The Lost History of a Church that Hosted the First Statewide Anti-Slavery Convention in Rhode Island
While redevelopment often erases a city's past, the constant re-building of a city over time also leads to the loss of historical memory. One such site is 755 Westminster Street, a historic building from 1899, which replaced the High Street Congregational Church originally built in 1835.
In the 1830s, Providence was still in the first phase of industrial expansion, growing from less than 7,000 people around 1800 to almost 20,000 by the mid-1830s. At the time, churches were often at the center of people's lives and informed how they understood their place in the world.
Congregationalism is a Protestant sect that still exists today and was born out of the Puritan faith brought to this area with the English immigrants of the 17th Century. By the 1830s, Congregationalists were one of the leading faiths in Providence, along with Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists: all Protestants. The Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that was spurred--in part--by anxiety around changes in society caused by industrialization, revitalized religious life in the early 19th Century. At the time, many churches focused not just on an afterlife, but on reforming the living world through moral practice and belief. They often supported the education of women, the strict observance of the Sabbath day, total abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, and notably, the abolition of slavery.
While the economic expansion of Providence was tied to the cotton produced by enslaved people in the South, that expansion also reshaped society and produced social movements that targeted the roots of those changes. Many Protestant sects, following the early moral leadership of the Quakers, became staunchly anti-slavery. In 1836, this movement gathered itself for the first meeting of a statewide organization dedicated to the abolition of slavery. They met at the High Street Congregational Church, newly built on this site. Over 200 people gathered here for speeches and lectures and famous Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison made an appearance.
The Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society continued to agitate for the end of slavery until after the Civil War when the U.S. Constitution was amended to abolish it. After the war, the High Street Church reorganized, and the building became the home of the State Normal School, a teachers' college that eventually became Rhode Island College. For a short time in the 1890s, the church was the Star Theatre, which burned in 1899 and was replaced by the brick business block that still stands at 755 Westminster Street...another layer in the evolution of the ever-changing city.