Delivered at First Parish Church May 1, 1796
Read June 12, 2011 by Robert Gregory, Adviser to the Bowdoin College Christian Fellowship, Brunswick Maine.
The years immediately following the end of the Revolutionary War were difficult for our Church. Rev. Joseph Willard had, in 1781, resigned our Pulpit to accept a position as President of Harvard University: our Congregation had been without a minister for three and a half years. It was with some desperation, then, that our Congregation called 28 year old Joseph McKeen to serve and on 11 May, 1785 he was thus installed. In spite of his youth, he quickly developed a reputation across New England as a moderate and eloquent minister. He wrote some 400 sermons while he was here. He served our Parish for 17 years until 1802 when he resigned to accept an appointment as the first President of Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine.
Rev. McKeen was the last minister of a unified Parish in Beverly’s South Side. By the time he was called to Beverly, the religious sentiment of the 3,000 citizens of our Parish had evolved from their highly orthodox Puritan roots of 1667, through the revelations of personal Religious experience preached by George Whitfield in 1741 to an extraordinary increase of personal liberty after the Revolutionary War; all in the remarkably short period of about 120 years. This rapid evolution only accelerated during the time of McKeen’s service- by the time of his departure, members of the Parish were primed for an explosion of religious diversity. Almost immediately, the Beverly Baptist Church had gathered, and fifty members of this Church withdrew to form the more orthodox Dane Street Congregational Church. For their part, the remaining members of the First Parish Church determined to pursue a path of Universal Salvation through the selection of their next minister, Rev. Abiel Abbot. By 1830, First Parish Church was Unitarian in name and action.
Robert Rantoul, long time First Parish Clerk and first Superintendent of its Sunday school described Rev. McKeen as a “moderate Calvinist”, decidedly less orthodox than many First Parishioners, who chose to worship in Salem during his term. As to his manner of speaking, Rev.John W. Ellingwood reflected in 1848 that
“Dr. McKeen’s voice was clear and strong, and his articulation and enunciation so distinct that he was easily heard by every person in his audience, whose hearing was not impaired, although his congregation at Beverly was ordinarily very large, and his place of worship ninety feet long. The style of his sermons was marked by simplicity, purity, and strength, and his reasoning was lucid and impressive. His manner was always solemn, clearly showing that he believed that what he uttered was important truth. I may safely say that nothing light, or trifling, or adapted to provoke a smile, ever escaped him in the pulpit.”
His sermons reflect a delicate mixture of orthodox Christianity and thought-provoking challenges to his parishioners. In 1801, for example, he delivered a Fasting Sermon, Speaking evil of Rulers, at the conclusion of the sometimes violent political election that resulted in the removal of John Adams and the Federalists from power and the election of Thomas Jefferson as President. He warned his Congregation against the sin of indulging a propensity to speak evil of the rulers who had succeeded in attaining to office, in opposition to their strong wishes and earnest efforts; and they were exhorted to wait patiently for the measures of the new administration and to judge of them with candor. The sermon was published and eagerly read across New England.
Robert Gregory has served as an intervarsity Christian Fellowship Adviser at Bowdoin College since 2005, when he first became interested in the sermons of Rev. McKeen. He has just published Sober Consent of the Heart, a compilation of 120 of McKeen’s most eloquent sermons. He has graciously agreed to deliver one of Rev. McKeen’s sermons- from Genesis 22:12 originally delivered to this Parish on May 1, 1796.