I drive by the First Baptist Church in America regularly, and finally went inside this week for a visit. The church is massive, and lovely. Although it is truly beautiful and historic, it is also familiar, comfortable and welcoming.
The church was founded in 1638 by Roger Williams, who soon moved away from the idea of a formal church and others took over the ministry.
This particular building was built in the mid-1770’s, replacing a smaller building a short distance away. I’ve been reading about it in Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006). The Brown brothers Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses played important roles both in moving the (then) Baptist college from Warren, R.I. to Providence (now Brown University), and in the effort to build the stately new church. The church building served, also, for the college graduation exercises, a custom that continues to this day. Rev. James Manning, educated at Princeton, became the President of the college and also was elected as minister of the church in 1771.
I read the Self Guided Tour booklet before arriving, and enjoyed spotting all the historic items mentioned in the booklet.
While at the church, I asked about a picture I recently purchased of the church; a print from J & F Tallis, London. Oddly, it shows the church with a cemetery in the yard, something that does not exist. The same picture was also in the Manning Room at the church, but the person I spoke to pointed out many inaccuracies in the illustration – no hill behind the church, and no surrounding buildings, which were there very early on. And most of all, no graves should be there.
A little research online shows an estimated date of 1843 for the print. There are other illustrations from that era by other artists which do not contain graves, so clearly this is just a fanciful rendition. But what’s amusing is the eerie, ancient look of the graves – are those two people in the act of interring or disinterring? Is that a skull thrown on the ground?
I very much enjoyed my visit to the First Baptist Church in America. No mysteries, ghosts or grave robbers were found, just a beautiful Rhode Island treasure, continuing Roger Williams’ “lively experiment” in today’s world.
To plan a visit, consult the “tours” page on the church website.
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