Holiday House Tour 2017

The 1801 meetinghouse of the First Religious Society is regarded by architectural historians as an iconic example of the


 Facade of meetinghouse

that blossomed in New England around the turn of the 19th century, when the older barn-like style of churches was rapidly giving way to a more exuberant expression – more spacious, classically ornamented, and with tall and prominent steeples reaching to the sky. Open any book about New England churches and you will likely see its picture there, along with others that followed it in style and detail during the next two decades. The original 1725 meetinghouse stood in what is now Market Square. Only the bell, organ and a clock were said to have been moved to the new building, although the original lock and key for the front door would appear to also have been re-used, as well.

Looking to the front of the room, you see the



The height of the pulpit allowed the preacher to be heard well, but also indicated the authorty of the Bible. It was originally even higher, with a massive sounding board suspended from the ceiling. Rev. Thomas Fox had it lowered because he wanted to be closer to his people. At that time the present stairways were added; before that it was entered by stairs from a room in the back. The woodwork surrounding the pulpit hints at the beginning of the Grecian revival style that later became prominent. The First Religious Society came from Puritan roots, but today its members include humanists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, skeptics…--all who search for truth and meaning.

In the early days, families paid an annual


rent and always occupied the same pew.

Pew with shelves and arm rest 

Most of the pews have some distinctive characteristics, such as added shelves or drawers, plus a variety of arm rests and foot rests. Initially they even had different carpets. People probably brought cushions to sit on too, as many parishioners do today.

The PLAQUES on the facing walls inside list the ministers over more than two centuries.

Plaque of ministers

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the congregation’s fifth minister, almost immediately found himself the center of controversy due to his abolitionist sermons and writings. Much of Newburyport's upper class saw nothing wrong with slavery in the south, and merchants had benefitted from the slave trade. Higginson was forced to resign in 1849. He went on to fight in the Civil War with an African American regiment, and for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples. Today Unitarian Universalists have a track record of standing on the side of love for civil rights, racial justice, LGBTQ equality, immigration reform, and more.

In a time before adequate and safe methods of lighting, the plain glass WINDOWS played a practical role in admitting plenty of light. 

Windows of meetinghouse

While clear windows were sometimes later replaced by stained glass in old churches, these never were. Originally a metaphor for the light of God, these windows connect us to the sacred and troubled world outside, even while at prayer. During our annual Candlelight Christmas Service, each window is lit with dozens of candles.


on the columns and gallery rail date from the 1850s and were converted from gas to electricity in the early 20th century. The church interior was originally lighted by a large crystal chandelier.

In the back gallery (balcony) you will see the elegant ORGAN that was installed in 1834.

Organ stops

It was built in Newburyport. In the second quarter of the 19th century Newburyport had no less than three organ builders. Joseph Alley built this organ, one of his largest, in his workshop on nearby Brown’s Wharf. Although it has been altered and enlarged on three occasions, it still occupies its fine mahogany casework and contains most of its original pipes. It is admired by many organists, and is in regular use for services and concerts.

On the front of the gallery is an 18th century 


Clock hanging on meetinghouse gallery wall

Its date is uncertain, but it is recorded that when the original meetinghouse was taken down in 1801, the clocks in the steeple and inside the church were removed to the new one. Its age and maker have not been discovered, although it is similar to a clock in Boston’s Old North Church attributed to John Avery, a Connecticut clockmaker who died in 1794. It has been restored, and is still functional, although someone has to lean over the gallery rail to wind it.

The recently restored


is notable for its elegant proportions and overall design.

Weathercock from steeple

While it seems to have had no antecedents in this regard, it appears to have been the model for steeples on some other churches built during the ensuing decade, such as the 1805 First Church in Roxbury. The gilded weathercock on the top is a reproduction of the original, imported from England in 1726 and still owned by the church. Today our steeple serves as a beacon to those seeking free expression and spiritual growth through self-determination.