The Disestablishment of Beverly’s First Parish

 

At the intersection of Cabot, Hale, and Essex Streets, in the center of downtown Beverly, the bells of the First Parish Unitarian Church toll the time, as they have for two centuries.  The Church’s simple wooden structure and diminutive appearance give no evidence of the major role it played in the municipal history of Beverly, particularly the events that ended in the demise of its parishes.  The story of disestablishment in Massachusetts is often characterized as a struggle for the separation of church and state, waged between religious intellectuals, and punctuated by heroic legal battles in towns like Sandwich and Dedham[1].   However, the death of Beverly’s First Parish was not the result of disestablishment.  Rather, it occurred asynchronously out of its parishioners’ latent religious awakening, their desire for greater individual freedom, and their passion for participatory democratic social institutions.

In 1650, the area encompassing that part of Salem lying north of the Bass River was known as the Bass River side.  A small meeting house was constructed there in 1656, and grants of land were awarded to loyal Salem Freemen.  On September 20, 1667, the Bass River Parish was officially set off by the Salem Church; and on November 7, 1668, the Colonial Legislature granted it a charter as the Town of Beverly.  The parish meeting house served as the administrative and religious center of the town until October 1713, when a second parish named the Precinct of Salem and Beverly was set off, later called the Second or North Parish.  The Bass River Parish came to be known as the South, or First Parish.  Each was supported by taxes duly authorized under Colonial law.  Each followed a congregational polity, and employed only Harvard-educated ministers.  They were referred to as “establishment” churches by the Colonial Legislature, to differentiate them from Quaker, Baptist, or other “voluntary” religious organizations.  Collectively, the state-wide system of publicly supported parish churches was referred to as the “Standing Order”.

Massachusetts establishment churches subscribed to the Cambridge Platform, first published in 1648, that the Puritans described as their constitution for church government[2].  The Platform specifically addressed recommendation and dismission, the process by which a minister could release a parishioner from his obligation to one parish and join another.  It specified that the parishioner make his request in writing and, if he was deemed to be of Godly character (usually determined by a public vote of the church congregation), the minister should write a letter to the minister of the new parish recommending the parishioner for admission.  Without such a recommendation, admission to the new parish was unlikely.  The Platform provided only three reasons that a parishioner could be dismissed from his parish:  if he moved, got married, or sought better religious edification[3].

The first ministers of Beverly’s First Parish were Harvard educated, preached the accepted Calvinist gospel, and embraced the concepts of enlightenment rationalism.  Its first minister, Rev. John Hale, gained fame for his part in the 1692 Salem witch hysteria.  Its third and fourth ministers, Rev. Joseph Willard (1773-1782) and Rev. Joseph McKeen (1785-1802) each served as president of the newly organized American Academy of Sciences, and each left the Parish to become college presidents (Willard to Harvard College in Cambridge, and McKeen to Bowdoin College in the District of Maine).  As Harvard President in 1805, Rev. Willard oversaw the election of a Unitarian minister, Rev. Henry Ware, to Harvard’s Hollis Professorship of Divinity, an act that enraged many orthodox ministers and spurred the creation of the Andover Theological Seminary for the training of Trinitarian clergy[4].

The genesis of disestablishment in Massachusetts can be traced to a religious revolution known as the Great Awakening.   In 1740 George Whitefield, a newly ordained Anglican minister from England arrived in Massachusetts at the invitation of local ministers, hoping his extraordinary preaching abilities would increase attendance at their parish churches.  An itinerant preacher and colleague of John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist faith in England), Whitefield had developed a reputation in the Colonies for raising money.  It was said that he could make his hearers weep or tremble, at his pleasure, by his varied utterance of the word “Mesopotamia”[5].  Over several weeks, Whitefield preached in towns across Eastern Massachusetts, raising handsome sums, swelling church attendance for his host ministers, and driving audiences into ecstatic frenzy.  His revivalist message emphasized personal religious experience, known as “new birth”, instead of relying on the means of salvation offered by the local parish minister.  Regardless of their church habits, Individuals were, by their “new birth” conversion experience, on the pathway to heaven, according to Whitefield.  Those who did not convert were destined for Hell.  Whitefield called into question the commitment of ministers who had not experienced new birth conversion, and dismissed education and training as the sole qualifications for occupying their pulpit.  He even insulted the Divinity students at Harvard and Yale Colleges by challenging their commitment to Christ[6].

