First Parish and it’s Music

By Charles E. Wainwright; Chair, First Parish Historical Committee
A Sermon Delivered 17 March, 2013

It’s hard for me to imagine services at First Parish without any sort of musical component.  Our church is blessed by a glorious choir, and a most talented Music Director.  There is so much musical talent and energy in our church that you may think the quality of music you hear is just a lucky accident, but you would be wrong.  Robert and the choir are only the latest incarnation of a rich and influential musical heritage that goes back two hundred and fifty years.  Like most of the stories of our church, the story of our music is a microcosm of the history of America.

The relationship of early American churches with music begins in the 16th century with the teachings of John Calvin, and, more particularly, his feelings about music.  While he loved it personally, he thought that music performed during the worship of God was a form of idolatry.  Calvin never expressly condemned music in the Protestant worship service, but he often referred to its use in the church service with great distain and discouragement.  Later, European Lutherans chose to ignore this bit of Calvin’s teachings.  They embraced music wholeheartedly in their services.  The same cannot be said for the Puritans, who in 1667 established New England Churches like ours.

Oh, the Puritans liked music.  They sang as they worked, they sang as they cleaned, and they sang as they walked.  Singing made the time go faster, and it added a certain cadence to their daily routine.  In church, however, the Puritans took John Calvin’s direction and forbade any music during worship.

While the great Catholic and Protestant cathedrals of seventeenth-century Europe were staging elaborate performances by the likes of Handel and Hayden, this meeting house would tolerate no melodies at all, other than the monotonous drone of Rev. Hale warning of eternal damnation.  When the time came in the service for the congregation to recite a passage of the Bible, it was the common practice of the day for the Deacon to speak each line aloud so that it could be repeated by the members.  In this role, the deacon was known as a precentor, from the Latin meaning “first singer”.

By 1689 Puritanism was no longer the sole religion of Massachusetts Bay, thanks to the Toleration Act.  The rigid rules of Puritanism gradually softened in the Colony.  Nevertheless, resistance to music in the service persisted in our church for another seventy years.

Back in England around 1720, Dr. Isaac Watts, a poet and musician, got the brilliant idea that if he poetically rearranged Bible passages (particularly the Psalms) and set them to music, the congregation might be better able to recite the words.  Now, the Precentor could just sing a line of a Watts tune (known as “pitching the tune”) to make recitation far easier for the congregation, (provided, of course, the deacon could hold a tune, and knew the melodies in Dr. Watts’ book).  Even though he was severely criticized for the sacrilege of rearranging the words of the bible to suit his purpose, Watts’ hymn books became international best sellers.  Two of Watts’ hymns can be found today in our current Hymnal, including his most famous, “Joy to the World“.

Pitching the tune spread quickly throughout Europe, eventually finding its way to the American Colonies.  It was in use by the Deacons in Beverly by the late 1750s.  Interest in this new opportunity to sing during worship grew quickly, and many accompanied the Precentor in pitching the tune; some, I am sure, with much better musical abilities.  Singing got so popular, in fact that on March 20, 1764 the Parish responded to a petition presented by several of the singing members, voting “that there shall be one seat or more in the Meeting House as may be thought proper devoted & set apart for those that may be disposed to renew the spirit of singing the Psalms among us that they may set together in order that that part of the public worship may be performed more regularly”.  Reverend Champney and the deacons were to decide which persons should be allowed to sit in these seats[1].  This is the earliest mention of music in any of our records and it marked a watershed of musical activity to come.  At the Parish meeting in 1766, members voted that “Doctor Watts version of the Psalms shall be introduced into the public worship in the roome and stead of the version now used”[2].

Although the Parish had authorized the seating of singers in the Church, getting “bums on seats” turned out to be a challenge because the size of the Church building was inadequate for the throngs of worshippers.  In 1767 a second petition “to see if the parish will grant certain seats for such as are skilled in singing to set in” was voted down[3].  For the time being at least there would be no special seats for the singers.

At the annual meeting of March 1770 the Parish voted to construct alarger meeting house, funded by the sale of pews to its members.  The funding scheme was so successful that a pew frenzy ensued and new pews were built into what were supposed to be corridors and passageways.  The high demand for seats prompted another petition for seating the singers in March 1772.  The parish voted “that there be two seats appropriated to a number of those who are skilled at singing that they may set together & those seats to be the eighth & ninth seats on the floor on the western side or end of the house: & that there be no alteration made in those seats until the parish order: & that the Deacons in the parish shall determine who those persons shall be that shall set in those seats”[4].

