Inside the First Baptist Church in America

The first surprising thing you’ll learn from church historian Stan Lemons about the church building for the First Baptist Church in America is the likelihood that founder Roger Williams (1603-1683) may have been vehemently against it, that is, if he had been around to have the opportunity to share his opinion.

The chandelier and high pulpit in the First Baptist Church of America
May 24, 2019

This impressive building was constructed in 1775, nearly 140 long years after the church’s founding by Williams and others in 1638. This group, convinced of the importance of believer’s baptism by immersion, gathered without benefit of any dedicated building throughout William’s lifetime. They desired a Christian experience that was throughly Biblical, simple, devout, and unfettered from any influence of symbols, status, sanctions, sanctuaries or structures. For them, the true apostolic faith had become distracted by struggles for power and too entangled with concerns over secular authority. Impressive edifices for worship spoke not of the transcendence of God, but of the proud and boastful achievements of man. Christian symbols, including the cross were resisted as a violation of the third commandment and might tempt a Christian to put more faith in an object, rather than in the more authentic and reliable divine source to which they pointed.

Williams is remembered for an extraordinary and foreword-looking understanding of the dignity of the human person. Not only was he often in trouble and later banished by the Puritans for advocating church and soul freedom, he further believed indigenous populations should be compensated for lands seized by the growing number of European settlers. It’s nearly impossible to imagine how differently the course of our country would have been transformed if we had listened to Williams’ lead, building a future out of a profound fairness for the whole of humankind and resisting the exploitation and genocide that instead followed.

Dr. Lemons in the Manning Room at the First Baptist Church in America
May 28, 2019

Roger Williams was certainly too far ahead of his own time, and probably ours too. Perhaps it was inevitable he would never be completely resolved to be a member of any established organization, except his defense of protecting the charter of the Providence Plantation he also founded. But within a year after launching the first Baptist church on American soil, he was on the move again. As Dr. Lemons was so kind to engage me, I learned how Williams, in the course of a 10 year journey, from 1629-1639, had gone from being an ordained Anglican priest, to a Puritan, to a Separatist, to a Baptist and finally being out all together (realizing no church on earth would suffice as the true church), owning a final designation of being a “Seeker.” I think it is a high compliment to call someone today a “Seeker.” Surrounded, as we are, by the chronically bored, often hopeless and selfishly satisfied existentialists of the “developed” world leaves little room for discovery. But to be a “Seeker?” That implies something is still worth exploring and creating, doesn’t it?

Authenticity is a journey of constantly searching and updating. This group of Baptists Williams helped launch, and others like them, set the stage for the, oh, so many, many millions of Baptists who followed. Baptists who have ventured and splintered into the many diverse directions a group of fiercely independent individuals would allow.

And over time, they would need to built roofs over their collected heads. As recounted in the Self-Guided Tour book for FBCIA:

The tiny Baptist church lived on without Williams, but it had no meetinghouse until 1700. In that year the pastor, PARDON TILLINGHAST, erected a meetinghouse on a piece of his own property several blocks from this site on North Main Street. Then, in 1726, a second, larger meetinghouse was built to accommodate the growing congregation.

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And it’s off to the races, as the bean-counting Baptists would grow ever more concerned about defending and protecting their importance and status, focused anew on influence, prominence and growth or in the motto of my upbringing: Baptisms, Budgets and Buildings.

When it was time to build the current church for the Baptists of Providence, or by way of the more modest language, to construct the “meeting house” they proposed a sanctuary –er, “meeting room”– large enough to seat 1,200 people. At the time, the church had less than 150 members and the entire population of Providence was under 4,500 living souls.

Their dynamic and accomplished pastor, Dr. James Manning was willing to give the Baptists a signature achievement, one on par with the wealthier and more prominent Anglicans and Presbyterians. Dr. Manning was also the first President of the newly – relocated Brown University, and he needed a large indoor space for commencement and graduation ceremonies. Bolstered by the growth of Baptists in New England during the First Great Awakening, he was ready to build the church person by person, wooden slat by wooden slat, nail by nail, and inch by inch.

Dedication Plaque, Interior of First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island

The events of history were also kind to the realization of his vision. The aftermath of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 had resulted in closing Boston harbor and putting many ship builders and carpenters out of work. They provided a ready and skilled labor force to complete the construction of the heretofore largest wooden structure in Colonial America. The formidable 185 foot high steeple was raised in three and one-half short days after building the sections on the ground and hoisting each unit upwards to heaven like the unfolding of a telescope. By 1775 the entire building was completed.

Even though their new building towered over the small town, they attempted to stay true to the heritage of their simpler past and more accommodating and accessible assembly. Large doors were constructed along each long side of the meeting room, so attendees would not be tempted to enter facing the front and genuflecting toward an altar, which didn’t even exist, nor a cross, which was also no where to be found in the worshiping space, as well as any other icons or statues significant to Christians. Only a large and elevated pulpit elegantly framed before an equally large and shuttered panel of windows in the Palladian style would suffice. The design of this window would match all the other windows of clear glass that encircled the spacious and austere room of soft white and gray tones extended by tall fluted columns, each made from a single oak tree.

Interior View from the High Pulpit
First Baptist Church in America

Like with most things, the more you do, the more you begin to realize what else could be done. Approaching the 19th Century, wealthier patrons begin to add their touches of adornment to the worshipping space. A beautiful glass chandelier, likely imported from the Waterford Glass Company in Ireland was installed in 1792, and lighted for the first time after the wedding of its benefactor (no strange coincidence here).

Early 20th Century Postcard Rendering of the Interior

This same family was responsible for the magnificent pipe organ installed in 1834 and modified twice in the 1920’s by Ernest M. Skinner (yes, CBC fans, that E.M. Skinner). Additionally, a stained glass window was installed over the baptistry. What had started as an intentional plan for simple and non-ornamental Christianity was looking pretty familiar to other stately houses of worship by the turn of the 20th Century. Roger Williams and I’m inclined to think, a host of those in the “so great a cloud of witnesses” thus surrounded would not have been pleased with what was happening to their innovative project for equality, inclusion and individual freedom.

But, I guess there is always a last laugh to be had. If you compare this postcard rendering from over 100 years ago with the photograph taken this past week at the top of this post, you’ll quickly realize how the front of the meeting room was changed back sometime during the 20th Century to the windowed facade and high pulpit. If you look carefully, you can even see sunlight peaking through the stained glass at the top of the window’s arch. You might anticipate the shutters opening when the church celebrates baptism, but rest easy by keeping these things covered up in the meantime.

Most of the time, we live normal lives alongside normal days. It is good and well to dress up occasionally. Special times do call for special responses. But the bulk of our life is plain and pedestrian. Boredom and hopelessness often walk hand in hand when we are tempted with a habit of sensationalism, where every moment needs to be somehow better than the one preceding it, and we falsely associate filling empty as something defective, rather than something regular and ultimately powerful.

Sitting in the empty meeting room, within the monotony of an enclosed pew box not much longer than a coffin, and resting against an inflexible seat back that has held other Baptists for over 200 years in the only church in America with the legitimate claim to truly being its First, tells me there’s beauty in the boredom, and meaning in life’s finality, and wonder and mystery just behind that latched shutter up on the front wall. And if you give us all enough time, we may finally get it right in the end.

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