Tuesday, March 28, 2017
The origins of the Harbor (First Baptist) Church date to the earliest settlement of the island in 1661. Why these settlers even came to Block Island has long been of scholarly interest but it is generally believed religious freedom was at the core of their motivation. A minister was called by vote of the Town's people in 1700 but although he was a native son he was also a Harvard graduate (the first from Rhode Island) and his theology was no longer in sync with his would-be congregation. He left after two years. The Islanders continued, as they had from their settlement, holding services in each other's homes until they formally orgainzed as a Baptist Church in October of 1765.
The early congregation had three different meeting houses (none of which still stand) in the central part of the Island, which was the center of commerce for the first two centuries of settlement. The fourth in that location was a substantial building, said to have had the first furnace on the island, and is prominent in old photographs of the area.
With the advent of tourism and the building boom around the then-new government harbor (now called Old Harbor), the First Baptist Church set about building a summer chapel near the landing on Chapel Street, intended for use by visiting Protestant demoninations. It was a grand building with soaring celings and a pipe organ and within a few years the congregation decided to add a winter chapel and follow commerce east. Their efforts to sell the previous building at the old town center were not immediately fruitful and before it sold the structure was destroyed by fire.
The Chapel Street church, the fifth home of the congregation, was also used for school graduations and community functions. In October 1944 the First Baptist Trustees were gifted (by a bequest from a member) the Adrian Hotel as a place where "worthy person of impaired health" could come during the summertime, a laudable but impractical gesture.
In December of 1944 the church on Chapel Street burned to the ground. In the aftermath of the Great Depression and the 1938 hurricane, in the midst of war, the decimated church membership had no resources with which to rebuild.
The elegant Adrian became the home of the congregation, with worship in the dining room, while they debated what to do. The members sold the former parsonage to obtain funds for a sanctuary. Finally, in 1952, the cornerstone was set and the current sanctuary, dedicated in 1953, was added to the old hotel. Several of the hotel rooms were converted to a parsonage, and in the 1970's a pastor's office, separate from the residence was created.
Today the church property houses a multidue of community organizations and functions, from a winter Town Rec Cener in the basement to an International Students Center in the summer, to a local artists cooperative in our old barn (Spring Street Gallery) to meeting space for our own church, as well as ecumenical activities and many other civic avtivities. The two largest events held at the church are the Annual Church Fair and Auction the third weekend in July, and the Roll Call Dinner on the Tuesday nearest Oct. 23, which draws more than 500 diners.
This year the congregation celebrates its sestercentennial (250th) anniversary.
For additional information regarding the Baptist tradition in please visit the history page of the First Baptist Church in America.