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     In 1665, two women and seven men organized a Baptist church based on their strong commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ and their determination to worship God with freedom of conscience (soul liberty). They organized this church, the third church of any kind to be founded in Boston and the fifth Baptist church in all America, on June 7th, 1665. The first pastor, Thomas Gould, and three others were baptized on that day, the others having been baptized in England.

     The Church was formed in defiance of two laws, passed by the General Court: (1) That all persons wishing to form churches must first obtain consent of the "magistrates and elders of the greater part of the churches within this jurisdiction." (2) That "if any person or persons within this jurisdiction shall ... condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants... such person or persons shall be subject to banishment."

     Both Mr. Gould and Henry Dunster (Dunster was the first President of Harvard College) had refused to have their babies baptized. They believed that baptism was an act of witness to one's faith in Christ as Lord, and that, because an infant cannot express his faith, he should not be baptized. Henry Dunster (1609 - 1659) was forced by the General Court to resign his Harvard position because of his refusal. If he had not died before this Church was organized, he might well have been its first pastor.

     In the years that followed, many were punished for trying to practice the Baptist "heresy." They were arrested, jailed, publicly beaten, fined, and often were not allowed to speak in their own defense. Obadiah Holmes was one of these, and was publicly whipped on September 5, 1651.

     At first, the group met in homes, usually at the home of Mr. Gould in Charlestown. Later, he built a house on Noddle's Island (now the location of Logan Airport, in East Boston) and the members rowed out to the island where they could meet in secrecy and relative security.

     In 1679, the group built a meetinghouse in the North End of Boston, at the corner of Salem and Stillman Streets. It was a modest wooden building resembling a house. One Sunday in 1680 the worshippers found the doors nailed up by order of the General Court, the following notice posted:

"All persons are to take notice that by order of the Court the doors of this house are shut up and that they are inhibited to hold any meeting therein or to open the doors thereof, without license from Authority, til the General Court take further order as they will answer the contrary at their peril, dated in Boston 8th March, 1680, by order of the Council."

     Undaunted, they met outdoors in the cold and rain. But the following Sunday, inexplicably, the doors were found open and they were never again closed by the authorities.

     In the early 1700's, the small building was replaced by a larger wooden one on the same site. Here the Church flourished, for 43 years (1764-1807) under the leadership of Samuel Stillman, who was probably the Church's most notable preacher. He weighed only 97 pounds but was a powerful preacher. John Hancock, although a Unitarian, was one of his admirers and rented a pew so that he could hear him often. President John Adams and General Henry Knox also came, and sailors from the nearby wharves often filled the galleries. In 1764, pastor Samuel Stillman, helped to found Rhode Island College (now Brown University), and in 1802 was instrumental in founding the first Baptist Missionary Society in America (now known as The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts).

     In 1805 the First African Church in Boston (now People's Baptist Church in Roxbury) had its roots here. The records tell of many Negro baptisms. Dr. Stillman preached the installation sermon for their pastor, Thomas Paul.

     In 1816, at about the time other churches were establishing Sunday Schools, a Sabbath School for Indigent Boys was begun, with more than 100 boys enrolled, and a Female Sabbath School with 87 members. It is believed that the first Infant Sunday School was established in this Church in 1829. Apparently this was for preschoolers who frequented the Sabbath School but had no place in any of the classes.

     Newton Theological School (now Andover Newton) was founded at a meeting in this Church in 1825. Francis Wayland, who later became President of Brown University, was pastor at the time and preached a sermon which stirred much interest in educating Ministers. Some people believed that ministers were miraculously prepared by God and did not need to be trained.

     In 1829, the second building was sold to the newly formed Baptist Church in South Boston and was floated across the harbor to its new home. First Baptist built a brick church at the corner of Hanover and Union Streets. The fourth building, also of brick, was on Beacon Hill on Somerset Street. And in 1877, when the Shawmut Avenue Baptist united with First, worship was conducted in the Suffolk Street Chapel at the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Rutland Street in the South End. In 1882 the Church moved to its present building, buying it from the Brattle Square Unitarian Society.

     This building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by the famous American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. It is significant as an example of his first use of the style now known as Richardson Romanesque. Shortly after this building was erected, he entered and won a competition for the design of Trinity Church in Copley Square, and that building is now considered to be his masterpiece.

     First Baptist is built of Roxbury puddingstone, and its square tower is 176 feet high. At the top of the tower (which a current guidebook describes as "one of the majestic forms on the Boston Skyline") is a frieze of sculpted figures representing baptism, communion, marriage and death. The frieze was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, famous for the Statue of Liberty, and was carved by Italian artists after the stones were set in place. It includes the faces of Sumner, Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Lincoln, and Garibaldi.

