Owning the History of First Parish

From a sermon delivered 28 September, 2008 by Charles E Wainwright

Saturday, September 20, 2008 marked the three-hundred-forty-first anniversary of the day that Rev. John Hale and fifty members of the Salem Church owned their covenant and thereby established our beloved Church as “The Church of Christ at Bass River Side”.  Did you attend the party?  Maybe you sent a birthday card?  No matter, no one else did either.

Maya Angelou wrote “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”.  I stand here before you this morning because I have an untold story to share.

I am a genealogist and historian by avocation.  Each Sunday morning, I drive to the center of this City.  I climb the stairs at the front of our Church’s elegant, weathered edifice.  I walk through those the front doors into our old Sanctuary, past those curious ancient articles arrayed in the back, past these worn stone plaques and take my seat in pew 11, just behind the plaque commemorating where President Taft sat when he attended our Church, in front of this beautiful hand crafted pulpit and this magnificent organ.  As an historian and a member of First Parish Church, I love it!

The First Parish Church and its congregation are quite simply the oldest things in Beverly.  Our original membership came from Salem, the second oldest settlement in the Massachusetts Bay colony.  Even though we claim our gathering year as 1667, the Church was functioning as a viable teaching institution as early as 1656. This building, erected in 1770, is actually a comparatively recent addition, being our third house of worship.    Our Church served as the seat of Government until 1715.  Members of this Congregation helped to write the US Constitution, founded one of the earliest Sunday Schools in America, pioneered religious and social reform in Massachusetts and contributed the original volumes of the Beverly Public Library.  Our Congregation’s theology has run the gambit from a creed far more conservative than any of today’s Fundamentalist sects to one of the most liberal religious agendas in the world, all the while maintaining the roots of its worship tradition.   Members of our Church founded the First Baptist Church, the Dane Street Church, the Second Parish Church in North Beverly and the first Church at Beverly Farms.  Our parishioners were, at the beginning of the 20th century, among the wealthiest and most influential people in Beverly.  If you ponder these facts for a moment you ought to start to feel pretty good about the role our Church has played, and continues to play, in the Beverly community.  And yet, how much of this is generally known?
As a new member of the Church in 2001, I was asked by Rev. Howe to clean up the balcony and figure out what we should do with the junk up there.  Among this “junk” was a footlocker containing historical records and early photographs of the Church.  Upon further snooping, I found a book case in the Prince Room, a storage rack in the basement, and a bank vault that contained records chronicling the Church’s operation since its formation.

Now, many of you older members have been aware of these things for a long time, but for me, it was like waking up on Christmas Morning to a brand new electric train set running around the Christmas tree.   Along with David Shawn, we embarked on the lengthy process of assessing, preserving and cataloging the records into an inventory of about six thousand individual books, documents and artifacts relating to all kinds of activities carried on in our Church over the years.  In the process, we co-founded the Beverly Archives Project, a community organization dedicated to preserving the ancient records of Beverly Churches and other local institutions.  We obtained grant funding and secured the services of a professional Archivist who performed an assessment of our documents and trained us in techniques of archival preservation.  We organized the material and developed an index catalog of its contents.  Most importantly, we began studying some of the documents in detail.  We are certainly not finished, but we are now in a position to appreciate and communicate to you the significance of our Church’s long history as represented in our records.  They show that this Church has been functioning and making an impact on Beverly for almost three hundred and fifty years. Throughout this time the Church has borne witness to annual parish meetings and regular worship services:  great music and influential sermons; auctions, fairs and building projects; calls to war and pleas for peace; times of great confusion and times of great clarity- an almost infinite number of little event threads that, taken individually, betray no particular fabric; but when woven with other events and the context of their time, provide us a tapestry that illustrates what it was like to live in Beverly past.   The men and women who once lived here and worshiped at this Church, your ancestors by blood or tradition, struggled to establish the framework of the Church we know today.  It was their efforts and their strength that makes it possible for you to sit here now    All the accouterments you see before you- the pews, the pulpit, the chimes, the choir, the organ, the organist,  even the building itself are still here because of the efforts of these “people of the hour” .  Each has a unique and fascinating story to tell.  There are so many stories; it sometimes seems to me agonizing.

It is agonizing as well that so few Beverly residents are aware of the history of our Church.  A historical tradition as long and honorable as ours should be celebrated every year in Beverly with a parade and brass bands.  Yet, when I ask for directions to this Church I am likely to be greeted with a blank stare.  One lifelong Beverly resident even told me recently she thought this building had been abandoned and condemned!  Our Church, which gave birth to Beverly and has been involved in so many of the social innovations of this city deserves better than that.

At a recent Leadership Retreat, we discussed the value our history as a Church asset, and how we could capitalize on it.   We determined that it is an underutilized possession of our Church that had great potential and needed to be exploited.  This is not to suggest that as a venerable institution we should simply sit on our laurels and expect some kind of special treatment from the City.  Rev. Cressey, in a sermon delivered in 1917, called on our members to be “men of the hour”.  By this he meant that all First Parishioners ought to do whatever they can to better our Church, just like the earliest First Parishioners did in their turn.  By leveraging our past, I believe that we can influence the future both our Church and our community.

There is much that we can do with the knowledge of our history but it requires that we all take part.  We are, each of us, ambassadors of this Church, and should represent our pride in the Church’s critical role in the formation of the City, and remind neighbors and friends at every opportunity.

Moreover, we can leverage this information for the benefit of our Church:    We will start of course by refurbishing our old building, referred to on its renovation in 1835 as “the best example of Greek Revival architecture in the US”. The Capital Campaign Committee is pursuing construction grant funding available to institutions of established historical significance.  I think it is safe to say that we qualify on that account.

But it cannot end there.  Here are some additional things to consider:

  • We have a First Parish History web page, http://history.firstparishbeverly.org and are looking for ideas and material to put there.  If you enjoy writing and researching, we would love for you to research snippets of our history from our records and uncover the story behind them.
  • It has been suggested that members of the Parish might write a regular column on Beverly History in the local newspaper.  This has been done successfully before, mostly written from the perspective of church histories.
  • In the coming months, members of the Historical Committee do lay services that highlight aspects of our History.    Our purpose is to inform the Congregation on some of the origins of our rich traditions.  Some of the themes we are considering are:  The story of our communion Worship Service, early worship traditions, and biographical sketches of past Ministers and other notable Parishioners.
  • The Committee is preparing a book for publication in the first half of 2017.  “Honoring our Past, Forging our Future” will be a mixture of stories about of the history of our Church and perspective on our current state.  Proceeds from the sale of the book will be used to offset the costs of our anniversary celebration in September, 2017.
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