The First Baptist Church in America is the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island, also known as First Baptist Meetinghouse. The oldest Baptist church congregation in the United States, it was founded by Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island in 1638. The present church building was erected in 1774–75 and held its first meetings in May 1775. Located at 75 North Main Street in Providence's College Hill neighborhood, it is a National Historic Landmark.
Roger Williams had been holding religious services in his home for nearly a year before he converted his congregation into a Baptist church in 1638. This followed his founding of Providence in 1636. For the next sixty years, the congregation met outside in nice weather or in congregants' homes. Baptists in Rhode Island through most of the 17th century declined to erect meetinghouses because they felt that buildings reflected vanity. Eventually, however, they came to see the utility of some gathering place, and they erected severely plain-style meetinghouses like the Quakers.
Roger Williams was a Calvinist, but within a few years of its founding, the congregation became more Arminian, and was clearly a General Six-Principle Baptist church by 1652. It remained a General Baptist church until it switched back to a Calvinist variety under the leadership of James Manning in the 1770s. Following Williams as pastor of the church was Rev. Chad Brown, founder of the famous Brown family of Rhode Island. A number of the streets in Providence bear the names of pastors of First Baptist Church, including Williams, Brown, Gregory Dexter, Thomas Olney, William Wickenden, Manning, and Stephen Gano. In 1700 Reverend Pardon Tillinghast built the first church building, a 400sqft structure, near the corner of Smith and North Main Streets. In 1711 he donated the building and land to the church in a deed describing the church as General Six-Principle Baptist in theology. In 1736 the congregation built its second meetinghouse on an adjoining lot at the corner of Smith and North Main Streets. This building was about 40 × 40 feet square.
When it was built in 1774–75, the current Meeting House represented a dramatic departure from the traditional Baptist meetinghouse style. It was the first Baptist meetinghouse to have a steeple and bell, making it more like Anglican and Congregational church buildings. The builders were part of a movement among Baptists in the urban centers of Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia to bring respectability and recognition to Baptists.
Central to that movement was the creation of an educated ministry and the founding of a college. The Philadelphia Association of Baptist Churches sent Dr. James Manning to Rhode Island to found the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (later renamed Brown University) in 1764. Beginning in Warren, the college then relocated to Providence in 1770. The college president, the Reverend Manning was called to be the pastor of the Providence church in 1771, and during his ministry the Meeting House was erected "for the publick worship of Almighty God and also for holding commencement in." Subsequent Brown presidents Maxcy and Wayland also served as ministers at the church. The Brown family that soon gave its name to the University were prominent members of the Church, and descendants of founders of the Church, as well as, the Rhode Island Colony (the second pastor of the congregation after Roger Williams was Rev. Chad Brown). Although the university is now secular, in honor of its history and tradition, the Meeting House continues, as it has since 1776, to be the site for Brown University's undergraduate commencement.
Construction began on the building in the summer of 1774, and it was the biggest building project in New England at the time. Due to the closure of the Massachusetts ports by the British as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, out-of-work ship builders and carpenters came to Providence to work on the Meeting House. The main portion of the Meeting House was dedicated in mid-May 1775, and the steeple erected in just three days in the first week of June. Notable additions to the Meeting House have included a Waterford crystal chandelier given by Hope Brown Ives (1792), a large pipe organ given by her brother Nicholas Brown, Jr., the younger (1834), the creation of rooms for Sunday school, fellowship hall, and offices on the lower level (1819–59), and an addition to the east end of the Meeting House to accommodate an indoor baptistery (1884). The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
In addition to weekly worship services, the Meeting House hosts concerts, talks, and lectures by world-renowned artists, performers, academics, and elected officials. Brown University holds commencement services at The Meeting House.
Dan Ivins began his ministry in February 2006 as interim and was then called as settled minister on December 24, 2006. In 2001, History professor J. Stanley Lemons wrote a history of the church, entitled First: The History of the First Baptist Church in America
The First Baptist Church in America is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island and the American Baptist Churches/USA (ABCUSA). The church actively supports the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the Baptist World Alliance, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. Many members have served in various denominational, academic, and divinity school positions, including the presidency of Brown University.