Bristol's First Baptist Church ready to unveil its renovated space

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 6/13/24

Not since the late 19th century has Bristol’s First Baptist Church enjoyed such a dramatic facelift.

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Bristol's First Baptist Church ready to unveil its renovated space


Not since the late 19th century has Bristol’s First Baptist Church enjoyed such a dramatic facelift.

“In the last 10 years we have undertaken a very ambitious renewal project,” said Pastor Jake McGuire.

The congregation formed in 1811, and in the following year, February of 1812, the town of Bristol gave the First Baptist Church permission to erect “a meeting house on the front of the public square, between the Brick School House and the Academy,” according to “A Very Brief History of the First Baptist Church in Bristol, Rhode Island.” The church held a lottery to raise funds for the construction of the building, a common fundraising method at that time.

On November 23, 1814, the “Stone Chapel” was finished and dedicated. The post and beam building with a gable roof was held together with wooden pegs; the total cost was $7,695.08.

Over the next 60 years the most notable change to the structure was the addition of a bell, cast by Paul Revere’s apprentice George H. Holbrook, in 1822.

Then, in 1882, everything changed. The “Great September Gale” left the building seriously damaged, its steeple knocked off. “They worshipped in the rubble until they had the money to rebuild,” said Pastor McGuire. The basic stone structure of the chapel survived, making it the oldest church building in Bristol today.

In 1883, Chief Engineer Spencer Rounds requested the use of First Baptist’s bell for fire alarms; the request was granted, and a rope was added to allow members of the fire brigade to easily ring the bell.

In 1919, the church purchased an 1895 Brennan & Gleason tracker pipe organ from Calvary Baptist Church in Providence for $800. The organ, rebuilt in 2000, remains in the sanctuary and fills the space with sound, courtesy of organist Stephen Higgins.

In recent years, thanks to the Champlin Foundation, private donors, and donated labor, the ground-level Fellowship Hall has been updated; the Gothic windows have been completely restored; and the 70-year-old steel fence has been painted. Now, the congregation of about 100 will celebrate the restoration of the main sanctuary, including the pews, floor, and pulpit, which was redesigned to fold down for better visibility during musical performances and other events.

Coming in at more than $300,000 for recent work to the Fellowship Hall and the Sanctuary, the work was not inexpensive. But in addition to grants and volunteers, the congregation was fortunate that their contractor, Capital Building and Design of Swansea, honored their pre-inflation quote.

“When the decision was made to spend this money, it was ‘well discussed’,” said Pastor McGuire. “What won the day was the senior members of the congregation framing it as extending the ministry into the next generation…We have a good number of young adults who are just as committed to the historic nature of the church as the older members.”

In many ways, they are even more committed. When Rachel McGuire wanted to bring more technology into the space, she got surprising pushback — from the 20- to 30-year-olds. “That was not what I expected,” she said. “But they wanted to keep the historical space as intended.”

“I think GenZ has been overexposed to all things digital,” said Pastor McGuire.

“Meanwhile, we can’t get big enough screens,” said Treasurer and Senior member Tuffy Sanford.

“And we can’t hear, either!” laughed Historian Gail Feather.

All generations of the membership of the First Baptist Church will be coming together once again in their new, beautifully renovated space this Sunday, June 16 at 10:30 a.m., welcoming special guests from the Town of Bristol, American Baptist Churches of RI and Capital Building & Design, Inc. in celebration of the renovation work. All members of the community are welcome at 250 High Street to celebrate.

Anyone interested in offering a donation for the restoration project can send it to First Baptist Church, PO Box 402, Bristol, RI 02809.

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