They’ve always known that their church is a lovely old building, said the Rev. Patrick Crough. Now the congregation has official recognition declaring the historical and architectural importance of Tiverton’s First Baptist Church, aka Old Stone Church.
Word arrived last week from the R.I Historical & Heritage Commission that the church buildings at the corner of Old Stone Church Road and Stone Church Road have been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The news wasn’t exactly a surprise. “We’d been working on this for quite awhile,” Rev. Crough said. The application process actually began half a dozen years ago — “We learned that such things don’t happen overnight.”
Still, “It is nice to be recognized as being historically significant. Everyone here is very pleased.”
The honor doesn’t — at least hasn’t yet (“And if it does, we probably have to pay for it”) —come with a plaque. But the designation does bring benefits, Rev. Crough said.
“It is affirmation of our historic and architectural significance … (and) it brings a degree of protection.” For instance, any government project nearby would have to tread lightly around the church property.
And government honors are also a nice irony, he said, for a church that, at the time of its founding in 1680, had been outlawed in the Plymouth Colony within which the Tiverton church got its start. State lines were later redrawn and Rhode Island was more welcoming to this independent group of worshipers.
Rev. Crough said his first impressions of First Baptist Church when he arrived 17 years ago were of a “beautiful, simple and homey” place. He still feels that way about it. Relatively small and unadorned, “it is one of the few churches that doesn’t have stained glass.”
“That makes the interior much lighter and brighter — symbolic of a welcoming place,” he said.
It is also unusual in that people enter in the front, up near the pulpit.
An old story has it that this design aimed to defend against Indian attacks — to prevent anyone “from sneaking in the back and catching people by surprise.” That notion has since been debunked; such attacks weren’t much of a concern when the present church was built in 1841.
Another possibility is that this door location it more difficult for parishioners to make an early inconspicuous exit from services that could last two or three hours back in this days, he said.
With a congregation of around 125, Rev. Crough said the church looks forward to building on its long history. And he welcomed those who haven’t to stop by for a look.
The announcement stated in part:
“Home to one of the oldest Baptist congregations in the country, the First Baptist Church is a fine example of a rural church complex and an important community institution for more than three centuries.
“(It) stands on a 38-acre parcel … in a rural residential part of Tiverton. Much of the property is lined with stone walls — dry-laid fieldstone in the vicinity of the church and cut-stone further north. The one-story Greek Revival-style Church (1841) has exterior walls of rubblestone covered with stucco, two pairs of front doors, and a prominent belfry; the one-story Fellowship Hall was built as an addition to the church in 1958. The two- story, wood-frame Parsonage (1884-85) and a late 19th-century Carriage Shed stand to the west of the church. The Old Stone Church Cemetery, with grave markers dating primarily from the mid-19th century, is located to the north of the Church. And the wood-frame Parish House (ca. 1879) is located across the street.
“John Cooke gathered fellow Baptists from Little Compton, Dartmouth, and present- day Tiverton to form a new religious society, with Hugh Mosier (or Mosher) as minister. This society, which eventually became known as the First Baptist Society in Tiverton, was among the earliest to be established in America. The congregation built its first church in 1752 and its first parsonage in 1755, on land donated by a member. The donation also included about 34 acres to the rear of the buildings, to be used as farmland for the minister. A burial ground was established immediately to the north of the church at least by 1828, but possibly earlier.
“A new stone church was built at a cost of $2,300 and dedicated in the fall of 1841. By this time, the congregation had joined a subset of the Baptist denomination, known as Free-Will Baptists. In June of 1859, the congregation incorporated itself as the First Baptist Church and Society in the Town of Tiverton.
“Drawing members from Tiverton and Little Compton, Rhode Island and Westport, Massachusetts, the First Baptist Church became an important community center. Annual clambakes were held in a grove behind the Parsonage beginning in the 1860s and attracted church members and non-members alike. The clambakes continued until World War II, were reinstituted in 1976, and remain an important community event to this day.
“The Parish House was constructed around 1879. Though its original use is unknown, the building ultimately provided space for Sunday School and church suppers, uses that continued until the late-1950s. In 1884-85, a new Parsonage was built as the minister’s residence. The small, wood-frame carriage shed behind the Parsonage was likely built around the same time as the residence.
“The church underwent some updates around the turn of the century; a pressed-metal ceiling and four wrought-iron chandeliers were installed in the sanctuary. Another series of updates took place in the 1950s and 1960s with the addition of a new electronic organ and new sanctuary furnishings, including an open baptistery. In 1958, the Fellowship Hall was erected as an addition behind the church. “