First Baptist Church in America
This profile was last updated in 2006
Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, fled Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 after having been tried and sentenced to banishment for preaching the heresies of freedom of conscience and the strict separation of church and state. Crossing the Seekonk River from Wampanoag to Narragansett territory, he purchased lands from local tribes and started a settlement he named “Providence.” The founding principles of this new settlement were freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, and so Rhode Island became the first American colony characterized by religious free exercise and non-establishment.
Williams had been an Anglican priest in England and a Separatist minister in Salem, MA, and so from the colony’s founding he held worship services in his home several times per week. Within two years, however, Williams had become convinced that the only valid baptism was believers’ baptism, and so he rebaptized his flock, thereby founding the First Baptist Church in 1638.
By the summer of 1639, Williams’ faith had evolved such that he felt no institution could call itself a church and he resigned, but First Baptist continued under the leadership of lay elders from 1639-1771. By the late 1700s, the Great Awakening had ignited a Baptist revival, and the church called for a minister Dr. James Manning, who also became the first president of the nearby Baptist-founded college, later Brown University. Manning directed the building of the church’s present 1775 meetinghouse (the congregation’s third), “for the publick Worship of Almighty GOD, and also for holding Commencement in.” (While Brown was founded to train Baptist ministers and maintained a Baptist influence until the 1930s, it followed the spirit of the State from its inception by prohibiting religious tests and even institutionalizing an ecumenical Board of Trustees.)
The 19th century was the heyday of First Baptist, during which time it was the center of all great occasions in Rhode Island. It was also the site of the denominational split between northern and southern Baptists, when in 1845 the northern Baptists refused to continue accrediting slave-owning missionaries. During the 1900s, however, immigration caused Rhode Island to become predominantly Roman Catholic, and later deindustrialization left Providence a virtually non-residential city. Since the 1970s, First Baptist has begun to grow again and has been reconnecting with its heritage as America’s oldest Baptist church and the cradle of American religious liberty.