Rev. Henry Wight is the unlikely inventor of today's loud and raucous Fourth of July celebrations. A quiet, pious and amiable man, he passed 43 years of his life ministering to the same church in Bristol, R.I. where he was most remembered for his decency and devotion to the people of the town.
In January of 1785, the First Congregational Church of Bristol, R.I. hired Wight to be the new pastor, only the sixth person to lead the church. With just 36 people in the congregation, Wight was handed the keys to a newly built church building and encouraged to get on with building it up.
Soon after taking charge, the church changed one of its key doctrines. New England churches had created what was called a half-way covenant for members. This half-way membership allowed people to attend services and be baptized without the formal acceptance of the religion. In was initiated in hopes that these half-way members would adopt the full beliefs of the church.
But in 1785 the church concluded that these memberships were not in keeping with the Bible and the small Rhode Island church abolished them. Over the years, Wight would grow the church by 228 members.
In his first year, Wight, who had served as a soldier in the American Revolution, determined that the town of Bristol should observe Patriotic Exercises on the Fourth of July. He led the ceremonies in 1785 with a speech and call to reflect on the hard work put in by veterans who won the war and to celebrate the freedoms that the new nation had gained.
It was the first such celebration and gives Bristol, R.I its claim as birthplace of the Fourth of July celebrations. For 40 years, Wight would continue leading these ceremonies, which soon grew popular across the new country.
Wight was not one to shy away from bringing political discussions into the pulpit, even when his opinions cost him members of his congregation. Harvard educated, he was a practitioner of medicine as well as a minister. He routinely called on sick members of his congregation and provided them with remedies as well as spiritual counsel.
The church, under Wight’s leadership, became a place where the poor would visit for food and medicine, while others sought Wight’s advice on practical matters in their lives. Wight was a life-long reader with a good knowledge of Greek, Latin, mathematics and science; he served for 40 years on Brown University’s governing body, its Board of Fellows.
Wight died in 1838, ten years after his retirement from full-time ministry having married twice and fathering seven children along with the Fourth of July celebration we all know today.