The spread of Baptists across New York State is often told in tandem with NYS Civic History. The Erie Canal's 200th anniversary is underway in 2017, and among the festivities and retrospectives is the excellent exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY: Enterprising Waters New York's Erie Canal. The exhibit will run until October 20, 2019. (For more information, click: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibitions/enterprising-waters-erie-canal)
I was invited to speak at the Sunday morning worship service of FBC Rome, and I noted quickly the connection of FBC Rome's formation a few months after the Canal's section in Rome began excavation and construction. I wove the sermon around the theme Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14 along with excerpts from a historian's retelling of the Canal's start in Rome and the memories shared within the church's own historical narrative. My thanks to Rev Cedric Broughton, pastor of FBC Rome, for his work along with the lay leaders serving on the committee for planning a festive celebration in honor of 200 years of ministry and mission!
Grace and peace be with you this day! I am grateful for the privilege and honor of serving as the preacher for this celebratory Sunday morning, recalling the past and committing anew to the future of this congregation.
To the congregants and friends of First Baptist gathered here this day, to the clergy past and present, especially Revs. Broughton and Htee Gay, and to your former minister and later on our Region’s Executive Minister, the Rev. Dr. William Carlson, I bring greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ and on behalf of the 294 churches of our upstate New York regional family.
With the words of Paul to the church in Corinth in mind, I begin with a moment taken from the pages of local history:
On July 4, 1817, a boisterous throng of citizens paraded out of their small village in central New York before sunrise. They were armed, but not for war. Many had been up all night celebrating the holiday and the impending grand event. They proceeded to a flat, marshy meadow studded with hemlock and birch a mile south of town. Each carried a shovel.
These words are from the historian Jack Kelly, who researched the development of the Erie Canal as well as the changes the Canal project brought to upstate New York all across its eventual path. Here Kelly recalls what happened two hundred years ago when the town of Rome, NY, began its significant contribution to the earliest stages of the Erie Canal’s excavation and construction. (Quotation above from Kelly, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal, New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Griffin, 2016, p. 40)
The year 1817 was a good year also in Rome, as that was the year First Baptist was founded. Certainly, Baptists had been around these parts for years before, but this was the time when a church body was formally established for the purposes of regular worship. On that day in October 1817, there was no church building to gather in at the time. Certainly, much work had to be done if the loosely organized group was ever going to become a church that lasted. Small in number, these faithful folks brought faith, willingness to serve and their differing skills and talents. For those who endeavored against the odds to found First Baptist, each carried their faith.
From the church’s history, newly revised for the 200th anniversary, we read:
In the summer and autumn of the year of our Lord, 1817, several members of different Baptist churches residing in Rome and its vicinity became impressed with an idea that it would promote the declarative glory of God; the honor of the Redeemer’s kingdom and their own happiness (If God in His providence should so order the state of things and prepare the hearts of his children for it) to have a church formed amongst them. Accordingly, after having given notice in the vicinity, they met to consult upon it at the schoolhouse in Wright Settlement, Rome on the 23rd day of October, 1817. The meeting was opened by singing and prayer by Elder Stark. Brother Simeon Hersey was chosen moderator and Brother James H. Sherman, Clerk.
We come today to celebrate the 200th anniversary of First Baptist, Rome, even as the State celebrates the same anniversary year for the Erie Canal. One cannot understand the history of Rome without the Canal, just as surely as First Baptist cannot tell its story in isolation from being embedded in that history as well. Out of the origins of spirited collaboration, Rome and this congregation faced the future with great zeal, with the uncertainty and opportunity that accompanied such risk taking. Two hundred years later, with the challenges and celebrations alike that shape history, we are here looking back with gratitude and thanksgiving that indeed “God in His providence so order[ed] the state of things and prepare[d] the hearts of his children for it.”
Such splendid language of faith was also needed when the Erie Canal project was proposed. Jack Kelly recounts the extreme challenge of designing and engineering a canal when no previous attempt had been successful or enthusiastically supported in the history (to that point) of the United States. Indeed, the canal became known as a gamble on the part of New York State, its chances of federal funds blocked by President James Madison who vetoed the bill just before his Presidency ended, citing a disdain for federal funds to be used in such manner (Heaven’s Ditch, p. 32). New York’s Assembly gave the go-ahead, entrusting a major project to engineers who were largely self-taught. Coming to Rome in early July 1817, the dignitaries realized they were staking their good names on the significant work that loomed ahead with little assurance of future success, let alone project completion. Reviewing the project’s scope, one could identify many variables and unknowns, yet these New Yorkers dared to try anyway. The many talents, the shared willingness to risk against the odds, that’s how the largest canal project in American history got underway!
