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First Baptist Church

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1774–1775, Joseph Brown; Jonathan Hammond, master carpenter; James Sumner, carpenter. 75 North Main St.
  • First Baptist Church
  • First Baptist Church
  • First Baptist Church

More than the Market House, the First Baptist Church architecturally marked Providence's growing importance. In 1638 Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America. For sixty years before the erection of a meeting house it met in the parlors of members of the congregation. By the early 1770s a new building was needed, and it was conceived in a very large way. Built to accommodate 1,400 people (when the population of Providence stood at 4,300), it was intended both “for the publick Worship of Almighty God; and also for holding Commencement in.” The commencement referred to was that of Rhode Island College (later Brown University), also founded under Baptist auspices. It had just been weaned away from Warren, Rhode Island, the place of its founding, largely by Brown family persuasion. The church that resulted from its avowed goal of combined benefit to town and gown is among the grandest built in the colonies, although not without a degree of provincialism in design.

Joseph Brown, the amateur architect, went to Boston, together with the master carpenter Jonathan Hammond, in search of ideas. In the end, however, most of these derived from several plates illustrating Sir Christopher Wren's London churches in James Gibbs's Book of Architecture (1728), a copy of which Brown had in his architecture library. Yet the result is especially interesting because Brown filtered the typical Anglican church schemes of Wren through what was then becoming an old-fashioned type. Not by accident is this church called a “meeting house.” In contrast to the elongated space characteristic of Anglican churches, with an aisle running its length from the entrance to the altar as the place of sacred ritual, meeting houses tended to be square in plan, to combat this hierarchical aura with the immediacy of the congregation gathered around the pulpit to hear the Word. Doors centered on three sides of a typically square plan and the pulpit on the fourth, with cross aisles connecting these four features, further emphasized the nonhierarchical sense of gathering from all sides around the preacher. Here double-leaved doors do indeed appear, not only once, but centered in both of the side walls. A cross aisle originally connected them. The principal door, however, is moved to one end, the pulpit to the other opposite it. So a longitudinal axis is suggested. With time, additional pews obliterated the cross aisle, thereby intensifying the dominance of the longitudinal axis. The side doors became residual. On the other hand, the extraordinary breadth of this longitudinally oriented space inside derives from the dimensions of the meeting house square plan.

If any skyline feature gave special identity to the meeting house (and often none did), then the favored sign was a cupola. By substituting for the meeting house cupola a spired tower over the entrance end toward North Main Street, Brown further accentuated the churchly character of his design. So the First Baptist Church stands on the cusp of change: the old meeting house tradition fading with the emergence to dominance of the longitudinal church type even in situations where the older type had previously reigned.

As further indication of its transitional status, this church shows a sumptuous front grafted onto a plainer body, with the two aspects a bit unintegrated. From a plate in Gibbs which displayed three alternate designs for his own St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square (1726), Brown (probably in consultation with the congregation's building committee) selected one of the rejected designs. They called on a carpenter from Boston, James Sumner, to handle this feature, which only barely interlocks with the body of the church. A square, quoined base with a clock is successively topped by a belfry with arched opening framed by paired Ionic pilasters and pedimented in four directions, then by two superimposed polygonal lanterns with paired Corinthian pilasters at the corners, all telescoped on the spire, with progressively smaller urns set on the ledging at each of the stages. Whereas the designs for St. Martin were made for a full temple front, the one-story porch flanked by paired Doric columns for the First Baptist Church came from another plate for a lesser church by Gibbs, Marylebone Chapel, with a much smaller tower, which Gibbs also illustrated.

A steep interior double stair folds within the base of the tower to bring the worshiper from North Main Street up to the level of the meeting hall. Simple hung plaster vaulting shapes the interior space, elliptical across the nave, groined over the aisles, in a visual and technical simplification of Marylebone's vaulting. Around three sides, balconies are supported midway by the giant Tuscan columns which separate nave from aisles. A double tier of round-arched windows lights each level. Although somewhat summarily wrought, the entablature cappings of the columns make a forceful visual presence, spreading as generous tables to receive the plaster vaulting.

Up front, the exquisite array of architectural elements against the plaster wall behind the raised pulpit recalls the layout of engraved models in architectural pattern books in Brown's collection. The crystal chandelier, imported from Britain (probably Waterford), was given to the church in 1791 by Hope Brown in memory of her father, Nicholas, and was first lighted on the occasion of her marriage to Thomas Poynton Ives. Changes occurred through time. In 1832 the original high box pews were removed for the present replacements (which, however, have doors to make them appear boxed). With this change, the aisle across the center of the church also disappeared; so, for a while, did the original high pulpit and its sounding board. In 1834 Nicholas Brown II donated the organ, which retains its original case and, despite two rebuildings, some of its original pipes. Finally, in 1884, the front went through a radical change. The baptismal pool was given more focus by placing it within a niche cut into the pulpit wall and backed by a stained glass image of St. John the Baptist. Then, in 1957, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a graduate of Brown and a noted Baptist, provided for a near-complete restoration of the Mother Church of the American Baptist denomination. This restoration walled in the baptismal niche, recreated the high pulpit and its sounding board, and replicated the original Palladian window behind the pulpit as a shuttered screen. Colors were returned to the original white plaster with stony “sage green” for the architectural membering (the latter so prevalent for interior trim in the city through the Federal period that it came to be known locally as “Providence green”). This change of color magically intensified the light which streams through the clear glass, modulated by the subtle glints of pale amber and violet caused by the irregularities of the glass, especially on sunny days, when the interior becomes intensely luminous. Even the most hidebound preservationist, however, did not dare return the steeple to its colonial marbleized treatment in variegated colors, when the grand pretensions of the tower must have contrasted far more emphatically than is now the case with the plain clapboard siding of the box attached to it.

With two exceptions (1804 and 1832), Brown undergraduates have marched down the hill for commencement in the First Baptist Church every year since 1776—except that, as the university has grown, it is now an undergraduate baccalaureate ceremony that takes place in the church preceding commencement uphill on the Green. Of all eighteenth-century Rhode Island colonial churches, this and Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport ( NE56) stand among the major ecclesiastical buildings of the period—Trinity toward the beginning of the eighteenth century, this at the threshold of independence.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "First Baptist Church", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PR56.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 66-68.

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