In the Beginning: First U’s First 100 Years

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My friend, the Rev. Howard Jenkins of Bethel AME church over on Rochambeau, said to me recently, “Knowing ourselves and each other means knowing our history.”  He is so right.  This is why I’m preaching on each century of our 300 years. Many thanks to our History Committee and especially our brilliant unofficial church historians who have worked with me to share and present a wealth of information and resources: Robert Owen Jones, Janet Downing Taylor, and Phyllis Cole.  Also to Louise Sloane, Kelley Smith, and Phyllis again, for their recent work to bring on a scholar to look at our history in regards to race and slavery here in Rhode Island.  After a long time of unknowing, we have organized a project to research the history of this congregation in regards to race and particularly in regards to the slave trade, which was so prominent in Rhode Island’s society and economy.  The Prudential Committee approved funds for a researcher, Anna Harvey, so that we can learn what we need to know about our own beloved church’s heritage.  Already, information is coming to light.  It’s a big deal, and what comes of it will be important and sometimes painful to process. But we are not afraid to know the truth, to finally confirm what we had every reason to expect.  It’s part of our heritage, our story, and as we learn, we can begin to reckon with it, together.

Most of the scholarship in this sermon has been done by all these folks I just named. But if there are mistakes in this review of our history, I believe they are my own.  And rather than focus wholly on covenants and ministers – though they are essential also in our story – I am including some lesser-known and brand-newly-discovered aspects of our history.

Our church began in 1720. What was then-known as Third Church in Boston and now Old South Church, supported a small group of Congregationalists from in and around Providence to start a church down here. Congregationalism evolved from the Puritan and Separatist movements.  Congregationalists believe that congregations should be autonomous and self-directed, independent of any larger hierarchy’s dictating leadership or theology, instead able to establish themselves and choose or change their own leadership and beliefs.  In that spirit, these people gathered to form a congregation that was served by visiting ministers.  Just three years later, in 1723, they built their first meeting house at the corner of College and Benefit Streets, where the County Courthouse now sits.

In 1728 the church gained both the first covenant and first minister. The covenant was signed by nine men, codifying the First Congregational Church, which, as you heard in our reading earlier, was both Trinitarian and Calvinist (!) – exactly the opposite of our modern Unitarian and Universalist identity.  How things change, athough some parts we would recognize and embrace today: the commitment to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” to grow in grace and divine knowledge, and “persevere to the end the things we believe in.”  Also that year, the Rev. Josiah Cotton was called as minister.

He served almost 25 years, growing the church and extending its membership to include Native people and people of color.  From Rev. Cotton’s record, we know that in 1729-30, a servant named Elizabeth, the daughter of a black man and a white woman, was baptized into the congregation.   We can tell that baptizing people of different races and heritages was something Rev. Cotton did intentionally and with some degree of courage. His notes tell us that on Christmas day, 1742, he baptized and welcomed into covenant Ann, whom he describes in his notes as “the negro woman servant of Colonel Jabez Bowen” and Hanna Newfield who he says was “a free Indian woman.”  Rev. Cotton includes in his notes from that day the text he preached from that morning, Acts 10: 34-35:  “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (NRSV)

Rev. Cotton led the church until 1747, which included a wrenching congregational split in 1743 – perhaps not coincidentally just a few years before he left.  The hot theological issue of the day – yes, theology has hot issues – was whether it was good deeds or pure faith that would save you from hell. Some believed true faith was all God required; this is what the famous 16th-century theologians John Calvin and Martin Luther taught.  Others thought faith alone was empty, that real faith had to be fulfilled through deeds, both as proofs of faith and to further the kingdom of god on earth.  (There is a joke about a minister who never lived what he preached, dies, and goes to hell for his hypocrisy. He’s walking around meeting a lot of historic bad guys – Herod, the Marquis de Sade, folks like that.  Then to his surprise he recognizes Martin Luther walking along with John Calvin.  He exclaims “Why Martin Luther, John Calvin – I can’t believe it!  You spent your whole lives in the service of faith.  What in the world are you doing here?”  Both Luther and Calvin look down at the fiery coals underfoot and mutter resentfully ,“It was deeds.”  (I know! Super funny.)

Anyway, faith vs. deeds, was super hot (speaking of hell) in the 1740’s – so hot that it split this church, because the Calvinists were all about faith, but Rev Cotton was increasingly about deeds.  “New Light” preachers were traveling through New England, embracing a new quality of emotion and immediacy in religious experience and reaffirming the message of salvation by faith.  Their work fueled the fire of the Calvinist dissenters in the congregation. Though Rev. Cotton tried to build bridges with them, he was unsuccessful.  Those dissenters, led by Deacon Joseph Snow, left to cross the river and form what is now Beneficent Congregational Church. Because the record of all this was set down by one of the Calvinist-oriented folks, in the only instance I’ve encountered of history being written by the losers, it went down even in our own annals as the result of Rev. Cotton preaching “damnable good works.” People still here didn’t take all this well and censured Beneficent, although as you’ll hear, some retained ties in business after those of theology were severed.  But the split had been devastating on many levels. When Rev. Cotton left a few years later, the congregation was unable to call a second minister until 1752.

