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The area around the Merrimack and Parker rivers was first settled in 1635, and a church, known as the First Parish, was founded in the same year. In 1694 parishioners in the westernmost segment of the colony, now West Newbury, broke from the mother church to found the Second Parish (now the First Congregational Church of West Newbury). The original First Parish (now the First Congregational Church of Newbury) served a largely farming community, centered near the Parker River.
Meanwhile, another center of population was flourishing at the mouth of the Merrimack River, which by the early 18th century was prospering through ship-building and coastal trading, and would eventually break away from Newbury to become Newburyport. The people there also eventually desired their own church, and in 1722 a Third Parish of Newbury was formed, which would later become the First Religious Society of Newburyport. Three years later a meeting-house was built near the harbor, and John Lowell, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate, was settled as its first pastor. Lowell presided with distinction over his growing parish for 42 years, until his death in 1767 at the age of 64. Lowell was both a scholar and an effective pastor to his congregation. He was also a theological liberal, objecting on one occasion when it was suggested that a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity be made a requirement for a candidate for the pulpit of the Second Parish.
Upon Lowell's death, another young Harvard graduate, Thomas Cary, was chosen as minister, and he too leaned toward the liberal side theologically. As a result, a second church was amicably formed by the more conservative parishioners which eventually became the present Central Congregational Church. Thus by the end of the 18th century, the future City of Newburyport had three churches (the third was St. Paul's Episcopal), while Newbury and West Newbury still had only one.
Thomas Cary's health broke in 1788, and still another Harvard graduate, John Andrews, was called as associate pastor. Although they served in tandem until Cary's death in 1808, the younger man shouldered the greater part of the ministerial duties. It was during this joint pastorate that the present meeting house was built.
The old meeting house had already been enlarged once, in 1737, but by 1785 it was again deemed too small, and was in need of extensive repair. Because the area around the harbor was by this time given over largely to commerce, a new site was purchased on Pleasant Street, then a residential area. The lot was called the "rock lot" because of a substantial granite outcropping on the site, still visible at the back of the church and parish hall cellars. The new building was completed in 1801. The old one was sold for lumber, and the only furnishings from it that remain are the clock on the balcony and the weathercock on the steeple.
The 1801 meeting house, which seats over 800 people, was full every Sunday for several years thereafter, every pew being sold, and the membership was calculated at around 1,800 at the turn of the century. Rev. Cary died in 1808, and Rev. Andrews became the sole pastor, but not without some misgivings on the part of the congregation, which by this time appeared to be somewhat less liberal theologically than their minister. Some withdrew to the Congregational and Episcopal churches, as well as to the Fourth Parish Church (now Belleville Congregational), which was formed in 1808 to serve the shipbuilding community up the river from the central commercial area.
Rev. Andrews retired in 1830, and another young man from Harvard, Thomas Fox, was called in 1831. The church was by this time known as Unitarian, and some of the more conservative Calvinist ministers refused to attend Fox's ordination and installation. By this time there were five churches in Newburyport, but the population had declined somewhat. The new minister was a good preacher, however, and particularly interested in attracting young people to the church. The congregation soon grew to the point where two services were held every Sunday, with a total attendance estimated at 1,200.
Fox appears to have been both a liberal theologian and an innovator. He instituted a Sunday School for the children (with Sunday School picnics!) and encouraged church music. During his pastorate flowers began to be placed in the church, a new organ was purchased, the pulpit was lowered, and a Sunday School library established. Fox was also active in civic affairs, especially in the area of education, and was instrumental in establishing the Female High School, thought to have been the first high school for girls in the United States.
In 1846 Fox resigned due to ill health, and was succeeded by Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1847. Higginson almost immediately found himself the center of controversy, for while much of Newburyport's upper class saw nothing wrong with slavery in the south, Higginson was strongly anti-slavery in his views. At first welcomed by parishioners and community, he soon found himself in an antagonistic role with regard to the wealthy minority. This was exacerbated when he ran for congress (and lost) for the "Free Soil" party. During his troubled few years as minister, he, like his predecessor, was also involved in local educational affairs, teaching classes to the girls who were working in the new factories which had replaced shipping as a source of Newburyport's prosperity. On his resignation, he was urged to start a new church, but refused, stating that he had more important things to do (which indeed he did).
Higginson was replaced by Charles J. Bowen, who, while theologically liberal, was politically conservative. But his pastorate was undistinguished and brief, and he was followed by Artemas B. Muzzey, who served from 1857 to 1864. Higginson had simply been ahead of his times, for during Muzzey's pastorate the Civil War had become a reality, and the First Religious Society was solidly on the Union side. The sons of two of its ministers (Fox and Muzzey) were among the four Colonels sent by the church to the war, although Higginson, who led the famous black regiment memorialized on Boston Common, is sometimes claimed as the fifth.
