The Most Historic Black Church in Rhode Island
A gathering in the First Baptist Meeting House
The progression of events leading to the establishment of the African Union Meeting and Schoolhouse in Providence and eventually to the organization and construction of Congdon Street Baptist Church began on March 9, 1819 in the vestry of the First Baptist Meeting House. At this time and place a meeting was held for the purpose of discussing, and making plans to establish a place for people of color to both worship God in dignity and to obtain secular education for their children. This meeting, called at the request of a group of people of African descent, was attended by representatives of both this group and influential, sympathetic whites.
The African Union Meeting and Schoolhouse Society is opened
As a result of the meeting a committee composed of twelve men, black and white, was appointed to meet with Moses Brown, Esq., who long had intended to do something for the people of color. He thereupon instructed the group to select a suitable lot for the desired building. The site chosen was located at the corner of Meeting and Congdon Streets. True to his word, Mr. Brown purchased it. Construction began, and in June of 1820 the schoolhouse was opened for divine worship. The large room was soon fitted with pews, and the building was completed and dedicated in 1821. It came to be called The African Union Meeting House resulting from the name of its governing body. The African Union Meeting and Schoolhouse Society.
The Meeting Street Baptist Church is organized
This Society was composed of A.M.E., A.M.E. Zion, Free Will Baptist, Calvinist, and Missionary Baptist denominations. Eventually, desiring their own identities, various of these groups pulled out of the African Union Meeting House and established their own churches. By 1840, only the Calvinists were left in charge of the property. Therefore, in December of that year they organized the Meeting Street Baptist Church.
Name changed to Congdon Street Baptist Church
A period of prosperity was followed by a period of devastation and dire hardship for the church. It was during this latter period, 1863 to about 1870, that hostile white neighbors had the church torn down leaving the small black congregation bereft of its place of worship. In 1869, George Hale, a neighbor whose property the church inconveniently bordered, had offered to exchange with the church a lot he owned at Congdon Street and Angel Court. Now, in 1871, the church finally agreed to make the exchange and was permitted by the Court to do so. Thereupon, the new edifice was begun. It was completed and dedicated in July, 1875. By a Legislative Act, the name was changed to Congdon Street Baptist Church.
Celebrating years of religious heritage in Rhode Island
In 1874, the New England Baptist Missionary convention was organized in its vestry during a very spiritual and harmonious meeting. As the result of continuing and remarkable spiritual and physical growth during the following years, the church proudly celebrated its 70th anniversary on December 8, 1910.
As time progressed, Congdon Street was blessed with numerous Pastors who grew the Church. Meanwhile, Congdon Street gave birth to many local Rhode Island Churches such as; Free Will Baptist Church (1830), Bethel A.M.E. Church (1839), Ebenezer Baptist Church (1880), and Olney Street Baptist Church (1901).
Politics, Colleges, and Civil Rights
With the installation of Rev. Dennis Norris in 1966, Congdon Street, ever involved with outreach and education, began intentionally reaching out to African-American students at Brown University and Pembroke College. By being a safe space, the church became a sanctuary for African-American students at Brown University and Pembroke College in 1968 during their student walkout. The end of the student walkout did not see the end of Congdon Street’s affiliation with African-American students at Brown and Pembroke as members of the church continued to open their homes to the students.
The fight for civil rights during the 1960s led many members of the congregation to the streets where they marched on Cranston Street and with Doctor Martin Luther King Jr to show that Black lives and rights matter. During the tenure of Rev. Norris, the ABC Church School Curriculum was also initiated.
Congdon Street under the Leadership of Rev. Robert L. Carter (1974-1998)
Under the tenure of the church’s longest serving pastor, Rev. Robert L. Carter, a myriad of programs and events were started and held. With an emphasis on education and housing and urban development, Rev. Carter’s tenure saw the acquisition of the East Side Apartments, which served as housing for the elderly and people facing physical challenges.. A bus ministry utilizing two vans was established in addition to a monthly ministry of worship at the Summit Medical Center, and Vacation Bible School. Engagements to support and engage the younger members of the congregation and the community included sleepovers at the church and holding girl and boy scout meetings. The community work of Congdon Street Baptist Church was extended beyond the community in Rhode Island by mission trips such as to the Bendoo Mission, where the church aided orphanages in West Africa.
