Article by David Shawn
In 1859, when First Parish Church called John C. Kimball to be its eighth minister, the congregation was entering into a new era that it could hardly imagine. Its past, however, was quite clear. The retiring minister, Christopher Toppen Thayer, had served for almost thirty years, calmly leading the congregation through an era of religious and social controversies. A physical testament to Thayer’s beloved character is the bust of him that occupies one of the front corners in the sanctuary still today. As a social and theological moderate, and a widely admired preacher, Thayer would describe his relationship with the congregation as one of “entire reciprocal concord.” The same could not be said, however, for the relationship between Rev. Kimball and the First Parish Church.
Before I discuss Kimball’s character and experiences as the FPC minister, it’s important to identify two key facts of this era. First, the church was on the verge of its 200th anniversary when Kimball assumed the pulpit. Second, the nation was on the verge of Civil War and a degree of social upheaval never before experienced in America. The ways in which Kimball and First Parish Church understood the war and slavery shaped what would be a very tumultuous ministry.
John C. Kimball, only twenty-seven years old, came to Beverly after graduating from Harvard as an avid abolitionist who strongly supported the freedom of the slaves, equal citizenship for African-Americans, and the Union cause during the war. The first controversy of Kimball’s ministry occurred due to his anti-slavery preaching. After a series of sermons, members of the Parish Board sent Kimball a formal letter requesting that he cease from discussing political controversies from the pulpit. Kimball firmly argued in response that he felt called upon to address any and all manner of subjects that had moral and religious implications. Slavery certainly warranted being the subject of sermons, though, by no means, did he believe he had been excessive on this or any other political topic. Some members, however, began to look for other churches, with one complaining that all he ever heard from Kimball in the pulpit was “anti-slavery.”
The congregation, however, retained support for Kimball, and when in 1862 the minister accepted an appointment as military chaplain to the 9th Massachusetts regiment, there was a supportive vote. Kimball was stationed with the regiment performing garrison duty on the occupied coast of North Carolina. From here, Kimball sent regular letters to the Beverly Citizen, informing the locals about the war effort, encouraging them to provide physical and moral sustenance for the soldiers, and, inevitably, getting himself into hot water with the military authorities.
In one of the letters to the Citizen, Kimball strongly criticized a commanding officer, General John Foster, as a self-promoter with dubious military capability. These attacks on Foster were seen as dangerously close to treasonous and Kimball was threatened with court martial. In a letter to Hannah Rantoul, a congregation member, Kimball insisted that the military was using him as an example to silence dissent; nevertheless, he insisted he was not speaking of military affairs, but articulating religious and moral positions that were essential to his role as a minister and as a chaplain.
After returning to Beverly, Kimball again sought in 1865 the approval of the congregation to assume a second military chaplaincy. This time, he aimed to serve with one of the so-called Colored Regiments. But, for a variety of reasons, the congregation refused Kimball’s request. Not surprisingly, in less than five years, Kimball would leave First Parish, having served eleven years as minister. Aside from Rev. Joseph Willard, whose pastorate in Beverly had been interrupted so that he could become President of Harvard College, Kimball would have the shortest tenure of any minister in First Parish’s two hundred year history.
This was a new, more mobile era, and Kimball was an especially mercurial man. He would serve in several communities, including Hartford, where he would again be embroiled in controversy. As a fiery intellectual, Kimball represented a new kind of minister in a new age. His passionate speaking and writing on behalf of the oppressed made many of his congregants uncomfortable. As one of his critics put it, Kimball had a “tendency to be in opposition to everything.”
A contrarian and a reformer, Kimball stirred up the First Parish congregation. Significantly, when the 200th anniversary of the church arrived in 1867, Kimball was the minister, but he was not the primary speaker at the celebration. That honor fell to the former and retired Rev. Christopher T. Thayer. To relish the comforts and heroism of the past, the church turned away from its present minister and to a cherished former one. And yet late in life, Kimball retained a fondness for Beverly, and the congregation, too, retains to this day a spirit that is at times contrarian and reformist—a legacy, perhaps, of Rev. John C. Kimball.