Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A New England Meeting House with an Anglican Steeple, 1775

Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Isabella reporting,

The most important things that any group of immigrants or refugees brings with them to their new homes aren't tucked inside trunks or suitcases, but inside their heads: the memories of old lives and places, as well as beliefs, talents, and skills. The handsome building, left, is the First Baptist Meeting House in Providence, RI, and when I recently visited Providence (to see the dandies), I was struck again by how the old church is a perfect testament to the talents, skills, and beliefs of the 18th c. colonists who built it in 1774-1775.

Roger Williams (c1603-1683) not only founded the church, but also what would become the state of Rhode Island. A Cambridge-educated theologian, Williams fled Stuart Britain in the 1630s to find freedom to practice his religious beliefs. Unfortunately, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay proved no more tolerant of his tenets than England had been, and again he fled, this time to create a colony of his own, drawing his followers together into the first congregation of Baptists in the New World in 1636. (Read here for an excellent brief history of Williams and the First Baptist Church.) Unlike other colonies with established, official churches, Williams wanted his colony to remain "a shelter for persons distressed of conscience" where all faiths were free to worship; in 1658, Rhode Island also became the home of the second-oldest Jewish congregation in America.

By the 1770s, the small Baptist congregation had grown dramatically, and required a new home. Despite the political unrest in the American colonies, the congregation looked back to the great churches of London for the inspiration for the new meeting house, churches designed by Christopher Wren and James Gibbslike St Clement Danes in Westminster, right. It didn't matter that these London churches were Anglican, the same Anglican Church that Roger Williams had rejected. It was the imposing dignity and solemnity of the churches that the Rhode Islanders wished to copy. They did, too, combining the best of Georgian church architecture combined with a traditional New England clapboard meeting house.

But there was more "borrowing" in the actual construction. The new meeting house was to be the largest building in New England at the time, 80 x 80 feet, and able to seat 1200 people - approximately one-third of Providence's population in 1770. Finding a sufficient number of skilled housewrights and other tradesmen for the job should have slowed the building. But the British had closed Boston's harbor as punishment for the 1773 Boston Tea Party, putting scores of shipbuilders and carpenters out of
work. Desperate for work, these men made their way to Providence, and with them, the new meeting house was able to be dedicated in 1775. The towering 185-foot steeple - the first on a Baptist meeting house - was erected in just three and a half days.

Their work has stood the test of time - and numerous hurricanes! - over the centuries, and the meeting house is as beautiful a building now, as a National Historic Landmark nestled into the side of College Hill, as it must have been in 1775. While it is still in use for worship, with the congregation celebrating its 375th anniversary this  year, and for Brown University's commencement ceremony each spring, there are guided tours open to the public.

So many historic sites commemorate wars and battles; it's good to see one that honors both freedom and tolerance as well as the phenomenal handwork of those long-forgotten craftsmen.

Above: First Baptist Meeting House, Providence, RI. Photo copyright Susan Holloway Scott.
Below: St. Clement Danes Church, Strand. Published by William Clark, print made by Thomas Hingham, Britain, 1817.

12 comments:

Historical Ken said...

Excellent posting on a subject rarely spoken of. I'd love to visit this old church one day.

Karen Anne said...

A good recent book on Roger Williams is "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty." The first part of the book is set in England and has a fascinating account about how the system of laws developed.

Ms. Bunny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jacqueline | the hourglass files said...

It warms my heart that this church is still in use. There's something very special about New England churches. Really enjoyed learning the history of this one.

Donna said...

Great post and it is indeed a beautiful church. We are not proud that Roger Williams was cast out of Salem.

Maria said...

Thank you for the interesting historical information about this church. I walked past it a couple of months ago (on my way to see "Dandies," as a matter of fact) and thought it was lovely. I enjoyed learning more about it.

QNPoohBear said...


Did you go to the Roger Williams National Memorial on North Main Street? The museum is excellent. One of the rangers portrays Roger Williams during reenactments. He's very knowledgeable and enthusiastic on RI history.

You can tour the church during the week. There's a little museum on the lower level and the meeting house up above. The meeting house is very plain owing to the focus on Scriptures. There were some nicer items added later. It's really beautiful and worth a look.

We are proud to be the birthplace of religious tolerance in America. Roger Williams was tolerant enough not to allow a husband to force his wife to attend meeting if she chose not to. He also felt the church he founded was not pure enough so he left it shortly thereafter.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I'm glad so many people enjoyed this post. I graduated from Brown, and I love Providence. Being a NHG even back then, I spent a great deal of time wandering around the East Side and learning about the city's history. My very first novel was pretty forgettable, except for the fact that it was set in colonial Providence, and included the burning of the "Gaspee." So huzzah for Providence Plantations! :)

Karen Anne said...

I went looking for the book, but couldn't find its title. Wikipedia usually has a list of books in an author's writeup, including ones sorted by pen names. But your wikipedia entry doesn't mention Isabella Bradford and has as a pen name Miranda Jarrett.

(As a side note, in my opinion, Wikipedia does a terrible job with women authors in general, in terms of not allowing entries. This is different, though.)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Karen Anne, I have no idea who posts or maintains the Wikipedia listing - certainly not me!

That very first book is called "Steal the Stars", and I suppose it can still be found via used book stores. Be forewarned: it's pretty dated by now, and has many first-book issues, but it IS set in pre-revolutionary Providence. My first dozen or so historical romances were set in colonial Rhode Island, featuring a fictional Newport family called the Sparhawks. They were a seafaring-merchant family, so there was lots of Newport intrigue, privateering, and high-seas adventure, as well as the romance. They were lots of fun to write!

Kirby Urner said...

Quakers (me one of them) still cling to the "meeting house" terminology, in contrast to "church" or "steeple house" which is said in a snobby way to let people know we have not succumbed to those Anglican / churchy ways. I am simply unaware to what extent Baptists sense any tension between "church" and "meeting house" in their literature. A Quaker meeting house with a steeple would be something of an oxymoron where I come from.

Stephen Barker said...

The inspiration for Joseph Brown who designed the Baptist Church was James Gibbs 'Book of Architecture' published in 1728. He used one of the designs for the spire of St Martin-in-the-Fields which had been rejected but which was published in the book.

The building committee for the Church including Brown went to study the Churches and Meeting Houses in Boston. Brown also designed the first college building at Rhode Island College (1770) the Market House in Providence (1773) his own house in 1774 and a house for his brother John in 1786 which is regarded as a fine example of Federal Architecture.
Gibbs himself laboured in England under the handicap of being Scottish, Roman Catholic and of having studied the Baroque in Rome. To obtain work he had to acknowledge the prevailing fashion for Palladian architecture in England.

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