Right before that happened, sometime around 1751 or 1752, Samuel Nightingale Sr., founder of the Providence Nightingale family, joined this church and became a prominent member, beginning a long and deep relationship between this congregation and generations of the Nightingale family.  Early in his life, Mr. Nightingale had been a minister. But by the time he came here, he was in business, including primarily a new rum distillery.  Mr. Nightingale owned a very successful rum distillery. This means his money came from what is sometimes called the Triangle Trade, whereby ships from the East Coast of what was then the colonies took sugar, tobacco, cotton, and rum to Europe, then brought textiles, rum, and manufactured goods to West Africa, then took enslaved people across to the Americas where they were exchanged for sugar, cotton, and so forth, which was brought up to New England and then across the ocean to restart the cycle again.  Census records show that Samuel Nightingale and his sons’ families all had enslaved and free people of color working in their households.

Just after or around the time that Samuel Nightingale joined in 1752, the congregation called its second minister, another “deeds” preacher, the Rev. John Bass who served for six years.  The church was still in uncertain circumstances recovering from the split, and Rev. Bass’s income was very small.  To supplement his pay, he went into partnership with Deacon Snow from Beneficent and Samuel Nightingale from this church in the new Concord Distil-House, manufacturing rum for the Triangle Trade. (from Providence in Colonial Times by Gertrude Selwyn Kimball)

Rev. Bass left in 1758, and the church continued with traveling preachers, working to re-establish itself in this time of theological change, which resulted in a 2nd Covenant in 1761.  This was effectively a reboot of the church, signed by 21 individuals including 10 women: Sarah Whipple, Phebe Bagley, Mary Bass, Abigail Nightingale, Mary Allen, Mary Manning, Sarah Burr, Dorothy Reynolds, Mildred Frothingham, and Grace Teel.  In this new covenant, many of the Calvinist elements of faith were removed, and Jesus was identified not as the son of God but as a mediator between humanity and God.  Among the signers were some names we recognize from the byways of this city: Resolved Waterman and some I’ve already mentioned, Samuel Nightingale, Darius Sessions, who we’ve lately learned was the co-owner of a slave ship, and Jabez Bowen, who co-owned the slave-ship Prudent.

A year later, in 1762, still fiscally insecure but determined to move on, the congregation called the Rev. David Sherman Rowland.  Within a few years it was clear that more was required to stabilize the church’s finances.  In 1770, the Benevolent Congregational Society was formed to raise funds and hold property on behalf of the church.  Many of the men who signed the 1761 covenant also founded this society with their donations, along with Samuel Nightingale’s son Joseph, co-owner of the slave ship Providence, and others who, we have learned from census records, owned enslaved people.

Rev. Rowland continued to serve as minister here at the Congregational Church until 1774, the same year the British Parliament passed the so-called Intolerable Acts, removing some of the colonies’ historic rights including self-governance, and the Continental Congress met for the first time in Philadelphia.  The British occupation of Boston exiled the Rev. John Lathrop to Providence.  Rev. Lathrop was very progressive, sort of a proto-Unitarian, and he served the congregation uncalled during his exile, from 1775-76, as the Revolutionary War began.

Also in 1775, Congregational Church Deacon Samuel Nightingale supported the wish of Nancy Nightingale, who is identified in records as “his negro girl,” in her wish for baptism and membership in not the Congregational church which was his own, but in the Baptist church.   Having “consent from her master,” as the church records put it, the Baptists received her into baptism and membership there until her departure from the church and Providence in 1785. (Baptists in Early North America: First Baptist, Providence, J. Stanley Lemons ed., Mercer University Press, 2013)

Rev. Lathrop returned to Boston in 1776, and the congregation relied on traveling ministers until 1783, which was a big year for the church.  The church welcomed its fifth called minister, the Rev. Enos Hitchcock, who had served under George Washington as a military chaplain during the Revolutionary War.  Rev. Hitchcock was theologically progressive and continued the ministerial trend regarding deeds and faith. He was one of the leaders in the movement to establish a public school system here in Providence, and he was also a fervent abolitionist. Also that year, the church revised their covenant for a third time.  They removed the last remnants of Calvinist doctrine, reinstated Trinitarian language, and laid out an explicit commitment to live in charity with those of any faith grounded in the sincere love of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rev. Hitchcock’s 20-year tenure would be a strong one, a time of growth and prosperity in the congregation.  A year after his arrival, already beginning to feel the church secure, the congregation lifted the censure of Beneficent Church that had been declared decades before.  All the many long years of religious shunning was over, and open communion was established among all Christian churches. And after a time, the Congregational Church acquired land at the corner of Benefit and Benevolent streets for a new, larger Meeting House.