In the New Testament, we learn of the great strength of the Christian church comes from the Spirit gifting each believer with their own abilities for ministry. Many congregations today struggle to remember this truth faced with challenges of attendance, building issues and cash flow struggles. The greatest asset of a church is its willingness to take up the call to follow Jesus and empower each and every person in the membership to bring what God has given them uniquely and blessedly for the good of the whole Body.
Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, a group that deals with a lot of internal division and dissension. Calling the fragmented factions back together, Paul proclaims,
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
As Paul tries to sort out the issues afflicting the Corinthians, he wisely works toward the healing of the whole gathered people. He speaks of gifts for good reasons. Each Christian is gifted with some talent or ability that contributes to the furtherance of the work of the Gospel. No one is without usefulness to the community of faith. No one is “less than” another. It is a remarkable thing in this world to be told that you have something to offer. The Church may struggle to say that consistently, graciously and intentionally. We have our good days and our not so good days, but when we are at our best, we welcome the diversity of gifts rather than narrow it down. For without God and one another, do we really have a chance of being something greater than an individual or alone?
Meanwhile back in July 1817, the dignitaries would finish their speaking. The cannons boomed aloud to mark the moment. And then the contractor was handed a spade to turn the earth. After he did, “the gesture touched off a frenzy of flying dirt. Everyone in attendance began to dig, ‘each vying with the other’ said the Utica Gazette, in the pure joy of participating in history”(Kelly, p. 41).
Likewise, great joy fueled the desire to form a Baptist church in Rome that would come to be known as “First Baptist, Rome.” Certainly, we tell the story of a congregation sometimes by the litany of pastors who served and what happened during their tenure. Yet, in the midst of the “official narrative”, it is not just the leaders (ordained and lay) who have made a congregation’s history all alone. To understand a church’s history, we recall our origins not in 1817, but in the early decades of the first century, when at the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God stirred up the women and men following Jesus, and the Gospel spread with not frenzy, but evangelical fervor!
Indeed, the best parts of a congregation’s history are when you see evidence that the “many members” of “the Whole Body” become engaged in the ministry of the church. It’s not meant to be just about the decisions, committee meetings and official minutes of the Church that tell the history. I look especially at congregational histories to see evidence of when the grit, determination, cooperation and “pure joy of participating” can be discerned in the midst of yellowing pages of old minutes, financial ledgers, newsletters, and other ephemera that collect as a church’s history slowly unfolds.
The story of First Baptist, Rome, continues to be written. Even in the past twenty five years since your 175th anniversary observance, your church has encountered challenges (building issues, changing community and its effect on church attendance). Yet, you’ve been blessed like other parts of the Mohawk Valley with the influx of new settlers, coming not from places like Wales and other European contexts two hundred years ago, but from Myanmar and Thailand. Welcoming the Karen as part of your fellowship and Htee Gay to your pastoral staff likely was not something you would have predicted in 1992 when the church gathered for its last “big anniversary”.
Celebrating today, First Baptist, Rome, can count its blessings while acknowledging the challenges that come inevitably with time’s passage and a community’s economic and social changes. Your church has been the spiritual home of canal diggers, foundry workers, military families stationed nearby, merchants, homemakers, students and people starting life anew from other places far beyond the Erie Canal’s path. Blessings upon blessings upon blessings!
Can we just let that wonderful word soak in for a moment? Imagine with me what has come before:
All of those wonderful folks who loved the Lord, who loved this congregation and what the church could do for Christ and the world, we remember the two hundred years now coming to a close
And then can we look to the future, seeing challenge and opportunity alike, realizing that God has gifted this church with the great potential of each and every member who chooses to share their gifts and open up possibilities for others to exercise their own individual gift for the greater good. In such moments, we look to the future just like those folks in October 1817, knowing that God continues providentially to “order the state of things and prepare the hearts of [all God’s] children for it.”
A short history of the NY State Canals: https://www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html
Kelly, Jack. Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal. (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Griffin, 2016).
A website related to Heaven’s Ditch: https://heavensditch.com/