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Brief Recap of our 250-Year Celebration for the Eagle Tribune
This year we celebrate our 250-year anniversary. Yes, you read that right. Back in 1765 a fiery Baptist pastor by the name of Hezekiah Smith founded the first Baptist church in Haverhill, aptly named First Baptist Church. Our charter is signed by John Hancock, at the time governor of Massachusetts. The church has an unbroken line of members dating back to before the Declaration of Independence, through the Civil War, onto both World Wars, enduring the Great Depression and witnessing the events of September 11, 2001. On October 17, we gathered for a time of celebration with a vision, “Grateful for what God has done, excited about what God is doing.”
It was a valuable time to reflect on First Baptist Church’s long history and God’s grace.
Transport yourself back into the mid-18th century. Pedestrians strolled and horses galloped down the dirt roads of the town of Haverhill. The promise of opportunity and freedom drew the earliest settlers to the New World, and already now a few generations had enjoyed the hard-earned blessings of their forefathers’ sacrifice. The townspeople of Haverhill, part of the British colonies, had little knowledge of the high class workings of Boston and Philadelphia. More important was the coming harvest and the need to store up for the next cold New England winter.
Most townspeople would head off to the established congregational church. However, some of the townspeople were growing restless with what they felt to be the impersonal nature of the worship. They secretly longed for something that gave expression to their deeply affectionate feelings for God and called for a conversion to faith in Christ. Much of this unrest was provoked by the travelling preacher, Rev. Hezekiah Smith. Discontent with the established religion, he sought to start a new church in town, a Baptist church.
Baptists were not unheard of in Haverhill, but they were not a common sight either. Most of them had found a home in Rhode Island, under the direction of the admirable but controversial leader Roger Williams a generation or so earlier. But Baptists in Massachusetts, and in Haverhill no less? The thought was too much for many in the town to bear. They refused the use of the Parish meeting house for the public worship of this new denomination. This did not deter the persistent Smith, as indeed very little could. The Baptist Religious Society of Haverhill held its first meeting January 1st, 1765 at the house of James Duncan. Baptisms were done down at the gentle Merrimac River.
Anticipation of revolution grew, until the inevitable happened. In 1776, word spread that the American statesmen had gathered in Philadelphia to declare independence from Great Britain and King George III. The hearts of mothers grew uneasy, even as the minds of young men raced to the prospect of war bravado. It was not long before many citizens and their sons went off to join the American Army. However, it fared too much for Smith to enjoy the safety and security of Haverhill while watching the colonies’ boys go off to war. He sought permission from the church to join the Revolutionary Army as a Chaplain, which they allowed. As an acquaintance of General George Washington, he served for five years and then returned to continue to pastor in 1780.
His successor, William Batchelder, would pick up the baton with a heart for Haverhill and a concern for the new work in global missions. FBC Haverhill would support the mission of the young Adoniram Judson as he worked tirelessly across the globe in Burma.
The church was now firmly established. It was here to stay in town, through winters and warfare, with ministry and missions: a Baptist congregation that became mother church to many other local churches in New England, with an influence in Haverhill and the surrounding towns, throughout the colonies and around the world.
Architectural buffs will readily note that the current building at 217 Main Street is not the original facility. Actually, it is the church’s fourth building, built in a neo-gothic style. Raised in 1883, it was built to seat over a thousand attendees, complete with balconies and a choir loft. The stained glass windows can be seen lit up at night during an evening concert or Christmas Eve service. In the last five years, the church has renovated its 19th century building, nearly doubled its parking, modernized it’s a/v equipment and refocused its vision for serving Haverhill.
It was also a valuable time to celebrate where what God is doing at the church today.
First Baptist remains an active Evangelical congregation serving not only Haverhill but the surrounding towns and communities. It is a church with more than a beautiful downtown location and facility, it is a church passionate about Jesus and seeking to build its ministries around him.
Even as we celebrate our history, we have chosen not to live in the past. We want to be a church that is ministering to Haverhill here and now, seeking to connect people with God today. I’ve been the Lead Pastor for five years now, still enjoying my mid-30s. My call here, I believe, was a crucial turning point for the church—a clear decision by the members to think of the next generation. Since then, we have added new staff, created new ministries like Kid Town to minister to children during the Worship Service, free meals are offered weekly on Sunday afternoons through our partnership with Open Hearts Ministries and on Sunday nights Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered recovery program opens to the community. The church’s renewed small group ministry meeting in homes remains a vital part of the church’s health and growth, and along with a blended service of worship each Sunday committed to expository preaching and heartfelt worship, makes for a joyful and pleasant spiritual family. As in its early days, First Baptist is still committed to global missions.
The future looks promising for the very first Baptist church in the city of Haverhill that this year celebrates its 250-year anniversary. Some of the original documents and furniture are still in the care of the church, even as computers, sound equipment and flat screen monitors fill the offices and conference rooms. From its active membership to its committed staff to its renovated facility, the church is eager to move into the future with excitement. The church remains committed to biblical teaching coupled with a deep affectionate worship for Jesus, with a mission to reach people. This same year, the town of Haverhill celebrates its 375-year anniversary as a bustling city. We are grateful for what God has done, and excited about what God is doing!
So don’t be a stranger; stop in for a visit. Better yet, join us on a Sunday. Swing by our church café for a cup of coffee and check out a copy of John Hancock’s signature on the wall, and then come right into our 19th century sanctuary, equipped with state-of-the-art audio and video upgrades. We want to reconnect you to Jesus, who doesn’t change though times and seasons turn.