His mother penned this in her Bible, "July 22, 1840. This day
delivered of a son, Caleb Jason. The Lord have mercy on my son."
At seventeen, a defiant Caleb Jason Baker (1840-1918) left
Sussex, England for America. But the God who hears and answers prayers
is not stymied by the distance from Hailsham to Chicago. In 1869,
walking down the street with twelve dollars in his pocket, he stopped
in front of a window shaded by a tattered awning. He made some
measurements, went to the ship chandler to price out canvas and
proceeded to rent a treadle sewing machine for 75c per month. After
making a modest earning from his first awning, he said, "Well, I could
do that, I'm going into the awning business."
His sister Emma was his sole employee and seamstress. Baker was
salesman, delivery boy, and installation artist. Soon they were
ordering canvas in 500 yard bales.
In the path of the Chicago fire, October 8, 1871, he wrapped his
sewing machine in canvas, tied a rope around it and dropped it out the
window of his riverside apartment. He then rolled his three bales of
canvas in likewise. The rope was tied to a post, and he ran. After the
fire passed, he pulled his murky inventory out of the river. A sidewalk
in the remains of "the metropolis of the mid-west" became his factory.
The soggy canvas was stretched out, dried and sewn into tents for the
homeless. Baker immediately went to Western Union to telegraph his
closest supplier, in Austin, Texas, to send bales of canvas, lots of
In that tragedy God was good to C. J. Baker. Some time in 1872,
he knelt down in his room and trusted Christ after reading His words,
"Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out."
We know little about Baker's first marriage. He had a daughter,
Margaret. Then, in December of 1877, he married a widow named Eliza Roe
with a nine-year-old daughter named Grace. This marriage was in the
Lord. C. J. was attracted to her because of her involvement in
evangelism, and no doubt she was a great help-meet. Together they may
have run Chicago's first rescue mission. He rented the floor of a
building on South Desplaines Street and hung a sign outside the door:
"Clean beds--5c" Inside were two hundred cots and two huge stoves.
There was no bedding. The men just slept with their clothes on. The
Chicago news reporter who wrote a large piece about the mission was as
amazed by Baker's generosity as he was by the squalor of the mission's
guests. The men might get a meal at night, and certainly a gospel
message, and Baker's friends said if someone didn't have five cents,
"he usually supplied the nickel."
We have no record that Baker ever labored with or knew D. L.
Moody. John Darby also visited the area, but we have no record that
they met. But we do know that he met a Scottish evangelist named Donald
Ross labored in the revival times of 1859-60 among the miners of
Lanarkshire, Scotland. Ross was a fearless Scot. A leader of a band of
gospelers, in military mindset they assaulted enemy citadels. Andrew
Miller said of those sweeping days, "In country districts and in
fishing villages, in towns and cities, the heralds of the Cross were
busy. Brownlow North and James Turner, Hay-M'Dowall Grant and Reginald
Radcliffe, Lord Kintore and Richard Weaver, Gordon Forlong and Harrison
Ord, Duncan Matheson and Donald Ross, gathered numerous sheaves of
golden grain for the Lord of the harvest. Duncan Matheson and Donald
Ross were men of kindred spirits, and were splendid gospel pioneers.
Matheson was accustomed to speak of his friend as 'that Caledonian
In the awakening, workers and converts found that the Spirit of
God tended to either transgress or ignore their denominational
scruples. Some, like Ross and his co-workers in the Northern
Evangelistic Association, found themselves disconnected from any
denomination. As they consulted Holy Scripture, they discovered that
many of their practices lined up with New Testament teaching, and were
therefore legitimate for today. Ross had his mandate.
Donald Ross came to America in 1876, and in 1879 he moved his
family to Chicago. He and three other men began to remember the Lord in
the breaking of bread in a tent, which was also used for evangelistic
purposes. They knew of a well-to-do Englishman who claimed to have met
in similar fashion back in the old country. They invited him to join
the fledgling assembly. After the breaking of bread, he looked at the
tent, and remarked, "This is indeed 'without the camp,'" and never
returned. Ross seemed oblivious to discouragement. He did what true
evangelists do--he preached, and prayed and plugged away.
