Sights ~ The First Baptist Church in America ~ Providence

First Baptist Church in America
75 North Main St.
Providence, Rhode Island
(401) 454-3418

I'm not sure why it took Bear and me six years after moving to Providence to finally tour the First Baptist Church. It's not hard to find, or exclusive. It's an integral part of the history of the city. Or maybe that's why. It has that "always been there, always will be" vibe of the Big White Church in many New England towns.

First Baptist Church - Providence RI
scan of a postcard

Though it's not the case at all. This is the third building constructed for the church (and mind your words: around here "the church" refers to the people. The building is called a Meeting House).

It all started with Rhode Island's founder, Roger Williams. Once he had settled in what is now Providence, he and 11 like-minded friends met together in his home. This was in 1638. The church has existed and held services since. Mostly without Roger who, true to character, went his own way a year later.

The congregation grew too large to be housed in a private home, and in 1700, Pardon Tillinghast, the pastor at the time, used his own funds to build a small meeting house near Star Street.

Twenty five or so years later, they had outgrown that building and built a larger one next door.

The meeting house has a number of artifacts from those times in an anteroom called the Manning Room. It's worth a stroll through to get a look at them.


Finally in 1774 construction began on the current building. At the time it was the largest construction project in New England. Many of the builders were shipwrights, and used their knowledge of boat construction in the architecture.

The design was drafted by Joseph Brown, following a design from a book, adapting the English Georgian style that had fallen out of favor in Europe at that time. However it was a very popular style for New England meeting houses of the era.

Baptists are purists about the second commandment (graven images). There are no crosses, or other ecclesiastic symbolism in the church. In fact, plain as it is, the architecture is fancier than the typical Baptist preference for a plain box. There are fluted columns carved from a single tree, a palladian window, arches and pediments. This may have to do with the affiliation with Brown University: the Meeting House was also built to hold commencement exercises.

The auditorium originally held 1,200. Removal of the center aisle in 1832 increased that to 1,400.


Another decorative item that doesn't seem to jibe with the Baptist philosophy is the huge crystal chandelier that hangs central to the auditorium.

It was a gift from Hope Brown Ives in 1792. It was lit for the first time on the day after her wedding. It's said that she could see it from her window, since she lived across the street at the time.

The mighty columns in the auditorium are each made of a single oak tree. Carving on one is slightly askew, so although the column it is perfectly straight, it looks as if it's leaning.

Behind the pulpit is a set of closed shutters. They conceal a stained glass window installed in the 1800s, much to the chagrin of the austere congregation. A baptistry is behind it for the adult immersion baptisms the Baptists employ.


Normally this would end the tour, but our guide, knowing we wanted to write about our visit, graciously led us up to the balconies. These were originally built for servants and enslaved people.

It gave us a much better look at the organ.

The first organ was installed in 1834. It's since been rebuilt and enlarged, most recently in 2000.


There's also a nice birds-eye view of the auditorium from the balcony. Honestly, I don't know why these were considered the cheap seats.

There's a lot more, and more detailed, information in the church's self-guided tour booklet.

First Baptist is still very  much an vibrant congregation. They hold services and organ concerts. Brown still holds its commencement ceremony there. The congregation is active in the community. The sign outside is known for its pith and wit.

If you're visiting Providence (or live here!), it should be on your must-see list.


  1. I've always wanted to go inside! I thought they didn't do tours for some reason. I'm signing Eric and I up in the summer go! It's beautiful inside - great pictures.

    1. Thanks! We enjoyed the tour. So much history, and such a beautiful space.


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