“A Pillar of the Community”
In the 19th century, First Baptist became one of the larger churches in the Baptist denomination and helped to establish twelve other churches in the Providence area while providing financial aid to many more. Young women in the congregation began the Female Mite Society in 1806 to support home missions, and this spread quickly to other Rhode Island churches. Their mission efforts led to the formation of the Rhode Island Baptist State Convention in 1825, and the pastor of First Baptist was the first president of the convention. Rev. Stephen Gano was also one of the four delegates in 1814 from New England to the gathering in Philadelphia which formed the first national convention of Baptists. Francis Wayland, president of Brown University and long-time member of First Baptist, was president of the convention in the critical 1840s when the issue of slavery sundered the denomination. In 1845, when the split finally happened, the last events occurred in this meetinghouse. Here, at the end of April, the mission societies of the denomination refused to accredit any more slave-owning missionaries. The southern members left and started the Southern Baptist Convention. When the Civil War came, nearly every young man in the congregation enlisted in the armed services. In June 1861 just before the R.I. Second Regiment departed for the war the entire regiment gathered in the Meeting House to hear a sermon from the pastor. Indeed, it was common during much of the nineteenth century for major patriotic and civic events to be commemorated or celebrated, at least in part, at the Meeting House. Over the years at least five governors (Joseph Jencks, Arthur Fenner, James Fenner, Charles Jackson and Norman Case) in addition to various lieutenant governors, justices, mayors, and magistrates have been members of the congregation.