Whitefield’s passion and eloquence had the desired effect, but soon things took an ominous turn.  He spent only a few weeks in Massachusetts before returning to England.  On his heels came two itinerant ministers, Rev. Gilbert Tennent and Rev. James Davenport, who continued to deliver revival sermons well into 1742.  Lacking the moderation and diplomacy of Whitefield, these men held rowdy public revival meetings, often without permission of the local clergy, and whipped local inhabitants into a state of chaotic and disruptive frenzy.  From a spiritual perspective, their principal issue was with the Calvinist notion of predestination- that God preselected all souls for salvation or damnation from birth. They believed instead that the soul could be saved only by in-person conversion experiences, and that this experience did not have to be overseen by a Harvard- educated minister[7].    Across Massachusetts, in towns like Newbury, Salem, and Ipswich, angry parishioners stormed out of their churches to form new religious societies in defiance of the Standing Order. In some cases (West Newbury, Hamilton, and Essex to name three), these societies evolved into new towns.

Religious animosity between Whitefield and the local orthodox ministry grew so intense that, when he returned to Massachusetts in 1744 for a second tour, he found many churches closed to him.  The more conservative ministers and their churches became known as “Old Lights” while those who accepted Whitefield’s revivalist preaching style came to be known as “New Lights”.  By 1745 the Great Awakening was over and church attendance quickly reverted to their previous levels; but the split in the Standing Order that began over the acceptability of this new style of preaching simmered for many more years, preempted by more substantial political events.

Although Whitefield and his disciples never preached in Beverly, its parishioners were deeply impressed by the notion of revivalist religion personally experienced.  By the end of the eighteenth century, a significant number of Beverly New Lights had abandoned the First Parish Church, rejecting both the Cambridge Platform and the public support of religion.  They aligned themselves with the Baptist Church in Danvers (since 1727, the Baptists had been exempted from parish taxes[8]), and organized the First Baptist Society in Beverly in 1801[9].  After disestablishment, these “separates” would establish a variety of new religious organizations in Beverly[10].  The remaining members of First Parish considered themselves Old Lights.  Although they subscribed to the Cambridge Platform and the Calvinist principles of predestination, other parts of their creed were not held uniformly.   About one third of First Parishioners considered themselves conservatives (known as “Strict Calvinists”), who believed in evangelism to convert others to their point of view. Key to their belief was the concept of the Holy Trinity- that God existed simultaneously as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and that Jesus was literally the son of God.  They generally felt that the natural world was the sole result of the spirit of God and, therefore, they rejected enlightenment rationalism- that the mysteries of the natural world could be explained through logic and scientific laws.  Most First Parishioners considered themselves liberals (known as Unitarians[11]) who were against evangelism, and promoted the right of people to believe as the light of reason informed them, within the doctrine of Christianity.  Unitarians questioned both the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and held rationalist views of the natural world[12].

The influence of the Great Awakening on the First Parish was in evidence during Rev, Joseph McKeen’s ministry.  In 1800 William Burley, a New-Light factory owner, Revolutionary War hero, and highly influential parishioner expressed his dissatisfaction with Rev. McKeen’s preaching, stating that “Mr. McKeen loved Drs. In Divinity & was willing to be one himself”[13].  Rev. William Bentley, Unitarian Minister of the East Parish in Salem, wrote in his diary that Burley and other disaffected church members often travelled to Salem’s South Parish Church to enjoy what they considered the sounder preaching of Rev. Daniel Hopkins[14], a New Light preacher.   They held Sunday evening religious meetings in their homes calculated to foster negative feelings towards McKeen[15].  Burley derided the notion that a Divinity Degree, and not a personal revelation should be the sole credential for a minister, echoing the New Light preacher Gilbert Tennent in condemning “unconverted ministers” who had not experienced personal conversion[16].  These disaffected parish members chose the occasion of McKeen’s resignation in January 1803 to begin raising funds to build a new meeting house.  They submitted a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature for the creation of a Third Parish and the Third Congregational Society that included the right of parishioners to freely move between either parish.   The petition was granted, except for the free movement provision, on March 7, 1803.  The First Parish Clerk struck the petitioners’ names from the First Parish membership rolls, and their polls and estates were removed from the parish tax list.  The Third Congregational Society installed Rev. Joseph Emerson to the pulpit, an Old-Light Harvard-educated, conservative Old Light minister.   The First Parish Church installed Rev. Abiel Abbot to their pulpit, a Harvard educated, liberal, Old Light rationalist[17].

