Come to the First Baptist Church in America to see the towering white spire of the 1775 meetinghouse. Built in 1774 to 1775, this church was the largest building project in New England at that time. The building, 80 x 80 feet, seated 1,200 people, equal to one third of Providence’s population then. Because of the ramifications of the Boston Tea Party, the port of Boston was closed by the British, so the construction was aided by shipwrights and carpenters who came to Providence to help build the meetinghouse. The structure was dedicated in May 1775 and the 185 foot steeple was added shortly thereafter. This was the first Baptist meetinghouse in New England to have a steeple – and it went up in three and a half days, surviving time and hurricanes since then. The architecture is a blend of English Georgian and the traditional New England meetinghouse style. The Georgian aspects, borrowed from Anglican church designs, include the exterior portico and steeple and many interior elements, such as the Palladian window behind the high pulpit, the fluted Tuscan columns, the groined arches in the balcony, and the split pediments over the doors. This was all was superimposed on a plain, New England meetinghouse, with its white walls, clear glass windows, dominant pulpit, and lack of any religious symbols. A grand chandelier from Waterford, Ireland, was added in 1792. In 1957, former member John D. Rockefeller, Jr. made a gift to enable the church to restore the church mostly to its original appearance. Today the First Baptist Church in America, a national historic landmark building, is regarded as one of the “must see” places in Providence for anyone interested in American architecture.
The First Baptist Church in America was founded by Roger Williams in 1638. Anyone interested in American architecture will marvel at this 1775 meetinghouse, a blend of English Georgian (its steeple is modeled after London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields) and traditional New England style. Every year since the meetinghouse was built, Brown University has held its commencement ceremonies here.
Yankee Magazine April 2005