The Archive of the First Parish Church in Beverly

Ever since its founding in 1667 the First Parish has continuously operated as a legal entity, generating records that document the actions of its committees and bodies.   The archival collection we have today is what remains of those early records.  Their relevance reaches across all the major social, legal and administrative aspects of the Church and, in many cases, comprise the only proof we have of its history.


View the Archive Catalog by Clicking Here 

Brief History of the Archive

Originally, the Church’s records were kept in the hands of the Minister.  John Hale kept his own journal of Church meetings as well as births and deaths amongst parishioners.  As time went on, and records became more numerous, they were kept by the Parish Clerk.  One of our more famous Clerks was Robert S Rantoul (1788-1858), in whose hand many of the archival documents of the early 19th century were written.  At the turn of the 20th century James A. Marsters took over the duties of Parish Clerk and initiated the first efforts at archival preservation.  During this time, many of the record books were rebound at the Essex Institute.  Because the practice of archival preservation was largely unknown during his time, some of his actions, though well intended, had a detrimental impact on the records- most notably his practice of pasting early documents into photo albums made from construction paper.

The records were kept in various locations until the mid 1970s when a committee headed by Mary Dinardo organized a Historical committee to organize and catalog them.  A locked wooden book case was purchased and the records were stored in the Prince Room on the first floor with little disturbance until about 2000 when Charlie Wainwright reactivated the Historical Committee and initiated preservation work.

The Historical Committee, working with other Beverly Churches started the Beverly Archives Project in 2003 to promote the preservation and protection of the records of Beverly public organizations.  In 2004, with grant funding through BAP, a formal archival survey was performed on the First Parish records to determine their condition and how best to maintain and protect them. The recommendations included moving the records out of the old wooden book case and into protective enclosures.

The committee obtained archival preservation training through BAP  It acquired space on the second floor in the Controller’s Office and began to conservation work.  It initially assessed the archival collection and developed a finding aid (see link above).  The collection was stored randomly in many corners of  the Church.  The major portion was kept in the Prince Room, and  additional records were stored in trunks in the Balcony and in the basement.  The archives had been cataloged about 1975 by Dinardo’s committee.  Unfortunately, the acid in the wooden book case in the Prince Room contributed to the premature deterioration of many of the older documents. In 2006 the Committee  installed a steel shelving system to house the archives.

The archive continues to grow.  Orders of service, newsletters, auction catalogs, and legal documents are added periodically after they have been taken out of “current” status  by the Church office.  We receive items from current and former parishioners and from our retiring ministers.  Sadly, we don’t have enough room to retain all the items submitted to us and this has led to an official archival policy.

Organization of the Archive

Logical Organization  (Provenance)

The archive includes items whose provenance correlates to the organization of the Church as it existed at various times through history.  In spite of its lengthy life, the Church’s structure has remained surprisingly stable over the years mostly due to its alignment with the Municipal organization model.  After some analysis, the Historical Committee developed a logical organizing scheme consisting of multiple collections each divided into sub groups and, within subgroups into series.  The scheme is at this point relatively flexible and can be modified if the need arises at least until all archival items have been processed.

The organizational structure of the archive is as follows:

  1. Church Records Collection- organized primarily by committees
    1. Worship- items relating to the religious activities of the Church

i.    Bibles

ii.    Religious Papers

iii.    Records of the committee who Seated People

iv.    Religious Service Records

  1. Religious Education- Items relating to the Sunday School as well as adult education

i.    Sunday School Service Books

ii.    Sunday School Membership Rosters

iii.    Sunday School administration records

  1. Diaconate- Items relating to the Diaconate committee
  2. Births, Marriages and Deaths- Primary vital records of the parishioners

i.    Births Marriages Deaths

ii.    Burials

  1. Financial- Items relating to the finances of the Church

i.    Church Account Books

ii.    Collection Records

iii.    Tax Assessments and Estimates

  1. Ministerial- Items relating to the various ministers who served in the church

i.    Minister’s Calendars

ii.    Ministerial Fund

iii.    Ministers Papers

iv.    Sermons

  1. Parish Committee- Items relating to the activities of the Parish Committee or Parish Board.

i.    Annual Meetings

ii.    Bylaws

iii.    Correspondence

iv.    Covenants

v.    Parish Committee Meetings

  1. Music- Items relating to music in the church

i.    Choir Records

ii.    Music Books

iii.    Church Organ and Piano

  1. Historical- Items that are noteworthy from a historical or genealogical perspective in the church

i.    Church Events

ii.    Church History

iii.    Estate Papers (i.e. wills and bequests to the Church)

iv.    Genealogy research requests

  1. Social Action- Items relating to the Social organizations of the Church

i.    Social Organizations’ Papers

  1. Building- Items relating to the physical infrastructure of the church

i.    Building Records (renovations, plans, maintenance, etc)