The religious paths of the First Parish Church and the Third Congregational Society deviated little until 1818, when the strident preaching style and evangelical sermons of the new Third Congregational Society minister, Rev. David Oliphant, pushed his parishioners toward New-Light evangelism and away from their previous Old-Light orthodoxy.   A recent graduate of Andover Theological, Seminary, Oliphant attacked Rev. Abiel Abbot at every opportunity from his pulpit[18].  In contrast Rev. Abbot, a man of diminutive and gentle diplomatic style, avoided responding directly to Oliphant’s criticism, and took a positive tone in his sermons.  During one conversation with Robert Rantoul, the First Parish Clerk, Abbot told him that he knew the character of his parishioners better than anyone else, and that knowledge would be his guide[19].

In October 1823, the Installation of Ebenezer Poor as Minister of the Second Parish Church in North Beverly touched off a town-wide religious firestorm when Oliphant, a member of the committee to plan the installation, lobbied to bar Abbot from playing a role in the ceremonies.  Upset by this attempt to put down his minister, Robert Rantoul nevertheless attended the installation.  He later wrote an article about the event in the Salem Gazette that set off a string of angry responses from opposing factions that went on for the next three months[20].

The quarrel between the First and Third Parish ended as abruptly as it had begun.   On December 8th, 1832, the meeting house of the Third Congregational Society was destroyed by fire, and the First Parish clerk offered the use of its meeting house to the Third Parish at mutually agreed times until they could rebuild[21].  This offer was accepted on December 18, 1832, and the two parishes shared one meeting house until March 16, 1834[22].   On January 1, 1834, Article 3 of the Massachusetts Constitution providing for the public support of religion was officially abolished, along with all enabling laws[23].  Instantly, the political authority of the First Parish ended, and the status of its Church was reduced to one of several in town.

The free movement provision of the legislative petition for the establishment of the Third Parish itself demonstrates that the petitioners did not possess strong religious objections to the First Parish Church per se; yet it was upon this point that the dispute between the two parishes pivoted.  The First Parish, in a letter to the Legislature, argued against this provision, reasoning that if a parish was legally responsible for the contracts and obligations it undertook, its membership must, therefore, be fixed[24].  After some negotiation, the Third Parish reluctantly agreed to a two-year period of “open doors”, during which time residents of one parish could request dismission and recommendation to the other; but the matter was not settled to the satisfaction of the petitioners. In 1803 and 1804, seven Third Congregational Society petitioners requested readmission to the First Parish.  In 1805, when the doors were supposed to swing shut, ten more individuals requested to be dismissed from the Third Parish and recommended to the First.  Third Parish residents started attending worship services at the First Parish Church without following the legal process for dismission and recommendation. When the First Parish Clerk added back onto the First Parish tax list the polls and estates of those individuals, the Third Congregational Society submitted new petitions to the Legislature to exempt these parishioners from taxation by First Parish. Finally, in 1807, the First Parish issued a stern warning to the Third Congregational Society that if it continued its appeals to the General Court, the First Parish would use all legal means against them[25].

In 1814, after many dismission requests, First Parish Church deacons declared that requests for dismission from First Parish and recommendation to Third Parish should only be granted by exception[26].  In 1821, Tamma Kilham, a single woman who was denied dismission by the deacons, complained to ministers of several neighboring churches who, in accordance with the Cambridge Platform, assembled an ex Parte Council of Ministers to hear her case. Despite heated rebukes by Rev. Abbot and Deacon Rantoul on the validity of the Council, First Parish was ordered to comply with Tamma’s dismission request[27].

