The Salem church was founded on 6 July 1626, part of the Puritan experiment called Massachusetts Bay. In 1635, Roger Conant, John Balch, John Woodbury and Richard Trask were granted land on the north side of the Bass River, which became known as the “Bass River Side” of Salem. For years, the residents of Bass River Side traveled to Church by riding a ferry across the river and walking to the Church in Salem. In 1650, residents were set off as a separate precinct but still had to attend Church in Salem. At first, parishioners met in their homes, but in 1656, they were allowed to construct a meeting house on the northwest corner of the old burial ground, and to retain a teacher to instruct them. On 20 September 1667, fifty-one male and female residents of the Bass River Side made a profession of their faith, and renewed their Covenant in their new Church, which they named the First Church of Christ at Bass River Side in Salem. On 3 November 1668 they established a town, which they named Beverly.
For their first Minister, the Church invited the Reverend John Hale to settle in the new town. He is, perhaps, best remembered for his role in the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692. Rev. Hale died on 15 May, 1700, while still ministering to the Church. He is buried in the Old South Burial Ground.
In 1682 the first meeting house was sold and a new one was erected in the same spot as our current building. It was a square building 50 feet by 40 feet, with a belfry located in the middle of the roof from which a bell-rope hung to the center aisle. Men and women sat on either side of the aisle while children, non-members, Negroes, and Indians were relegated to benches or stairways. The seats were hinged and, it was said, “sounded like musketry” when the Congregation stood or sat. There was no heat, and because it was the only building in town where a fire was never made, a powder room was excavated under the Church in 1726. Parishioners were always careful to vacate the building during thunderstorms, due to the danger of lightning.
In 1772, a third meeting house was erected at the current site on Cabot Street. It measured 70 feet by 53 feet. The Pulpit was located on the north side of the building (the Ellis Square side), reached by an elevated ramp from the entrance on Hale Street. The building was expanded in 1795 to increase seating by stretching it lengthwise 20 feet to the east.. An interesting artifact of this project is an old ships mast used as a main beam support for the floor. A clear plastic window has been placed in the ceiling of Hale Hall that makes the beam barely visible with a flashlight.
By the time Reverend Abiel Abbot was ordained as our sixth Minister in 1802, he was presiding over a church whose congregation was fragmenting rapidly. In December 1802, John Dike and 49 other members of the Church who desired to preserve their more conservative Congregationalist beliefs petitioned to be dismissed from First Parish to establish a new Church, variously called “Third Parish”, “New South” or “Dane Street”. In 1805 another group left our Church to join the newly created “Baptist Society”. Other groups took the opportunity to find religious practices that were more suited to their personal beliefs and by the time of his sudden death, in 1828, Rev. Abbot was ministering to a Church that had de facto embraced the liberal principles that became generally known as Unitarianism. The affiliation was formalized with the ordination of our seventh Minister, Rev. Christopher Toppan Thayer, a professed Unitarian.
In 1810, Hannah Hill and Joanna Prince, two women from First Parish Church sought a way to gather in young children they saw loitering in the street during Sunday Services. They formed a town-wide Sunday School Society and were provided Hymnals by our Parish Clerk Robert Rantoul, who later became its director. This Sunday school, headed today by Deborah Sweet, is considered to be the oldest continuously operating Sunday school in New England and is one of the first in America.
In 1835, plans were drawn for another major expansion of the Church building. A second floor was added, along with an organ, a Choir loft and a balcony. The seating arrangement was moved 90 degrees to its current orientation. Upon completion, the Church building was said to demonstrate some of the finest examples of Greek revival architecture in the country. This is the building we use today. In 1867 the interior was rebuilt including the rounded pew seats and elaborate chancel we see today. In 1880 the Hook and Hastings organ was installed and in 1958 a new electric keyboard replaced the small device that still occupies the rear of the choir loft. In 1974 the Church sold its Parish house and excavated the Church basement to accommodate the Sunday school and Church social functions.
From 1909 to 1911, during his Presidency, William Howard Taft was an occasional summertime parishioner. It was customary for the President, when he attended, to deliver a few words during the service. On the occasion of his last appearance in the Church, he delivered the sermon. This was an extraordinary honor for our Church, and a small plaque was later placed on the pew where he sat to commemorate the occasion.
The Church became politically active in the 1960s during a time of turmoil and crisis in US. Rev. Fred Lipp led protesters to Selma Alabama to demonstrate for Civil Rights in March 1965. In February 2002 the Unitarian Universalist Association formally recognized First Parish as a Welcoming Congregation, declaring its welcome and affirmation of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or transgendered. Slightly more than a month after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages, the Rev. Sylvia Howe officiated at the first same-sex wedding at First Parish on June 19th. The marriage ceremony of First Parish members, Arthur Thompson and Scott Gorman was witnessed by their family, friends and many, many First Parish members. It was, indeed, a historic event in the life of First Parish Church. In recent years, the Church has evolved into an active, liberal religious community. As is typical for Unitarian-Universalists, its members manage to retain a sense of their own conservative roots even as they pursue their individual spiritual goals. In many ways its cultural story mirrors that of our country as a whole.
Distinguished Past Members of the Church
Throughout its history, the First Parish Church claimed among its members the most influential members of Beverly society. Many of their names can be found on the street signs of Beverly today. Rev. Joseph Willard, ordained at the first Church on 25 November 1772 left his position in November 1781 to become President of Harvard College. Rev. Joseph McKeen, his successor left the pulpit in August of 1802 to become the first President of Bowdoin College. Nathan Dane, lawyer and longtime member of the Church, was instrumental in authoring the Northwest Ordinances, which forever forbade Slavery in the Western territories of the US. He also organized the Hartford Convention in which New England Federalists lobbied to secede from the Union in 1812. Robert Rantoul Sr. who, for many years served the Church as Deacon, Parish Clerk and Superintendent of the Sunday school also, served as Overseer of the Poor in Beverly, and advocate of reform in the public schools. Rantoul donated the first hymnals to the fledgling Sunday school in 1810, His son, Robert Rantoul Jr, a well-known Abolitionist, served as US Representative from 1835-39, US District Attorney for Massachusetts from 1846-49, and US Senator from 1851 until his premature death in 1852. Our minister during the Civil War, John Calvin Kimball took a leave of absence from our ministry to serve as chaplain for the now famous all-black Massachusetts 54th, commanded by Robert Gould Shaw. In 1910, William Howard Taft, President of the United States was a regular attendee during the summer months