The scholarly Joseph May, scion of an old King's Chapel family, became minister in 1868. He was regarded as a brilliant preacher, and church attendance grew significantly during his pastorate. He resigned in 1874 and later became minister of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. During his incumbency women were appointed to the parish committee for the first time, and a celebration of the church's 150th anniversary was held.
The church was without a settled minister for a few years following May's departure, and one of the preachers who often supplied the pulpit during this period was Samuel Longfellow, some of whose hymn texts still appear in modern hymnals. In 1871 George L. Stowell was installed as minister. During his pastorate the present Parish Hall was built in 1873. Here Sunday School sessions were held, as well as plays, fairs, dances, and possibly the first adult education effort, classes in the Bible and church history for young men, led by Rev. Stowell.
Stowell resigned in 1879, and again there was a two-year gap until the appointment of Daniel W. Morehouse -- the first minister who was not a Harvard graduate. He was a product of the relatively new Meadville Theological School, and proved both a good pastoral minister and a good preacher. During his tenure the local Universalist Church closed, and he welcomed its members into his congregation.
The meeting house had been once threatened by fire in 1811, when a large portion of the downtown area burned down, and in 1881, at the beginning of Morehouse's ministry, it was again endangered by a fire which destroyed a nearby textile mill. Morehouse and some of the church members are said to have spent the night on the church roof, extinguishing burning embers before they could set the wooden shingles afire.
This was another short but successful ministry, and in 1888 Morehouse resigned and was replaced by Dr. Samuel C. Beane. He was regarded as the ablest preacher in town at the time, but he was also active in the community, especially in the area of education. He was also apparently of an ecumenical bent, for he was the first Unitarian minister in some years to be welcomed in the pulpits of nearby Congregational and Presbyterian churches. Dr. Beane's wife, much loved in the church and community, died in 1904, and it is perhaps due to his bereavement that Beane resigned the following year, after a 16-year pastorate which included a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the building of the meeting house.
Many of the older members of the church will remember Dr. Beane's successor, Laurence Hayward, the only bachelor minister in the church's history. Another Harvard graduate, he was installed in 1905 and went on to set a record for the longest incumbency, serving through both of the World Wars and a long period of economic depression in the community. In his early years Hayward was much interested in outreach, and established a mission Sunday School in the Joppa neighborhood in the south end of town, then home to many poor families who were helped from time to time by some of the church's charitable bequests. In 1915, largely through a bequest from the Moseley estate, a small stucco building, called St. Peter's Chapel, was built on Purchase Street, near the Methodist Church, and for some years Sunday School classes and services were held there for residents of the neighborhood.
In 1925 the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church was celebrated with various ceremonies and festivities. The same year saw the initiation of what was to become a Newburyport Christmas tradition, the Candlelight Service. Held every year on the Sunday evening before Christmas, it features choral and instrumental music with readings, and carols sung by the congregation. Candles light the windows, and the church is decorated with evergreens and poinsettias. On a more utilitarian level, 1925 also saw the replacement of the church's old iron woodstoves with a more modern coal furnace in the cellar. Another innovation of the Hayward years was the Reunion Service, held on the last day of June for several years, beginning in 1932. To this service were invited former and potential church members, including those who had moved away; it later became known as "Ancestors' Day." Although this observance died out during the war years, it may have been the seed of what was later to become a regular community observance, the midsummer Yankee Homecoming Week.
The depression years were hard on Newburyport. The shipping trade had long since departed for deeper harbors, and the shoe and textile factories that had replaced it as the city's economic base were now closing as their owners moved south, attracted by cheaper labor and lower heating bills. The population declined, and so did church membership. The congregation held its own into the years of World War II, and, as in previous wars, sent some of its sons and daughters into military service.
In 1946 the church was faced with a new challenge. The upper portion of the meeting house steeple was found to be in dangerous condition from dry rot. Further weakening could easily cause it to collapse onto the church roof, and emergency measures were taken to shore it up. But to properly restore and strengthen the spire would cost $30,000, more than the small congregation could possibly raise unaided. To the church's rescue came Pulitzer prizewinning author John P. Marquand, a son of the parish, who took it upon himself to spearhead a community-wide drive to raise the needed funds to restore what he and others deemed a community treasure. The raising of the funds and the carrying out of the restoration work took nearly four years. During this period, in 1948, Laurence Hayward retired after 43 years as minister to the church -- one year longer than the record of John Lowell. Named Minister Emeritus, Hayward continued to serve the church in small ways until his death in 1967, and was the last minister to conduct formal communion services in the church.