Third Parishioners argued that, even though the First Parish Church was supported by taxes raised from the polls and estates of all parishioners, few of them could become members of the Church.   Members purchased the best pew seats for themselves and their families, while the parishioners had to content themselves with seats in the upper gallery next to children, travelers, and slaves.  The Third Congregational Society would itself be an establishment church that could collect its own parish taxes; but the petitioners believed that, since both churches were the of the same denomination, separate tax lists and collectors ought not be necessary.

The First Parish saw things very differently.  Since its founding it had carefully and dutifully administered the collection of parish taxes, and the integrity of that process was vital to the survival of the parish system in Beverly.  If parishioners could move freely between the two parishes, their tax lists would never be accurate, and their attendant collection costs would increase.  Besides. there was a fear expressed by Robert Rantoul, Parish Clerk and Church deacon, that the free movement of individuals between churches would result in popularity contests between ministers that would trigger a flood of dismissions whenever a new minister was installed.  However, even he eventually changed his mind and came to support the disestablishment of the Standing Order[28].

Much of the passion of the Third Congregational Society’s actions was the manifestation of a growing appetite for private, participatory democratic institutions.    Massachusetts in 1800 was a Federalist stronghold, particularly in the maritime towns of Essex County.  Federalism, the party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton held that in a republic the people’s interests and the state’s interests were the same, since voters elected their own rulers.  Private groups threatened the Federalists’ vision by dividing the population. The freedom of association was not considered a right, but a privilege extended to certain institutions that served the common good; for example, the establishment church[29].   As the nineteenth century wore on, though, the Federalist hold on the Commonwealth’s political structure waffled until, in 1823, they ceased to factor as a meaningful political force[30].  Each time a Republican majority took over the legislature, the state of disestablishment progressed.    In Beverly, the Republican’s promise of individual liberty instilled a restless anxiety in parishioners, and a desire to participate in voluntary democratic institutions[31].  In 1804, elevated social zeal was observed in Beverly parishioners by Rev. William Bentley.  Though he characterized the excitement as non-religious, he noted that Abbot and Emerson each took every opportunity to capitalize on it to promote their houses of worship, even holding evening services for the first time in the Town’s history.[32].

Beverly parishioners mustered the energy to organize an extraordinary number of voluntary democratic societies[33] between 1803 and 1834, including the Beverly Music Society, the Beverly Charitable Society, the Beverly Female Charitable Society, the Beverly Union Sunday School, the First Parish Lending Library, the Beverly Lyceum, the Beverly Temperance Society, and five new churches, all accomplished with a total population of only three to four thousand inhabitants[34].

Perhaps the most revealing sign of the declining state of the First Parish during the period of disestablishment is its declining church membership[35].  224 church members were counted in 1802, reduced to 174 by the exit of the fifty petitioners[36].  The number recovered to original levels by 1805[37].  Between 1818 and 1834, during his ministry at the Third Congregational Society, Rev. Oliphant attracted many moderates away from the First Parish, although the ratio of membership between the two parishes never reached parity.  The final blow came in 1831 with the decision of the First Parish to call Rev. Christopher Toppan Thayer, a professed Unitarian, to replace Rev. Abbot.  The parish voted 76 to 38 in his favor, a slim majority by the standards of an establishment church.  As a result, nearly one third of First Parishioners abandoned their home parish, and aligned themselves with the Third[38].  Thus, the contentious events of the previous fifty years had reduced the First Parish Church from being one of the largest in the state to one with only average numbers.[39].  Today, First Parish Church counts approximately one hundred twenty members, almost exactly the number it counted in 1834.

