Way to demonstrate commitment, Roger.

75 North Main Street, Providence
(401) 454-3418
www.fbcia.org

Establishment

The first Baptist church in America owes its origins to Roger Williams, but to be fair, if he hadn't established it, someone else would have.

When Williams came to this area from Salem, Massachusetts, where he had been minister of a Congregationalist church, he was spiritually restless, looking for an organized religion that fit with his ideas of "soul liberty" and strict separation of church and state. After living in Providence about two years (during which time he conducted services out of his own home), he thought he had found it in the Baptist movement that developed out of English Congregationalism during the early 1600s.

Baptists share with Congregationalists the idea that each individual is responsible for his own interpretation of scripture. Pastors and deacons are elected by the congregation they serve, rather than appointed from without. Unlike the Congregationalists, however, Baptists believe that only those who have been baptized through full immersion, upon making a personal profession of faith, are members of the Church of Christ. They reject infant baptism as being contrary to Scripture, since babies are unable to choose to accept Christ as their savior; nevertheless, Baptists believe that all children who die before the age of responsibility will be saved. They believe that baptism symbolizes, rather than bestows, regeneration, which has already taken place. Likewise, Baptists believe that the Eucharist merely symbolizes Jesus, not that it really is his flesh.

This was the kind of stuff Roger Williams felt he could get behind, a sort of tweaked version of Congregationalism, and so in late 1638, he and about eleven others gathered at the Seekonk River to baptize one another. Williams was first baptized by Ezekiel Holliman, a former member of the Salem church, and Williams in turn baptized Ezekiel and the others. These people constituted the first Baptist Church in America, which has held continuous services ever since.

Williams didn't stick with his newly established church, however. It wasn't long before he formed doubts that any existing institution could validly call itself The Church. He resigned as pastor in the summer of 1639 and became a "seeker," continuing his spiritual journey as a church of one.

The Church without Williams

For the first sixty years of its existence, the congregation met in members' houses or outside. In 1700, the first permanent church building was built by Pardon Tillinghast, who was then pastor, at his own expense. It measured only 20 by 20 feet and sat on the northwest corner of Smith and North Main Streets, at the foot of Star Street. It was soon outgrown, and in 1726 a second building measuring 40 by 40 feet was erected next door on a lot to the south.

Over the next fifty years the size of the congregation declined until, under the guiding hand of Reverend James Manning, beginning in 1770, it bounced back and grew larger than ever. New quarters were needed once again, and an excellent site was found in the center of town in the form of a disused apple orchard owned by John Angell. Additional land was acquired from Amaziah Waterman.

The Current Building

Construction of the third and present building was begun on June 1, 1774, and the completed structure was dedicated on May 28, 1775. The cost was somewhere between $25,000 and $35,000. The amount is uncertain because much of the labor and materials were donated, but about $10,000 of the cost was raised through lotteries. The building was the largest construction project in New England at that time.

The new house of worship was designed by Joseph Brown, based on an engraving of Marylebone Chapel from an architecture book by James Gibbs. The design of its 80-foot square auditorium is an interesting mix of traditional New England meeting house and English Renaissance (also known as English Georgian). Fluted Tuscan columns, each carved from a single oak tree, the Palladian window behind the pulpit, the groined arches over the balconies, and the split pediments over the doors all contrast with the plain white walls and the large, clear glass windows. Baptists take the commandment regarding graven images to heart, so there is no iconography, not even a cross.

There is no particular symbolism in the doubling progression of the building sizes. The meeting-house style, which had actually fallen out of fashion in Europe (as had English Renaissance) by the time of the building of the First Baptist Church, is always square. While the 1726 building was simply designed for a larger congregation, the 1775 building was designed "also for holding commencement in," because of the church's early affiliation with Brown University (then called Rhode Island College), also founded by Baptists. Additionally, the town fathers had an interest in building big, because although Providence was just a little podunk town in 1774, they were already looking ahead to what Providence could be. As it has from the beginning, the building continues to host Brown's annual Commencement exercises, although the university severed denominational ties with the church in the 1930s. Over the years, hundreds of national and foreign dignitaries have delivered historic addresses from the building's pulpit.

The church is considered one of the very finest surviving examples of Colonial Georgian architecture. In 1938, on the 300th anniversary of its founding, the church officially adopted the name First Baptist Church in America.

Bell, Temple, and Steeple

The First Baptist Meeting House was the first Baptist church in New England to have a steeple. It was erected in only three and a half days—sections were prefabricated and hauled up from the inside, like an extending telescope. At 185 feet, the steeple of the Meeting House is so tall that, during the age of sailing ships, it was used as an aid to navigation. The tower houses a 2,515-pound bell that was cast in London.

These were unusual features for their time—in England, Baptist churches were forbidden from building steeples and using bells, because of their status as dissenters. They couldn't even be called "churches," for that matter, and were designated "chapels" instead. Although New England churches were not so much under the same strictures as those in the mother country, they tended to follow the tradition anyway. Rhode Islanders were especially likely to ignore such rules, however, and this is reflected in the inscription that was on the bell as it was originally cast:

For Freedom of conscience the town was first planted,
Persuasion not force was used by the people;
This church is the eldest and has not recanted,
Enjoying and granting bell, temple, and steeple.

The bell cracked in 1787 and was recast with a less-poetic inscription:

This church was formed in 1639, the first in the state and the oldest of the Baptists in America.

In 1844 the bell cracked and was repaired again. The new, and current, inscription adds a few more facts:

This church was founded in 1639, by Roger Williams, its first pastor, and the first asserter of Liberty of Conscience. It was the first church in Rhode Island, and the first Baptist Church in America.

