2021 Rhode Island Adventure – First American Baptist Churches

I recently spent a week in Rhode Island and visited a piece of American Baptist history. I had heard the stories about Roger Williams and John Clarke – pioneers in the American Baptist denomination and champions of religious freedom – in Providence and Newport, RI and was thrilled to discover their churches are still alive and being used for Baptist worship. So, I had to go see them. I am a member of the Albion First Baptist Church and found their stories fascinating. Following is information I gathered for an article for our church newsletter….plus a bit more and all the photos I took along the way.

Let’s talk about Roger Williams, first, since he was the founder of the First American Baptist Church in America! Williams, an ordained minister, was a Puritan who fled England in the 1630’s to separate from the religious repression that the Church of England represented. The movement to leave the Church of England included many other Puritans who worked to establish the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Williams, however, made his pilgrimage in 1631 with different ideas for the colony than the others. They worked to create a Purified Church of England and Williams wanted a total separation from the Church of England with a new church, new theologies, and the freedom to worship as they pleased without persecution.

His descent caused much controversy. Among other things, he believed that the Native American people were the sole owners of the American land and should be justly compensated for it. He also strongly believed in the separation of church and state – maintaining that only God could judge man’s conscience. He was tried, convicted, and banished from Massachusetts for his beliefs.

Williams gathered others who agreed with him and purchased land from the Narragansett people, which he named “Providence”, in what became the colony of Rhode Island. In 1638, he formed the first Baptist congregation in the new world with religious freedom, sole liberty, and total separation of church and state. Williams resigned from the congregation he built in the summer of 1639, but his congregation lived on and evolved over the years. Williams died in 1683 – his remains are interred in Prospect Terrace – a hill overlooking downtown Providence.

In the beginning, Williams and his congregation met in his and other homes until the first meeting house was built in 1700. The current structure was built in 1774-75 and still stands at 74 N. Main Street in Providence – it was the first Baptist church to have a steeple and a bell. The current pastor is Rev. Jamie P. Washam. She became the 37th settled minister of the First Baptist Church of Providence in 2015.

Unfortunately, the church is currently undergoing extensive repairs and restorations – they are currently holding services outside, so I was unable to go inside. Perhaps I will on another trip.

Photo of the current First American Baptist Church of Providence, located at 74 N. Main St, Providence – taken from the back.

Other photos from different angles:

Another pioneer in the history of the American Baptist Church is John Clarke. Clarke arrived from England in 1637 and settled on Aquidneck Island – later known as Rhode Island after he, too, was exiled from Massachusetts for his disagreements with Puritan leadership. In 1638, he founded a Baptist congregation in Portsmouth based on similar beliefs of Roger Williams with religious freedom at the forefront. In 1644, Clarke purchased land from the American Native people, founded Newport, and built a meeting house. This was the first meeting house of any denomination in the colony. Clarke was  instrumental in securing the Royal Charter of 1663 from King Charles II. The charter established Rhode Island as a colony with guaranteed religious freedom without persecution or punishment for religious views. Clarke died in 1676 and is buried in Newport.

While Clarke was in England working on the charter, a group from his congregation broke off and formed the Second Baptist Church of Newport. Then, during WWII, the military used Clarke’s church, so they met for worship with the Second Baptist Church until they could return. After the war, the two churches agreed to reunite and move back to Clarke’s church – the church was renamed “United Baptist Church of Newport” to honor the union and continues to use that name to this day.

The original meeting house was used until 1708 when a new meeting house was constructed. The current building, located at 30 Spring Street in Newport, was constructed in 1846.

The current minister at United Baptist Church of Newport is Pastor David Dewberry – he has been with the church since 2018. I met with and had a wonderful conversation with Pastor Dewberry, who allowed me to go inside. The church took my breath away – just lovely, with a beautiful balcony surrounding the sanctuary and boxed in pews with the original doors remaining!

There is a lot more to Roger Williams’ and John Clarke’s fascinating lives than I can possibly go into in this space. If you’d like more information, the reference sources I used were Baptist Ways – A History by Bill J. Leonard, Wikipedia, and the websites of both churches:

First American Baptist Church of Providence

United Baptist Church of Newport

While in Providence and Newport, I also visited the final resting places of both Roger Williams and John Clarke.

Roger Williams remains are interred in this monument. It was an interesting story about his remains. Apparently, he was originally buried at his home in an unmarked grave in 1683 – the importance of his work unrecognized….the first of three burials for Williams. In 1860, in an attempt to honor him, his remains were moved to a family crypt in the Old North Burial Ground. A committee was formed to create a memorial to Williams and they selected Prospect Terrace as a suitable final resting place. However, funds were meager, the Civil War intervened, and no action was taken. Then, to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Providence in 1936, a new committee raised funds and interred the remains under a statue of Williams, dedicated in 1939, at Prospect Terrace.

But…..some reports I read claim there is more to the story. Legend has it that his home was sold and demolished, leaving his remains behind in a vacant lot – unmarked. They were discovered accidentally at the base of an apple tree when someone was digging on the lot. Apparently, there was not much remaining and the apple tree root had grown into the casket – causing the story about the “man who was partially eaten by an apple tree root”. What was found was cremated and moved to the family crypt until the later efforts to create a memorial in 1936.

John Clarke is buried in the John Clarke Cemetery – his stone is the center one. The cemetery was fenced off and closed, so zooming in from the fence was the best I could do for a photo.

There was a large stone in front of the cemetery entrance with this plaque honoring John Clarke.

I was also very excited to see the oldest Jewish synagogue in the United States,  established in 1763 – another shining example of new found religious freedom in the new world – located not far from the United Baptist Church in Newport.

Right next door to the Touro Synagogue is the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House – established in 1730 and formed by a group within the First Baptist Church who believed that the Ten Commandments should be obeyed literally with the Sabbath observed on Saturday – the seventh day of the week.

And the final building in the area – across the street from the Synagogue is the Levi Gale House – Jewish Community Center. This structure was moved in late 1925 from its original location for use as a community center for the Touro Synagogue.

Unfortunately, I was not able to go inside any of these three sites.

So much history related to the freedom of religious beliefs in a variety of ways in one small state. It was so exciting to be able to see it all and learn their amazing and courageous stories.

More on my Rhode Island Adventure in the next post I’ll write.

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