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.

The Arguious Path Toward Freedom

I’ve been traveling with an invisible companion this past week. I’ve taken her with me on a couple of planes, a bus and ferry ride, and an Uber pick-up from New Bedford to Providence. She has been my dinner companion and early morning guest. Channeling the young Cole Sear, while others were unable to notice her, she has not been far from my thoughts and I could envision “seeing” her walking around.

At an open-aired cafe on Church Street, in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard
May 22, 2019

When the devout Puritan and deeply-committed Christian, named Anne Hutchinson was summoned to appear before the Massachusetts Bay Colony on a chilly day in November 1636, she was the 46 year-old mother of twelve living children, the grandmother of one, and was now pregnant for the sixteenth time. Normally, after crossing the Charles River by ferry from her home on the Shawmut Penninsula of Old Boston, she would travel the five miles to Cambridge on horseback or by coach. But icy conditions upon the roads and pathways risked breaking a horse’s leg. Her mandatory appearance before the 40 men led by Governor John Winthrop who would determine her fate would have to be met this time by traveling upon foot. It would take two and one-half hours to complete the trip (LaPlante, 2015, p. 14).

I don’t think I would have been a close friend to Anne Hutchinson. Accounting for the 400 years of separation between us and the typical determination, iron-tested will and overall physical stamina required of colonial Americans, she still comes across as far too strict for my style; her interpretations of Scripture are too narrow, her Calvinism too definitive, and her Quaker leanings way too constraining.

But I deeply admire her impressive courage and strongly-held faith. The “crime,” that had put her on the hot seat that bitterly frigid day in November was for hosting and leading home Bible studies. Over time, the gatherings had become increasingly popular, persuasive and a threat to the common order (and bruised egos) of the power structure found within the Puritan patriarchy. Her emphasis on “a covenant of grace” or inner confidence based solely on the sovereignty of God as surpassing “a covenant of works” or outward manifestations that proved one’s saving relationship with God may have proved reassuring to anxious Puritans worried about the security of their salvation, but it was a viable contrast to the many sermons preached by local clergy and the new world of strict moral obedience they sought to establish.

These early settlers had left their native England in favor of America for the cause of religious freedom and to establish, in Winthrop’s now widespread metaphor, a “City Upon a Hill,” a new Jerusalem and a visible manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. But like the growing sentiments found in much of today’s American Christians, they desired religious freedom only for themselves, without any concern to protect the religious (or non-religious) freedom and expression of others.

The seriousness with which these restrictions were codified into law can be illustrated by the exacting and controlling details of their expectations. In September of 1634, they had approved laws where:

No person…shall hereafter make or buy any apparel with any lace on it, silver, gold, silk or thread, under the penalty of forfeiture of such clothes….All cutworks, embroidered or needlework caps, …all gold or silver girdles, hatbands, belts, rugs, beaver hats, are prohibited.” And “if any man shall judge the wearing of any….fashions…or hair…to be uncomely, or prejudicial to the common good, …then [he] shall have power to bind the party so offending to answer it at the next court.

(LaPlante, 102)

It may have been easier to legislate against such “offensive” public behavior in plain sight, but as evident with Anne Hutchinson, they were equally concerned about behavior that occurred in the privacy of one another’s homes, and further desirous to advance their reach into the leanings of one another’s hearts, especially one belonging to a woman whose confident spirit would not yield to them or to any man, especially if it contradicted an exclusive reverence for God alone.

Anne Hutchinson’s whole-hearted commitment, and likely stroke of genius was appealing to God’s authority discerned by her personal experience, through readings and applications of Holy Scriptures and by her equally strong awareness of God’s confirming Holy Spirit. These factors transcended the rules, customs, or demands from any legislating body regardless of how pious and religious they claimed to be. Her “divinations” as she called them, were the true marks of one’s eternal status before God.

Governor Winthrop and his gang were unmoved. Anne and her followers needed to go. They had banished Roger Williams a little over a year previously. They would do the same the following year for Anne’s brother-in-law, John Wheelwright who would go on to found Exeter, New Hampshire. The American story can be told from this continuous struggle between those who use religion to oppress and abuse those they find disagreeable and those who use their religion to help and defend the very ones being oppressed and abused.

This tension within the Euro-American story stems from our earliest beginnings and it persists still. If you are inclined and committed to the enrichment possible by honoring a life of faith, such decisions are as pressing as ever. You must choose if your support and maintenance of a religious system is in order to be a force to control others or a power to invite their liberation.

The path to freedom has never been easy. We can ask Anne Hutchinson. She, along with family members and other followers were excommunicated from their Boston church and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For a while, they found a home in Narragansett Bay (now part of Rhode Island) near and aided by Roger William and his founding of the Providence Plantation. After a while, when Anne’s husband William died in 1642, she moved with her six youngest children again, further West to Long Island, New York. There, she and all but one of her children were tragically killed by members of the Algonquian Indian tribe.

