The First churches in the Providence Plantations were Baptist. It was not until 1720 that there were enough congregationalists in the colony to make it possible to establish a church of the congregational way. At about this time a small group began meeting together and in 1723 erected "a house of worship.up Rosemary Lane from Towne Street." This was at the corner of the present College and Benefit streets, where the Providence County Court House now stands.
In 1728 they called their first minister, the Reverend Josiah Cotton. He has left us a fascinating story, part church record, part personal diary, which tells us much about life in Providence in those days.
The Second Church
The first "house of worship" served the congregation until after the Revolution when a tract of land running from Benefit to Hope Street was purchased, upon which, in 1795 during the ministry of the Reverend Enos Hitchcock, a large wooden church was designed by Caleb Ormsbee, one of Providence's important early builder architects. With its twin towers flanking a pedimented facade, the building resembled Charles Bulfinch's 1788 Hollis Street Church in Boston, the design for which ultimately came from the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in London by Sir Christopher Wren.
Hitchcock, who had come to the church as minister in 1783, had been a chaplain in Washington's army and is credited with the idea of stretching a chain across the Hudson to keep the English from sailing up the river. He was minister here until his death in 1803. He was particularly interested in education and wrote a novel with higher education of women as its central theme. He was so much interested in the establishment of the public school system in Providence that when he died the schools were closed for the day as a mark of respect.
A most active co-worker with Dr. Hitchcock in this cause of free education was John Howland, a deacon of the church and for many years its clerk. He was active in securing the passage of a bill setting up a general school system for Rhode Island. A later generation was to speak of him as the father of the free school system in Rhode Island.
The first Meeting House, built in 1723, stood at the
corner of todayâ€™s Benefit and College streets and
was served for several years by clergy from outside
the Rhode Island colony.
The second Meeting House, built 1794-75 at the corner
of Benefit and Benevolent streets, survived only
until 1815, when it was destroyed by fire. Our current
meeting house was constructed on the same site
The Third Church
It was in 1814 during the ministry of Dr. Henry Edes that the fine new church, built only nineteen years before, was burned by an insane man, who put a lighted candle inside one of the exterior columns. The congregation prepared at once to rebuild on the same site.
The third church and present building, dedicated in 1816, was designed by another distinguished local master-builder-architect, John Holden Greene, whose many fine buildings changed the face of Providence during the early nineteenth century. As had Ormsbee, Greene turned to Boston and Bulfinch for inspiration.
The new church was built on a classic church plan of ashlar-laid white stone, quarried in nearby Johnston. The design scheme Greene used, which consisted of a colossal pedimented portico set in front of a tower and tall spire, was similar to the one bulfinch used in 1814 for Boston's New South Church. Greene compacted the portico against the tower base, however, and cut through the great pediment with a two story, round-headed window with Gothic mullions. This fresh and original treatment creates a strong sense of verticality that is further heightened by the colonnettes set at an angle along the four corners of the spire. The bell in the tower is the largest cast by Paul Revere and son at their foundry in Canton, Massachusetts.
The tall, two-story, round-headed windows, also fitted with gothic mullions, that appear on the body of the building again increase the sense of height. The attenuated scale and the combination of classic and Gothic decorative elements used throughout the building are Adamesque and belong to the Federal period but the bold, almost baroque, overall character derives from the work of James Gibbs, particularly St. Martin-in-the Fields in London.
A key element of the very delicately scaled interior, which is almost square in plan, is the coffered, shallow saucer dome supported by four colossal Corinthian columns that cut the balconies at the corners. The beautifully executed center ceiling medallion is like work by Reynard, a master plasterer who often worked for Bulfinch. The elegant fan details that fill in the four ceiling corners, the closed fan-filled window over the pulpit, and the crisp classical detailing are typical of the best work of the period.
A chief feature is the handsome, mahogany, free-standing balcony pulpit supported on Ionic columns for which the young men of the church defrayed the extra cost of the mahogany. A foot-high platform on which the pulpit originally stood was removed in 1830.
In about 1850 an organ with a case designed by Thomas A. Tefft was in- stalled in the west balcony where an opening to give room for the pipes was cut between the tower and the church.
John Holden Greene chose pew number 75 for his own because, as Dr. Augustus Lord says in An Old new England Meeting House, "from that point of view he could see at a glance the length and breadth and height of the building, every detail of which he had wrought with loving care."
