FIRST : The First Baptist Church in America
by J. Stanley Lemons (published in 2001)

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First: The First Baptist Church in America is a new study of the nation’s oldest Baptist Church. Based on the latest research, the book traces First’s history from its foundation by Roger Williams in 1638 through the beginning of the twenty-first century. By 2001, the First Baptist Church was 363 years old, the oldest private institution of any kind in Rhode Island. This story places First Baptist in the context of the city of Providence, the state of Rhode Island, and the religious currents of the day.

From its tiny, fragile beginnings, the church grew along with Providence to become one of the largest and most influential Baptist churches in the nation in the nineteenth century. It became a “pillar of the community” at its most prominent moment and was the “mother” of a dozen more Baptist churches in the Providence area. Completely new in the interpretation is the relationship of the First Baptist to the “Dorr Rebellion” of 1842 and to the Civil War. However, Professor Stanley Lemons shows that the path of First Baptist has not been smooth, Among Baptists there is an old saying:”Where two or three Baptists are gathered, there is a schism.” The First Baptist Church in America suffered at least two fractures, and the members faced a number of issues that threatened a rupture, including the rise of abolitionism.

A new them in the book is “creeping respectability,” the desire of Baptists to gain respect from other denominations and the tendency toward formality and ritual. He examines the role fo the church in disciplining its members, especially in the context of the great revivals of the nineteenth century and the flood of new converts. The final two chapters present a frank view of the struggle of First Baptist Church in America in the context of a declining capital city and disappearing neighborhood. The church has become a partner in the efforts to serve the center of the city while maintaining its witness to the principle of “soul liberty,” of religious freedom.

About The Author
The author J. Stanley Lemons graduated with an A.B. from William Jewell College, M.A. from the University of Rochester, and a PhD. from the University of Missouri Columbia. After teaching at Ohio State University, he came to Rhode Island College in 1967 and rose to the rank of professor by 1976. In addition he was visiting professor at Southwest Texas State University in 1979-1980. An historian of American culture, Dr. Lemons’ scholarly interests and publications have ranged over the topics of women’s history, African-American history, popular culture, American religion, social reform, and Rhode Island history. His publications include: The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920’s; Aspects of the Black Experience; with Dr. George Kellner, Rhode Island: The Independent State, the 350th anniversary history of Rhode Island commissioned by the Rhode Island Historical Society; The First Baptist Church in America, the 350th anniversary history of the church; with Dr. Emily Stier Adler, The Elect: Rhode Island’s Women Legislators, 1922-1990. In addition to more than a dozen articles in scholarly journals, Dr. Lemons was co-creator of award winning multi-image shows, “Providence: a Century of Greatness, 1832-1932” and “the White City and Packingtown: Chicago from the Great Fire to the Great War.” In 1988 Rhode Island College awarded him their Thorp Professorship in recognition of his career of sustained scholarship. In 1998 he received the college’s Paul Maixner Award for Excellence in College Teaching.