The Very First

Yesterday, I got to spend time in the first Baptist church in America, its actually called First Baptist Church in America (FBCIA). It was founded in 1638 by Roger Williams and a group of separatists who did not believe that the Church of England could be sufficiently reformed.

The contrast between FBCIA and the Catholic Cathedrals I saw in Italy and even Anglican churches here in the U.S. could not be more stark. The 1775 building (which is still in use) was considered too regal by many Baptists. The interior walls are plain, there is no stained glass, there are no crosses, no altar, no ornamentation of any kind. White walls with plain pews. But this building was the first Baptist church building to have a steeple and they thought a steeple too ostentatious. They wanted nothing that invoked grander or splendor in their building. They didn’t call it a worship center or a sanctuary or even a church, it was the meeting hall. The church was the people, in their minds it was ridiculous to call it the church, it was what it was…a meeting hall.

They did no music in the church building for a long time. They wanted to suppress anything that could become more important to people than God. They wanted to remove all vestiges of the idolatry they saw in so many churches. In fact the church did not get its first piano until 1804 or it’s first organ until 1834. They lost 40% of their members over bringing a piano into the church building and had similar trouble over the organ 30 years later. They wanted to keep God and the work of the Holy Spirit at the forefront of the congregation.

But were they wrong to add a piano? Were they wrong to add an organ? Did these instruments begin a decline in the commitment or faithfulness of its members or did it provide a new way for church members to connect to God? I would argue that what this shows is that Baptist have a history in which they: (1) attempt to keep God in his proper place with good theology and (2) adapt to meet the needs of the culture in which they live.

Baptists can certainly be fierce and stubborn, as can all men and women. A piano basically caused a church split in FBCIA and churches have split over more narcissistic things. But baptist have also adapted through some of the most significant technological and cultural changes in history. I believe that should we stop adapting, we stop being Baptist or at least we stop being the church.

Change should not mean abandonment of the past, it should however mean a recognition that tomorrow will be different from today and today is certainly different than yesterday. Baptists in America have a history of freedom and adaptation. It is vitally important that we keep this tradition alive and well in our local expressions of the church as we meet in our “meeting halls” on a weekly basis.


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