Friday, October 9, 2015

First Baptist Church of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 27, 2007.

The First Baptist Church of Exeter organized in 1800 when the republic was still new. At that time, the state of New Hampshire still required residents to pay a church tax – and the newly formed Baptist Church was not one of the “accepted” denominations to receive these funds. The five men and five women who founded the church in Exeter had to scrape by for some years before they were able to build their first church building. A small squarish structure, built on Spring Street, was enough for the small congregation to get a foothold.

Baptists in America can trace their history back to Roger Williams. A separatist from England, Williams believed that the civil government should not interfere with a person’s “soul-liberty”. He was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” in relation to civil and religious matters. The Baptist church in New Hampshire was one of the organizations that pushed for disestablishment of religion in the state, resulting in the Toleration Act of 1819. The act allowed churches to incorporate and the First Baptist Church quickly did. The Toleration Act made it far more agreeable for people to join a church that was more in line with one’s personal beliefs, and the Baptists attracted more people than in earlier times.

The congregation continued to grow and in 1833 a new church was erected on Water Street where the Folsom Tavern stands today. Within 40 years, they’d outgrown the new church and an ambitious new building project created the current building on Front Street with its distinctive eight pointed star window.

Perhaps the role of women helped to increase numbers in the congregation. From its very beginnings, women were an integral part of the church. Of the ten founders, five were women – and they were not simply the wives of the male founders. There was only one married couple included in the founding members. Missionary work – so important to Baptists – was usually organized by the women of the congregation, and the women’s organizations that have formed over the years have been the lifeblood of the church. They established the “Ladies Society” in 1845, and the “Ladies Social Circle” in 1880, which joined with the Women’s Missionary Society in 1946 to form the “Ladies Circle”.

Baptist Missionaries
In 1955, the American Baptist Church USA, the national organization with which the First Baptist Church of Exeter is affiliated, merged with the Baptist Women’s American Foreign Mission Society. On a national level, the numbers of women in leadership positions within the church began to drop. Women were allowed to go on mission work only if they were married. This hadn’t been the case in earlier decades. Women had been allowed ordination in the organization since the 1880’s and by 1898 there were 9 licensed and 17 ordained women serving in Free Will Baptist churches.

To off-set some of the restrictions, the First Baptist Church of Exeter amended its own by-laws to create circle ministries to “stimulate a wider women’s interest in missions.” These circles, organized and composed of women, focused on supporting specific missionary work – such as foreign missions in India, China, Alaska, Vietnam or within the country, or organizational charities like the White Cross and Love Gift programs. It was no coincidence that they named their circles - Ann Judson circle, Lula Shongo Circle, Helen Yost Circle, Marjorie Moreau Circle, Joan Donaldson Circle - for women missionaries.

On the weekend of October 17, 2015, the church - now called “The Red Brick Church” - will celebrate 215 years in Exeter.

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