  1. Membership – Items relating to Church membership

i.    Membership Lists

ii.    Visitor Logs

  1. Other Committees
  2. Donated Records- organized by donor
    1. Gifts of Robert Endicott
    2. Gifts of Ruth Lewis Standley
    3. Gifts of Martha Southwick
    4. Other miscellaneous donations
  3. Media – organized by medium
    1. Photos
    2. Audio
    3. Video
    4. Electronic
    5. Other media
  4. Artifacts
    1. Antiques
    2. Service objects
  5. Special Collections
    1. Donated non-Church Records of (Martha Southwick)

Physical Organization (Storage).

Although the records are logically organized as described above, they must be physically stored such that we can place each item in an ideal storage medium and provide it as much protection as possible.  Within the Archive, each item, storage enclosure, and box is recorded with a number.  The type of storage enclosure used to store an item depends on its ability to provide protection from moisture and temperature variations, as well as from manipulation.  It is important that storage enclosures be acid free and not be prone to decomposing or disintegrating over time.   Items are stored in successive wrappers- into enclosures and then into boxes to establish a micro climate around each item that insulates it from the variations of temperature and humidity of the outside area.


Hierarchy of Storage Enclosures


An item is the lowest level of item that is cataloged in the Finding Aid.  An item may be a book, a folder, or an individual piece of paper.  Folders in the archive contain multiple individual pieces, each of which is worthy of individual catalog but this is for now not feasible.  Instead, they are processed based on the subject of their content and cataloged in the finding aid as items.


An enclosure is the first level of storage for one or more items.  Each enclosure is cataloged with its own unique enclosure number

  • The most common enclosure in the archive is the manila folder.  Because our folders are being treated (for now) as items, each folder item is stored and cataloged as a single folder enclosure.
  • Books are considered enclosures and may include items within their pages, such as photographs or pasted attachments:
    • Recent books (less than ~150 years old) that are not considered to be fragile do not need to be placed into boxes.  These books will be placed directly on a bookshelf, either vertically if the spine is strong or horizontally otherwise.
    • Books of great age (more than ~150 years old) or fragility are stored in a 2-piece cardboard box that is wrapped around the book and died with a string.  This protects the edges of the book and minimizes the effects of handling.
    • The most fragile books are enclosed in a custom-fitted clam-shell box.  Clam-shells are custom made for the book and provide maximum protection.  Because of its cost, only the most fragile and important books are stored this way.
  • Many newer items are enclosed in 3 ring binders.  While not an ideal enclosure medium, binders provide a way to store large numbers of continuous pages of financial records.  Binders are not to be used for any items of great age and items enclosed in binders should be assessed periodically for removal.  For the most part, binders will not be stored in boxes.
  • Individual papers of great age (older than ~150 years) or fragility will be enclosed in Mylar enclosures to provide extra protection.  Mylar is a relatively expensive item, and this process will have to be done over several years.


Enclosures are themselves placed into boxes, and each box is cataloged with its own box number. There are three sized boxes planned for the archives-

  • Drawers from a five-drawer legal sized filing cabinet contain the majority of loose paper materials.
  • 10”x 12”x 6” Half Height boxes used to store folders
  • Special document boxes (Docbox) to store Mylar enclosures.

There are also three large steamer trunks located outside the archive that currently contain Sunday School Records, photographs and some more recent books.  This is a temporary arrangement due to space and we hope to eliminate these boxes from the archive.

Storage areas

The boxes are stored on shelves and as part of a filing cabinet.  The primary shelving system is located in the Treasurers office on the second floor next to the Church Balcony with 5 file drawers, 4 large shelves each 24 inches high and capable of storing about 12 square feet.  Three steamer trunks are located in the balcony and one trunk is located at the vault in the Beverly National Bank across the street from the Church, which contains our most precious documents as well as the Church Communion and Baptismal silver.

