The Legacy of Rev. Joseph McKeen (1773-1801)

As if to secure final closure between Bowdoin College in Maine and the City of Beverly, Robert Gregory, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship Advisor to the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship,  delivered a sermon on 22 May, 2011  at First Parish church, Unitarian-Universalist that was first given 1 May, 1796 by the Rev. Joseph  McKeen,  5th  minister of the Church and, later, the first President of Bowdoin College.

Reverend Joseph McKeen stands apart in the annals of Beverly history for his raw intellect and life’s mission of service to others.   He was born in Londonderry New Hampshire on 15 October, 1757, the third generation of one of its founding families.  In 1770, at the incredible age of thirteen he entered Dartmouth College as a Seminarian and graduated four years later, one of only eight in its first graduating class.  He taught school in Londonderry for several years before entering military service as a Sergeant in the Revolutionary War under General John Sullivan.  After the war in 1783, McKeen studied Mathematics and astronomy at Harvard College and wrote several papers for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  From 1785 until his invitation to become the first President of Bowdoin College in 1802 he served as the fifth Minister of the First Parish Church in Beverly. 

The years immediately following the end of the Revolutionary War were difficult ones for The First Parish Church.  Its previous minister, Rev. Joseph Willard had, in November of 1781, resigned to accept a position as President of Harvard University, and the Congregation had been without a minister for three and a half years.  It was with some desperation that the Church extended an invitation to the 25 year old McKeen to serve as their minister and on 11 May, 1785 he was Ordained.  In spite of his youth, he quickly developed a reputation as a passionate, knowledgeable and eloquent speaker.   His message of “service to others” was quite different from the predominantly Calvinistic messages delivered from other pulpits.  

 On 21 June, 1802 the Church reluctantly accepted Rev. McKeen’s resignation as Minister to accept the position as Bowdoin College’s first President.  As was the custom of the time, McKeen brought his portfolio of some 400 sermons with him to Maine, and delivered many of them to his students there.  Upon his untimely death on 15 July 1807, the sermons were placed in the College Library where they remain today.  

During his ministry, Rev. McKeen transformed the First Parish Church from an institution focused on a Puritan/Congregational doctrine to one that sought to embrace more universal forms of worship.  He was the last minister of a unified Church in Beverly’s South Side- Within a year of his departure, the Beverly Baptist Church had gathered, and fifty members of First Parish left to form the Third Parish Church (now known as the Dane Street Church).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply