The 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. The town remembered him most for his decency and devotion to its people.
In January of 1785, the First Congregational Church of Bristol, R.I. hired Henry Wight to be the new pastor. Only five ministers had led the church previously. 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 halfway covenant for members. This halfway membership allowed people to attend services and be baptized without the formal acceptance of the religion. The Congregationalists initiated it in hopes the halfway members would adopt the full beliefs of the church.
But in 1785 the church concluded that these memberships did not conform to the Bible. So the small Rhode Island church abolished them. But in spite of the loss of halfway memberships, Wight grew Bristol’s First Congregational church by 228 members.
In his first year at the First Congregational Church, Wight determined the town of Bristol should observe Patriotic Exercises on the Fourth of July. He led the ceremonies in 1785 with a speech and call for reflection on the veterans who won the war and celebration of the new nation’s freedoms.
Since it was the first such celebration, it gave Bristol, R.I, its claim as birthplace of the Fourth of July celebration. For 40 years, Henry 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 the congregation. He practiced medicine as well as religion. He routinely called on sick members of his congregation and provided them with remedies as well as spiritual counsel.
The church, under the leadership of Henry Wight, became a place where the poor visited for food and medicine. Others sought Wight’s advice on practical matters. He was a lifelong 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.
Henry Wight died in 1838, 10 years after his retirement from full-time ministry. He had married twice and fathered seven children along with the Fourth of July celebration we all know today.
The Modern Parade
Sometime in the early 1800s the now-2.5-mile Military, Civic and Firemen’s Parade began. In 1975, Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci started fighting with parade organizers. Under the rules, he wasn’t entitled to walk in the parade, but he did anyway.
Parade organizers asked him not to come to the 1980 parade, but Cianci showed up in a helicopter. So many parade-goers cheered him the police had to let him march. He missed some parades because of legal troubles, which included prison, but in 1997 Cianci brought along an entourage of law enforcement officers squirting the crowd with water rifles.
Today Bristol’s Fourth of July celebration officially starts on June 14th, Flag Day, and ends with the parade on July 4th. In between are concerts, fireworks, a drum corps show, a firefighters muster and a Fourth of July ball.
This story about Henry Wight was updated in 2018.