First Baptist Church, Bridgeport
175th Anniversary First Baptist Church, Bridgeport
In 1835, thirty-nine devout Baptists, most of whom lived outside the Bridgeport city limits, were anxious about organizing a Baptist church in Bridgeport. Although there were four churches in Bridgeport and many persons unchurched, the heart of The Rev. James W. Linsley, pastor of the Stratfield Baptist church (now First Baptist Church, Fairfield), was deeply moved. Stratford Baptist Church (founded in 1751) looked upon the growing village of Bridgeport, just three miles away, as a mission. (Traveling three miles by horse and buggy at that time took a good hour and a half.) Of the thirty-nine Baptists, eighteen came from Stratfield Baptist Church and twenty-one came from Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey towns and as far away as England!
These thirty-nine persons made the following Declaration in a July 24, 1835 meeting: “We the subscribers agree to form ourselves into a religious society to be called the Bridgeport Baptist Society for the purpose of maintaining the worship of God according to the sentiments and order of the Baptist denomination.” On September 20, 1837, the thirty-nine persons united to form the First Baptist Church of Bridgeport marking the beginning of 175 years of service.
The first church building at the corner of State and Broad Streets was purchased from St. John’s Episcopal Church. The second building was on the same lot between Broad and Court (now Cesar Batille Way) Streets facing on State Street and was later sold to P.T. Barnum. The congregation eventually decided to construct a much larger edifice at the corner of West and Washington Avenues in 1891, which was completed and dedicated in 1894. This is First Baptist Church’s current building, with one expansion in 1929.
Since the founding of First Baptist of Bridgeport it has played a significant role in the city’s religious and civic life. Ministry to diverse people of Bridgeport included African Americans led to the oldest black Baptist church in the city (Messiah Baptist Church). Concern for immigrants eventually led to the formation of a church for Hungarians which became Silliman Memorial Baptist Church in the West End of the city. Later came the establishment of a Hispanic mission that led to the founding of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana Emmanuel on the East Side. With other Baptists, First Baptist assisted the Haitians in forming the Evangelical Baptist Church of the New Jerusalem. Regular support in the past was given to Chinese, Italians, and Czech missions. A spiritual home for refugees from the former Burma was also provided.
Civic involvement included being a founding member of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, establishing 3030 Park Health Care System, building a 120-unit residential facility for seniors and other able persons called Washington Heights (directly across the street from the church), and creating a shelter for families called Alpha House (eventually taken over by the YMCA). Lastly, First Baptist currently hosts a number of social service agencies and five other congregations! In 2007 Living Word Ministries merged with First Baptist Church and is an integral part of its ministry. This is a congregation populated originally by believers from the Ivory Coast, but which, more recently, included persons from Haiti and other parts of French-speaking Africa.
Among previous pastors are some prominent people. They include The Rev. Dr. Ronald V. Wells, who served as the last President of Crozer Theological Seminary before its merger; The Rev. Melvin Prior, who served as pastor of Central Baptist – Hartford and later Second Baptist – Suffield; The Rev. Richard Hardy who served at First Baptist – West Hartford; The Rev. Nicolas Titus, who was Executive Minister of ABCCONN; and The Rev. J. Loring Carpenter. Outstanding lay leaders are Gil Hamilton, A.George Lindquist, Maude Curtis, and Patricia Wells.
For the past seventeen years The Rev. Hopeton Scott has provided leadership at First Baptist Church. The Rev. Scott was a past President of ABCCONN and is currently President of the Board of American Baptist International Ministries.