by Charles E Wainwright
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”
Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”
Anyone who’s attended a meeting at the “White Whale” can identify with the rage of Captain Ahab as he is dragged to his death by his nemesis, the elusive white whale. The building on Hale Street behind the Baptist Church was named for the book’s fishy protagonist, a symbol of the unattainable purity of the natural state. This unpretentious structure is all but ignored today by the average passerby, but the tale of the Whale is anything but ordinary and deserves to be better known.
Beverly in the early 19th century was a bustling, and growing community. The First Parish Church and Meetinghouse had recently increased its seating capacity, but, within a few years, it had already become overcrowded. The Beverly Union Sunday school, established in 1810 as a joint venture of all the Churches in the town, had been educating children in good christian ways from a variety of venues. most recently at the Third Parish Church on Dane Street. In 1818, Third Parish decided to sponsor its own Sunday school, and withdrew its support for the Union Sunday School. Without a place to meet, the school struggled to stay open. Abiel Abbot, the Minister of First Parish who had taken on the role of Superintendent, looked to his congregation for help. It was not long in coming.
On 12 May, 1820 a petition was submitted by several of the most prominent men in Beverly to the Parish Committee to address the space problem:
“Gentlemen. We the subscribers being freeholders or inhabitants of said Parish qualified to vote in Parish affairs request you to call a legal meeting of the inhabitants of said Parish as soon as conveniently may be to see if the Parish will accept of a lot of land granted by the Honorable Nathan Dane and of a building to be erected thereon for a vestry by the Honorable Joshua Fisher and others upon the following conditions vis.
“- first on condition the minister of said First Parish for the time being may at his pleasure, use the building for religious exercises and instruction, either personally or by such as he may invite, but no persons shall be admitted to expound the Scriptures or exhort or address an audience in the said Vestry except a regularly approbated preacher and with the consent of said minister or, in the case of a vacancy in the ministerial office, of the two senior Deacons of the said Parish –
“- Secondly, on condition the said Vestry may be used for the religious instruction of the children of the said Parish on Lord’s days – Said two conditions being contained in said Dane’s deed conveying said lot of land –
“- Thirdly, that it may be used for a Charity school for instructing the children of the poor in the first principles of knowledge and christian morals to be kept under the superintendence of the Beverly Charitable Society so long as a major part of the members of said society shall be members of First Parish or religious Society
“- Fourthly, that meetings may be held in it by the brethren of the First Church for the transaction of business and also for prayer, singing, and reading –
“- Fifthly, that the Singers belonging to the first Parish or Congregational Society may meet therein for improvement in sacred music
“- Lastly, that the said first Parish may permit other uses of the Vestry provided they be not inconsistent or do not interfere with those above specified said four last conditions being appointed in writing by said Joshua Fisher and other subscribers for erecting said building or Vestry.
“Beverly, May 12, 1820
Saml P, Lovett”
The petition was accepted at a special parish meeting held on 23 May, 1820 :
“Voted that the Parish accept the lot of land granted by the Hon. Nathan Dane by his deed dated the eighth day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty and of a building to be erected thereon for a vestry by the Hon. Joshua Fisher and others upon the conditions and restrictions and for the uses mentioned in said deed and appointed in writing by the subscribers to said building and set forth in said petition”
“Voted that said building or vestry, when completed, shall be under the care and superintendence of the Parish Committee for the time being and they are directed to permit the same to be used for the purposes and under the conditions the same is granted to the Parish and for such other purposes as they may think proper not inconsistent and which do not interfere therewith.”
The construction project moved quickly, and by the end of December, the building was ready for use. From then until the 1860s, the Vestry was the site for all official Church meetings . It served as the classroom of the Beverly Union Sunday school, the Beverly Singing School, and the Beverly Charitable School. In January 1830, the Beverly Lyceum began to meet there .
A 60 by 90 square-foot lot of land, located at the corner of Federal and Chapman Streets, was offered to the Parish by Hon. Nathan Dane, one of Beverly’s most famous citizens. Born in Ipswich, Dane obtained his degree at Harvard in 1782, and set up a law practice in Beverly in 1785. He was a Representative to the Continental Congress, and was responsible for writing the Northwest Ordinances of 1787. He is known as “The Father of American Jurisprudence” because of his publication in 1823 of a nine volume set of American law books, “A General Abridgment and Digest of American Law” which was hailed as the first systematic treatise covering the entire field of American law. Dane owned the land opposite the Church on the south side of Federal Street. The lot was located adjacent to land Dane had previously sold to Rev. Abbot for his homestead.
