The year 2009 marked the 200th year of the organized work of the First Baptist Church of Plymouth, but the seeds of Baptist principle and polity were sown in this place many years before.
A Brief Historical Sketch:
The First Baptist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts
By The Reverend Wesley A. Kinzie
Updated by Russell Kierstead, 1991
(and continually updated for the church website)
In tracing the earliest Baptist influences that touched Plymouth, we must begin with the Pilgrims who settled here. In their ten years stay in Holland, they had associated with the Dutch Baptists and the English Baptist refugees, and their association and sentiments seem to show the effects of such association.
The most famous Baptist in colonial Massachusetts was Roger Williams, who was banned from Massachusetts Bay Colony for his heretical ecclesiastical views. The neighboring Plymouth Colony gave him refuge briefly, and he preached at one time from the pulpit of the Pilgrim Church. He is most famous for his establishment of the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, the capital of his new colony of Rhode Island.
In 1794, the Rev. Dr. Chandler Robbins of the Pilgrim Church baptized one woman by immersion, which was a new thing in this town. In the neighboring town of Kingston, once a part of Plymouth, a Baptist Church had been organized and, in the surrounding towns of Marshfield, Carver, and Pocasett, Baptist congregations were serving the communities before the turn of the eighteenth century. Thus it was inevitable that a Baptist Church should be established in the ancient Shiretown of Plymouth.
On February 24, 1808, one year before the establishment of the Baptist Church, certain citizens of Plymouth met and constituted “The First Baptist Society in Plymouth”, and the first page of their record book reads as follows:
“We, the subscribers, seriously impressed with a sense of religion, and professing ourselves to be of that religious persuasion called Baptists, and having for some time past maintained preaching under that denomination and having full belief that the sect called Baptists are in the right way to secure the favor of approbation of the righteous Judge and Savior of man, do hereby associate ourselves by and under the denomination of the First Baptist Society of Plymouth, and by subscribing our names hereunto do pledge ourselves to that order of Christian Worship.”
The purpose of the First Baptist Society in Plymouth was to arrange for services in the Baptist tradition, provide a meetinghouse for the Church, and arrange for the handling of all secular business concerned with the Church. The finances of the Church were to be maintained by the Society, with the exception of the Communion offerings, which were to be under the direction of the Deacons. All affairs pertaining to religion, polity (the form or constitution of a civil body), doctrinal relationship, were to be managed by the Church, being those persons baptized or otherwise received into spiritual membership. This church/society arrangement was not uncommon in New England, and it functioned in Plymouth’s Baptist Church into the 1880’s.
The Society encroached more and more upon the decisions of the church, and friction developed between the two bodies. One cause of this friction was the fact that many of the members of the Society charged with the supervision of the church affairs were not members of the church itself. This friction culminated in the 1880’s, and the Society, convinced of the inefficiency and difficulty of duplex church government, voted to disband itself after a faithful stewardship of almost eighty years. Thus the government of the Church was returned to those persons directly and rightfully concerned with the affairs of the Church.
On the first page of this Church’s record book, dated June 9, 1809, it is recorded that a group of twenty-nine (seven men and twenty-two women), met and adopted articles of faith similar to those of the Third Baptist Church of Christ in Boston. An Ecclesiastical Council was called and recognized the Church as the “First Baptist Church of Christ at Plymouth” and ordained one of their members, Lewis Leonard, to be their minister. Leonard, later to be awarded a Doctorate of Divinity, served the struggling parish for one year. When he left, the Church went without a minister for six long years.
For lack of a meetinghouse, the faithful met in their homes or worshipped in a basement kitchen at the corner of Summer Street at Ring Lane. Finally, accommodations were secured in Burbank’s Hall on Middle Street at a rental of twenty-five cents per week, and neighboring preachers ministered to the flock.
In January, 1821, it was voted to purchase a lot on Spring Street, between Summer and High Streets, and a Church was built and dedicated on November 6, 1822. Not much is known of this church building, however, during the 1840’s the church was listed in the Old Colony Memorial newspaper as one of many meeting places on the South Shore of Massachusetts for the Old Colony Anti-Slavery Society. In particular, there was a convention held in the church on July 4, 1847, showing our church’s early involvement with social justice.
A fire destroyed the church in 1861. Following the fire, the Baptists held their meetings in Davis Hall, Brown’s Hall, and Bradford’s Tavern. In 1862, they searched for a location for a new meetinghouse, and purchased a lot on Leyden Street (This land in the original allotment of 1621 was given to Elder William Brewster, spiritual leader of the Pilgrims.) It took six years of planning and building until the congregation moved into their new building on the site of the present Post Office in Town Square.
In 1913 the Baptist Church voted to sell the property to the United States Government for the site of a federal building. The Town Post Office and other federal officers were housed in this building for many years; today, Post Office Square has a small Post Office in it, but most of the building is used for office and retail space.
The church’s standing committee was instructed to look for a new site, and they settled on the Dodge lot on Carver Street at the top of Cole’s Hill. A temporary meeting place was found in the G.A.R. Hall on Middle Street (this building housed the Plymouth Boys and Girls Club for many years). The Church began plans for building a Memorial Church on Cole’s Hill and moved into this building around 1913.
The plan was to enlarge onto an adjoining lot, but this was never completed (The church building was sold to the Salvation Army, who still worships there today).
The bequest of Mrs. Katherine S. Kinzie for a new bapistry in 1955 encouraged the congregation to begin some long range planning. The Church stayed until 1960, when it was asked to consider moving, because we had outgrown our facilities. After much study and prayer, the Church purchased 20 acres of land at Summer Street and Westerly Road, overlooking Route 3, and voted to erect a new Church.
Our present church was dedicated on November 26, 1961, just 139 years after the dedication of the First Baptist Church building in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
We celebrated our 200th anniversary in June, 2009.
Our Church has known periods of prosperity and hardship. We believe that our decision to relocate will mean the opening of a new chapter of spiritual growth. With grace and strength from our Lord, we shall go forward in His cause. (Rev. Robert E. Overstreet 1960.)
Facts About First Baptist Church of Plymouth MA
1. First Baptist Church Spring Street
1822 — 1861 39 years
2. First Baptist Church Leyden Street
1865 — 1913 48 years
3. First Baptist Church Cole’s Hill
1913 — 1961 48 years
4. First Baptist Church 41 Westerly Road
1961 — 2015 54 years
The Baptists were without a Church building for a total of 17 years, but managed to meet in various places, for a total of 206 years of Baptist history in Plymouth.