Into Hayward's place came Heinz Rettig, who had spent the four years since his graduation from Andover Newton Theological Seminary as minister of the Unitarian Church in Groton. There he had done considerable work with young people, but in his new charge he found a largely elderly congregation, and thus made it a priority to attract new members. In June of 1949, he presided over a joyous "Steeple Sunday," celebrating the completion of the restoration work. During the same year St. Peter's Chapel was closed, and a few remnants of its small congregation and Sunday School joined with the main congregation downtown. The old Chapel has since been sold and turned into a residence. Rettig worked hard at the uphill task of building up the congregation under difficult circumstances. After he left to become minister of the First Unitarian Church of Taunton in 1955, Bertrand H. Steeves was appointed minister the following year, and immediately picked up where Rettig had left off.
During Steeves's early years in Newburyport, the city was plagued by a rash of what today would be called "hate crimes," including insulting graffiti on street signs and abandoned buildings. Steeves, supported by the church members and other clergy, spoke out against the city's lack of concern, and in 1961 invited Gordon Hall, an authority on hate groups, to give a public lecture at the church. All might have gone smoothly had not Neo-Nazi leader George Rockwell heard of the lecture and announced his intention to disrupt the meeting. As it was, Rockwell never made it, having been arrested the day before for falsifying his name, but the attendant publicity assured a much larger audience than might otherwise have been expected to hear Gordon Hall's message.
During the 1960's the church was often in the forefront of political activism, attracting some younger members in the process. But this was not the only thrust. In 1968 a group of church members formed a committee to present concerts and art exhibitions under the now not-too-politically-correct title of "Man and the Arts." It was at this time that the art exhibit area in the church foyer was constructed. During the 1970's a separate committee took over the monthly art exhibits, and the music committee assumed responsibility for the concerts, which since 1982 have taken the form of an annual series of three or four varied programs running from late winter to early spring.
In 1972 the annual tradition of observing Martin Luther King Sunday was begun, and in recent years this has been a joint service with the local Congregational churches, rotating its location each year and featuring significant guest speakers. Another notable event of the 1970's was the celebration of the church's 250th anniversary in 1975.
During the 1970's, the rebuilding of the city's waterfront area was begun, attracting new businesses. The construction of Route 95 made the city more accessible, and by the 1980's many new people were moving to the city, attracted by its older homes and revitalized downtown area. Most of these new residents were young, and many worked in the Boston area. Some of these, often raised in different traditions, found a church home in the First Religious Society, attracted by its historic building and the preaching and programs they found there. Membership began to climb more rapidly, and the church school began to grow. In 1990 the children's choir, inactive for several years, was reestablished, and a year later the church school had grown to the point where it was necessary to rent additional space.
Around 1990 it was realized that some serious restorative work needed to be done on the meeting house. Rotting sills were replaced in several places, some preventative work was done on the steeple, and new reproduction windows were made to replace the original windows on the front of the building, the muntins and frames of which were deemed by experts to be too far gone for restoration. Restoration of the windows on the sides of the building continues. At around this time also all of the old wiring in the meeting house and parish hall, some of it in dangerous condition, was completely replaced, and a new smoke detector system installed. More recently, the old amplification system has been replaced with one more flexible and up-to-date.
The church had used the old hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit, for over fifty years, but in 1992 it was voted to order copies of the new hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and these were first used in 1993. In 1992 also, the UUA's "Welcoming Congregation" program was introduced, and received widespread support from the church members.
In the fall of 1993, Rev. Steeves announced his impending retirement as of the summer of 1994, and many events were organized during the year to recognize his achievements and express the gratitude of the church and community for his work. In the spring of 1994, he had admitted a record 32 people to membership in the church. In the fall of 1994 Rev. Steeves was appointed Minister Emeritus, and Doris Hunter was called as interim minister. During the interim, surveys were taken to determine the church's future needs, and its criteria for a new minister.
The Rev. Harold Babcock was installed as minister in 1996. A native of Maine and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, he had previously served churches in Maine, Minnesota, and Attleboro, Mass. Under his leadership the church and church school have continued to grow, with many new activities, including expanded adult education programs, an active "partner church" program with a Unitarian church in Transylvania, and the adoption of the highly acclaimed "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education program for teens, jointly sponsored by the Unitarian-Universalist Association and United Church of Christ.
