In 1745 some individual Baptists gathered and organized under the leadership of Jeremiah Dodge, a business man, and Pastor Benjamin Miller of the Baptist Church of Scotch Plains, NJ. The first meetings were held in the house of Deacon Dodge, and later in a rigging loft at Cart and Horse Alley, now known as William Street near Pearl.
On March 14, 1760, a church edifice was built on Gold St. and opened for services. Two years later its 27 members were formally constituted as The First Baptist Church in the City of New York. Elder John Gano became its first full-time pastor. Within three years, the church had grown to over 300, and the building was enlarged.
The British occupation of the city during the Revolutionary War nearly destroyed the church. Because the pastor and many of its members had joined the Revolution, the British used the building as a horse stable. Gano served as chaplain to Colonel Webb, General Clinton and later General Washington. The present building is located on the site of the ambush of Gano’s regiment as they fled after defeats on Long Island to join Washington. When the Treaty of Peace celebration took place in Newburgh, Washington called on Gano to offer the prayer of thanksgiving. Washington also requested Gano to baptize him, because he had studied the scriptures and concluded that as a believer he should be immersed.
On his return to the city, Gano found 37 members. They immediately restored the church building, and within a few years had grown back to 200 members. Gano left for Kentucky in 1788, as the government offered the former soldiers land of the frontier. There he started several Baptist churches. Gano was also a founder of the Baptist Brown University in Rhode Island.
In 1802 the church had to tear down its building and built a new stone structure on Gold Street. Under the leadership of Dr. Spencer Cone, the church relocated in 1842 to Elizabeth and Broome St., a gothic structure still used as a church today. The church began to outgrow that facility and, under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Anderson, moved to the corner of 39th St. and Park Ave. A magnificent gothic brown stone building was constructed, along with a separate Bible School building.
Six years after the arrival of Dr. I. M. Haldeman as pastor, the church relocated to its present facility. With a growing congregation, and many moving to the Upper West Side, this site at 79th St. and Broadway seemed more favorable. Haldeman was also assured by the city that a subway station would be located at our corner.
Altogether, 19 pastors have served the church. Two were noted as chaplains of the U.S. Congress. Two served as college presidents. Two founded colleges. Together they have written over 300 books. Many have served in leadership roles of our Baptist denomination and other Christian associations. All have held to the fundamental truths of the Word of God.
THE CURRENT BUILDING
A design competition was held to select an architect for the new edifice and 12 entries were received. Architect George M. Keister, known primarily as a residential and theatre designer, was selected. He was also the architect for the Apollo Theater. He and Dr. Haldeman applied a Biblical-related symbolism to the building.
The exterior is of Indiana limestone on a base of Milford granite. The auditorium is 59 ft. by 105 ft., and is 62 ft. high in the center. Originally, the roof and ceiling were stained glass. When it became impossible to fix the leaks that developed, an Italian-style tile roof was placed over the building. The balcony was added in 1903 to make the seating capacity about 1000. The organ pipes visible in the auditorium were part of the organ brought from the Park Ave. building.
The two unequal towers over the corner entrance of the main auditorium are examples of Biblical symbolism. The taller tower had at its top an electric light and is understood to represent Christ as the head of the church and the light of the world. The lower tower, which appears to be incomplete, was designed to represent the Church, which will remain incomplete, until the return of Christ. The two smaller towers represent the Old and New Testaments as the basis of our faith.
The cornerstone is marked with the initials FBC in monogram style, and with the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the name of Christ, and by the letters Alpha and Omega, the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet used as a title for Christ in the Scriptures. These Greek letters appear also in the front and back of the auditorium. Originally, there were stars of David on the four corners of the upper auditorium to show that the Gospel was to be taken from the four corners of the earth, to the Jew first and also the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)
The Hebrew in the front of the church reads, “In the beginning God” from Genesis 1:1. The Greek reads, “In the beginning the Word,” from John 1:1. Surrounding the baptistry are eight pillars symbolizing the fundamental pillars of our faith and “form of doctrine once delivered to the saints.” (1) The sovereignty of our triune God; (2) The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture; (3) The virgin birth and incarnation of Christ; (4) The impeccability of Christ, His sinlessness; (5) Christ’s vicarious atonement at Calvary; (6) The bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ; (7) The pre-tribulation rapture of the Church; and (8) The pre-millennial return and reign of Christ.
The large rose window facing down Broadway pictures Christ as the center of the New Testament Church. He is the large inner circle. The star depicts Him as the bright and morning star. The crown shows Him to be King of kings. The frame of sun portrays Him as the Sun of Righteousness. The five upper circles depict the Epistle writers, while the bottom four are the Gospel writers. The tree center circles on pillars express the omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence of Christ.
With five being the number of “grace” in the Bible, the five front steps conform to the teaching that salvation is by grace alone. Above them are the words from Romans 10:9, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God has raised Him from the dead, that shalt be saved.” Christ is therefore pictured as the only way of salvation to a lost and dying world.
First Baptist Church is fortunate to have pictures of 18 of its 19 pastors. They are displayed in the hallway going from the front entrance toward Haldeman Chapel. Past them is the Bible prophecy chart designed by Dr. Haldeman in the early 1900s. It’s one of our archival treasures.
Another treasure is found in Gano Chapel. Here are the paintings of Gano baptizing General Washington and Gano praying in thanksgiving for the British surrender. They are copies of the original paintings located at the William Jewell College in Missouri. Their collection also includes Gano’s sword, which was a gift from General Washington, who had received it from the French General Lafayette.
In the hallway outside of Gano Chapel are several pictures of the church taken in the 1920s before the stained glass roof was covered over. They provide a detailed picture of the early church architecture.
The First Baptist Church in the City of New York, 265 West 79th St, New York NY 10024, 212-724-5600