The Evolving Role of the Minister at First Parish Church

By Charles E. Wainwright
Chair, First Parish Historical Committee

 

In the beginning, there was the Town of Salem, organized on 6 August 1626.  On 23 March 1656 our parish was officially recognized by the Salem Church and we were allowed to gather north of the Bass River.  Our first teacher was Mr. Joshua Hubbard (or Hobart), followed by his brother Jeremiah.  John Hale did not appear in Bass River Side until 1664, three years before the founding of the Parish.

In these early times, there were few individuals in the Colony who were educated and fewer still who could preach the Gospel.  Harvard College was founded in 1636 by the Great and General Court specifically to provide preaching stock for the many parishes sprouting up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The Hobart brothers and John Hale were all graduates of Harvard- a First Parish tradition that continued for five of its next six ministers, and established high expectations on its leadership for many years to come.  To illustrate, take a look to the tablet in our Sanctuary bearing the names of our early ministers.  You will notice that Rev. Joseph Willard, our fourth minister served us for only nine years before he resigned to become president of Harvard College, a post he occupied for 19 years.  His successor, Rev. Joseph McKeen resigned after 17 years to assume the presidency of the newly formed Bowdoin College in Maine.  Apart from the fact that lots of space on that tablet was taken up with relatively useless information, the message to later ministers is clear:  a quiet career is not an option for you!

In accord with the Congregational tradition, a new minister was accepted to lead First Parish only after a vote of its members; an election of sorts.  We select our ministers the same way today.  However, it was important that a minister stay at this post for a long time- a lifetime commitment would be good.  Robert Rantoul Sr., First PaPlaque of first ministers of First Parish.rish Clerk and member of our Parish Committee was so concerned about longevity that in 1830, when a successor was being sought for Rev. Abiel Abbot he openly scorned an applicant during a Parish Committee meeting because he was still preaching from the Pulpit of a Church in Boston.  Rantoul could not understand why someone would change his Ministry unless there were extraordinary circumstances.  In 1833, concerned about the well being of this man, Rantoul wrote to the Chair of his Parish Committee pleading for an increase in the minister’s salary.  His concerns crystallized at his death in 1858 with a bequest of $300 to the Church that was to be maintained in trust in the Ministerial Fund, the interest to be paid to the then current minister of First Parish after he had preached for 25 years.  Other than Christopher Toppan Thayer, minister at the time of Rantoul’s death, no minister of First Parish has been able to claim this money, which would be worth over $450,000.00 today.

As a Church, we have been incredibly lucky that our congregation has secured to its pulpit a succession of great and learned men- more than we probably should ever have expected.  By the end of the Revolutionary war, Beverly had become a bustling merchant maritime and fishing center.  Its population was increasing steadily and, because the Church was funded by taxes, there was money to pay for excellent ministers.  The end of the Civil War signaled yet another era of good fortune as the financial barons of the northeast discovered a new summer diversion along the Beverly shore, part of a social geography coined by author Joseph Garland as “Boston’s Gold Coast”.  They bought vast tracts of waterfront property in Beverly and then joined the First Parish Church.  Through their influence and financial contributions, the Church employed a steady stream of outstanding (and socially connected) ministers such as John Kimball, Ellery Channing Butler, Benjamin Reynolds Bulkeley, and Pemberton Hale Cressey.

Even the Great Depression could not keep our church from hiring the best ministers.  Many of those wealthy robber barons left large endowments to the endowment fund that was the source of the ministers’ salary.  It was not until the retirement of Dr. William Gysan in 1958 that there was any sense within the Congregation that the Church could no longer afford its ministerial traditions.

The sixties, seventies, and eighties heralded a more liberal age; but the expectations of the First Parish congregation on its ministers did not change so easily.  The early Church governance model required that the Minister, along with the Standing Committee (what we now call the Parish Board), function as a kind of Chief Executive Officer of Church affairs.  The congregation was not expected to do much more than attend Church.  With the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths in 1961, a new Church governance model emphasized Congregational participation, but First Parish ministers were pressured by the Congregation to maintain a traditional leadership role that resulted in growing tension within the congregants.  The 1974 report of Peter Denny in the last year of his ministry reflects the tight reign held on him by the Parish Board, “spending more time on Church matters, less time in Community activities”.  Tobias Van Buren did not respond at all well to this direction and in 1979 decided to leave the Ministry in favor of a job outside the Clergy.  His successor, Robert Edward Jones, was pressured to leave after only 4 years- “too liberal” his assessment indicates.  Neither was Holly Baylies considered a good fit for the traditions of the Church.  She left after just 4 years in 1997.

Congregational commitment seemed to stagnate as well.  Peter Lanzilotta, in a sermon delivered in 1989 admonished the Congregation for its lack of commitment and excessively inward focus.  He caustically noted that, by their own survey, more Parishioners attended the coffee hour than the service.

In 1973, when the Parish House was sold, the Congregation took the bold step of eliminating the Ministerial Fund as the source of their Minister’s salary, relying instead on fund raising as the principal source of its operating budget.

In spite of financial realities, there are many ministerial traditions that we maintain in our Church.  The oldest of these is our Congregational style of governance, epitomized by our Annual Meeting.  Another tradition we hold is that of a very public ordination ceremony for our new ministers, usually well attended by public figures and politicians.  We have always had extremely high expectations of our ministers.  Then of course, there is that tablet.

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