The First Baptist Church, Providence, Rhode Island

THE OLDEST BAPTIST CHURCH IN AMERICA

When Roger Williams, Welshman, left England for America because he could not find in the Church of England freedom to worship God according to his con-science, he came to Salem, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There he joined others who had sought America for the same purpose, but to his disappointment he found that his ideas of liberty of worship did not agree with theirs, and he was once more adrift. On October 9, 1635, the authorities of the Colony ordered that he ” shall depart out of this jurisdiction.” He was later given permission to remain until spring, on condition that he make no attempt ” to draw others to his opinions.”

On the ground that he had broken the implied agreement, the Governor, on January 11, 1636, sent for him to go to Boston, from whence he was to be banished to England. Williams sent word that he was ill and could not come at the time. A force of men was sent to seize him, but when they reached his house he had departed already, turning his face toward the southern wilderness. He was ” sorely tossed for fourteen weeks in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean.”

On April 30, 1636, he came to the country of the Wampanoags, where the sachem Massasoit made him a grant of land. Within a short time some of his friends joined him, and primitive houses were built. Then came word from the Governor of Massachusetts Bay that he must go beyond the bounds of the Plymouth Colony. Accordingly, with six others, he embarked in canoes and sought for a location. When this was found Canonicus and Mantonomi agreed to let the company have lands, and soon the new settlement was made and named Providence, in recognition of God’s care of him during his journey. Then others joined him and his companions.

Two years after the settlement of Providence twelve of the citizens decided that they must have a church. One of the company, Ezekiel Hollyman, baptized Roger Williams and Williams baptized Hollyman and ten others. The twelve then baptized were the original members of the first church of Providence, Rhode Island, the first Baptist church in America, and the second in the world. Roger Williams was the first pastor, but he withdrew before the close of the year in which the church was organised. During the remaining forty-five years of his life he remained in Providence as a missionary among the Indians, whose friendship he had won by his scrupulously careful and honorable method of dealing with them.

The church met in private houses or under the trees, for more than sixty years. The first meeting house was not erected until 1700. The builder was Pardon Tillinghast, the sixth pastor of the church, who, like his predecessors, served without salary. However, he urged that the church should begin to pay its way, and that his successor should receive a stipulated salary. The Tillinghast building was in use for fifteen years after it was deeded to the congregation, in 1711. The deed, which is on record at the Providence City Hall, calls the church a ” Six-Principle church.”

The growth of the congregation called for a larger building. This was erected in 1726 and was used until 1774. An old document gives an interesting side light on the building of the meeting house. This is an ac-count of Richard Brown, dated May 30, 1726, which reads:

The account of what charge I have been at this day as to the providing a dinner for the people that raised the Baptist meeting-house at Providence (it being raised this day,) is as followeth :

One fat sheep, which weighed forty-three lbs. £0, 14, 04. For roasting the said sheep, etc. 8 For one lb. butter 1 For two loaves of bread which weighed fifteen lbs. 2 For half a peck of peas 1.03

When the building was planned the Charitable Baptist Society was incorporated, that it might hold title to ” a meeting-house for the public worship of Almighty God, and to hold Commencement in.” Nearly a third of the £7,000 required for the new building was `raised by a lottery, authorized by the State. The architects modelled the church after the popular St. Martinsin-the-Fields in London, whose designer was James Gibbs, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren.

In the two-hundred-foot spire was hung the bell made in London, on which were inscribed the strange words :

” For freedom of conscience this 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 pastor at the time the new church was first occupied, on May 28, 1775, was president of Rhode Island College, an institution which had been located in Providence in 1773, in consequence of the generosity and activity of the members of the church. The institution later became Brown University. Every one of the presidents of the college has been a member of the First Church.

A church whose building was dedicated “midway between the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill ” should have a patriotic history. The story of Providence during the Revolution shows that the members were keenly alive to their opportunities. The first suggestion for the Continental Congress came from Providence. Rhode Island was the first State to declare for independence. Pastor and people were ardent supporters of these movements. Many soldiers were furnished to the army by the congregation.

Naturally, then, people would be interested in a man like Stephen Gano, who became pastor in 1792. He had been a surgeon in the Revolutionary Army, and had been taken prisoner, put on board a prison-ship, and bound in chains, which made scars that lasted for life. ,, His pastorate of thirty-six years was the longest in the history of the church.

The stately building erected in 1774 is still in use. The gallery long set apart for the use of slaves has given way to a square loft, the old pews have been displaced by modern seats, and the lofty pulpit and sounding-board have disappeared. Otherwise the church is much as it was when the first congregation entered its doors in 1775.