A Westerly By Any Other Name

A Westerly By Any Other Name

by Nick Kersten, Librarian-historian

 

As promised in this space several months ago, this column (and others in following issues) will be devoted to help clear up common misconceptions and errors in Seventh Day Baptist history.

This month’s misconceptions surround the oldest surviving Seventh Day Baptist congregation in North America: the First Hopkinton congregation in Rhode Island. A number of errors spring from the many names given to this congregation and our other congregations in Rhode Island. To clarify, I will give a series of facts, and then try to clarify what those facts mean.

 

First, the facts

The Newport, Rhode Island church was started in 1671. By 1680, members of that congregation had moved to the “Westerly” part of Rhode Island and constructed a second meetinghouse while remaining members at Newport.

In 1708, the group meeting in western Rhode Island requested to be recognized and set apart as an independent congregation. That request was granted. This western congregation was known both as First Hopkinton (the name of the congregation) and Westerly (for where it met).

In 1747, the area of southwest Rhode Island which had been called the town of Westerly was split into four smaller towns: Westerly, Hopkinton, Richmond, and Charlestown. As a result of the split, the First Hopkinton congregation was no longer located in the town of Westerly, but in the town of Hopkinton. Old habits die hard, though, and the congregation continued to be called “Westerly” for nearly a century.

Between 1770 and 1840, three more large congregations grew out of First Hopkinton, and sprawled out over the towns of Hopkinton and Westerly. The first of these groups began to meet in 1771 in Rockville—in the town of Hopkinton—and was comprised of members from First Hopkinton. In time, this group would construct their own meetinghouse (called “the Upper meetinghouse”) and keep their own record books, while at the same time retaining their membership at First Hopkinton.

Another group began to meet in Hopkinton City, town of Hopkinton. These two groups were set apart from First Hopkinton in 1835. The group in Rockville became known as “Third Hopkinton,” and the group in Hopkinton City became known as “Second Hopkinton.”

In 1840, the Pawcatuck SDB Church began with members from First Hopkinton who were meeting in the city of Westerly (town of Westerly). To avoid confusion (too late?) with First Hopkinton (still called the “Westerly” church by many), the group in the town of Westerly named their church for the river that ran through the city instead—“Pawcatuck.”

 

And to clarify…

Now we will try to clarify these facts, to shed light on the common errors made as well.

  • Prior to 1708, researchers looking for SDB church membership in the “Westerly” part of Rhode Island must look to the records of the Newport church, as the two groups were considered a single congregation.
  • When a person or record book refers to the “Westerly” SDB church, we must know when the reference is made before we can know which church they are referring to. From 1708 to about 1840, it is likely that they are really speaking about the “First Hopkinton” church, which is not presently located in the town of Westerly. After 1840, they are likely referring to the “Pawcatuck” church, which is located in the town of Westerly.
  • When a person or book refers to the First Hopkinton church between 1771 and 1835, we must know which meeting of that congregation they are referring to—the “Lower meetinghouse” (in Ashaway), or the “Upper meetinghouse” (in Rockville)—as the two groups did keep separate records even though they were considered a single congregation.

Hopefully, these facts help to dispel confusion about these Rhode Island churches. For more information on this topic (as well as a map where you can virtually look at the meetinghouses), please visit the Historical Society’s website at www.sdbhistory.org.

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