Funding- The Historical Committee

The First Parish Historical Committee is the body that governs the policies around the Archival collection.  Since about 2004 almost all of its attention has been focused in this area.  The Historical Committee is represented in the Church Council by its Chair person and presents an annual budget, some of which it spends on the maintenance of the Archives.  Additional funding may be secured by grants from the Mass Historical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other organizations.

Other Organizations-BAP

A principal funding mechanism for the Church’s archival preservation efforts was the Beverly Archives Project, a collaboration between many religious, public and private institutions in Beverly and the immediate vicinity. BAP developed common expertise in document preservation through grants to assist its member organizations in this work.  The First Parish was one of its founding members.  Through BAP the Church benefited from the services and training of a professional archivist, Christine Kobialka from the First Unitarian Church in Salem.

The Finding Aid

With so many items of great value and interest stored in our archive, it is important to be able to find an item quickly.  The Historical Committee has developed a computerized finding aid to help in this area.  The finding aid is a database application that contains entries for all items, enclosures, boxes and shelves housed in the archival collection as well as information on the logical organization of series, sub groups and collections.  In addition,there is a keyword search that makes finding items of a particular topic easier.  The Finding aid is currently available here on Google Docs.

The Process of Processing Archives- an Introduction

Due to the great age of the archive, preservation has been our priority for several years.  The science of document preservation has advanced greatly, and we today benefit from agencies like the New England Document Conservation Center as well as the expertise of document repositories around New England for knowledge in this area.  As part of the Church’s latest efforts in conservation, members of the Historical Committee attended several seminars sponsored by the Beverly Archives Project that were funded through grants to obtain the necessary training in preservation techniques.

The task of conserving and protecting items in the archives is known as processing.  There are many specialized techniques and guidelines involved with processing that vary with the kind of item, its age and condition.  The processing of an item in the archives requires a careful assessment of an items age, condition, subject matter and source.  This information is recorded and the item is prepared for long term storage.  Several principles apply when processing an item in the archive:

  • Only items of direct relevance to the Church or its members should be retained and processed.
  • Items should be unfolded and stored flat
  • Items should have all staples, paper clips and other metal retainers removed
  • Items of great age (older than, say 1850) or very delicate condition should be placed in protective Mylar enclosures to afford extra protection and stored separately in document boxes
  • Items should be stored together with other items of similar origin
  • If an item is a copy or duplicate of another item, only one or at most two copies of that item should be retained
  • If an item cannot be processed without damaging it, it should not be processed without an archival expert

Processing Principles for the Archive

One box in the Archive includes all processing materials and should be kept handy whenever you process items in the archives.

Although we order our supplies on an annual basis, we do have a small inventory of supplies at the BAP office at the Beverly Library.

Since this is a working document, the items below will contain high level information only until we can be more certain of the process.

Whenever you work on a box, enclosure or item make sure you mark what you do in the Finding Aid, particularly if you move it,


  • For the most part, our boxes consist of the half-height cardboard boxes stored on our shelving system.  However, there are other types of boxes that we keep:
    • Clam shell boxes are custom made clam shell boxes used for our most precious books.  It provides a tight sealed fit for the book for maximum support t and protection. (we currently use Gaylord Brothers as our supplier)
    • Small bits of old paper and very fragile items are stored in our DocBoxes.  These are actually enclosed photo albums with three ring clasps to hold Mylar storage sheets.
    • Some boxes are custom sized for oddly shaped items.
    • The Church has several trunks in which are stored large items and framed photographs.  These trunks are not ideal storage because they are made of wood and contribute acid.


  • Books are considered enclosures.
  • Manila folders are pre-numbered as enclosures.  Each item within a folder is assigned an enclosure number where it resides.
  • Folders are arranged in half height boxes.  Currently these folders are arranged alphabetically by subject but this may change to series.


  • Wear gloves when working with very old or fragile items.  The gloves found in the processing box are disposable but should be used for as long as possible due to their cost.
  • Enclosures contain items of varying dimensions, and pages.  The rule is to remove any staples, metal paper clips or anything else that may corrode or cause accelerated deterioration.  Look for the general condition of the item.  If it is folded, consider flattening it out (unless doing so would cause it to tear).  Use a pH pen to determine acid content and, if acidic, place acid free papers around the item or place it in Plasticine.  Papers may be reconnected using plastic clips but only if the paper can withstand the stress.  Sometimes, folding an acid free sheet of paper around a collection of papers is all that is necessary.
  • Newsprint items are very acidic must be placed in Plasticine at a minimum.  Newspaper is only designed to last about 50 years, and so unless it is processed correctly it will disintegrate.  Make a Xerox copy of the article contained in the newspaper and discard it (no matter how old it is!)
  • Many enclosures contain items made up of individual papers.  Those of great age or fragility should be placed in Plasticine protection.  Those that are small and most fragile should be removed from the enclosure and place into Mylar and stored in a Docbox.

