June 22, 2011
As the First Baptist Church in Essex strides from one centennial to the next, Pastor Michael Crane hopes his congregation will also key up and look toward the future with an eye toward keeping the American Baptist tradition alive.
This month, the church celebrates its 200th anniversary in Essex, a milestone that Crane says impels him to look forward instead of backward. "This congregation and building are both certainly rich in history, but we're not stuck in the past," Crane said. "We don't want to be curators of a museum. This is a living community."
It's a community of believers that first organized with 64 members in June 1811 as The Second Baptist Church of Saybrook. But its history reaches even further back than that. In 1705, the very first Baptist church in Connecticut was organized in Groton.
This was during a period in history when the Congregational church was the established church in Connecticut. But when a group of believers rejected the Congregational church's practice of infant baptism instead placing their faith in adult baptism by immersion, a rift formed that propelled the inceptive 64 people to establish the Baptist church.
"The church began as a sort of renegade breakaway from the established church," said Michael Wells, a member of the ad hoc anniversary committee and a 43-year member of the church.
The price of this rising exceeded social or religious upshots, Wells said.
"The new church members, under law, had to continue to pay taxes to the Congregational church as well as the new church they'd founded," he said. "So it was a costly move as well."
A year later, Oliver Wilson was called as the first pastor. In the years that followed, laws against religious liberty were repealed in Connecticut in 1818. That year, a woman, Asa Wilson, was called as the early church's next pastor.
The building that stands today was constructed between 1845 and 1846 at a cost of $6,551, and in 1846, the steeple was added at a cost of $1,000.
Until the early 1900s, adult baptisms were held in the Connecticut River, which runs by and behind the church. Also there is the church's original cemetery, which is now filled to capacity and under the purview of the Riverview Cemetery Association. The earliest graves there date back to the 1840s.
The church's clock is the official town clock. In 1888, a Steere and Turner 700-pipe organ was installed at a cost of $1,815. The organ, which stretches from the floor to the ceiling and nearly wall-to-wall in the front of the church sanctuary, and features rare stenciling on the outer pipes, is still in use today. It is listed as a historic original by the Organ Historical Society.
"The sound it makes is glorious," said Kay Friday, a member of the ad hoc anniversary committee and an 18-year affiliate of the church. "Really, you have to hear it to believe it."
The building was constructed in the Egyptian Revival architectural style. There are only two other churches in the U.S. constructed in the same design: One is in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and the other is in Nashville, Tenn.
The church's famous spire was blown off during a windstorm in 1927 and never replaced. Still, the top part of the stately building is still visible from the Connecticut River.
The bell tower, built in 1931, is intact and is still tolled by hand. In 1898, sanctuary pews and woodwork were modernized and in 1931, stained glass windows were installed and the interior was redecorated. The sanctuary chandelier is original to the building, first oil powered, then gas, and finally, electric.
In 2002, the sanctuary interior was painted and plaster repaired. In 2005, the outside of the building was renovated.
But beyond the venerable history of the building is the congregation, 190 members strong, with a record of community service worth noting.
The First Baptist Church in Essex established the Shoreline Soup Kitchens in 1989, under the prompting of then-Pastor Erica Wimber, who organized an "experimental offering" of a free meal to the needy of the community on March 25 of that year, the Saturday before Easter.
Eleven hungry people came that first day. Today, the Shoreline Soup Kitchens serve more than a million meals each year, through eight meal sites and five pantries, to those in need in Essex, Chester, Clinton, Madison, Old Saybrook, East Lyme, Lyme, Old Lyme, Killingworth, Westbrook and Deep River.
"We are a historical church in a historical community," said Crane. "We involve ourselves in the lives of the community. And now, we're coming to realize that we have to change and grow a bit with the times in order to reach more people."
The people Crane hopes to attract are younger than the average median age of a church member there, which hovers at around 60, Crane said.
To that end, at a typical Sunday service, you will find a youth music group playing what Friday calls, "some of the younger tunes" that are not part of the church hymnal, "but will be in the future," she said.
You will also see a PowerPoint presentation projected on the front wall of the sanctuary, featuring the day's hymns and teachings. The church also sponsors a youth summer camp in North Stonington.
The church recently hired a professional to offer nursery care during church services, in an effort to wave in young families.
The church is also embracing a partisanship community spirit.
In the late 1990s, when the Roman Catholic Church next door, Our Lady of Sorrows, launched a renovation project, the First Baptist Church in Essex allowed Catholic congregants from that church to hold Masses in its sanctuary. And in 1968, for the first time, a Catholic priest witnessed and blessed an adult baptism at the Baptist church. The modern church's first official female pastor, Erica Wimber (called in 1988), shared the parsonage with a female rabbi.
The church is marking the bicentennial with several events, including a celebratory dinner on Sunday, June 26.