The War for Independence from Great Britain brought changes to how the citizens of the newly-constituted United States thought of themselves. Especially in Massachusetts where many were local Minutemen — ready to defend their loved ones and homes at a moment’s notice — felt that they had gained the right to independence in local government and in the leadership of their churches. Thus came to pass a group of churches called only “Christian.”
In 1807, the First Christian Church was built on Middle Street in downtown New Bedford as an offshoot of Elder Hix’ church in Hixville, Dartmouth. It was a non-creedal church based upon five easy-to-remember principles: The Lord Jesus Christ is the only head of the church (not bishops); "Christian" is a sufficient name for the church; The Holy Bible is a sufficient rule of faith and practice; Christian character of life is a sufficient test of fellowship and of church membership; and private judgment and liberty of conscience is the right and duty of every believer.
The egalitarian congregation grew rapidly but in 1826 most of its colored members left and founded the African Christian Church in the West End neighborhood.
The downtown “Christian” building is gone but the spirit of its faithful members lives on in its descendants. The Pilgrim United Church of Christ well-known as the home of Mercy Meals and More breakfast program is a merger of the city’s congregational and Christian churches.
This article addresses another congregation that grew from “Christian” roots — the African Christian Church on Middle Street. Today an elementary school, the Sgt. W.H. Carney Academy, covers the site.
Eventually the church’s practice of individual judgment of the Bible led to the belief in baptism of adults rather than of infants. The name “African Christian” was changed to “Freewill Baptist” Church. Some members wished to be a different strand of Baptists, the “Calvinist Baptists.”
Members who followed the teachings of John Calvin saw their opportunity when, in 1844, the Frederick L. Dewey school-house on Middle Street was partially burned. William Piper and others purchased and refurbished it, and in 1845 began the Second Baptist Church downtown.
The remaining members in the Freewill Baptist church could not keep up the mortgage payments, the congregation was dissolved and the building was eventually destroyed.
In the years following, a variety of churches grew up on the Elm-Summer-Kempton-Cottage Street block: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal; St. John’s Lutheran Church; and the People’s Christian Church. When Carney Academy was built it displaced these buildings forcing the congregations to leave the west end and relocate.
In the 1980s, realizing that the neighborhood was once more without a spiritual home, Pastor Robert Woodbury of the Sixth Street Baptist Church built a church diagonally across from Carney Academy at 280 Elm St. He then sold the building to the Northeastern Conference Corporation of the Seventh Day Adventists. It is home now to the New Bedford Hispanic SDA Church, a burgeoning Spanish-speaking congregation of young families.
Even though the African Christian Church had closed its doors in 1859, this Seventh Day Adventist congregation located in the neighborhood has spiritual ties back to the early First Christian Church of New Bedford founded in 1807.
William Miller, a New York farmer, visited New Bedford as a guest preacher in 1840 and delivered a course of lectures on the second coming of advent of Jesus Christ. The “History of the Churches of New Bedford (1869)” tells how “Mr. Miller undertook to show from the prophetic writings and history, that this event was near at hand and would actually transpire between March, 1843, and March, 1844, but without any positive assignment of the day or hour.
From these New Bedford supporters of 1840 along with adherents to Miller’s teaching in other New England cities descended the worldwide Seventh Day Adventist Church. The New Bedford Hispanic SDA church bears witness to the imminent return of Jesus Christ and invites the public to visit.