     Some of the features of the sanctuary are:

Organ: A Hook and Hastings instrument, built in the mid 1800's. Some of the pipes, however, were part of an instrument built by Samuel Green in England about 1790. Originally a tracker organ operating by mechanical means, it has been rebuilt and now functions by electricity.

Tiffany Glass Window: Depicting the baptism of Jesus is a stained glass window designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Given to the Church in 1906 by Samuel B. Hopkins in memory of his wife, Rebecca Frasher Hopkins.

Three Rose Windows: (One over each balcony) Of unusual beauty; Norman in style, with floral motifs.

Jewel Window: (rear of sanctuary on North side) Little is known of the origin and history of this window, but its bright floral beauty is well worth noting.

Tablet to Henry Dunster: Given to the Church in 1907 by Dunster's descendants.

Bust of Rollin Neale: (at the right of the platform) Second longest ministry, 1837-1879. "Noble and kindly," apparently loved by his parishioners.

     Other significant aspects of the Church's ministry include:

Stillman Singing Society: Organized by Stillman, with strict rules for attendance and behavior.

"Catgut Choir," 1818: The bass viol was introduced for use in worship, though not without some opposition, also the fiddle, flute, and clarinet.

"Winchell's Watts": James M. Winchell, pastor 1814-1820, issued "An Arrangement of the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts, D.D.," a selection of more than 1000 hymns, including all those written by Dr. Watts.

Keeper of the Wardrobe, 1816: Clothes were lent to poor children in the Sabbath School, to be worn on Sunday. They wore them during the week, too, so the Church lent them out on Saturdays and required that they be returned on Mondays for cleaning.

Chinese Sunday School: Begun in 1889 at the Warren Avenue Baptist Church for the teaching of the English language and the Bible. Continued by First Baptist on the union of the Churches in 1920.

Old Records: This is the only Boston Church that has preserved its records from the 17th century.

History Books: THE HISTORY OF THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF BOSTON, by Nathan Wood, covered the history from 1665 through 1899. The book is now available in a Second Edition which brings the history up to date by adding the reminiscences of three still living ministers. It is available at the church for $25 + $6 shipping & handling fee.

     From its beginning, this congregation has demonstrated an evangelical, ecumenical, racially and culturally integrated spirit and mission-mindedness. The First Baptist Church of Boston is affiliated with The American Baptist Churches in the USA and local and regional councils of churches, committed to religious liberty for all people, in a ministry empowered by God's guiding Spirit and the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. This church continually covenants together that every person is respected and welcomed here, regardless of circumstances, so that we may learn how God moves in each one's life and also so that we may share the love of God which we experience in our own lives!

Thomas Gould 1665-1675
John Russell, Jr. 1679-1680
Isaac Hull 1682-1689, 1694-1699
John Emblem (co-minister) 1684-1699
Ellis Callender 170891726
Elisha Callender 1718-1738
Jeremiah Condy 1738-1764
Samuel Stillman, DD 1764-1807
Joseph Clay 1807-1808
James Manning Winchell 1814-1820
Francis Wayland, Jr., DD 1821-1827
Cyrus Pitt Grosvenor 1827-1830
William Hague, DD 1831-1837
Rollin Heber Neale, DD 1837-1877
Cephas Bennett Crane, DD 1878-1884
Philip Stafford Moxom, DD 1894-1899
Nathan Eusebius Wood, DD 1894-1899
Francis Harold Rowley, DD 1900-1910
Austen Kennedy deBlois, Ph.D. 1911-1925
Harold Major, DD 1926-1938
Herbert S. Johnson, DD 1938-1940
Harry Howard Kruener, DD 1940-1948
John U. Miller, DD 1949-1956
Edward L. Gunther 1958-1961
Charles W. Griffin 1961-1970
J. Walter Sillen 1971-1981
Milton P. Ryder, D.Min. 1982-2001

     "A certain Shem Drowne was possibly the most notable of all the deacons... his span of service in that office was from 1721 to 1774, the longest term, it seems, in the history of the church... Drowne was in charge of the city's fortifications... As a fashioner of weathervanes he delights our imagination. The gilded wooden Indian o the Province House was his, as was the bronze cock which gave the nickname 'Cockerel Church' to the new Brick Church... Far more widely known, however, is the grasshopper atop the dome of old Faneuil Hall, where you can still hear him chirp if you listen long enough." -- John W. Brush: Legacy of Faith: A Short History of the First Baptist Church of Boston (now out of print)


[This essay was taken from the church's website; the format is changed. - Jim Duvall]

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