Heating, Lighting, Windows, and Renovations
No method of heating was provided in the original plan except the fireplace in the minister's room behind the pulpit. There the members of the congregation filled their foot warmers with hot coals. during exten- sive repairs made in 1836, coal stoves were placed in the northwestern and southwestern corners and carpeting was laid for the first time.
When evening services were held, the meetinghouse was originally lighted by candles. The crystal chandelier, which dripped wax on those seated beneath it, was not removed until long after oil lamps superseded candles elsewhere.
Renovations made in 1868 included installation of painted glass windows and painted and stencilled decoration on the woodwork and walls. During further renovations made in 1916 all this redecoration was removed, clear glass windows as nearly like the original old glass as possible were installed to replace the painted glass, the present chandelier was hung, and the original green blinds were taken down. Two memorial stained glass windows were also relocated at the rear of the church. Most of the furnishings are original and, except for a slight rearrangement at the front of the church, the pews remain unchanged.
The Fire of 1966
With the exception of the changes noted, the building survived unaltered until 1966 when disaster and lightning struck, starting a fire in the tower and steeple that raced through the opening cut for Tefft's organ case and burned unchecked for four hours, calcining plaster work and destroying detail beyond repair.
By a miracle and the fact that the basic construction consisted of stone built walls and the ancient system of heavy wooden beams framed together, the tower, spire and the whole structural fabric of the building survived.
Restoration of the exterior and interior began immediately under the guidance of Irving Haynes, and the church, including all the wooden and plaster detailing, has been skillfully restored with great care and integrity. The organ, blown to bits in the fire, has been replaced with a new and larger organ. Newly designed carpeting has been installed and the two memorial windows have now been removed, but we can still say with full confidence that the building John Holden Greene considered his masterpiece exists in essence for us to know today.
The Liberal Church
The religion preached from this pulpit has long been liberal in spirit. The first minister, Josiah Cotton, 1728-1745, was accused of "not being evangelical enough and preaching damnable good works." During the pastorate of Dr. Enos Hitchcock, 1783-1803, the congregation instructed the minister to "invite all present on Sacrament days, whether members of this church or not, to partake with us at the table of our common Lord." This invitation is still regularly given.
Under Dr. Edes, 1803-1832, the church became definitely Unitarian in theology and affiliated with the Unitarian movement in America. For many years it was known as The First Congregational Church (Unitarian). In April, 1953, however, the congregation voted to change the name to The First Unitarian church of Providence. In the words of the minister, Dr. Robert H. Schacht, 1931-1968, "It was accomplished by a gracious understanding of the progressive spirit which permeates our beloved old church and by the desire of its present members to meet the challenging needs of our day with the full resources of the liberal Christianity we hold dear."
The current organ was built by M. P. Moller in 1968, following the fire in the church tower in summer of 1966 from a massive lightning strike. The previous organ was entirely destroyed by water damage, and much of the interior of the church was refurbished at that time.
The organ has 52 ranks of pipes, distributed over 3 manuals and pedal. At this time it is excellent condition, and has not required any major rebuilding, large-scale re-leathering or repairs. The clock is ticking, however! The original purchase price in 1968 was $100,447.00.
Our previous instruments:
1770 organ of unknown maker – 200 pipes – first pipe organ in a “Dissenting Presbyterian Church” in America – price unknown.
1803 John Geib organ of 15 ranks, swell and great, no pedal, $2,500.
1816 William Goodrich apparently rebuilt the fire damaged Geib organ for installation in the present Meeting House- $1,400.
1848 E.& G.G. Hook organ: great – 13 ranks; choir – 8 ranks; swell- 11 ranks; pedal- 2 ranks; 34 ranks of pipes total-- $3,641.00
1893 George Hutchings organ: great- 14 ranks; swell – 16 ranks; choir – 8 ranks; pedal – 6 ranks, 44 ranks of pipes total - $6,000.00.
1927 Casavant Freres, Ltd. Organ: great – 13 ranks; swell- 18 ranks;
choir- 9 ranks, pedal – 6 ranks, 46 ranks of pipes total - $22,262.34.
Today our quest has broadened. We unite to celebrate a common human heritage, a heritage that is universal rather than sectarian. Under the dome of our grand, old meetinghouse we honor diverse religious philosophies, expressive of our ongoing life together and faithful to individual experience and conscience.