Disestablishment, and the elimination of the legal basis for the entire municipal parish administration, went entirely unnoted in the official records of the First Parish. Parish meetings continued to authorize assessors and collectors to raise money “on the polls and estates of the parish” for many years.  In a miraculous coincidence, two Revolutionary War heroes; Dr. Joshua Fisher and Col. Israel Thorndike, left $11,000 to the parish, vastly reducing the money it needed to raise annually.   The Parish petitioned the Legislature in 1831 to incorporate the First Parish Ministerial Fund to administer the legacies[40].  In 1835, the meeting house was expanded to its present dimensions, and pew sales replaced tax assessment as the dominant topic in parish meetings.  In 1858, Robert Rantoul bequeathed $300 to the First Parish Ministerial Fund to be used to support the minister provided he served the parish for at least 25 years[41].   In 1870, Deacon Charles Davis, a former Sunday school Superintendent, left the princely sum of $6,000 to the First Parish to defray the costs of the Sunday school and to help in celebrating its anniversaries.  By 1942, well-heeled First Parishioners left legacies totaling over $81,000 to the First Parish Ministerial Fund and the First Parish Sunday School[42].   Over time, the municipal entity that was First Parish devolved into an administrative arm of the Church that controlled the Ministerial Fund, the Sunday School[43], the Vestry[44] and the Parish House[45].  Separate finances were maintained and separate meetings were conducted each year for church and parish until 1950, when a proposal to combine the two entities was rejected after a protracted debate.  The Ministerial Fund’s charter was rewritten in 1989 to place it under direct control of the Church.  In 2016, the Sunday school fund merged with the Ministerial fund, finally eliminating the last remnants of the old parish system.

Of course, the fate of the First Parish in Beverly as a political entity was ordained by the abolition of Article 3 from the Massachusetts Constitution.   Its providence, however, was determined by the passions of its parishioners, expressing their newly found liberty in the form of religious freedom and participatory democratic institutions.  In the end, those parishioners kept the First Parish alive longer than anyone expected.

 

 

[1] Jacob Conrad Meyer, Ph.D., Church and State in Massachusetts from 1740 to 1833:  A Chapter in the History of the Development of Individual Freedom. (Cleveland. Western Reserve University Press.1930).

[2] James F. Cooper, Tenacious of their Liberties:  The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999) 3.

[3] [John Cotton], The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, Adopted in 1648, and the Confession of Faith Adopted in 1680 (Boston:  Perkins & Whipple, 1850), Ch 13.

[4] Meyer 1930, 165-167.

[5] Joseph Tracy. The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield. (Boston: Charles Tappan, 1842) 26.   Tracy attributes this comment to famed English actor and playwright, David Garrick (1717-1779).

[6] Ibid, 347.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Meyer 1930, 14-15

[9] Robert Rantoul Autobiography 1848 (manuscript, Beverly Massachusetts Historical Society), 159.

[10] James F. Cooper, “Enthusiasts or Democrats? Separatism, Church Government, and the Great Awakening in Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly, 65, No. 2 (June 1992) under “JSTOR”  http://www.jstor.org/stable/366098 (accessed July 17, 2017).

[11] The term “Unitarian” was originally applied derisively to an orthodox minister who questioned the Holy Trinity.  It did not denote a formal religious movement until 1823.

[12] Mary Kupiec Cayton “Who Were the Evangelicals?: Conservative and Liberal Identity in the UnitarianControversy in Boston, 1804-1833,” Journal of Social History 31 No. 1 (Autumn 1997) under “JSTOR” http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789858 (accessed June 6, 2017), 86.

[13] Rantoul 1848, 159-160.

[14] Bentley, Rev. William. The diary of William Bentley, D.D., Pastor of the East Church, Salem, Massachusetts. 4 volumes. (Salem, MA: Essex Institute), August 10, 1800.

[15] Rantoul 1848, 159-160.

[16] Gilbert Tennent, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, (Boston: 1742).

[17] Beverly First Parish Records Volume 3 1797-1830, Item 52, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 40.

[18] Caitlin Lampman, “Congregationalism Divided: A Case Study of Beverly, Massachusetts’ First Parish Congregational Church Split, 1802-1834”, (undergraduate thesis, Simmons College, 2013), 5.

[19] Rantoul 1848, 160.

[20] Ibid, 161.

[21] Beverly First Parish Records Volume 4 1831-1872, Item 50, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 22.

[22] Ibid, 44.

[23] Meyer 1930, 220.

[24] Beverly First Parish Records Volume 3 1797-1830, 44-50.

[25] Beverly First Parish Records V3 1797-1830, 99.

[26] First Parish Beverly Church Records Volume 3 1803-1830, Item 57, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 359.

[27] Charles E Wainwright. “The Dismission of Tamma Kilham,” in Tales from Beverly’s Attic:  A Commemoration of the First 350 Years of the First Parish Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, (Printed by CreateSpace, a Amazon Company. 2017), 149-156.