Photos and Art

  • The archive is sprinkled throughout with photos and artwork, and currently these are not fully inventoried.  They should be cataloged as items.  If possible, scan the photograph so that it can be referenced later without having to access it directly (but only if this can be done without damaging the photo or the underlying page).  Photographs that are taped or pasted into books or other items should be left there.  Otherwise, they can be moved if necessary to improve their storage situation.
  • Photographs and art that are currently stored in frames present a problem.  The frame protects the object but takes up excessive space.  Presently we have not removed art from frames but this may become necessary especially if the frame is damaged or is causing storage problems.


  • The archive includes a small but growing number of media items such  as disks, tapes, CDs or video.  These items should be cataloged as items for now (although we may want to change this in future).  We currently have no special storage provisions for these items.
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The Disestablishment of Beverly’s First Parish


At the intersection of Cabot, Hale, and Essex Streets, in the center of downtown Beverly, the bells of the First Parish Unitarian Church toll the time, as they have for two centuries.  The Church’s simple wooden structure and diminutive appearance give no evidence of the major role it played in the municipal history of Beverly, particularly the events that ended in the demise of its parishes.  The story of disestablishment in Massachusetts is often characterized as a struggle for the separation of church and state, waged between religious intellectuals, and punctuated by heroic legal battles in towns like Sandwich and Dedham[1].   However, the death of Beverly’s First Parish was not the result of disestablishment.  Rather, it occurred asynchronously out of its parishioners’ latent religious awakening, their desire for greater individual freedom, and their passion for participatory democratic social institutions.

In 1650, the area encompassing that part of Salem lying north of the Bass River was known as the Bass River side.  A small meeting house was constructed there in 1656, and grants of land were awarded to loyal Salem Freemen.  On September 20, 1667, the Bass River Parish was officially set off by the Salem Church; and on November 7, 1668, the Colonial Legislature granted it a charter as the Town of Beverly.  The parish meeting house served as the administrative and religious center of the town until October 1713, when a second parish named the Precinct of Salem and Beverly was set off, later called the Second or North Parish.  The Bass River Parish came to be known as the South, or First Parish.  Each was supported by taxes duly authorized under Colonial law.  Each followed a congregational polity, and employed only Harvard-educated ministers.  They were referred to as “establishment” churches by the Colonial Legislature, to differentiate them from Quaker, Baptist, or other “voluntary” religious organizations.  Collectively, the state-wide system of publicly supported parish churches was referred to as the “Standing Order”.

Massachusetts establishment churches subscribed to the Cambridge Platform, first published in 1648, that the Puritans described as their constitution for church government[2].  The Platform specifically addressed recommendation and dismission, the process by which a minister could release a parishioner from his obligation to one parish and join another.  It specified that the parishioner make his request in writing and, if he was deemed to be of Godly character (usually determined by a public vote of the church congregation), the minister should write a letter to the minister of the new parish recommending the parishioner for admission.  Without such a recommendation, admission to the new parish was unlikely.  The Platform provided only three reasons that a parishioner could be dismissed from his parish:  if he moved, got married, or sought better religious edification[3].

The first ministers of Beverly’s First Parish were Harvard educated, preached the accepted Calvinist gospel, and embraced the concepts of enlightenment rationalism.  Its first minister, Rev. John Hale, gained fame for his part in the 1692 Salem witch hysteria.  Its third and fourth ministers, Rev. Joseph Willard (1773-1782) and Rev. Joseph McKeen (1785-1802) each served as president of the newly organized American Academy of Sciences, and each left the Parish to become college presidents (Willard to Harvard College in Cambridge, and McKeen to Bowdoin College in the District of Maine).  As Harvard President in 1805, Rev. Willard oversaw the election of a Unitarian minister, Rev. Henry Ware, to Harvard’s Hollis Professorship of Divinity, an act that enraged many orthodox ministers and spurred the creation of the Andover Theological Seminary for the training of Trinitarian clergy[4].

