In the eye of many storms

The First Baptist Church in war and peace


On Saturday, The First Baptist Church in Providence will host a lecture on Roger Williams by historian Stanley Lemons. As the official historian for the historic church, Lemons talk will look at how Williams’ framed his ideology and his actions. There are few more qualified than Lemons to talk about that, and all of them are dead.

“When I did the first book, in 1988, I didn’t have the material that we received since then,” says Lemons.

Among the newly revealed material was a cache of letters and documents from an early pastor, Samuel Winsor, and some minutes and membership lists from the 19th century that offered new insight into the life of the church.

“The list from the 1860s had information about members or family members, who served in the Civil War,” said Lemons. Recently discovered early church materials and lists also contained references to the Revolution.

“I was also surprised to learn how many members were involved in the raid on the Gaspee,” said Lemons.

He mentioned that five captains of the long boats involved were church members, including Abraham Whipple, who later became the first commodore of the Continental Navy.

“The last guy off the boat was [merchant] John Brown, who was also a member,” said Lemons. “I have been reveling in this new information.”

What makes Lemons so much fun to talk to about the church is that he has an historian’s love of day-to-day details that add up to create a picture of a time, a church and its people. He was especially enthusiastic about the Civil War years.

“Not one of the members died in battle in the Civil War,” he said. “One died of disease but he had been kicked out of the church because he had visited a whore house. It’s amazing the way the minutes reflect the real reasons members had been kicked out for anything they felt would discredit the church.”

He said minutes of other churches from the same periods would use euphemism or indirection to describe proscribed behavior but First Baptist was unusually frank about the offenses.

“The minutes come right out and say what they did,” said Lemons. “Six people once, including two adulterers, a fornicator and a counterfeiter.”

Lemons said the current church membership, and 20th century members in general have become less involved in the way church members deport themselves, except when even those times demanded taking a stand.

“I think the last time someone got booted for moral reasons was a man accused of statutory rape in 1932,” said Lemons. “It also led to his getting a divorce and going to the ACI. But for the most part, people are left to their own conscience now.”

If you have ever wondered what it was that led to the Southern Baptist Convention’s creation that also came to pass at the First Baptist Church in Providence. Lemons explained that Baptists were a distinct minority when this country was young and most of the people who adhered to it lived in the north. As the population spread to other areas of the country, Baptists tended to adopt the culture of the people they were found among but looked to the northern, established Baptists for guidance. The issue of slavery became the final wedge between the south and the north.

“There was always a missionary function of the church but the missionary committees were made up of Baptists from the north,” said Lemons. For financial and other support, missionaries still had to be approved by the committees in the north. “In 1845, a petition to authorize the son of a slave owner was turned down by the Mission Board. No slave owner could be a missionary. This was a test case.”

Lemons said the split did not come overnight. The abolitionists grew in the northern Baptist community and by 1845 minds were firmly made up. He said the Southerners expected the son of the slave owner to be rejected and had a fall-back plan in place.

“In April, they held the Georgia Baptist Convention,” said Lemons.

Lemons believes that it was the moral and practical intelligence of Roger Williams, and his firm belief in the separation of religion and government that infused the early Baptist church and the colony with more tolerance than others.

“In Massachusetts, you were Congregational, in Maryland, you were Catholic, in Virginia, you were Anglican” said Lemons. “In Rhode Island you were anything you wanted to be. That was a matter of principle to Williams and [John] Clarke...It wasn’t until 1833 that Massachusetts abolished the tax to pay a minister’s salary.”

To hear him talk about The First Baptist Church and Roger Williams, it would be natural to assume that Stanley Lemons was born here, which leads to yet another irony. He is a native of Ohio and came here in 1967 to teach at Rhode Island College. He stayed and became a leading authority on the state’s history and a member of its Historical Society. The irony arises out of the fact that he found himself to be in a minority for the first time in his life.

“I was a Baptist and I was surprised at how much influence the Catholic Church had on the culture of the state,” he said. “And how nobody seemed to mind.”

Including himself, apparently he quickly rose through the ranks of academia and was a full professor by 1976. By the 1980s, he was the co-author of "Rhode Island: The Independent State for the 350th anniversary," which was commissioned by the Rhode Island State Historical Society. You can’t get much more “home boy” than that, unless, perhaps, you were adopted by Roger Williams.

“Actually, I was made an honorary member of the Roger Williams Family Association this year,” he said, with a smile, “I consider that quite an honor.”

“The Civil State: Roger Williams, Religious Freedom, and the First Baptist Church in America” will be presented at 2 p.m. at the First Baptist Church in America, North Main Street in Providence. 


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