My traveling with Anne Hutchinson was greatly aided by the excellent book, American Jezebel, by Eve LaPlante (2015). It was not only revealing of Anne’s amazing story, but incredibly helpful to more fully understand the temperament and practices of 17th Century America. The faithful few, who are diligently walking a path to ensure the ongoing advance of this freedom story in their times, are deeply aware. This commitment will put you at risk with your friends, your family and, for the most serious, with the ruling authorities. I pray it is worth it, if only to be passionately connected with some truly exceptional company along the way.

More on Why?

The Backyard Offerings – May 17, 2019

Earlier I discussed the initial reasons for choosing Ulysses to be the main focus of my sabbatical studies. My decision focused on time and place, the two inescapable forces that envelopes our existence. We live in a precise moment registered by a specific time zone . Everyone can be plotted to a series of exact GPS coordinates.

Our movements change these numbers. Seconds tick off whatever is left on our biological countdown timer. Transportation expands the limits of our horizon. The experience of our lives is an ordered unfolding of the what and the who through the when and the where.

Journalists have reminded us of a fifth “w.” As imaginative creatures endowed with the gift of language, we squeeze reasons into our encounters. We learn about times and places not of our own making. We come to understand and interpret our stories in comparison to other stories. We engage in the requisite task of stitching together a coherent meaning for our lives.

Three distinct types of hero stories are of concern to the book Ulysses. The Archetypal Hero is elucidated by Odysseus’ epic adventures as recounted by Homer. They are foundational to the mythology of a hero’s status and may be some of the oldest stories known to humanity. Joyce organized his novel around the different chapters of the Odyssey, where the battle-weary hero spends 10 years trying to get back home to Ithaca, after the previous 10 years fighting the battle over Troy. The classical hero, usually against incredible odds and seemingly insurmountable challenges is finally proven victorious in the end.

The Tragic Hero cannot get out of his, her or their own way. Whether through circumstances or personal dispositions, or a combination of both, this hero who can be extraordinarily gifted, charming or powerful, is also fundamentally flawed. These defects override otherwise perfect opportunities and potentials. We feel sympathy for tragic heroes and see in them our own imperfections.

Like Telemachus (the son of Odysseus) in the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet features a son who is forlorn over his father’s absence and questions his mother’s fidelity to him. But Hamlet’s situation is far more tragic. Telemachus is separated from his father because of geography and will reunite with him in the future. Hamlet’s father has died and by visits heard only by Hamlet from his father’s ghost, he is persuaded how his uncle Claudius has been scandalously involved with his mother, Gertrude and together they were responsible for his father’s death.

The father of James Joyce was a well-known and liked Dubliner from County Cork with a mixture of strengths and shortcomings. Talented and charismatic, he had squandered his large family inheritance through the excesses common for a spendthrift and an alcoholic. Joyce both loved his father and was sorely embarrassed by him, paralleling his similar great faith and severe disappointment in his mother country of Ireland.

Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is an amalgam of Telemachus, Hamlet and Joyce’s projection of his 22 year old past. Dedalus is learned, insightful and engaged in the normal search common for all young adults– seeking to discover an agreeable path to guide and direct their quest for maturity and meaning in life. As with Joyce, his father’s esteemed talents are tainted by selfish behaviors and excesses with the drink (its always the drink!) and offers scant help for providing such instruction.

Almost by happenstance, Stephen finds a mentor in the unlikely personage of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged advertisement salesman of Hungarian-Jewish heritage who was born and raised in Dublin, but is sympathetically presented as a stranger, a searcher, an outsider, and a wanderer.

In Bloom, Joyce is crafting a new sort of hero for the 20th Century. Like Odysseus, he is estranged from his home and his wife, but it’s due to emotional not geographical distance. Compressed within a single day (June 16, 1904), he meanders around his native city of Dublin and through what appear to be ordinary occurrences: making breakfast, attending a funeral, shopping, doing a little business, running errands, walking the streets, feeding the seagulls, trying to find a spot for lunch, meeting friends for drinks, getting in an argument, checking on a friend in the hospital, dodging thunderstorms, getting lost, stumbling through the red-light district, falling into his bed upside down and exhausted at day’s end after trying to convince himself that he has done a little bit of good along the way, it is revealed, turn by turn, was actually a truly epic adventure.

Why am I here? This is always the grand question. Why here? Not there? Why this? Not that? Why now? Not later? Why Ulysses?

