vast distance between where people lived. Once a Sunday School got started, it would quickly outgrow the small backrooms they were in. So they would meet outside. But once winter came, they had to end the Sunday School until spring. But one of the Sunday Schools came up with a brilliant plan. In their small town was an old railroad car that was sidetracked in the town. After gaining permission from the railroad company, the Sunday School began to meet in the large railroad car. Soon, a church grew out of that Sunday School! When Smith saw the success of this “railroad Sunday School”, an idea began to form in his mind, “I at once dreamed that the day would come when a missionary rail car would be built for the purpose of carrying the gospel to new communities.”
At the same time, another missionary in the region had returned from a trip to Russia, where he observed, in Siberia, rail cars that had been converted into small church. These cars would travel across the Trans-Siberian railroad and stop at villages to hold worship service. This idea was exactly what Smith was looking for. Equipped with his own ideas and the plans retrieved of the Russians cars, he met with several wealthy Business men. These men caught the vision and soon got behind the work, enlisting other sponsors and using their influence at the railroad factory to have the special car built. On May 23rd, 1891, the first car was completed.
The car measured 10 ft by 60 ft. In the back was a small living quarter for the missionary and his wife. Only couples with no children were allowed to be Rail car missionaries. These quarters included a bed, desk, stove, kitchen, and bathroom sink. The rest of the car was a compacted church, with a pump organ, pulpit, pews, and even small panels of stain glass above the windows.
This was how the car would work. A missionary and his wife would live on the car. They would arrive at a new town that had no church, unhitch the car from the train, and use it as a temporary church building. The goal was to create a strong church there that would be able to afford to build their own building. The car was only temporary. Once a building was built and a pastor was found or the Church, the missionary and his car would hook back up on the next train and move to a new town. Often a missionary would travel between several different towns at the same time, going back and forth to establish churches in each town. If a boom town grew up overnight, a missionary and his car could be there with the next train. If a boom town died overnight, the missionary would follow the people to their new home.
In a region as vast and nomadic as the Wild West, the Chapel Cars were invaluable in spreading the Gospel and starting churches. The Baptist missionary societies, during the course of the years, built seven of the Chapel Cars and saw dozens of missionaries serve on them. Other denominations also built several. These cars did much to spread the Gospel throughout the American West. The first Baptist churches in North and South Dakota were started as Chapel Cars. Hundreds of other churches grew out of these amazing cars.
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