Our HistoryA Historic Building, A Timeless Story
History & Highlights
Trinity was built in 1726 and clearly reflects the needs of the people at that time. It’s a truly unique and wonderful place, soaked with nearly 300 years of prayers. As you enter Trinity today, you’ll notice a jovial atmosphere around a large, three-tiered pulpit in the center of the lower level. Upon entering, your thoughts are focused on both the word of God, the Scriptures, proclaimed from the pulpit, and to the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood offered at the altar. We know, without a doubt, that we are in the house of the Lord.
Our primary identity is as an active parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, and yet we know that the heritage of our beautiful church building is a priceless gift that we must maintain and pass on to the succeeding generations. Let us tell you a little bit of our story, and invite you to come and visit us whenever you are in Newport.
The Anglican Church came relatively late to Newport; early settlers moved here to get away from the Church of England. By 1698, however, there were enough Anglicans, joined by Huguenots and Quakers, to form Trinity’s first congregation.
The congregation quickly outgrew its 1701 home, and in 1726 built the church in which we worship today. The box pews helped to keep warmth during the winter before the building was heated – and today provide excellent enclosures for wandering toddlers. Their various shapes and sizes reflect the individuality of the members of the congregation, who paid for their own pews as a way of defraying the cost of the building. The first and second bays at the altar end were added in 1762, as the congregation continued to expand.
A striking feature in Trinity Church is the wine-glass or chalice-shaped pulpit. It indicates the importance of preaching during the colonial period, and the sermon at Sunday services is still given from it today. Most colonial churches had central pulpits, but many later moved them to the side. This is the only center-aisle, freestanding, triple-decked pulpit left in America today.
The gold-tipped staffs (“Warden’s rods” or “nodding rods”) above the pews of the Senior and Junior Wardens were used to tap or prod those who fell asleep during lengthy colonial services
The chandelier closest to the Tower is original, made in Exeter, England, by Thomas Drew in 1728; the other three are reproductions. They seem to hang a little to the north, but actually it is the building which leans, showing the impact of three hundred years of winds from the sea.
Up in the rear balcony is the organ; the center of the facade and faux front pipes are all that remain of the original instrument. The crown on the top of the organ case stands for Queen Anne, monarch when the church was built; the two bishop’s mitres stand for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, under whose jurisdiction the colonial church fell.
The original organ was a gift from Dr. George Berkeley, later Bishop of Cloyne (Ireland). Bishop Berkeley spent three years in Newport and was much indebted to the members of the congregation. It was Bishop Berkeley who posed the famous question: “If a tree falls in the forest, but there is no one to hear, is there sound?”. Local legend has it that the Bishop first formulated his query while meditating in his favorite retreat, a niche (still called “Bishop’s Seat”) in the craggy rocks overlooking Sachuest Beach.
On the south side of the main aisle, adjacent to the Clerk’s Desk, is a box pew ornamented with engraved silver plaques commemorating visitors of special significance who were seated there. The earliest of these is George Washington; others include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Andrew, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah. Archbishop Tutu addressed Trinity’s congregation a scant two weeks after learning he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As an aside, he smilingly mentioned that the Nobel Peace Prize was excellent life insurance.
A sailor reaching harbor in Newport in the 1970’s was struck by the interesting juxtaposition to be observed from the harbor: Trinity Church’s classic spire soaring heavenward, visually cheek-by-jowl with the stark, grimy smokestack of a nearby dry-cleaning establishment. The unavoidable conclusion was that the mismatched pair of towers represented “Cleanliness Next to Godliness.” The smokestack was later demolished.
From 1985 to 1987, Trinity Church underwent a major restoration under the “Save Historic Trinity” program to stabilize the grand old building, which had developed a serious list from centuries of pressure from ocean winds. Anchors, appropriately called “deadmen.” were installed in the old graveyard on the north side of the church, bracing the structure. Ceiling plaster was stabilized and/or replaced. After careful research, the interior and exterior of the church were painted in their original colors. The tower clock was taken down, cleaned, and polished. And through it all, Sunday services were still held in the church as each Sunday 12 parishioners, chosen alphabetically from the parish roster, gathered amidst the construction to pray. These privileged souls were encouraged to wear jeans, required to remain standing in the center aisle throughout the service, and treated to an insider’s look at the latest developments afterwards.
Today, visitors to Trinity are welcomed by members of the Guides Committee, fondly known as the “Sitting Saints,” who delight in pointing out all the fine details of our beautiful church, lovingly built by human hands to praise God’s glory. Information about tours of the church can be found here.
Now firmly in our fourth century of existence, Trinity continues to be a worshiping community. Our mission statement makes clear who we are and what we do:
We are a community of Episcopalians gathered by Christ, serving and supporting one another and those in need. Our historic church is a living beacon calling all for worship, fellowship, and growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord.
More information about Trinity’s history can be found in John Hattendorf’s Semper Eadem: A History of Trinity Church in Newport, 1698-2000. Copies may be found in the collections of the Redwood Library (Newport) and Ocean State Libraries (statewide).