The genesis of disestablishment in Massachusetts can be traced to a religious revolution known as the Great Awakening.   In 1740 George Whitefield, a newly ordained Anglican minister from England arrived in Massachusetts at the invitation of local ministers, hoping his extraordinary preaching abilities would increase attendance at their parish churches.  An itinerant preacher and colleague of John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist faith in England), Whitefield had developed a reputation in the Colonies for raising money.  It was said that he could make his hearers weep or tremble, at his pleasure, by his varied utterance of the word “Mesopotamia”[5].  Over several weeks, Whitefield preached in towns across Eastern Massachusetts, raising handsome sums, swelling church attendance for his host ministers, and driving audiences into ecstatic frenzy.  His revivalist message emphasized personal religious experience, known as “new birth”, instead of relying on the means of salvation offered by the local parish minister.  Regardless of their church habits, Individuals were, by their “new birth” conversion experience, on the pathway to heaven, according to Whitefield.  Those who did not convert were destined for Hell.  Whitefield called into question the commitment of ministers who had not experienced new birth conversion, and dismissed education and training as the sole qualifications for occupying their pulpit.  He even insulted the Divinity students at Harvard and Yale Colleges by challenging their commitment to Christ[6].

Whitefield’s passion and eloquence had the desired effect, but soon things took an ominous turn.  He spent only a few weeks in Massachusetts before returning to England.  On his heels came two itinerant ministers, Rev. Gilbert Tennent and Rev. James Davenport, who continued to deliver revival sermons well into 1742.  Lacking the moderation and diplomacy of Whitefield, these men held rowdy public revival meetings, often without permission of the local clergy, and whipped local inhabitants into a state of chaotic and disruptive frenzy.  From a spiritual perspective, their principal issue was with the Calvinist notion of predestination- that God preselected all souls for salvation or damnation from birth. They believed instead that the soul could be saved only by in-person conversion experiences, and that this experience did not have to be overseen by a Harvard- educated minister[7].    Across Massachusetts, in towns like Newbury, Salem, and Ipswich, angry parishioners stormed out of their churches to form new religious societies in defiance of the Standing Order. In some cases (West Newbury, Hamilton, and Essex to name three), these societies evolved into new towns.

Religious animosity between Whitefield and the local orthodox ministry grew so intense that, when he returned to Massachusetts in 1744 for a second tour, he found many churches closed to him.  The more conservative ministers and their churches became known as “Old Lights” while those who accepted Whitefield’s revivalist preaching style came to be known as “New Lights”.  By 1745 the Great Awakening was over and church attendance quickly reverted to their previous levels; but the split in the Standing Order that began over the acceptability of this new style of preaching simmered for many more years, preempted by more substantial political events.

Although Whitefield and his disciples never preached in Beverly, its parishioners were deeply impressed by the notion of revivalist religion personally experienced.  By the end of the eighteenth century, a significant number of Beverly New Lights had abandoned the First Parish Church, rejecting both the Cambridge Platform and the public support of religion.  They aligned themselves with the Baptist Church in Danvers (since 1727, the Baptists had been exempted from parish taxes[8]), and organized the First Baptist Society in Beverly in 1801[9].  After disestablishment, these “separates” would establish a variety of new religious organizations in Beverly[10].  The remaining members of First Parish considered themselves Old Lights.  Although they subscribed to the Cambridge Platform and the Calvinist principles of predestination, other parts of their creed were not held uniformly.   About one third of First Parishioners considered themselves conservatives (known as “Strict Calvinists”), who believed in evangelism to convert others to their point of view. Key to their belief was the concept of the Holy Trinity- that God existed simultaneously as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and that Jesus was literally the son of God.  They generally felt that the natural world was the sole result of the spirit of God and, therefore, they rejected enlightenment rationalism- that the mysteries of the natural world could be explained through logic and scientific laws.  Most First Parishioners considered themselves liberals (known as Unitarians[11]) who were against evangelism, and promoted the right of people to believe as the light of reason informed them, within the doctrine of Christianity.  Unitarians questioned both the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and held rationalist views of the natural world[12].