Plans for the new millennium at the First Religious Society include a rebuilding and expansion of our Parish Hall facilities to provide better space for classrooms and offices, as well as handicap access to all portions of the building complex. Also under way are plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the building of the meeting house in 2001.
THE MEETING HOUSE
The present meeting house is the second occupied by the First Religious Society, the first having been down on Market Square, about where the "bullnose" now is. During the last few years of the 18th century the congregation had grown so that a new building was needed, but because the Market Square area was by this time largely commercial, a new site was chosen up on the then residential Pleasant Street. Indeed, for some years after the new meeting house was completed in 1801, it was known simply as the "Pleasant Street Church."
The architect of this fine building is not known for certain. The building contractors were Spofford and Palmer, and Timothy Palmer, designer of an early bridge across the Merrimack, may have been the primary architect. Another possibility is Samuel McIntyre of Salem, who is known to have provided the applied plaster ornamentation for the pulpit and galleries, and who a few years later designed a building with a very similar facade and steeple for a church in Salem. Local legend has it that much of the massive structural work was done by shipwrights.
When the old Market Square meeting house was torn down, only the organ, bell, clock, and weathercock were moved to the new building. The old bell was replaced in 1816 by a larger one from the foundry of Paul Revere and Son, and in 1834 a larger organ by Joseph Alley, one of Newburyport's two early organ builders, replaced the original organ built in 1794 for the Market Square building by Josiah Leavitt of Boston. The late 18th century "act of parliament" clock still hangs on the gallery rail, and the glass-eyed gilded weathercock, said to have been imported from England, still surmounts the tip of the spire, having recently been restored.
Very few changes have been made in the building. During the 1830's, when the present organ was installed, some changes were made in the gallery pews, and the stairs, which had previously gone from the front vestibule to the room above, were replaced by the present double staircases going directly into the gallery. In this period also the pulpit, which had originally been at about gallery level and accessible by a small stairway in back, was lowered, and the present pulpit stairs built. The old box pews, not perhaps designed for comfort, are original, and many exhibit features such as footstools, arm rests, shelves and drawers which were added by the families that originally owned them.
Other minor changes were made later in the 19th century, apparently in the 1860's and 1880's. Two crystal chandeliers which once hung in the center of the room and over the pulpit were removed and replaced by gas fixtures on the columns, the gallery rail, and the ends of the pulpit. The pulpit lamps were removed in the 20th century, but the other fixtures were simply electrified and are still in use. At around the same time pews 58 and 59 at the back of the church were removed to make room for woodstoves, which, with their long stovepipes, were removed in 1925 in favor of a furnace. The 1834 organ was rebuilt in 1889, and again in 1957, but still retains most of its original pipes and mechanism, as well as its handsome mahogany casework.
The church steeple, called by architect Ralph Adams Cram "the most beautiful wooden spire in New England," fell into serious condition from dry rot in the 1940's, and was completely restored in 1948-49. More recently it has received additional restorative work, and new lighting fixtures have been mounted to highlight its beauty at night. Other recent restoration work has included replacing rotten sills and making new reproduction windows to replace those on the front of the church which were too damaged by exposure to repair.
Considered by architectural historians to be an outstanding example of the Federal style of American architecture, the 1801 meeting house is regarded today as a remarkable survival, since so many other churches from this period have been either torn down or substantially altered. Its acoustics are excellent for speaking and music, and its many plain glass windows make it a place of warmth and light on a sunny day, even in midwinter.
THE PARISH HALL
To meet the needs of the Sunday School, and of other groups and committees within the church, a parish hall was built in 1873 which soon became a center of social and educational activities. At first a rather plain building with a steep pitched roof, it was later enlarged by the addition of a section on the front designed to harmonize with the architecture of the meeting house.
Like most 19th century parish halls, this one consists of two large auditorium-like rooms on two floors, the upper one having a stage and the lower one a kitchen. The office above the entryway is said to have been meant for the minister, but only one minister is known to have used it, all others preferring the more accessible ground floor office. The upper office has thus been used for many years by the church secretary, and this is where most of the office equipment is kept.
Probably the two rooms behind the stage are the only ones originally intended for meetings or church school classes, but with the continually increasing size of the church school in recent years, movable dividers have been installed in the upper hall to create four rooms. These dividers can be moved any time the use of the whole room is needed, as for musical or dramatic programs, choir practice, or meetings of the AA and other large groups. The downstairs hall is open, and is used for coffee hours, dinners, church school classes, and meetings.
Because of the growing demands on the limited parish hall space, a study is presently under way to determine how this building can be enlarged or improved to better meet present-day needs of the church school and the many church committees and nonprofit groups which now use this space weekly.