[28] Ibid, 157.

[29] Johan N. Neem, “The Elusive Common Good: Religion and Civil Society in Massachusetts, 1780-1833,”

Journal of the Early Republic. 24, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), under “JSTOR,” http://www.jstor.org/stable/4141439

(accessed August 6, 2017), 381-382.

[30] Ibid, 403-404.

[31] Richard D.Brown, “The Emergence of Urban Society in Rural Massachusetts, 1760-1820,” The Journal of American History Vol. 61, No. 1, (June1974), under “JSTOR,”  http://www.jstor.org/stable/1918252 (accessed July 17, 2017) 35.

[32] Bentley, April 29, 1804, May 8, 1804.

[33] James Fulton MacLear, “‘The True American Union’ of Church and State: The Reconstruction of the Theocratic Tradition,” Church History, 28, No. 1 (March 1959), under “JSTOR,”

http://www.jstor.org/stable/3161686 (accessed June 26, 2017), 56-57.

[34] U.S. Bureau of the Census.  Census of Beverly, Essex County Massachusetts 1800 and 1830, Bureau of the Census:  Washington D.C.:  under www.ancestry.com (accessed August 1, 2017).

[35] Precise church membership as of any date is impossible to determine in the records of the First Parish Church due to the way it was maintained by the clerk.

[36] First Parish Beverly Church Records Volume 2 1773-1803, Item 56, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 379.

[37] Lampman 2013, 33.

[38] Rantoul 1848, 167.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ministerial Fund from its Founding  Item 105, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA.

[41] Memo of establishment of Rantoul Fund, Item 5524, First Parish Archive.  It is interesting to note that this legacy was never used, because no minister since Thayer has served more than 25 years.

[42] Bernard S. Leslie et al, ed., First Parish Church Unitarian,  Beverly, Massachusetts (Beverly, MA:  Times Publishing Corporation,1942) 82-98.

[43] Wainwright 2017, 130-139.

[44] Ibid, 140-148.

[45] Ibid, 39.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Chimes of First Parish

A Sermon delivered by Charles E Wainwright, Historical Committee Chair

01 December, 2013

 

The sun shone brightly through the windows of the First Parish Church, illuminating the pulpit and the choir loft on a warm late October Sabbath in 1931.  The singers completed their rendition of a Bach Cantata, and Reverend Fred Lewis, prepared to deliver his Sermon of Thanksgiving for the Church’s newly built Butler chimes that were to be dedicated two weeks hence.  Without warning, a moan and a thud from a pew broke the meditative silence.  Several Parishioners lifted the lifeless body of a man from his seat at the front of the Sanctuary and laid it on the floor.  Albert Boyden checked the wrist of his unconscious brother Roland for a pulse, and then ran to the Minister’s office to call for an ambulance.  Rev. Lewis terminated the service and asked all to leave the Church quickly.

Thus ended the life of Roland W. Boyden; lawyer, statesman, and lifelong member of First Parish.  Although he and his family are well remembered here, few are fully aware of the key role he and his brother Albert played in securing our Church’s chimes.

The Boyden brothers lived on Washington Street near the Church.  Their father William was the Parish clerk at the time that its ninth minister, Ellery Channing Butler was called to serve in 1872.  Roland William Boyden, born in Beverly on October 18, 1863, was a product of our Sunday school and studied law at Harvard University.  In 1917 he joined the legal staff of the United States Food Administrator working for Woodrow Wilson.  From 1920 to 1923, Roland represented the United States on the original War Reparations Commission, a body charged with determining the amount of damages Germany and Austria would have to pay to the allies for causing the War.  In 1929 he served President Hoover as the American delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations at Kyoto Japan, and in 1930 he was appointed to be Umpire of the German-American Mixed Claims Commission.  Soon after, he was named a member of the permanent court of Arbitration at The Hague.  Between appointments, Roland practiced law in Boston, commuting by train from his home in Beverly.

By contrast, Albert Boyden chose to live his life quietly and close to his family.  Born 19 September, 1871, he was an attorney, practicing at the same Boston Law firm as his brother.  He headed the First Parish Music committee and for many years served on the Parish’s Ministerial Fund Committee.