The influence of the Great Awakening on the First Parish was in evidence during Rev, Joseph McKeen’s ministry.  In 1800 William Burley, a New-Light factory owner, Revolutionary War hero, and highly influential parishioner expressed his dissatisfaction with Rev. McKeen’s preaching, stating that “Mr. McKeen loved Drs. In Divinity & was willing to be one himself”[13].  Rev. William Bentley, Unitarian Minister of the East Parish in Salem, wrote in his diary that Burley and other disaffected church members often travelled to Salem’s South Parish Church to enjoy what they considered the sounder preaching of Rev. Daniel Hopkins[14], a New Light preacher.   They held Sunday evening religious meetings in their homes calculated to foster negative feelings towards McKeen[15].  Burley derided the notion that a Divinity Degree, and not a personal revelation should be the sole credential for a minister, echoing the New Light preacher Gilbert Tennent in condemning “unconverted ministers” who had not experienced personal conversion[16].  These disaffected parish members chose the occasion of McKeen’s resignation in January 1803 to begin raising funds to build a new meeting house.  They submitted a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature for the creation of a Third Parish and the Third Congregational Society that included the right of parishioners to freely move between either parish.   The petition was granted, except for the free movement provision, on March 7, 1803.  The First Parish Clerk struck the petitioners’ names from the First Parish membership rolls, and their polls and estates were removed from the parish tax list.  The Third Congregational Society installed Rev. Joseph Emerson to the pulpit, an Old-Light Harvard-educated, conservative Old Light minister.   The First Parish Church installed Rev. Abiel Abbot to their pulpit, a Harvard educated, liberal, Old Light rationalist[17].

The religious paths of the First Parish Church and the Third Congregational Society deviated little until 1818, when the strident preaching style and evangelical sermons of the new Third Congregational Society minister, Rev. David Oliphant, pushed his parishioners toward New-Light evangelism and away from their previous Old-Light orthodoxy.   A recent graduate of Andover Theological, Seminary, Oliphant attacked Rev. Abiel Abbot at every opportunity from his pulpit[18].  In contrast Rev. Abbot, a man of diminutive and gentle diplomatic style, avoided responding directly to Oliphant’s criticism, and took a positive tone in his sermons.  During one conversation with Robert Rantoul, the First Parish Clerk, Abbot told him that he knew the character of his parishioners better than anyone else, and that knowledge would be his guide[19].

In October 1823, the Installation of Ebenezer Poor as Minister of the Second Parish Church in North Beverly touched off a town-wide religious firestorm when Oliphant, a member of the committee to plan the installation, lobbied to bar Abbot from playing a role in the ceremonies.  Upset by this attempt to put down his minister, Robert Rantoul nevertheless attended the installation.  He later wrote an article about the event in the Salem Gazette that set off a string of angry responses from opposing factions that went on for the next three months[20].

The quarrel between the First and Third Parish ended as abruptly as it had begun.   On December 8th, 1832, the meeting house of the Third Congregational Society was destroyed by fire, and the First Parish clerk offered the use of its meeting house to the Third Parish at mutually agreed times until they could rebuild[21].  This offer was accepted on December 18, 1832, and the two parishes shared one meeting house until March 16, 1834[22].   On January 1, 1834, Article 3 of the Massachusetts Constitution providing for the public support of religion was officially abolished, along with all enabling laws[23].  Instantly, the political authority of the First Parish ended, and the status of its Church was reduced to one of several in town.

The free movement provision of the legislative petition for the establishment of the Third Parish itself demonstrates that the petitioners did not possess strong religious objections to the First Parish Church per se; yet it was upon this point that the dispute between the two parishes pivoted.  The First Parish, in a letter to the Legislature, argued against this provision, reasoning that if a parish was legally responsible for the contracts and obligations it undertook, its membership must, therefore, be fixed[24].  After some negotiation, the Third Parish reluctantly agreed to a two-year period of “open doors”, during which time residents of one parish could request dismission and recommendation to the other; but the matter was not settled to the satisfaction of the petitioners. In 1803 and 1804, seven Third Congregational Society petitioners requested readmission to the First Parish.  In 1805, when the doors were supposed to swing shut, ten more individuals requested to be dismissed from the Third Parish and recommended to the First.  Third Parish residents started attending worship services at the First Parish Church without following the legal process for dismission and recommendation. When the First Parish Clerk added back onto the First Parish tax list the polls and estates of those individuals, the Third Congregational Society submitted new petitions to the Legislature to exempt these parishioners from taxation by First Parish. Finally, in 1807, the First Parish issued a stern warning to the Third Congregational Society that if it continued its appeals to the General Court, the First Parish would use all legal means against them[25].