  1. All lives, however ordinary, challenging, difficult, messed-up or seemingly perfect reveal, if you take the time, a myriad of depth, significance and meaning. Spirituality is too often exclusively focused on the most visible, the best and brightest and most astonishing. Under the surface, we discover the flaws, frustrations and deeper longings that makes us truly human, and mysteriously one with one another.
  2. Ulysses is a means toward understanding a particular culture and city. While a work of fiction written during Joyce’s self-imposed exile, it is painstakingly accurate with respect to its geographical location and accuracy. In the chapter “Wandering Rocks,” more than 30 “characters” are described throughout the city of Dublin going about their daily routines between the hours of three to four in the afternoon. Clive Hart, through careful on-site research, traced each of these steps and synchronized their various encounters with tram schedules and expected times the distances would be covered on foot, finding Joyce’s exactitude to be amazing accurate, almost to the second (Davis, 2014). Joyce famously boasted, “If Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from my book.”
  3. This is a massive, dense and often confusing book, especially for a novice to it like me. It cannot be fully understood without some trusted guides to help (and even they can fail to answer all the many questions you’ll have). I’ve leaned on many resources in trying to break apart and appreciate what it right there in front of me. It has lead me to wonder about all those new persons who show up at the store-front of my profession. The person who, at-best, has a cursory, superficial and culturally-dominated understanding of any faith, including the Christian one of a particular Baptist persuasion I deeply treasure. How do they begin to comprehend the dense forest of the archaic language, metaphors and complex meanings within the Scriptures? How can I help free them from the terrible reputation and prejudices, often fairly deserved, associated by the title, “Baptist?” Though Ulysses is written by a single author over the course of nine years, it is jammed-packed with unfamiliar languages, ancient sayings and obscure references. It takes effort and outside help to move toward any true semblance of comprehension.
  4. Also, like scripture, I’ve found Ulysses easier to understand when read out loud than when read silently. I’ve used two audible companions to help me. It’s incredible to hear the book through proper Irish dialects, correct pronunciations and pacing than through the voice trapped within my own mind. When read aloud, the book flows better and is remarkably clearer. I’ve discovered I have picked up things from the audio versions of the same passage I missed when read silently.
  5. Ulysses convinces me of just how much I still don’t know. It’s humbling to find yourself a stranger in the English language of your heritage. Through patience, attention and focused study, we can all learn, grow and change. All who read well and often know the joy and liberation of fresh discoveries as the mind is richly fed, especially with the hard stuff.
  6. So, while daunting and difficult, this work is also a tremendous amount of fun. When we infuse our whats and wheres with a determined struggle toward the why, then life is truly a heroic adventure.

Should you read Ulysses? It probably would make for too challenging a beach-read, but I’ve found this audio version from the BBC entertaining. You do need to be prepared for some frustration (okay, a great deal of frustration) and the possibility of being a little bit shocked. I can also attest to some sections excellent for preparing to take a nap. But once, the mind is clear, and the dust is blown away, and a complex and compelling sentence is all broken down, and it slowly becomes appreciated as it appears, it ca be like listening to a great piece of music and you wonder why you’ve never been here before.

Picking It Out

In the Backyard – May 17, 2019

I’m reading Ulysses in the Modern Library Edition published by Random House (1992), mainly because it is features a hardback. I first ordered the more popular Gabler Edition, now affordably and conveniently available, like most all other things, from Amazon.com. When I received it, I discovered it was the size of a healthy city’s phone book (remember those?). It was also in paperback. I didn’t relish the idea of hauling it around. It would soon be ragged and dirty from overuse. I was certain the cover would be bent and torn within a month of travel. But I was determined to make it work.

Two weeks later, I was meeting someone for coffee at the Bronte-Bistro at Joseph-Beth. I thought, “While here, why not inspect the Ulysses section?” There it was. The copy I have now underlined, written in the margins and transferred many of the Gabler identification markings that line up with the equally massive notations from Gifford’s 1988 Ulysses Annotated.

After spending too much time on Kindle (further Amazon-manipulated convenience, and even rationalized by me as saving needed room on the bookshelf), and from reading other e-books, periodicals, newspapers, blogs, social media posts and other linked articles online, it feels really good to have a bona-fide book back in your hands again, one with a firm cover, a sewn spine and pages you actually have to guide and maneuver by rolling them over the tips of your thumbs and fingers.

I’ve missed you my old familiar friend. But I’m not sold on turning back time and reading most everything the old-fashioned way. There’s too much out there and still scant space on the shelves at home.

But the worthy stuff needs a special status. All noise is not music. All images are not art. All words are not literature. There are certain books that deserve to be held in the hand – to literally and figuratively feel the weight of the words resting in your palms, and pressing down upon your thoughts, to turn down a page like the welcoming sheets of your waiting bed so you can rest between the folds and return to the replenishment granted to all seekers and holding on to be filled, once again with the magic and wisdom of dreams.