250 and Counting

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 7:00am
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This year, the Harbor Church celebrates its 250th anniversary in October. “Gathered” is the word on the sign on the lawn of the current home of the congregation.  

Some place the date of origin to the earliest settlers meeting in the Bay Colony, seeking a different life in a place where they could enjoy freedom to worship as they chose. The first settlers were by all accounts devout and served as lay preachers to each other. They made provision for a minister, setting aside lands to be farmed or leased to support a church. The date is a technicality. Oct. 23, 1765 was determined by the research of Dr. Horace Roberts, pastor of the First Baptist Church for 26 years (1900-1905; 1907-1928). 

The first minister called in 1700 was Samuel Niles, a grandson of some of the earliest settlers, James and Sarah Sands. He attended Harvard, the first Rhode Islander to do so, but became “infected” with the theology his forebears had sought to escape. He lasted two years before returning to Massachusetts.

In 1759 the townspeople were still looking for a minister without the formality of having a structured church, seeking someone “to serve the inhabitants of the town by preaching to them the gospel of Christ according to the Scriptures of Truth. Making them and only them the rules of their faith, doctrine and practice.”  The Rev. Livermore (1874-78) later wrote “This clearly indicates the persuasion of the people before they had an organized church.”

The first house of worship was near Fresh Pond and three more buildings followed in the general area of the geographic center of the island. In the 1840s — when we think of Block Island as so isolated — a minster, Elijah Macomber, became a follower of William Miller, a preacher in New York who ascribed a date certain to the Second Coming. He and his wife and those they had persuaded to follow that doctrine were excommunicated by vote of the church body. The rift was so great, reorganization came only after church records were sent to the mainland for examination.

They got back on track and in the 1880s the First Baptist Church had an imposing structure on the hill above the town center. It was said to have the first furnace on the island. Its congregation was large and generous, surely feeling the boom of the new tourism, and under the direction of a Rev. Braithwaith (1883-1886) set about erecting a separate chapel for “the accommodation of summer visitors of all evangelical denominations.” It was constructed near the landing, on Chapel Street, a grand building with a pipe organ and bell tower.  

Several years later the congregation decided to close the building at the town center with hopes of selling it. They added a winter chapel to the Chapel Street church, a move that proved fortuitous when the big structure at the town center burned.

It was that big church on Chapel Street that, in the tradition of old New England churches, served the community as well as its own congregation. It was the place the heroes of the Larchmont Disaster of 1907 were honored, where town ladies strung daisies for high school graduations, it was the site of large community gatherings before the school was built in the 1930s. When it burned on a windy December night in 1944, the whole island, already reeling from the Depression, '38 Hurricane, and still with so many of its young men off to war, felt the devastation.

The week following, over a hundred people attended a meeting at the school, not to fight over spending town money but to talk of moving forward. Two sums against a quickly established goal of $100 from 100 people were received immediately after the meeting, from community but not church members who were “honored” to be a part of rebuilding.

Two months earlier, the Trustees of the First Baptist church had received clear title to the Adrian Hotel, willed them by Lucretia Mott Ball, and there the congregation went while they decided what to do. They brought in a stove and held services in the dining room.

Ultimately they determined to add onto the old hotel, repurposing rental rooms to replace the parsonage they sold to help finance construction.

The economy did not come back. Young men, home from war, did not stay here any more than in so many little towns across the nation. Tourism did not boom, despite valiant efforts of the local Chamber and dollars poured in by the State, building an airport and a modern pavilion. The church felt the pervasive poverty and hired retired or semi-retired ministers to tend to its dwindling flock. They continued talking of selling the building, or of taking draconian measures to reduce it in size, stopped only by the lack of a budget to do so.

Then, in 1976, partly at the urging of another semi-retired preacher, W. Stanley Pratt, the congregation took a leap of faith and hired a young minister just out of divinity school, one who answered a curious ad in a church publication. Years later he wrote “Had I known just how precarious my pay check really was...” he and his young wife might have been immobilized by fear (although I doubt it). Tony and Cindy Pappas stayed 19 years, surely much longer than they ever imagined after that cold, cold winter they arrived. Real outreach began as we moved toward the 21st century; more of the building was opened to daily use. 

Today, under the leadership of Pastor Steve Hollaway, we are a little tiny church with a great big out-reach. We struggle with budgets but know we were blessed with a building we were meant to share. In our 250th summer, groups meet on our porches and parlor, the music of a Hispanic congregation fills the air two nights a week, and international students flock to a center that in winter is the Town Rec. This week the joy of Vacation Bible School fills the building. And so much more day in and day out.

We are blessed.