The Boydens were close friends of Rev. Ellery Channing Butler and his wife, and remained so even after the Minister left our church to serve at the President’s Church in Quincy.  When Rev. Butler died in 1912, Roland became the attorney of Rev. Butler’s widow, Mary Adelaide Butler.

Mary Adelaide (Carey) Butler was born in Medway, Massachusetts in 1849, daughter of Gilman Carey and Catherine Lovell.  After her marriage to Rev. Butler, she became a classic Minister’s wife- attending to the social and nurturing aspects of Parish life.  As a result, she made many friends amongst the parishioners of Beverly and was much loved and respected.  The death of her only child Max Lovell Butler at the age of 21 was something from which she never recovered.  After her husband died, she remained in Quincy, where she died on March 4th, 1928.

In death, Mrs. Butler was a generous benefactor.  She willed eighty five thousand dollars for the Meadville Theological Seminary in Meadville PA, where her husband had graduated.  She bequeathed large sums to the Beverly and Quincy churches they had served.  She made bequests to the churches in her childhood homes of Medway, Norfolk, Medfield, and Quincy, and to the American Unitarian Association.  She gave money to Town libraries, social societies, and hospitals all over the country.  She even provided small legacies to about thirty of her friends and acquaintances including her maids and nurses.

Upon Mrs. Butler’s death, Roland informed the Committee of First Parish that her will included the following bequest, among others:

“I give to the First Parish Church in Beverly, Massachusetts as a memorial to my son, Max Lovell Butler, the sum of five thousand dollars for the purchase and installation, including expense of appropriate changes in the Meeting House, of a chime or peal of bells and the necessary apparatus for the operation of the same in the present or any other Meeting House of said Parish”.

This gift was met by some cynicism by the Parish Committee.  After all, the Church already had its Revere Bell, and besides, weren’t there other ways in which such a princely amount of money could be better used in the Church?  But Roland and Albert had a very different vision.  Being of a musical bent, they were both painfully aware that the Church’s famous bell was of poor quality and its tone was badly off-key.  Truth be told, if it were not for the name of the patriot stamped on the bell, it would have been replaced long ago.  The Committee named the brothers a subcommittee to determine the feasibility of accepting Mrs. Butler’s gift and constructing a new set of bells for the Church.

The brothers immediately set to work, launching a three year investigation into the state of the bell maker’s trade.  They learned all about the difference between bells, chimes, and carillons, where a bell is a single cast metal body with an internal clapper that plays when it is rolled, a chime is a collection of from 4 to 11 stationary bells tuned to a musical scale that when hit by hammers plays a tune, and a carillon is a collection of 35 or more bells arranged so that they can be played as a musical instrument, using a keyboard.  They learned that in the US, the trend had moved away from traditional bells and towards an innovation called tubular bells, which were both cheaper and lighter.  The brothers traveled all over the northeast visiting Churches and buildings where bells, chimes, and carillons were installed to hear their tone, and to judge the reputation of their makers.  They quickly dismissed the tubular bell option as being of substandard tonal quality.  They also realized that, with 35 bells and a keyboard, a Carillon would be much too large for the space allowed in the First Parish steeple.  They decided that a chime would be the best solution.

This brought the pair to their first major challenge- cost.  Five thousand dollars may have been a generous gift, but it would not pay for even a small tubular chime after considering all the required modifications to the Church steeple.  They determined that ten thousand dollars would be minimum amount required for the purchase and installation of domestically made chimes.

But there were only three active Chimes makers in the world and two were located in the US.  Albert, particularly skeptical of the quality of American made bells after his experience with the Revere bell, insisted on chimes from John Taylor & Co., bell founders and Carillon builders located in Loughborough England.  With 40-50% import tariffs, the estimate skyrocketed to over twenty thousand dollars.  Where would they secure the additional funds?’

Roland had the answer.  A secondary part of the bequest to the First Parish Church stated:

“…If, in the judgment of my executor or administrator, said sum shall not be sufficient for the purpose, I authorize him to increase it by such further sums as he deems necessary or desirable, leaving the amount to his discretion.”‘

All Roland, as the executor of the Butler estate, had to do was to petition the court for a reapportionment of the bequests to cover the cost of the chimes.  But whose bequest should be reapportioned?  The answer seemed obvious.  Roland filed the necessary papers with the Norfolk County Probate Court and Judge McCoole (really) approved the reduction of the bequest to Meadville by a sum to be determined by the First Parish Church in Beverly.

