The First Baptist Church in New Bedford is one of the city’s most important landmarks. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 to commemorate an event that occurred there over 150 years ago.
Lieutenant Henry Martyn Robert had been assigned to oversee construction of Fort Rodman in New Bedford in 1863. While he was in the city, Robert was asked to moderate a public meeting at the First Baptist Church.
“It was quite well-attended and lasted 14 hours,” said Teri Bernert, Executive Director of the Waterfront Historic Area League, which is currently working with a local theater group to restore the aging structure. “It was rancorous, hot-headed meeting in which they were meeting to discuss defenses against possible Confederate raiders.”
Henry was thoroughly disheartened by the disorganization at the meeting. He went home and told his wife what had happened.
“His wife was reported to say, ‘Henry, stop complaining and go write a book!’” said Bernert.
Henry set about to do just that. A few years later, he published the first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of guidelines for public meetings, and Henry’s answer to that rudderless, raucous meeting a few years earlier.
The book was an overnight success. Robert’s Rules is in its 11th edition, and is used around the world. The ancestors of Henry Martin Robert are actively involved in keeping the book up to date.
“The 12th edition is about to come out, and really hotly awaited by people around the world,” said Bernert.
Aside from being one of New Bedford’s key landmarks, the First Baptist Church is also one of the city’s most vulnerable. The 1829 structure is in fragile condition, with faded, flaking exterior paint and major structural issues inside. The Waterfront Historic Area League is looking to secure grants and state historic tax credits, and they estimate the project will cost around $1-1/2-million-dollars.
First Baptist still has a small but active congregation, and when the restoration project is done, they’ll share use of the space with Your Theater, a non-profit community theater group in New Bedford that’s been active – but without a permanent home – since 1946.
“With very little interior and almost no exterior changes, we’re going to maintain the historic significance of the building and be able to use it as a theater,” said Eric Paradise, a member of Your Theater.
The church’s bell tower also is in dire need of attention.
“It was an aid to navigation and it appears on the city seal,” said Paradise. “And the other towers that are on the city seal unfortunately no longer exist, so there’s some historic significance there.”
The Waterfront Historic Area League and Your Theater and hope to have the renovation project wrapped up by next winter.