In 1814, after many dismission requests, First Parish Church deacons declared that requests for dismission from First Parish and recommendation to Third Parish should only be granted by exception[26].  In 1821, Tamma Kilham, a single woman who was denied dismission by the deacons, complained to ministers of several neighboring churches who, in accordance with the Cambridge Platform, assembled an ex Parte Council of Ministers to hear her case. Despite heated rebukes by Rev. Abbot and Deacon Rantoul on the validity of the Council, First Parish was ordered to comply with Tamma’s dismission request[27].

Third Parishioners argued that, even though the First Parish Church was supported by taxes raised from the polls and estates of all parishioners, few of them could become members of the Church.   Members purchased the best pew seats for themselves and their families, while the parishioners had to content themselves with seats in the upper gallery next to children, travelers, and slaves.  The Third Congregational Society would itself be an establishment church that could collect its own parish taxes; but the petitioners believed that, since both churches were the of the same denomination, separate tax lists and collectors ought not be necessary.

The First Parish saw things very differently.  Since its founding it had carefully and dutifully administered the collection of parish taxes, and the integrity of that process was vital to the survival of the parish system in Beverly.  If parishioners could move freely between the two parishes, their tax lists would never be accurate, and their attendant collection costs would increase.  Besides. there was a fear expressed by Robert Rantoul, Parish Clerk and Church deacon, that the free movement of individuals between churches would result in popularity contests between ministers that would trigger a flood of dismissions whenever a new minister was installed.  However, even he eventually changed his mind and came to support the disestablishment of the Standing Order[28].

Much of the passion of the Third Congregational Society’s actions was the manifestation of a growing appetite for private, participatory democratic institutions.    Massachusetts in 1800 was a Federalist stronghold, particularly in the maritime towns of Essex County.  Federalism, the party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton held that in a republic the people’s interests and the state’s interests were the same, since voters elected their own rulers.  Private groups threatened the Federalists’ vision by dividing the population. The freedom of association was not considered a right, but a privilege extended to certain institutions that served the common good; for example, the establishment church[29].   As the nineteenth century wore on, though, the Federalist hold on the Commonwealth’s political structure waffled until, in 1823, they ceased to factor as a meaningful political force[30].  Each time a Republican majority took over the legislature, the state of disestablishment progressed.    In Beverly, the Republican’s promise of individual liberty instilled a restless anxiety in parishioners, and a desire to participate in voluntary democratic institutions[31].  In 1804, elevated social zeal was observed in Beverly parishioners by Rev. William Bentley.  Though he characterized the excitement as non-religious, he noted that Abbot and Emerson each took every opportunity to capitalize on it to promote their houses of worship, even holding evening services for the first time in the Town’s history.[32].

Beverly parishioners mustered the energy to organize an extraordinary number of voluntary democratic societies[33] between 1803 and 1834, including the Beverly Music Society, the Beverly Charitable Society, the Beverly Female Charitable Society, the Beverly Union Sunday School, the First Parish Lending Library, the Beverly Lyceum, the Beverly Temperance Society, and five new churches, all accomplished with a total population of only three to four thousand inhabitants[34].

Perhaps the most revealing sign of the declining state of the First Parish during the period of disestablishment is its declining church membership[35].  224 church members were counted in 1802, reduced to 174 by the exit of the fifty petitioners[36].  The number recovered to original levels by 1805[37].  Between 1818 and 1834, during his ministry at the Third Congregational Society, Rev. Oliphant attracted many moderates away from the First Parish, although the ratio of membership between the two parishes never reached parity.  The final blow came in 1831 with the decision of the First Parish to call Rev. Christopher Toppan Thayer, a professed Unitarian, to replace Rev. Abbot.  The parish voted 76 to 38 in his favor, a slim majority by the standards of an establishment church.  As a result, nearly one third of First Parishioners abandoned their home parish, and aligned themselves with the Third[38].  Thus, the contentious events of the previous fifty years had reduced the First Parish Church from being one of the largest in the state to one with only average numbers.[39].  Today, First Parish Church counts approximately one hundred twenty members, almost exactly the number it counted in 1834.

