“An Old Church with a New Vision”: Middletown’s First Baptist Church
While walking down Main Street with friends, I noticed a worn sign hanging in front of a building that proclaimed it to be the First Baptist Church. Knowing of several churches with the same name, I immediately joked to my friends, “Oh, so this is the first one!” Then I saw the date on the sign: “Founded 1795.”
As it turns out, my joke was more accurate than I thought; the building actually is the first Baptist church in Middletown.
I haven’t been inside many churches before, but of the few I have visited, most have actually been Baptist churches. My synagogue community at home had a close relationship with a couple of Baptist churches in the area, and I always appreciated when I was able to participate in the Baptist community.
In Middletown, at the First Baptist Church’s Ash Wednesday evening service, I had a similar experience to those I had at home. The service I attended was small, very open, and welcoming, which reminded me of the churches in my town. Besides the community itself, I was also fascinated by the age and history of the church, and I decided that I wanted to learn more about how the community began and developed in its 217-year-old history.
The First Baptist Church of Middletown was formed in 1795 by a group of eleven dissenters from the Strict Congregational Church (now the South Congregational Church, on the corner of Main Street and the South Green). First’s current pastor, Reverend Willis J. McCaw, described the church’s title and origins.
“It really is amazing to know that most cities or towns have a First Baptist Church—the First Baptist Church of that particular town,” Reverend McCaw said. “They usually start when someone disagrees with some function of the [main] church, whether it be worship or some doctrine of the church.”
In this case, the conflict was over the issue of baptism itself. In August of 1795, the Strict Congregational Church announced that anybody who renounced infant baptism and embraced the Baptist principle of baptism by full immersion would no longer be considered a church member. Surprisingly, Reverend Samuel Parsons, the Strict Congregational Church’s pastor of seven years, declared one Sunday morning that he in fact did embrace the principles of Baptism. He and ten other congregants withdrew from the Congregational Church, were baptized, and began meeting as a Baptist church.
This change, and the formation of the First Baptist Church, came during a Baptist revival in the 1780s and ’90s that resulted in the formation of Baptist societies in Portland, Middle Haddam, and East Hampton as well. Members of Baptist churches in Hartford and Meriden attended the first conference of the Middletown First Baptist Church, held on October 29th, 1795, to demonstrate their support for the new congregation.
The church met for 16 years without an official building, assembling as a small congregation in whatever spaces were available. Before constructing a small church in 1811, they held meetings in their own houses, in one member’s gristmill, and in a carriage factory on South Main Street. They cycled through several pastors and spent periods of up to five years without any particular pastor.
However, it did not take long for their population to grow. In the early 1840s, another Baptist revival swept through Middletown, and almost 100 new members joined the church. The congregation had to move out of the small building that they had previously acquired in order to accommodate this growth, and with the help of contributions from within the community, the current building was built in 1842 in a Greek Revival style. It took on its final form in 1899, when the portico was added, and the interior remodeled.
Today, the church calls itself “an old church with a new vision.” Reverend McCaw has been the pastor there since May 2010, and is trying to expand the church and make it a comfortable atmosphere for people of all backgrounds, cultures, ages, and races to come worship.
“Our goal is to help strengthen people’s faith,” McCaw said, “let them know they’re not alone on this journey. Every day has its challenges and blessings.”
Jason Sheng Jia ’13, who plays the pipe organ for the church, described it as a very open and accepting atmosphere.
“I think [McCaw] is doing a very good job in bringing love to everyone from different backgrounds and different religious beliefs,” Jia said. “The direction in which the church is headed is unique and very Wesleyan-like. I have played pipe organ in several churches and First Baptist Church is my favorite one so far. I love the amicable atmosphere there.”
One of the ways McCaw is diversifying his church is by changing the music and the sermon topics, and by attempting to preach to a modern audience.
“He draws on real-life examples,” Jia said. “One can easily see why the congregation is ethnically diverse. The service music is also attractive. I was asked to bring hymnal music in classical style to the gospel/pop music experience there to create a good balance. I love the mix of styles, and I especially love gospel singing during every service.”
The church has other links to the University besides the fact that Jia. Reverend McCaw’s wife Melissa is an alumna from the Wesleyan class of 2001. She said she hasn’t been back to the University campus in a while, but she was happy to see a Wesleyan student coming to visit the First Baptist Church and taking part in the service. The McCaws appreciate the proximity to the University as an opportunity to expand their congregation, and mentioned that they keep their doors open to any students who would like to join in their services and community.
Reverend McCaw and the church community do creative outreach and charitable programming not only to expand their community, but also to share what they see as positive faith with the broader community.
“This is a time in which faith is being reawakened, so I think that it’s important and key that people have different worship opportunities,” McCaw said.
The programs the church runs and gets involved with are based in a desire to share religion through acts of kindness, and through a new perspective on faith. The church’s Fellowship Hall opens as a warming center for people who need a place to sleep from November to January beginning at 9 p.m. and ending at 7 a.m. Members of the congregation distribute bread weekly for those who need it in Middletown and other nearby towns. The church also holds open-mic nights periodically that are open to people of any faith or tradition.
“We try to reinvent ourselves,” McCaw said. “Our goal is to help strengthen people’s faith by doing religion differently.”
When McCaw began work at First Baptist Church almost two years ago, he approximates that about six people would come to worship on a Sunday. Now there are usually about 25 or 30.
“We are what’s called a turn-around church,” McCaw said. “There’s still much work to do, but I’m glad we’re going in the right direction.”