Baker wrote, "I believe it was the summer of 1879 that I first
met our brother Donald Ross. He, with James Goodfellow, of Canada, had
pitched a tent in Chicago, on the west side, opposite Union Park. I was
then engaged, four nights of the week, in a mission hall, and in spare
evenings I went to hear him preach. I remember distinctly how impressed
I was with his forceful, energetic preaching and his apt illustrations,
also with the fact that he was proving his points with the Word of God,
which was not at all the case with the preaching that I had been
listening to in other places. I became much interested
immediately...one Sunday morning, I went to see them remember the Lord
in the breaking of bread. Brother Ross invited me to participate with
them, which I did; and six or seven of us altogether remembered the
Lord in this, to me, novel way."
In August, Eliza Baker gave birth to Jessie Mae who would marry
William Sommerville. In the fall of 1879, Baker offered Ross the use of
his mission hall for evangelistic meetings. The nightly meetings
continued until May 1, 1880. It was only after a full year of nightly
gospel meetings that Ross conducted their first baptism, in which
several went down into the water. The breath of God was felt in the
windy city. A vigorous and devoted congregation was established.
This had all created tension with Baker's Baptist pastor. The
pastor already felt endangered by Baker's evangelistic outreach to
children in the slums. Besides the mission work, Baker was the
superintendent over about 20 Sunday School classes. A divide came when
the irked clergyman notified the Sunday School teachers: "Don't go
there any more," and Baker suddenly had no Sunday School. Baker
abominated such pettiness. He knit in with Ross. Thereafter the
Presbyterians, Baptists, and any other Protestant group became to him
part of "the sects."
In February of 1884, daughter Marion was born. She would became
Mrs. Walter Lewis Wilson. Wilson is the author of the Moody Press
books, The Romance of a Doctor's Visits, Doctor's Casebook, etc., and
became himself a useful evangelist and Bible teacher.
In 1886 Baker published one of his two charts, Two Roads and Two
Destinies, or Life and Death: Hades or Sheol, which taught
dispensational truth. These visual aids were accompanied by books or
study guides, and were widely used and really blessed. Baker also wrote
several gospel and prophet booklets and tracts. The imminency of
Christ's coming was big in Baker's thinking.
Baker's new views, practices, and associates embarrassed his
brother-in-law and business partner, Mr. Murray, so that their
relationship was becoming, shall we say, tense. Still their tent and
awning business was prospering. Baker said, "Now look, we're sending a
great many tents and a great many tarpaulins to Kansas City; there
seems to be a big market down there. Let's do this: either I stay here
in Chicago and you go down to Kansas City and set up a business, or you
stay here and I will go to Kansas City. We'll just split up the
business." Did he learn his diplomacy from Abraham, who gave Lot the
first choice? Murray wasn't crazy, and immediately said he would stay
with his half of the business in Chicago.
Baker then selectively approached seven or eight employees and
invited them to come with him to Kansas City. He wanted capable tent
and awning workers, but it appears that the chief qualification for
going to Missouri was their agreement with him on spiritual matters,
and their abilities in gospel outreach. Several were excellent singers.
One of the men's wives, Mrs. Rendall, was an outstanding children's
An assembly in Kansas City began the day they arrived in 1887.
They found a place for a factory, and the congregation met in the main
Kansas City was the last outfitting station for the settlers
pulling their wagons to a fork at Gardiner. From there, wagon trains
branched out to Santa Fe, California, Oregon, or Oklahoma. Their trains
could be 90 wagons long and they all needed canvas coverings. Situated
in Kansas City, Baker had a virtual monopoly.
Those were busy days, but Baker was vigorous; he did not tire.
