The First Question of Ask Metafilter (because I say so)
February 9, 2012 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Why do churches and banks -- and only churches and banks -- name themselves "The First X" or "The First X of Y"? Especially when it's obvious they're not actually the first X ever built in Y?

First Bank
First Church of X
First Bank of X

What's the reason for this naming convention? Why are they claiming to be, say, The First Bank of Atlanta, when it's clear they weren't the first? And why do only banks and churches follow this naming convention? You never see The First Elementary School of Poughkeepsie or the First Mini Mall of Scranton.

Always wondered about this...
posted by Afroblanco to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not an answer by any means, but there's a relevant Straight Dope on one such institution, The Fifth Third Bank of Cincinnati.
posted by etc. at 1:30 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

From that Straight Dope article, it notes that there were once First through Fifth banks, one for each position, and they were not named for the streets they were on. So it seemed there was once a polite system of claiming your actual position in that community.

In other words, this is a reference to a more local-focused time, when someone could claim to be the first bank or church of a given denomination in a community, and that meant something. Less personal (Smith's Bank), and sounds a bit more important and historic.

Another anecdote in support of this notion: First Chicago Bank received National Bank charter No. 8., and the new bank was known as The First National Bank of Chicago. In a similar fashion, there's First National Bank of Omaha (history point #3 in the flash presentation).
posted by filthy light thief at 1:40 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Further thoughts: the reason only banks and churches took this naming scheme would be that these institutions are bigger than people, and older than any family. Where it's fine to be Smith's Plumbing, a different entity from Jones' Plumbing, Jones' Bank doesn't sound as prestigious, and Jones' Baptist Church sounds pompous.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:42 PM on February 9, 2012

Not that this helps you, but there's a Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist in downtown Chicago. That always struck me as a little too far down the line to be worth mentioning.
posted by theodolite at 1:42 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

How do you know they weren't the first? So the building is brand new, so what? We're talking about the institution here, not the building.

Lots of churches do it because congregations split over time as they grow and as internal politics escalate. So the chronologically first church in the area might be named First, or it might not. If not, then the splinter church might take the name First, because they think they are the rightful heirs to that title and those back at the old church have gone astray.

Banks took numbers as their names because of the order in which they were chartered. See the History of banking in the United States.
posted by postel's law at 1:43 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a Christian Science thing. The first church in an area usually gets the "First Church" moniker, second Second, and so on. See the list at the bottom for an incomplete list from the Christian Science Journal. Los Angeles has a 43rd Church of Christ, Scientist, for example.

Same idea as a Mother Church.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:47 PM on February 9, 2012

Why are they claiming to be, say, The First Bank of Atlanta, when it's clear they weren't the first?

how do you know they're not?
posted by violetk at 1:50 PM on February 9, 2012

Meant to pull this:

Note: Following the custom of early New England Congregational and Baptist churches, Churches of Christ, Scientist, in a city or town are numbered First, Second, Third, etc. Societies are not numbered, however. Since all churches and societies are listed in the monthly Christian Science Journal, it is possible to determine the numbers of most but not all missing churches. For example, if a city has listings for only second and fourth churches, it is obvious that first and third are missing. To be certain that fifth church is missing, though, it would be necessary to make sure that there was in fact a fifth church.

So I guess the tradition was ultimately started by New England Congregational and Baptist churches.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:50 PM on February 9, 2012

Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the "First National _________" are owned by the same holding company.

First National of Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois, South Dakota, Columbus, Omaha, North Platte, South West, Iowa, etc. are all in fact part of First National of Nebraska, an interstate bank holding company. Some of these banks were in fact the first bank in that territory, others were family banks renamed upon acquisition.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:03 PM on February 9, 2012

Jones' Bank doesn't sound as prestigious,

Tell that to Henry Wells and William G. Fargo.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:05 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

You never see The First Elementary School of Poughkeepsie

We have numbered public and intermediate schools here in New York City. I'm not sure if the numbering is chronological though.
posted by Jahaza at 2:16 PM on February 9, 2012

Yes, it's a much older tradition than Christian Science. Here in New England, Protestant churches have been doing the "First Church" thing since the late 18th century, and I have never encountered a church styling itself "First Church" that didn't have a good argument as to why their church was the first of that denomination in that community.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:32 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's a naming convention in certain congregations, yes, but a few of them are indeed first (ctrl+f first), such as First Baptist Chuch in Providence, which is the First Baptist Church in America.
posted by Kattullus at 2:55 PM on February 9, 2012

For churches, I think what largely confuses people is that, with the exception of some very old mostly-congregationalist churches that are mostly in New England, when you see 'Christian Chuch' and 'Church of Christ', non-church people and even some from other denominations do not understand that those are not generic terms. First Christian Church doesn't mean that it's the first church of Christians in the area. It means it's the first Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) church or Church of Christ church.

Churches didn't used to routinely get fancy names. You didn't go to Riverside, you just went to the church of your particular denomination in your city. And if it got too big, First Church helped to build Second Church on the other side of town, instead of buying a few city blocks and building an even bigger place, because the parishioners didn't have cars to drive twenty minutes to get there. As people got cars and it got easier to build buildings, that's changed a lot, and new churches are much less likely to be 'first' anything as a result, because there's no real thought that the city's likely to ever get a second one.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:01 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I don't know about outside of New England, but in New England, if a church calls itself First Church, it's usually the first Congregationalist church established in that town. Of course the towns may have merged or divided themselves up, too, which makes it confusing.

In Cambridge, MA, there is "First Parish" (UU) and a "First Church" (UCC). They were one church to begin with but divided off from each other in the early 19th century and apparently the two congregations agreed that they could both call themselves "First". It's very confusing because they're right around the corner from each other. Not that I ever did anything silly like trying to go to a concert at one church and ending up at the other church.
posted by mskyle at 4:32 PM on February 9, 2012

I can't find any reference, but I seem to remember that the "first" moniker was originally really about being the first X in Y. But there is a catch: it was probably the first *national* bank, or the first *state* bank of y. Or at least the first one named first. And it was possibly policed by the banking regulators, but I'm not sure.

As time progressed, the "first" title to a bank came to be seen as a positive thing, so bank names like First Midwest and First Steadfast started happening because it's a cool name. And then The Fifth National Bank (we're fifth, because those first four banks are chumps) buys the Third National Bank and renames to Fifth Third because it's unique and catchy. (Far more so than Old Kent.)
posted by gjc at 7:02 PM on February 9, 2012

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