The money to construct the Vestry was provided by 59 subscribers, but the instigator was Dr. Joshua Fisher, another giant of American history. Fisher, born in Dedham in 1749, graduated from Harvard College in 1766. He taught school for a few years, then studied medicine, and eventually established a successful medical practice in Beverly. During the Revolutionary War, he served as a Surgeon aboard an American Privateer, and was very nearly captured when his ship was run aground on the coast of England. He returned to Beverly and co-founded the Beverly Cotton Manufactury in North Beverly, the first cotton mill built in America. Dr. Fisher owned the land on the north side of Federal Street. Dr. Fisher would later leave a substantial legacy to the First Parish Church, including cash and property, which became the basis of the First Parish Ministerial Fund.
For reasons known only to him, Nathan Dane developed second thoughts about his gift, and petitioned the Parish to return his land and move the Vestry elsewhere. At a special Parish meeting, convened 16 January, 1834 it was:
“Voted that the Vestry should be moved to the Old Parish Burial Ground in conformity with the petition of Thomas Stephens and others as recited in the first article of the warrant for convening this meeting.
Wyatt C. Boyden
Charles Stephens and
Josiah Lovett, 2nd
“Be a committee authorized to remove the Vestry to the Old Parish Burial Ground, and they are instructed to do the same as soon as possible and with the least possible expense to the Parish.”
The Parish had few options as to where to put the building. The Old Parish Burial Ground had been heavily used by the Parish for 178 years. The site of the first meetinghouse, taken down in 1683, contained few, if any graves and would, therefore not require any (or many) exhumations. We don’t know how exactly the building was moved to its new location; but, based on the receipts for expenses incurred, It was probably rolled on wooden logs after the windows had been removed . An unfortunate consequence of the new building location was that Thomas Barrett, the First Parish Church Sexton, was no longer allowed to graze his animals in the burial ground. He was, however, compensated for this new restriction .
On 11 March, 1834, the Parish Committee was authorized to “release upon such terms they think best unto the Hon. Nathan Dane all rights and title which the Parish have on the land whereon the Vestry of the Parish lately stood, and make and execute a lawful conveyance thereof to him. Curiously, there is no record of this conveyance in Essex County Deeds.
Utilization of the Vestry was controlled by the terms of the subscribers, and these conditions were strictly adhered to. On 22 August 1834, Thomas Carrico, a Parish resident, applied to use the Vestry for services of a new Christian sect known as Mormonites. The Parish Committee determined that the use would not be in keeping with the conditions specified with the grant of the Vestry and, therefore, rejected Carrico’s request.
On 24 October, 1859, the Parish voted to install gas lines and fixtures into the Vestry for improved lighting. Apparently, the issue of asphyxiation by gas was raised at the meeting, for the Parish further voted to “ventilate the house forthwith by opening the windows from the top”. During the Civil War, the building was used by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the American Red Cross, for the collection of clothes and blankets for the troops.
On 5 April, 1864, the Parish voted to raise money by subscription to renovate the Vestry, including installing a stove in the basement . On 14 March, 1865 the members of the committee to remodel the Vestry reported that the cost had exceeded estimates:
“The expense has been nearly double that originally estimated which can be easily accounted for by the facts that the alterations have been much more thorough than at first contemplated, and the work was done at the time when gold was at the highest premium during the war being quoted from 230 to 285 cents to the paper dollar and all material and labor being proportionally high.”
The deficit was made up by contributions from the Ladies Circle, and Parish funds reserved for the installation of the furnace. The remainder was paid out of the Parish treasury.
In 1906 the First Parish Church erected a new structure, the Parish House, on the north side of Federal Street at the site of what is now the People’s Bank parking lot, and this reduced the Church’s need for the Vestry. The Parish, at a special meeting held on 29 June, 1921, voted to sell the Vestry to the Salvation Army for $500 “without covenant or warranty of any kind”. The condition stems from the uncertain status of the land underneath the Vestry whose ownership was not clear On the first Saturday in August, custody of the building transferred with great ceremony. Arthur Forness, Parish Committee Chair read an historical address prepared by First Parish Historian James A. Marsters. On hand were Frank Tuttle, Mayor of Beverly, Salvation Army Col. William McIntyre, the Salvation Army Band, and a large crowd of onlookers.
The Salvation Army continued to use the building until December 1966, then sold it to the First Baptist Church. They dubbed it the “White Whale”, and used it as a drop-in coffee house for students of North Shore Community College, which at the time conducted classes at the old Briscoe School on Federal Street. When the college moved in 1979, the Whale became a senior citizen drop-in center, and a Youth Fellowship Center. Its association with Alcoholics Anonymous began in the mid 1990’s and today it is one of the most heavily used AA meeting facilities in the Commonwealth.
So the next time you walk or drive by the White Whale, pause for a moment, and consider that you are eyeing an unheralded historical icon of Beverly’s history.