There was another problem.  You see, the seating order of the Church was strictly organized by gender, with men seated on the left (or west) side and women seated on the right.  This meant that only men would be able to occupy the singing seats.  Robert will tell you that a choir of male singers is nice but a choir of mixed voices has superior tonal range.  At the Parish meeting in March 1774 it was voted “that the singers shall have the eastern end of the front gallery the whole four seats for them to set in on the south side of it hence & those three seats at the eastern end of said house for the women to set in that are disposed to sing as far as the second pillar on each side”[5].  A small rail was erected across those seats as far as the second pillar in the gallery to separate men from women.  In other words, the petitioners wanted to connect the seats they already had with other seats on the other side of the Church to accommodate both genders.  They also voted “that the singers should pitch the tune and take the lead in singing”, thereby replacing the Deacon in his role as precentor.  In 1780 the Parish voted “to reconsider a former vote that was passed that the singers should have the east end of the front gallery and the south end of the women’s gallery”, “that a pew be built for the singers” and “that the singers shall have a convenient pew or seats in the front gallery”[6], meaning just behind the minister.  From this position, men and women could share adjacent seats without offending the sensibilities of the sexually segregated Church.  The parish also voted “that the Psalms be sung in the congregation in the forenoon by reading line by line & in the afternoon without reading”, signaling the eventual end of the practice of “pitching the tune” forever.

In 1795 the decision was made to expand the church building by stretching it to the eastward by twenty feet.  The new space was used for additional pews and, again the singers petitioned the Parish for more room.  The popularity of singing in our Church was demonstrated when the Parish voted “that there be three seats appropriate for the singers in the front gallery each of twenty seven feet in length the front seat to project about thirty one inches and four other pews between said seats and the wall pews with an alley of two feet in width to lead from the center of the alley in said gallery to the front of the singers seats”[7].  These were henceforth known as “the singing seats” and referred to often whenever modifications were made to the plans during construction.

The first years of the 19th century mark a dark time in the history of Beverly.  An English trade embargo and continued impressment of our sailors reduced the amount of commerce in the town to the point where poverty and destitution was common.  Not surprisingly, it is also the time our church began to reach out to the larger Beverly community through programs like the Sunday school and the Thanksgiving charity.  In August 1798, a subscription was circulated within the Church seeking to establish a singing school for the purpose of instructing  people, “of both sexes” in the principles and practices of church music.  38 church members pledged a total of $105.00 for the purpose.   The Beverly Singing School  met in the evening to teach interested residents to read music, and take musical direction.  By 1804, the number of subscribers in the Church had grown to 71.  Student enrollment increased as well, and the increasing costs of the program were covered by a second tax on all members,   In July 1805 the scope of the singing school was broadened and the name was changed to the Beverly Music Society.  The school taught not only singing, but also various musical instruments including clarinet, violin, and bass viol.

Stephens Baker was the first Superintendent of the Musical Society and the Music Director was Isaac Flagg, a man of great musical talent and passion.  Flagg was born in Woburn Massachusetts of a family rich in musical talent.  His cousin, Josiah Flagg, was a noted musician in Boston and Providence during the time of the Revolutionary War, who also worked as a silver engraver for Paul Revere, a connection that could explain why so much of our Communion silver was of Revere’s manufacture.  Isaac Flagg taught singing and instrumental music.  He travelled to the furthest reaches of the town to recruit and train young musical talent.  By the time of the ordination of Christopher Toppan Thayer in 1830, Flagg was able to orchestrate an outstanding orchestral musical program that included music written by his son, Thomas Wilson Flagg, a noted musician in his own right.

In 1835 the Parish decided to once again renovate its meeting house.  The orientation of the Sanctuary was rotated 90 degrees and a gallery was added at the back to accommodate the singers.  In 1837 an organ was purchased from the Hook brothers of Salem, only the 38th built by them, and placed at the back of the Church under the Gallery.  We don’t know exactly what it looked like, but it was probably a self-contained model not unlike the organ built by the Hook brothers in 1840, currently in the possession of the Athol, Massachusetts Historical Society (a photo of this organ can be seen on the table at the back of the Sanctuary).  It was powered by a hand pump whose handle protruded from its side.  The Church paid an attendant each Sunday for his services in “blowing the organ”, or pumping the handle to energize the bellows.  On June 11, 1844 fire broke out on Cabot Street setting the roof and steeple of the Church aflame.  The organ was, with great difficulty and with some damage, carried from the building and saved.  The description of the repairs made by Mr. Hook on this occasion are the only clues we have today of the nature of this organ.

The new gallery for the singers was not very comfortable. On November 17, 1856, Stephens Baker presented a petition to the Parish requesting that a beam of the Church located just above the singing seats in the gallery be removed.  The petition was passed and the beam was removed promptly.

By the end of the Civil War, the First Parish Church had become the social center of Beverly and membership boomed.  The post war development of the beachfront in the north part of Town (referred to as “Boston’s Gold Coast” by historian Joseph Garland) brought a stream of well-to-do members to our church, many of whom contributed generously to its operation.  The program of music at First Parish grew apace both in stature and in budget.  Funding, which had up until now, been by private subscription, was taken over by the Parish as part of its operating expenses, and new hymnals were frequently ordered specifically for the choir’s use.  On March 10, 1863 the Parish Committee agreed to pay the Church’s first soloist, Luther Munroe, $1.25 “for as long as the Music Committee see fit”.  On March 15, 1868, the Parish reconsidered the extent to which it was desirable for the Congregation to participate in singing at all.  By 1894 the Church employed four soloists and an organist for its Sunday services, a standard that continues to this day.  The stature of these musicians was such that in 1911, the Church voted to give them 2 weeks paid vacation- a benefit unheard of at that time.

