Article by David Shawn
Rev. Thomas Blowers, the first minister of the 18th century at First Church in Beverly, replaced the legendary founding minister, John Hale. Blowers lacks the name recognition of his predecessor, but he led this church for twenty-nine years at a critical juncture in its history. What issues did Rev. Blowers and the congregation face in this new era? The most remarkable events prior to Blowers’ call to Beverly had to do with the Salem Witch Trials, which profoundly touched this church and its minister. Rev. Hale had initially affirmed the accusations of witchcraft in 1692 when Salem was looking for an objective expert, but, later, Hale reconsidered his views and wrote an important tract on the controversial events. In 1700 he passed away after more than 35 years in the pulpit. The new minister was faced with the daunting legacy of a founding minister and the complicated emotions of a church community trying to reconcile themselves in the aftermath of a divisive and historically profound set of witch trials. With Thomas Blowers, a new conservative order began to set in.
Blowers, a Harvard graduate (like John Hale) in 1695, was ordained in 1701 in Beverly and served the church until his death in 1729. Beverly was a prosperous, busy, growing community and Blowers appears to have conceived of his calling in terms conducive to this steady growth: economically, socially and morally. For example, to provide a sense of permanence, a wooden floor (a feature quite rare in buildings of this era) was added to the church’s foundation. The congregation grew along with the town, despite the creation in North Beverly in 1715 of the Second Church.
Blowers appears to have cultivated Beverly’s leading citizens—Robert Briscoe, for example, after living in Beverly for a number of years, became a member in the early 1700s and not only contributed at his death a financial bequest specifically for Blowers but also made other valuable gifts to the church.
Two silver mugs, valued today at more than $20,000 and included in the church silver to be auctioned in January 2010, were bequeathed to the church during Blowers’ pastorate. One was donated by Robert Briscoe and the other, believed to have been made by Blowers’ son, John, was bequeathed at the minister’s death in 1729.
Blowers tried to avoid or minimize controversy and to work with the congregation on potentially explosive matters. In his first years, the congregation determined that regarding any who had been “scandalous among us” (read, here, sexually promiscuous) that the church community would accept into membership only those who made confession before the church. Even those whose reputations were unbesmirched needed to make “confession of their sin & profession of faith and repentance & personally subjected themselves to the watch and governance of this church.” Others were required to admit of more explicit sins: “William Elliot, Jr. and his wife appeared before church and admitted uncleanness before marriage.” Many such men and women subjected themselves to a humbling public confession in order to be restored to the congregation. Though we do not require such acts in our church today, the public testifying of personal transgressions is not unheard of in other 21st century venues. Tell-all memoirs and television confessions may serve a comparable function today—that of establishing a standard of moral and social order by highlighting the transgressions against it. The church leaders who had just preceded Thomas Blowers had responded to the vivid and lascivious imaginings of adolescent girls with executions of so-called witches. Embarrassed by these actions, new leaders, like Thomas Blowers, and their congregations aimed to restore and prescribe a social and moral order that would recognize the authority of the church and the faith—without resorting to such cataclysmic disruptions as the witch trials.
The First Parish congregation and its minister shared authority in their efforts to bring a stable church community into the new 18th century. Tensions, of course, existed—Blowers wrote his own notes in the congregational records in a personal shorthand, decipherable only to the initiated, while the congregation insisted that as “he agree to put all future Church admissions to a majority vote of the lay members and make the Minister’s records public to the membership.” But the First Church would be on a firm footing as new challenges emerged.
Quotations are from “Beverly First Church Records”Essex Institute Historical Collections vol. 36 and “The Story of the First Church in Beverly” <firstparishbeverly.org>