The Boyden brothers brought their proposal to the Annual Meeting of the Church in March 1931.  Members voted their approval of the project, and voted to close the Church for the summer to permit unfettered construction.  In an unusual move, they also voted to leave all details of the construction to the committee for the Chimes headed by the Boyden brothers, with regular progress reports to be made to the Parish Committee.

Money was not the only issue in front of the brothers.  You see, the Bells of First Parish occupied a special place in the life of the city.  Since the building had been first erected in 1772, its bell had served as the community clock, signaling the key parts of the day, and calling residents to worship on Sundays.  The bell rung at 9:00 to mark evening curfew was held particularly precious by the City, as it signaled the time when, by City ordinance, all youth had to be in their homes or risk being taken off the street by the police.  It was even generally believed that the bell and the clock were owned by the City.  This was such a sensitive issue that Albert decided it would be a good idea to attend a Selectmen’s meeting to inquire whether the City had any pretensions on the ownership of the current bell.  He did this by formally requesting that the City contribute to the cost of the new chimes.  The Selectmen, not interested in incurring additional expenses, quickly disavowed any ownership in the bells, but voted that, if the Church were to pursue the project, the City would be very grateful.  Thus, there was no oversight or approval required by the City for the installation or operation of the Chimes.

The bells were ordered from Charles Taylor & Co. in July, 1931 and work began on reinforcing the steeple.  The immediate concern was how the steeple would support an additional seven thousand pounds, the difference between the weight of the Revere bell and the new Chimes.  An architecture firm analyzed the structure and determined that it could handle the new chimes but leaving the Revere bell in place would put an unreasonable amount of stress on the structure.  The old bell would have to go.  The Taylor foundry modified the design of the Chimes so that the largest bell could be rung manually. The old Revere bell was given to the Immanuel Church on Bridge Street and it hung in their steeple until the early 1970s when a fire destroyed the Church.  It is said that the bell fell from the steeple during the fire and hit the concrete basement floor with a final peal that could be heard through the city.  The damaged bell was eventually mounted in a monument that can be seen today next to the new Immanuel Church on Bridge Street.

Even with the Revere bell removed, the Steeple had to be reinforced to hold the additional weight.  A new cross beam was installed at the base of the steeple to stabilize the structure.  You can see the beam above the balcony seats.

Since 1835, a clock had prominently displayed the time on the steeple of the Church.  A novel construction for its time, the old clock was of wooden construction, powered by the weight of cannon balls that had been found years before under the Church.  Since the new chimes could be synchronized with an electric clock, the Taylor Foundry included one from the Seth Thomas Clock Company.

The Bells arrived at the Beverly Depot early in October, 1931.  There were eight bells ranging in weight from the “low E” bell at 2500 pounds down to the “high E” bell at 364 pounds.   It seemed that at last all the hard work of the brothers would be finished.  Roland took a personal interest in the construction work, carefully watching the work progress and giving direction as required.  The chimes were almost complete by the end of October, and were set to play for the first time in public on the sixteenth of November during a dedication service at which the whole town was invited to attend.

That was before the death of Roland W. Boyden at the First Parish Church Sunday service.

Although many obituaries were written and many and eulogies spoken from coast to coast to celebrate the life of this great statesman and public servant, there was never any acknowledgement of his part in the installation of the First Parish Chimes.  His role was never written into the records of the First Parish, and never appeared in the local papers.  But Albert knew.

During the funeral service held at First Parish Church on the 28th of October 1931, Albert asked a musician friend go up into the newly rebuilt steeple.  The Chimes could not yet be rung automatically, but, on cue, the musician manually struck the bells to play a hymn.  Thus, the first time the Chime was ever rung it was to toll for its own maker.

The chimes have served the Parish well, but over eighty years they, like everything and everyone else, have aged.  In the 1980s the chime mechanism deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be played and fell silent.  A few years ago, an anonymous donor allowed us to reconstruct the works and put the chimes back in operation.  They play every quarter hour to the delight of the City.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email