In April 1867 the Church decided to remodel the interior of the Church, replacing the cramped gallery with a full balcony for the use of the choir.  The pews in the sanctuary were replaced with the circular ones in use today.  The balcony provided adequate space for the choir, but their position at the rear of the church did not easily allow them to engage in performances before a public audience.

At the March 1880 Parish meeting, a petition was presented by the Music Committee requesting that funds be secured for a new organ for the sanctuary.  There was substantial support for this idea, and a subscription was established that raised $3669 towards it.  The Parish voted unanimously that it should be placed at the front of the Church, and that there should be seats added behind the chancel for the choir.  As a result, the whole front of the sanctuary was extended forward, and the first two rows of pews were moved to the balcony, where they remain today.  The organ was the 998th built by the Hook and Hastings Company of Weston Massachusetts.  The bellows was powered by a water wheel driven from the Town’s new underground public water supply originating at Wenham Lake.  This novel mode of operation was employed successfully until the late 1920s, when the bellows was electrified.  In case you were wondering, all the used water went into a large underground pit and wasted.  Reportedly this made it difficult to run the organ for long periods of time as the pit would overflow and needed time to drain.  The pipes of the organ were described as “richly detailed” in a contemporary news article in the Beverly Citizen and can be seen in in the earliest photo we have of the sanctuary, taken in 1889, but by 1902, the church had grown tired of their ornate design.  They engaged the Hook and Hastings Company to rebuild the organ and redecorate the front pipes.  The pipes were gilded in an attempt to represent a more stately church character.  In 1987 the original paint etchings on the pipes were rediscovered and the church had them repainted as close as possible to their original design, as you can see behind me.  In 1957 the Church decided to modernize the organ and installed the electric console you see on my left.  The original console can still be seen behind the choir seats, although it no longer functions.

In 1904 Louisa Putnam Loring, a member of our church, began work on a new hymnal.  In this work she was assisted by our organist for 25 years A. Scott Fraser and Carl Baerman, a scholar and musician from Munich Germany.  Titled “Hymns of the Ages“, it was the first hymnal specifically developed for the Unitarian service.  The copyright was given to the American Unitarian Association, and Miss Loring presented 340 copies to the Church, where it was used for many years.  Amongst the hymns, two entitled “Beverly” were written by her.  A copy of this hymnal can be seen at the back of the sanctuary.

The early 20th century saw the peak of First Parish Church and its music program.  With a large choir, four professional soloists and a world-class organ and organist, it was not surprising that in 1910 the Office of the US President informed the church in 1910 that William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, would be attending services here while he was at his Summer White House at what is now Lynch Park.  During the summer months, church members had to arrive at the church early in the morning to beat the press corps to their seats.  Church services took the air of command performances, and our musicians did not disappoint.  Through the 1920s, the reputation of the music and musicians of our church was second to none.

Because the Ministerial fund was conservatively invested, the church and its music program were not greatly affected by the great depression.  Nevertheless, the budget of the music program had to be severely curtailed, and the church never regained its preeminent reputation in music.  In spite of decreases in pledges and operating budget, our musicians continued to perform regularly.

In 1934 Rev. Fred Lewis inaugurated the senior and junior choir, made up of about 25 mixed voices from the youth of our church.  The Junior Choir has been active ever since.  Today it is run by Robert with assistance from Candyce Wainwright.

There are other threads that connect us to our musical past.  Before the time of organists Robert Littlefield and Robert Capon, Fred McArthur served as our organist.  His father, F. Claude McArthur served as organist from 1930 to 1955.  His grandmother, Doris Belknap, served as organist from 1905 to 1929.  His great-great aunt, Maude Howard Burns was employed as a professional choir soloist from the 1880s to the 1920s.

You may be wondering whether our church can continue to live up to its great musical reputation.  I say you need only look around our sanctuary for reassurance.  Like his predecessors, Robert regularly treats us to incredible classic musical selections on the organ.  He engages 4 professional singers to perform on most Sundays.  He directs two excellent choirs for both adults and children.  He has developed so many musically talented people- People like Austin Davy, Elizabeth Fredrick, Charlie Dunne, Nikki, and Emilie Shawn, and our organist today; Ely Chambers- that I think our musical future is full of promise.  We all owe Robert Littlefield and his predecessors a sincere vote of thanks, not just for their 250 years of musical leadership, but for propagating the great musical tradition of First Parish church.



[1] First Parish Church Records, Volume 3 1764-1793 (hereafter FPBR3), First Parish Archives Item #49, p123

[2] FPBR3, p134

[3] FPBR3, p139

[4] FPBR3, p180

[5] FPR3, p204

[6] FPR3, p226

[7] FPR3, p86

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply