The College on Chapel Hill

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Near the bottom of College Hill is a large church with white-painted stone sides. Wide arched windows line the walls, and during the morning mass, sunlight flows into the nave mixing with the warm liquid sound of the organ. Velvet cushions cover the pews inside, and the ceiling soars, almost out of sight. The most striking feature is seen from the outside: a tower whose tiers are stacked like layers of a pointy wedding cake, topped with a golden cross that glitters in the sun, even from the removed vantage point of Prospect Street. The church is inescapable—impossible to miss on the way to Downtown Providence, or the train station. Yet, most Brown students do just that—glance at the structure and walk on, unaware of how much history is in there, in The First Baptist Church of America.

The story stretches long before the Van Wickle Gates opened for the first freshmen, before Brown University had its name. To be precise, the story started in 1631 when Roger Williams refused a job to serve as the assistant minister in Boston. In theory, there should have been little controversy. The New World had a shortage of educated clergy at the time, and Williams, who had a degree from Cambridge and spoke six languages, was overqualified for every other job. However, Williams was a staunch separatist who objected to the ties the Boston church had kept with parishes in England. He turned down the offer.

For the following few years, Williams wandered. The people of Plymouth, and a later larger congregation in Salem, were a receptive audience to his message of autonomy. But, Williams increasingly vocal separatism eventually grabbed the attention of local authorities, and they caught him. In the winter of 1635, he was convicted of sedition and heresy and sentenced to exile. Running out of options and time, Williams slipped away from his captors during a blizzard. He fled on foot, walking to Raynham, Massachusetts.

Imagine the scene for a moment: Williams trudging through fifty-five miles of snow, beaten by heavy winds, exhausted, and disheartened, but somehow still compelled by an inner vision powerful enough to keep him going. He must have been convinced the haven the New World provided was insufficient. God, in his view, must guarantee the freedom to practice any particular creed, not the freedom from any one creed in particular.

He arrived in Raynham, and after spending the rest of the winter with the local Wampanoag Indians, began to lay out this vision in concrete terms, purchasing the tribe’s land farther south in Rhode Island. His loyal followers joined him, and he named the settlement Providence, confident if God led him this far, he would lend His blessing to the city, and allow the city to be a shelter for persons of distressed conscience, a place of absolute freedom.

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However, for the first few years these devoted followers had no central place of worship and held services in their own homes. They were a wandering community of believers.  Then in 1700, they raised the funds to build a chapel whose tiny nave, measuring only twenty feet by twenty feet, was balanced by its immense symbolism: the weary wanderers at last found a place to rest.

Over the next hundred years, as the community grew by steady bounds, the size of the structure kept pace. Builders added an adjacent meeting house with doubled dimensions; interior decorating and a new organ followed suit; a host of ministers (including two from the Brown family: Chad and James) took the pulpit. The last addition was less visible but most prominent: the church took on its official title as The First Baptist Church in America.

But alongside these expansions, there were growing pains. Bringing ministers to the city from other counties was proving an increasingly complex endeavor. After some deliberation, the community decided a homegrown solution would work best: they agreed to create a college focused on educating clergy. In 1762, the community founded the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations. Its motto could have been taken directly from Roger Williams himself: In God We Trust.

The church and the university soon entered a golden age of symbiosis. Commencement was held in the chapel; James Manning acted as both president of the college and minister for the congregation. Then in 1774, construction began on the church that now stands today, the towering structure on Meeting Street. A surplus of workers made the project quick work: the steeple, which stretches 175 feet, was completed in three and a half days. Despite being the largest construction project in New England at the time, the rest of the project was completed with similar speed and less than a year later, the church opened. As if to testify to the faith in future growth, the nave could hold 1,200, nearly a third of the population of Providence at the time.  More than that, the solidity and grandeur of the newly christened chapel promised a covenant between university and church. Fulfilling its end, Brown had a Baptist minister as its President until 1880.

But, then, in 1930, Brown cut its Baptist ties.

This severing has not changed the church much. The building has retained its original form. The windows, organ, and spire can trace their shape to the initial design.  Symbolically, too, the church has kept its course, and stills advertises itself as a haven. Banners on its website promise to “accept everybody” and warn that intolerance will not be accepted.  College students are welcome at their services, and religious educations programs welcomes in anyone unfamiliar with the faith.

Now, however, the church is overshadowed by the buildings farther up the hill. For many Brown students, the chapel exists as an afterthought, an object on the periphery, just another building on the hill to pass on the way to DenDen Café.

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This building gave birth to Brown, and also helped generate the aesthetic that defines the school. So much of Roger Williams’ philosophy—which the church embodies—captures the Brown experience. Williams believed in strength of vision and dedication in achieving it; he championed tolerance; he believed every individual had a right to choose a path in life. Today those values live on, but their connection to their founder has somewhat diminished.

Sometimes, I wonder what was it like to be a student at Brown during the time of its direct connection with the church? What was it like to view commencement in the chapel as a natural fulfillment of four years spent on campus? What was it like to think of Brown as the college on Chapel Hill, not the other way around?

I wonder.

 

Photographs by: Sindy Lee

The information relayed in this article was gathered from the church’s website and The American Journal of Theology. 




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