SEDGWICK — Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, will speak at the 1837 First Baptist Church in Sedgwick on Friday, July 23, at 7:30 p.m.
Considered the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the state, the church has no congregation and is in the process of being acquired by the Sedgwick-Brooklin Historical Society.
As a condition of its charter as a town in 1789, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts required the townspeople to set aside land for a meetinghouse and a minister. The former was built at the center of the 36-square-mile town in 1794, and the minister’s home was built in 1795 across the road.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Daniel Merrill had been called in 1793 for Sedgwick’s First Church of Christ, Congregational, the official religion for Massachusetts and its province of Maine.
By 1803-1804 Merrill, a persuasive speaker, had built the congregation to over 180 members, the largest in the province. Rumblings were heard among his flock, however, that baptism by immersion in early adulthood was necessary for salvation. After agonizing study, Merrill gave his Seven Sermons leading to the defection of himself and most of his flock of 180 to the Baptist faith. Its tenets appealed to the mood of the great awakening sweeping the land.
Shortly after this defection, it became clear that the meetinghouse should no longer be shared by government and worship. Little is known of the first structure used by the Baptists. However, on Sept. 19, 1836, Moses Dodge deeded to the church the hill in the center of the village with a commanding view over the harbor.
Construction started immediately on an edifice worthy of this trading port’s newfound faith, prosperity and worldly outlook. Drawing on concepts in Asher Benjamin’s 1833 book “Practice of Architecture,” townsmen chose Col. Benjamin S. Deane of Thomaston as architect and Thomas Lord of Surry as builder. This confluence resulted in a building that both subtly and with clarity speaks to most of order and grace, even to its welcoming pews. Its layout clearly addresses and focuses on the sermon rather than ritual. All of this is extraordinarily well done for a frontier town.
Largely unchanged in 173 years, the burgers, traders and sea captains did place six memorial stained glass windows in the church between 1892 and 1905. Attribution to Tiffany, LaFarge or Mary Tillinghast has never been proven although the search continues. Electricity and central heat of a sort were added in 1922.
With Sunday services and weekly prayer meetings with roll calls as high as 400 in attendance in the early 1920s, filling all 66 pews, the decline of coastal trade and rise of rail and motorized transport began to take its toll on this town, as well as its church and outlying chapels. By the 1930s the church was no longer the center for town life. More and more sought employment out of town, even those who continued to live here. Sunday services dropped to 40 or fewer.
By the mid-1980s, the bell tower and dome had developed a cant to the north. This was corrected through the generosity of several nearby residents, most notably James Russell Wiggins and Austin Goodyear.
Since then the tower, portico, pillars, eaves and clapboards have developed some rot. Leakage is evident at the base of the tower, and especially at the eaves bracketing the tower, causing water seepage, plaster failure and soggy carpet. The partially excavated cellar is very damp much of the year, primarily from a leaky bulkhead. Nevertheless, the interior paint work is in good condition, as are the six stained glass windows and the large chandelier.
The society’s vision is focused on the church as an inspiring meeting spot for a range of events, lectures, concerts, individual performances and plays, art exhibits, weddings, memorials and funerals.
To make this well-balanced, warm space usable today only requires cleaning and straightening up, airing out and removal of the carpeting for use May through September. Further modification to the lectern area will make this center aisle church even more flexible for broad use in the cultural arena.
Other improvements, such as interior painting and so forth, can be made gradually over the years, once the roof, tower and exterior siding and portico are made weather tight.