Providence has been on my mind lately. Most obviously, traveling to Providence for my niece’s graduation from Brown brought the city back to mind. A book I’ve been reading has been referencing H. P. Lovecraft, a person readily associated with Providence as well. And who can forget the Baptists? While in Providence we visited First Baptist Church, widely considered to be the actual first Baptist church in America. Portions of the commencement ceremony are held here, but between times it was open for the curious. I guess I qualify.
Baptists are a widely diverse group. In the United States they are often guilty by association with the shenanigans of the Southern Baptist Convention, and given the numeric force of the Baptist Church that can appear a little intimidating. Nevertheless, Baptists were (and generally are) great defenders of religious tolerance. Their own non-hierarchical tradition allows considerable freedom within the denomination itself. Houses of worship (originally meeting houses, not churches) were plain and devoid of symbolism. That is still a hallmark of most Baptists today. Inside First Baptist, I was surprised to see a symbol. A chunk of rock, an Ebenezer, rested on the table at the back of the meeting house. The origin of a “stone of help” (an adequate translation of “ebenezer’) is certainly biblical-the reference goes back to the story of Israelite victory over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7. Samuel is reputed to have set up the stone as a memorial of the unanticipated victory. After that story, the stone never reappears in the Bible.
The Baptists have always been concerned with idolatry. They do make a point that some Christian traditions rely very heavily on trappings to get the message across. They are also correct in that early Christianity was a much simpler faith than the densely layered, extremely complex, imperfectly blended varieties of religion that today claim the title “Christian.” It isn’t a copyright-protected brand and there is little that all Christians could be said to have in common. As I touched the stone of help, I realized not even all Baptists share the stringent standards of no symbolism in their churches. That is probably a good thing, because that, in itself, is symbolic.