The First Baptist Church in America
By JERRY WINDSOR
Special to Florida Baptist Witness
Published February 12, 2009
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The oldest Baptist congregation in the United States is The First Baptist Church in America at Providence, Rhode Island. First Baptist claims 1638 as its organizational date when believers met in the home of Roger Williams for prayer, worship, and fellowship.
Others have claimed that First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, was also begun in 1638 and was the first Baptist church in America. Many say that there was no Baptist church in America until Roger Williams was baptized by Ezekiel Holliman in 1639. This baptism came after Williams was personally convinced that infant baptism was not valid and only believer’s baptism was biblical.
First Baptist Church in Providence claims that believers met with Williams for over a year before they became the first Baptist church in the New World in 1638. They also state that Roger Williams only stayed with the church for a few months and resigned in 1639 to become a “seeker,” or one who had not yet discovered the true church. However, Williams remained steadfast in his commitment to religious liberty and freedom of worship. Soul liberty and freedom of worship are direct by products of New Testament theology. Williams always believed that the church he planted at Providence had a biblical basis.
From 1639 to 1771 the Baptist church at Providence chose pastors from its own membership. It was in 1770 that the Providence church built its first meeting house and in 1771 James Manning became the pastor and served until 1791. Manning was also the first president of Rhode Island College which later became Brown University. There has always been a close association between Brown and the Providence church and to this day Brown graduation exercises are held in the nearby First Baptist Church.
In the early years of the Providence church there were always more “hearers” than members. “Hearers” faithfully attended, contributed, owned pews and were involved in the life of the church. However, “hearers” could not become members until they could point to the “minute” of their conversion experience. This definite point of new birth had to be testified to before the pastor, deacons and seven men at large in the church. Therefore, the church always had many more “attenders” than members. In 2009, the church roll is divided into members, affiliate members (watch-care), and inactive members. Any member who has not attended or contributed for a year may be placed on the inactive roll and not eligible to vote in church meetings.
One of the most prominent pastors of the Providence Baptist Church was Stephen Gano (1762-1828). He served as pastor from 1792-1828. He was the son of John Gano, the pastor of First Baptist Church in New York. Stephen Gano served in the Continental Army and practiced medicine before his ordination in 1786. The church experienced a number of revivals while Gano was pastor. He was one of three New England delegates to the Triennial Convention in 1814, the first national organization of Baptists. Gano served as moderator of the Warren Association from 1805-1824, and was one of the founders and first president of the Rhode Island Baptist State Convention.
Jerry Windsor is executive secretary of the Florida Baptist Historical Society and retired professor of preaching at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.