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A Baptist Bicentennial: Waterville’s First Church Celebrates 200 Years

by Gregor Smith

What do Colby College's founder and the author of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" have in common? Both were former pastors at Waterville's First Baptist Church. This year, that storied church marks the bicentennial of its founding.

The First Baptist Church was possibly the first and is certainly longest operating Protestant congregation in Waterville. Although a town-owned meeting house near the current city hall hosted visiting pastors of various Protestant denominations, there were no other organized Protestant groups in Waterville in 1818. After the First Baptist Church, the next two churches to form in the Elm City were the First Universalist Church in 1826 — it is the "Universalist" in the current Universalist-Unitarian Church — and the First Congregational Church in 1828.

For the first century of its existence, the history of the First Baptist Church and that of Colby College were closely intertwined. The church was founded on August 27, 1818, by Rev. Jeremiah Chaplin. Chaplin had arrived in Waterville two months earlier, along with his family and seven students, to establish the Maine Literary and Theological Institution, a seminary to train Baptist ministers, which later evolved into Colby College.

The church's vestry is a long room behind the sanctuary. It is as long as long as the sanctuary is wide. On the tables are scrapbooks with photos and articles about the church's past.

The college's first graduate, George Dana Boardman, Class of 1822, had joined the church while still a student, and after graduating, he went to Burma, becoming the church's and the college's first foreign missionary. Sadly, he died there of a fever in 1931 just days after his thirtieth birthday.

In 1826, the congregation built its church at a cost of slightly less than $4000. Still resting on its original granite foundation, the church is the oldest public building in Waterville and, at 125 feet from the ground to the top of its steeple, is also the tallest building, public or private, in town.

The construction was financed by selling pews, a funding mechanism that seems quaint today but was common at the time. Prices ranged from $35 for a pew in the balcony to $150 for the front row on the main floor. Although the balcony pews were the "cheap seats," the original, central pulpit was so high that the minister's head was level with the floor of the balcony, allowing anyone sitting there to see and hear him clearly.

One did not have to be Baptist to buy a pew; purchasers also included Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Universalists. The most prominent Waterville buyers were Revolutionary War veteran Asa Redington, international tycoon Nathaniel Gilman, and local newspaper publisher Samuel Burleigh. All three now have streets in Waterville named after them, as does Jeremiah Chaplin; and the house that Redington had built on Silver Street is now home to the Redington Museum and the Waterville Historical Society.

Between 1836 and 1904, four separate additions to the church gave it vestries, classrooms, and parlors. There have also been numerous renovations to the main structure over the years, which included lowering the pulpit and removing the pew doors in 1855; replacing the pews altogether in 1875; installing central heating in 1869 and electrical lights 20 years later; building an indoor baptistery in 1871, so that baptisms by immersion would no longer need to be performed in the Kennebec River or the Messalonskee Stream; installing an electric pipe organ in 1926; redesigning the chancel in 1955 to have the pulpit on the right, a lectern on the left, and the altar in the center; and upgrading the organ and moving the pipes to the balcony three years later.

A view of the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church from the chancel. Note the organ pipes in the balcony.

As stated earlier, Colby College and the First Baptist Church grew up together. Following dedication of the new church building on December 6, 1826, every college baccalaureate and commencement was held there until 1918, even though the college closed its Theological Department in 1828 and reconstituted itself as a liberal arts institution. Recall that at the time, Colby, or Waterville College, as it was then known, was located downtown. The campus stretched out along College Avenue, starting just north of the present fire station, a block away from the church.

Although the college was no longer training ministers, it retained its Baptist affiliation until well into the 20th century, and until 1894, hired only Baptists as faculty. Until then, every Colby professor was also a member of the First Baptist Church. Besides Jeremiah Chaplin, two other pastors of the church, David N. Sheldon and George Dana Boardman Pepper, also became presidents of the college, although neither were pastor and president simultaneously. (Pepper, incidentally, was born two years after the death of his namesake.) Several other pastors of the church became Colby trustees.

There are two other noteworthy, 19th-century men with strong ties to both institutions. In 1834, the church called Samuel Francis Smith as its fifth pastor. Smith was also a professor of modern languages at the college. While still in seminary, he had written a new set of lyrics to the British anthem "God Save the King." Formally entitled "America," Smith's patriotic paean is better known today by its first line, "My country, 'tis of thee."

In 1866, the church admitted its first African-American member. A former slave, Samuel Osborne was admitted on his attestation that he had been baptized and had joined a church in Virginia whose records were destroyed during the Civil War. Hired at Colby as its sole custodian, Osborne was also the college's unofficial campus policeman and guidance counselor to students for 37 years, and his daughter Marion was the college's first African American alumna. Last fall, Colby president David Greene renamed the presidential residence the Osborne House in his honor.

A view of the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church from the right rear, showing the altar.

There is, of course, much more to the history of a 200-year-old institution than can be included in this article. Anyone who wants to learn more may consult its main sources: church secretary Jan Goddard's article in Discover Maine: A Maine History Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2018 — unfortunately, as of August 2018, the issue containing her article was not online — or Dean Ernest C. Marriner's voluminous History of Colby College, published in 1963.

Today, like many churches, the First Baptist Church sponsors a variety of activities, both sacred and secular. Besides holding regular Sunday morning services, it hosts a shape-note singing group on the second Sunday of each month, the Waterville Chess Club on Monday evenings, a sandwich program on Saturday evenings for those in need, and each Lent since 1990, a series of free, weekly, hour-long organ recitals, in which organists from different area churches play works of their own choosing.

To mark its jubilee, the church is hosting four events. Two of them, a classical music recital in June and a "Tea and Tour" in July, have already gone by; but on September 23, David Brown will give a talk "Remembering Dean Marriner's 'Little Talks on Common Things,'" and on October 21, historian Earle Shettleworth will make a presentation "The Camera Discovers Waterville: The City's First Photographs, 1855 to 1885." Both events take place at 2:00 on their respective Sundays. Admission is free, and refreshments will follow.