Incredibly, the Meeting House survived the Great Gale of September 1815, with only some slight damage to its steeple. The Second Baptist Meeting House, located to the south near the waterfront, wasn't so lucky—it was completely destroyed.

What's Up with the Dates?

You may have noticed that some inscriptions list 1639 as the date of the founding of the church, while others (see below) list 1638. The difference in dates is due in part to the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582. The reform fixed inadequacies in the Julian calendar, which was off by a day every 131 years, by omitting 10 days from the month of October 1582. The reform was not adopted everywhere all at once, but gradually took hold over the following two centuries. While some colonists used the new style, the reform wasn't officially adopted in the British colonies until 1752, by which time a total of 11 days had to be omitted. (For geeky fun, have your computer display a calendar for September 1752.)

Of course, this alone does not account for the difference between 1638 and 1639. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian reform it was common for New Year's Day to be celebrated on March 25. That's right, you could go to sleep on March 24, 1600, and wake up the next day in a whole new century. Here's a good example of the difference this could make in how we measure time: in the old style, George Washington's birthday was on February 11, 1731; in the new style it's February 22, 1732.

Some of the little we know about the founding of Williams' church comes from diary entries written by John Winthrop, the governor of Plymouth at the time. Instances where he wrote that such and such happened "last year" led to confusion over the actual date, because one would need to know whether time was being reckoned by the old calendar or the new calendar, because last year in this case could be as recently as eight days ago, or as long as fifteen months! Just as the year of Washington's birth has been ascertained to be 1732, so it is generally accepted today that Roger Williams founded his Baptist church in 1638.

Additions and Renovations

Many changes have been made to the original design of the Meeting House over the years. Contrasting with the general austerity of the auditorium, a Waterford crystal chandelier, imported from Ireland and given to the church by Hope Brown Ives in 1792, hangs from the center of the ceiling. Originally fitted with candles and weighted with a sack of Revolutionary War-era cannonballs, the chandelier has since been modified for use with gas (in 1884) and electricity (in 1914). At some point the bag of cannonballs was replaced by a hand-cranked windlass, but a few of the iron balls can still be seen in a cabinet in the Manning room in the basement.

In 1819 excavation was begun on the basement, in order to have a place in which to conduct Sunday school. Previously the basement had not been much more than a bowl-shaped pit where the town hearse, which was owned by the church, was stored. When the hearse was needed, it was hooked up to a single horse and trundled right out the front door. From 1819 until about 1859, when the basement was finished, the growing space was rented out to merchants for storage. If the cellar didn't already have a ghoulish reputation because of the hearse, it certainly acquired one during this period—folks started whispering that the basement contained a collection of corpses! But the truth is perhaps even more macabre to our modern sensibilities. One merchant who used the space was an undertaker, and among the objects he stored were large casks—55-gallon hogsheads—of rum. In the days before refrigeration, the casks were used to transport bodies to far-off places for burial. The corpse would be folded into a fetal position, immersed in the liquor, and then shipped off, arriving at its destination in a fine state of rum-soaked preservation.

The large and airy auditorium could originally seat up to 1,200 people, almost a third of the population of Providence at that time. In 1832 a center aisle was removed and now the room can hold up to 1,400 people, 900 on the lower level and 500 in the gallery. A magnificent organ was added in 1834, an interior baptistry in 1838, and gas chandeliers and wall sconces were added in the 1850s. At some point the ceilings were painted with patterns that clashed badly with the style of the rest of the auditorium, and in 1884 an addition was built behind the pulpit that featured a large Victorian baptistry and, perhaps worst of all, a stained glass window that memorialized Hope Brown Ives—she of the Waterford crystal chandelier. (Apparently the Ives family was given to flashy gestures.) This controversial and most un-Baptist-like decoration was almost immediately shuttered over; the Victorian baptistry is still used today, however. In 1957, former member John D. Rockefeller donated funds that enabled the church to be restored to something approximating its original appearance. The ceilings and walls were restored to simple white, warped columns were straightened, the sounding board above the pulpit was restored, and the excesses of the addition were hidden behind slatted shutters.

First Baptist Meeting House Plaque Inscriptions

Left side of main door

FIRST BAPTIST MEETING HOUSE
HAS BEEN DESIGNATED A
NATIONAL
HISTORIC LANDMARK
THIS SITE POSSESSES NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE
IN COMMEMORATING THE HISTORY OF THE
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
1984
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

Right side of main door

THE
FIRST BAPTIST
CHURCH
FOUNDED BY
ROGER WILLIAMS
A.D. 1638
THE OLDEST BAPTIST CHURCH
IN AMERICA
THE OLDEST CHURCH IN THIS STATE
THIS MEETING HOUSE ERECTED
A.D. 1775

Information

Tours: Guided tours are offered June through October; self-guided tours year 'round.

Cost: $2 per person for guided tours; $1 per person for self-guided.

Time required: Give yourself a good hour for the guided tour, somewhat less otherwise

Hours: June through October: Monday-Friday, 10am-12pm and 1-3pm; Saturday, 10am-1pm. November through May: Monday-Friday, 10am-12pm and 1-3pm. Closed holidays.

This is a house of worship. Please be respectful.

Finding it: from Route 95 north, take exit 23 for State Offices; at Orms Street go straight across to State Street; take a left onto Smith Street; take a right onto Canal Street at the light at the bottom of the hill; continue straight until you have to turn left onto Washington Street; the church is ahead of you, on the corner of North Main Street and Waterman Avenue.

From Route 95 south, take exit 23; turn right at the bottom of the ramp onto Charles Street, then take the next left onto Ashburton Street; continue straight and Ashburton becomes Canal street; continue as above.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to water or despondent harpies. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited March 12, 2008

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