Lines of wagons three city blocks long would be waiting for their
canvas in a day. One of the ladies who worked for him pled, "Oh, Mr.
Baker, we're so tired. Give us a little rest some time!"
His answer? "There's plenty of rest in heaven; we need to be
working down here." Newspaper articles talked about the man who worked
all day and preached for two hours each night. Saturday was the night
for the open-air gospel preaching at the corner of Eleventh and Grand.
Mrs. Charles and Mrs. Rendall's singing voices could be heard two
blocks away. Clerks would pause and whisper, "Doesn't that sound
beautiful!" If the preaching was good, the singing was better. People
in the audience called out, "We want to hear that lady sing." When Mrs.
Charles was told that singing above the bustle of the streets would
ruin her voice, she said, "What better place is there to do it? Where
am I going to use my voice; what am I going to use it for? What good is
it if I don't use it?"
Down Kansas City's main street (then a dirt road) they rented a
vacant building at Fourth Avenue to start a Sunday School. Baker told
Mrs. Rendall, Miss Jamison, and a few others, "You're Sunday School
teachers; now go get yourself a class." They fanned out in a ten-block
radius, looking for street urchins to invite in for a Bible lesson.
Busy days became fruitful days. Baker was soon employing three
hundred workers, and the assembly had about 150 in fellowship. Baker
was a media event. Curious news articles appeared with headlines such
as this piece on December 27, 1894 (at the time of their annual
On factory walls, large Bible texts taught gospel fundamentals,
and at noontime an evangelistic meeting was available to all workers.
In the year 1894, Donald Ross moved and made Kansas City his
base of operations. Alfred Mace described Ross "as essentially a gospel
preacher. He was more than a preacher and an exhorter. He was a
laborer, and he toiled for the perishing; at fairs and races, in tents
and halls, in barns and chapels, in music halls and theatres, in
cottages and in the open air, he sounded out the wondrous story."
From Kansas City, Ross ranged in all directions in his gospel
campaigns. He wrote, edited his periodicals, and preached there until
1901 when he returned to Chicago.
A year or two before his death, C. J. Baker approached his
son-in-law's father, William Sommerville, and gave him a job as a
janitor on a floor where more than a hundred women worked at sewing
machines. He said he didn't want him to spend much time pushing a
broom, "the less the better." Instead C. J. Baker instructed the
evangelist to linger at the ladies' work stations and witness for
Christ. Baker was never accused of showing favoritism to his believing
workers. At times he employed almost 500 workers. The large government
and automobile industry contracts did not intimidate the evangelist.
His trade catalog had more gospel content in it than many so-called
gospel tracts do.
All the officers and stockholders of the tent and awning company
were Christians. At one annual meeting, Baker said, "Look, the Lord has
given us all of this money in our hands. All of you that work here have
received your salaries; you don't really need this money. Why don't we
just turn over the entire profits of this business to the Lord's work?"
It was amazing that he suggested such a thing--and more amazing that
the men followed through with the suggestion. Baker provided large
tents, free of charge, for pioneers in Argentina, China, Venezuela, and
here among the savages of Canada and the United States. J. J. Rouse,
William Williams, and Ross wore out several of those tents.
C. J. Baker died of pneumonia two weeks after his dear friend
William Sommerville was taken home. Hundreds wept at his passing.
Kansas City newspapers were emblazoned with HIS RICHES TO THE POOR,
Gave Away His Riches. The copy read: "With this big business, however,
Mr. Baker did not die a rich man. He made it the rule of his life to
give away all that he made except the amount needed in the business and
for his own personal expenses."
What was his secret? Baker knew the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:1,
"For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were
dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands,
eternal in the heavens."
Materials for this article taken from:
- Hy. Pickering, Chief Men Among the Brethren, Loizeaux Bros.
- C. W. Ross editor, Donald Ross, Gospel Tract Publications
- H. Sommerville, Reminiscences of His Grandfather Baker, 1994
- W. Sommerville, Reminiscences About Our Family, 1977