The designation “First” or “Second” in the name of a Baptist church has nothing to do with status in the community, nor it is unique to Baptist churches. Other types of churches also use those numerical designations. Likewise, ordinal designations are also frequently used in bank names (i.e., First National Bank).
In the early days of the United States (or the American colonies), church names were not nearly as creative as they are today. There were no churches named “Celebration Family Outreach Center,” “Excite! Church,” or “Crossroads Community Church.” Church names were more straightforward and were intended to give more information about the church itself. The Baptist church that was first started in a particular community was often called the “First Baptist Church of __________” (or simply “First Baptist Church”). When another Baptist church was started in the same community, it would often be called the “Second Baptist Church”—thus, First and Second show the order of founding. The First Baptist Church of Natbury Pass is older than the Second Baptist Church of Natbury Pass.
The same method of naming churches was followed by other denominations, especially the Methodists and Presbyterians. Sometimes the pattern continued with “Third” and “Fourth” churches. The evangelical stalwart James Montgomery Boice was for many years pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.
The reasons for a “Second” church forming in a community with a “First” church can vary. Sometimes, it’s the result of a difference in theology or practice. When serious divisions or disagreements within a particular denomination or congregation exist, and they cannot be equitably resolved, the result is often the formation of a new church and sometimes a new denomination. An easy, practical way to differentiate one church from the other was to refer to the dissenting church that came out of the first as “Second.” An example of this occurred in 1743 in Boston, Massachusetts, during the Great Awakening. Some members withdrew from the First Baptist Church and formed the Second Baptist Church over a disagreement on the practicality of religious reform. Most of the time, however, the founding of a “Second” church is not rooted in doctrinal issues but is simply a matter of church growth.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, some church denominations split over the issue of slavery, but, in the modern church, divisions over racial tensions are extremely rare. There are cases today in which a community’s “First” and “Second” churches have different ethnic or racial backgrounds. An example was the (now defunct) First Baptist Church of Santa Ana, California, which was historically white, and the Second Baptist Church, which was historically black. The difference in their membership, however, was not due to intentional segregation but to neighborhood demographics: in fact, the “First” church had provided resources to help start the “Second” church, and the two congregations remained mutually supportive throughout their history. The designating of churches in sequential fashion typically has nothing to do with racism, segregation, or ethnic injustice within the history of that particular church.
There may be multiple “First” churches within the same area, especially in a metropolitan area, because there are multiple conventions, synods, or sub-denominations that have planted churches in the same geographical region. An internet “near me” search of anywhere in the United States will likely return multiple “First” church results of various denominations with a number of “Second” church results and occasional other ordinals farther down the number line. Thankfully, the use of ordinal adjectives such as First and Second in church names does not imply competition or relative importance. Rather, such designations simply show the order in which sister churches were founded in a certain city.