Partnership saves historic Baptist church

Baptist Global News
By Bob Allen

A unique partnership involving government, preservationists and a community theater group has helped rescue a historically significant but endangered Baptist church building in Massachusetts.

The stately First Baptist Church, a fixture in downtown New Bedford, Mass., since the city’s heyday as a whaling port more than a century ago, was built in 1829. Over time it slipped into disrepair, and the 40-member congregation couldn’t afford the upkeep.

Enter Your Theatre, Inc., a nonprofit, volunteer, community theater group formed 1946 that produces four to seven shows each season, looking for a permanent home.

SouthCoast Today reported a purchase agreement announced Nov. 24 by Mayor Jon Mitchell that allows the church to move into an enlarged chapel in the rear wing of the building and renovate a two-story annex, while Your Theatre converts the current sanctuary into a theater space.

The city of New Bedford supported the deal in order to boost efforts to revitalize the historic downtown district of the sixth-largest city in Massachusetts.

The Waterfront Historic Area League, which goes by the acronym WHALE, will attempt to raise $1.8 million through grant applications and historic tax credits to pay for the renovations.

Founded in 1962 when urban renewal threatened entire neighborhoods, WHALE has facilitated the completion of more than 50 restoration and preservation projects in the New Bedford area over the past 50 years.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which declared the First Baptist Church building a National Treasure in April, intends to use the unusual partnership of government, churches and arts organizations as a model for saving other important church buildings around the country that are closing and deteriorating because dwindling congregations cannot afford to maintain them.

Preservation Massachusetts, a statewide non-profit historic preservation organization established in 1989, added the First Baptist Church of New Bedford to its list of most endangered historic resources in 2009.

New Bedford is nicknamed “The Whaling City.” It, along with Nantucket, Mass., and New London, Conn., were important centers of an American industry driven by the demand for whale oil before it was replaced in the late 19th century by the cheaper, more efficient and longer lasting petroleum-based kerosene.

The 1851 novel Moby-Dick opens in New Bedford, where author Herman Melville had worked as a whaler.

The impact of First Baptist Church goes far beyond New Bedford, however. Embarrassed by his poor performance in leading a church meeting that erupted into open conflict because of abolitionist concerns, an Army engineering officer named Henry Martyn Robert vowed never to attend another meeting until he knew something of parliamentary law.

Studying while he moved around the country, Robert found no universally accepted rules for conducting meetings and making decisions as a group. He adapted procedures used the U.S. House of Representatives into a book that came to be called Robert’s Rules of Order.

Now in its 11th edition, Robert’s Rules of Order is the most widely used manual of parliamentary procedure and most common parliamentary authority in the United States today, including in churches.

Bob Allen is news editor of Baptist News Global.