The church was founded by Roger Williams in 1638 and has existed to this day. After escaping persecution in MA in the dead of winter and being rescued by the Wampanoag Native Americans, Williams founded Providence, RI, as the first place in America in which people weren't persecuted for their religious beliefs and practices. Williams was thus the founder of the separation of church and state in America. He played a crucial role in our freedom to worship as our conscience guides us.
Those of us who were ordained by FBCIA were asked to speak about the ways in which Williams has influenced our ministry. Below is what I shared that day.
My Ministry and Roger Williams
385th Anniversary Celebration of the First Baptist Church in America
Good morning! I am Rev. Amy Johnson, and I was ordained here at First Baptist Church in America in 2000. However, if it weren’t for Roger Williams and his legacy, I might not be an American Baptist or a clergy person. My husband, Brian, and I had not attended church for many years when we found ourselves living in Providence, RI, as young adults in our early thirties. We decided to return to church and began visiting churches in the area. One of those churches was this church. The Rev. Dr. Kate Jacobs and the Rev. Dwight Lundgren were pastors here at the time. We enjoyed our visits to the church and began attending regularly. I must admit, however, that I was embarrassed when people asked me what church I was attending and I had to say a Baptist church, because the only Baptists I had ever heard of were the conservative Baptists, and they did not represent me.
I soon learned however, that American Baptists were not like the Baptists I had heard of. These Baptists were descended from Roger Williams. In fact, this church was founded by Roger Williams! Could I get behind the religious, theological, and political beliefs of Williams? Separation of church and state? Yep. The autonomy and of the local church? Yes. No required creeds and freedom to interpret the Bible? Uh huh. Soul liberty and freedom of conscience? Yahoo! I soon discovered that Williams was one cool dude and that his legacy was one I could embrace.
Not only had Williams understood and articulated being a Christian in a way I could embrace, but he also understood and welcomed diversity in a way I could embrace. When he escaped Massachusetts in the dead of winter, his life was saved when the Native American Wampanoags gave him refuge. He defended the rights of Native Americans, including their right to worship as they saw fit. I could embrace the legacy of Williams’ respect for diversity.
Because of Williams, I could be a Christian in a multicultural and multireligious world. Exploring Christianity through an American Baptist lens under the leadership of a female clergy person – the aforementioned Rev. Dr. Kate Jacobs (or, Kate, as she is known to me now as a friend and colleague) – enabled me to envision myself as an ordained minister. I could be me AND be an ordained minister. The legacy of Williams freed me from the constraints I imagined would be placed upon me as a clergy person, and the role model of Kate freed me from the constraints I imagined would be placed upon me as a female clergy person.
Currently, I am the pastor of a small American Baptist congregation in Canton, CT. I feel called to create with God and the members of my church unity from diversity. We have among our small number diversity in many forms: racial, political, socio-economic, educational, and generational. During the recent years of political polarization of just about everything, we have worked hard to accept one another regardless of the ways we are different. My hope and expectation are that each of us seeks to do so outside our church walls, as well. When we stray, we have the example of Jesus and the legacy of Williams to bring us back to the way, the truth, and the life.