During this period from 1974-1998, annual church retreats were started. These busy years saw the creation of three choirs within Congdon Street- the Gospel, Senior, and Youth Choirs. There were also Easter and Christmas programs, Missionary Sunday, an annual Harvest Dinner, the Usher’s Annual Dinner, the Gospel Choir’s Annual Dinner, and the Annual Flower Guild Tea (Flower Guild established in 1948). Celebrations of Women’s Day began and continue to the present-day. Women’s Day is a day of celebration with programming focused on health and education. Mrs. Linnear Hopkins Horne, Congdon Street’s longest serving music director and pipe organist retired during Rev. Carter’s tenure after 54 years of serving. Also, during this time Congdon Street Baptist Church celebrated its 160th anniversary.
New Millennium and More Ministry
As Congdon Street transitioned into the 2000’s, we saw the retirement of Pastor Carter. While Pastor Carter no longer served, his legacy and firm foundation was strong through the next pastors. Continuing the legacy of focusing on education in the community, a tutoring program was initiated during the tenure of Rev. David Mitchell (2003-2008). Professors from Rhode Island College and Brown University, along with Congdon Street members would go to the church and tutor children after-school three days a week in reading, math, and writing. The church also held a college tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Georgia.
Being open to the community, the church held events like I Got Jesus coffee nights, summer vacation Bible School, and the Baptist Youth Fellowship (BYF). Keeping with the church’s mission to reach those who may not know God, and showing the love of Christ through generosity and community, these events helped Congdon Street Baptist Church spread the word and love of God through the community. As Pastor Mitchell transitioned, we were blessed with the leadership of Pastor James Dove (2010-2014). During the tenure of Rev. Dove Congdon Street received a grant to renovate the building’s bathrooms in 2012. A discipleship class was also started the same year. This class focused on growing the church spiritually and in number, by teaching current members how to reach out to the unchurched and unsaved. The discipleship class also taught members how to read and interpret the Bible.
Journeying forward, following the unexpected passing of Rev. Dove, the Church elected her youngest Pastor, Rev. Justin Lester (2016-Present) from Nashville, Tennessee. Continuing with Congdon Street’s legacy of education more outreach is being done to Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, and Brown University. The creation of small groups each week has seen an increase in the number of people, young and old, being reached and inspired by God’s love. Congdon Street Baptist Church continues to strive to be a radically authentic community in New England. Rev. Lester reaches beyond the church walls through social media, livestreaming, and by going onto college campuses to meet students to build intentional community. By building intentional relationships with the community surrounding the church, Congdon Street continues to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, connect and strengthen families, and continues to show the community the Love of Christ through prayer, worship, generosity, and Bible study. Congdon Street Baptist Church is eagerly preparing for the celebration of its 200th anniversary in 2019.
Pastoral History at Congdon Street
1840-1848 - Jeremiah Asher
1849 - William Serringdon
1853 - Chauncy Leonard
1861 - Thomas Henson
1863 - Sampson White
1867-1869 - Caleb Woonyard
1869-1870 - Nicholas Richmond
1870-1878 - William Jackson
1870-1885 - James Mitchell
1885-1886 - James Dart
1886-1887 - Henry Scott
1887-1891 - Nathaniel Drayton
1891-1896 - Joseph Johnston
1897-1901 - J.H. Presley
1902-1904 - John L. Davis
1904-1915 - Sidney W. Smith
1916-1928 - Walter J. Moss
1929-1935 - B.R. Lawson
1936-1937 - Dr. Burt
1938-1946 - W.H. Smith
1948-1959 - M. Jerome Brown
1959-1965 - Leardrew L. Johnson
1966-1973 - Dennis L. Norris
1974-1998 - Robert L. Carter
1999-2001 - Theodore Wilson
2003-2008 - David Mitchell
2009 - Glenn Leverette
2010 - Cynthia Smothers
2011-2014 - James Dove
2016 - Justin Lester
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