Meanwhile, down in Philadelphia, a man named Richard Allen had bought himself out of slavery in his early 20’s and had become a Methodist Episcopal preacher.  Repelled by the ordered segregation of the black members in the congregation, he left. In 1787, he established the Free African Society, a mutual aid society to assist fugitive enslaved people and newcomers to the city.  This was the forerunner of what would be come the African Methodist Episcopal church.  They purchased a blacksmith shop which was the first home of the organization.  In 1794, the Free African Society in Philadelphia was officially incorporated as the first Bethel AME church.

Just a few years before, in 1790, Rev. Hitchcock published Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family.  The two-volume set took the form of a series of letters to a citizen of Philadelphia outlining a number of Rev. Hitchcock’s positions on issues of the day, including slavery. Despite the many wealthy members of this church who indirectly or very directly depended on slavery for their livelihoods, his abolitionism was dauntless and absolute. He wrote:

“I cannot forbear to express my astonishment at the inconsistency, between the love of liberty which prevails in our country, and the practices of many individuals in inthralling(sic) their fellow creatures…. Americans can write with precision upon the principles  of liberty… and yet many… who can defend their own rights with one hand, are extending the other for the purpose of enslaving a part of their own species.  This is surely departing from the golden rule of doing as we would be done unto. (p. 232)  How incompatible this commerce is with the character of a Christian people.” (p. 239)

Here in Providence, the congregation continued to prosper and built the new building. The second meeting house, a striking, twin-towered wooden structure designed and constructed by local architect Caleb Ormsbee, was completed by his firm in 1795.

A couple of years later, in 1797, the church began to receive gifts of silver vessels to aid in serving communion.  Mrs. Elizabeth Nightingale, who was married to Joseph, gave three silver chalices.  Mrs. Mary Dexter gave another.  Mrs. Mary Stiles gave another.  Other female members combined their resources to give one more.  Two large plates were also given – these were later combined into one by vote of the church.  Two fine and solid tankards complete the collection, but they are not inscribed and so we don’t know when or how they became ours.

Rev. Hitchcock completed his 20-year ministry in 1803.  Two years later, in 1805, the congregation called their sixth minister, the Rev. Henry Edes who came with his wife Catherine.  The renowned Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing was friends with Rev. Edes and spoke at the installation service, signaling the momentous trajectory of what would be Rev. Edes’ 27-year ministry.

The War of 1812 came and went. Mrs. Eliza Bowen gave another communion plate in 1813. Then in June of 1814, there was a devastating fire which destroyed the second Meeting House in only its twentieth year.  Immediately, the congregation began planning a new Meeting House – a stone Meeting House.  That same year Mrs. Sarah Burrill gave two elaborate communion chalices.  In 1815, Rev. Edes laid the cornerstone for the new building, which had been designed by a local apprentice of Ormsbee’s, John Holden Greene.  While the building was underway, Elizabeth Nightingale led the founding – and became the first president of – the Female Benevolent Society in 1815.  Where the initial Benevolent Society that had been established to bolster the church as a financial institution, the point of this society was to aid individuals in financial need, both within and beyond the congregation, and to assist the church in other ways as well.

By 1816 the third Meeting House, this Meeting House, was completed, and dedicated October 31, 1816.  While the church was being built, its theology was also under construction.  William Ellery Channing preached his decisive declaration of Unitarianism in 1819 at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore, and his friend, our own Rev. Edes, with a whole delegation from this church, attended and supported that service down in Maryland.

What an extraordinary sweep of time, of consolidation and division, of generosity and avarice, of evolution and of cycles, all moving through human lives and relationships and history, so much that endured and so much that went up in flames only to rise, literally, like a phoenix from the ashes. Some people way ahead of their time, and others way behind.  So much we may recognize, not least that age-old tug of war between faith and deeds, or as we put it today, between spirituality and social justice, then as now often seen as opposed rather than parts of a whole.

So much is behind us.  And so much is before us.  Look around this space. So much more is here than ever we will know.  People fell in love here; people let each other down here; people stepped up, fell down, took hold, let go, here.  Knowing ourselves and each other means knowing our history.  Our past informs our present; our knowledge informs our vision.  We are learning and we have more to learn.  We are part of it all, shaping it all, doing all we can to make this beloved community, our church and our time, the better for our living and loving within these storied walls.  Amen.

Closing Words

I think of the lessons of those first 100 years, filled with such courage and commitment, such parochialism and prejudice, generosity and judgment, transcendence and constriction.  And I am reminded that it always comes down to the same thing:

May the love which overcomes all differences

Which heals all wounds

Which puts to flight all fears

Which reconciles all who are separated

Be in us and among us

Now and always.

            – Rev. Frederick E. Gillis, Minister Emeritus at East Greenwich