Disestablishment, and the elimination of the legal basis for the entire municipal parish administration, went entirely unnoted in the official records of the First Parish. Parish meetings continued to authorize assessors and collectors to raise money “on the polls and estates of the parish” for many years.  In a miraculous coincidence, two Revolutionary War heroes; Dr. Joshua Fisher and Col. Israel Thorndike, left $11,000 to the parish, vastly reducing the money it needed to raise annually.   The Parish petitioned the Legislature in 1831 to incorporate the First Parish Ministerial Fund to administer the legacies[40].  In 1835, the meeting house was expanded to its present dimensions, and pew sales replaced tax assessment as the dominant topic in parish meetings.  In 1858, Robert Rantoul bequeathed $300 to the First Parish Ministerial Fund to be used to support the minister provided he served the parish for at least 25 years[41].   In 1870, Deacon Charles Davis, a former Sunday school Superintendent, left the princely sum of $6,000 to the First Parish to defray the costs of the Sunday school and to help in celebrating its anniversaries.  By 1942, well-heeled First Parishioners left legacies totaling over $81,000 to the First Parish Ministerial Fund and the First Parish Sunday School[42].   Over time, the municipal entity that was First Parish devolved into an administrative arm of the Church that controlled the Ministerial Fund, the Sunday School[43], the Vestry[44] and the Parish House[45].  Separate finances were maintained and separate meetings were conducted each year for church and parish until 1950, when a proposal to combine the two entities was rejected after a protracted debate.  The Ministerial Fund’s charter was rewritten in 1989 to place it under direct control of the Church.  In 2016, the Sunday school fund merged with the Ministerial fund, finally eliminating the last remnants of the old parish system.

Of course, the fate of the First Parish in Beverly as a political entity was ordained by the abolition of Article 3 from the Massachusetts Constitution.   Its providence, however, was determined by the passions of its parishioners, expressing their newly found liberty in the form of religious freedom and participatory democratic institutions.  In the end, those parishioners kept the First Parish alive longer than anyone expected.



[1] Jacob Conrad Meyer, Ph.D., Church and State in Massachusetts from 1740 to 1833:  A Chapter in the History of the Development of Individual Freedom. (Cleveland. Western Reserve University Press.1930).

[2] James F. Cooper, Tenacious of their Liberties:  The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999) 3.

[3] [John Cotton], The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, Adopted in 1648, and the Confession of Faith Adopted in 1680 (Boston:  Perkins & Whipple, 1850), Ch 13.

[4] Meyer 1930, 165-167.

[5] Joseph Tracy. The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield. (Boston: Charles Tappan, 1842) 26.   Tracy attributes this comment to famed English actor and playwright, David Garrick (1717-1779).

[6] Ibid, 347.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Meyer 1930, 14-15

[9] Robert Rantoul Autobiography 1848 (manuscript, Beverly Massachusetts Historical Society), 159.

[10] James F. Cooper, “Enthusiasts or Democrats? Separatism, Church Government, and the Great Awakening in Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly, 65, No. 2 (June 1992) under “JSTOR” (accessed July 17, 2017).

[11] The term “Unitarian” was originally applied derisively to an orthodox minister who questioned the Holy Trinity.  It did not denote a formal religious movement until 1823.

[12] Mary Kupiec Cayton “Who Were the Evangelicals?: Conservative and Liberal Identity in the UnitarianControversy in Boston, 1804-1833,” Journal of Social History 31 No. 1 (Autumn 1997) under “JSTOR” (accessed June 6, 2017), 86.

[13] Rantoul 1848, 159-160.

[14] Bentley, Rev. William. The diary of William Bentley, D.D., Pastor of the East Church, Salem, Massachusetts. 4 volumes. (Salem, MA: Essex Institute), August 10, 1800.

[15] Rantoul 1848, 159-160.

[16] Gilbert Tennent, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, (Boston: 1742).

[17] Beverly First Parish Records Volume 3 1797-1830, Item 52, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 40.

[18] Caitlin Lampman, “Congregationalism Divided: A Case Study of Beverly, Massachusetts’ First Parish Congregational Church Split, 1802-1834”, (undergraduate thesis, Simmons College, 2013), 5.

[19] Rantoul 1848, 160.

[20] Ibid, 161.

[21] Beverly First Parish Records Volume 4 1831-1872, Item 50, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 22.

[22] Ibid, 44.

[23] Meyer 1930, 220.

[24] Beverly First Parish Records Volume 3 1797-1830, 44-50.

[25] Beverly First Parish Records V3 1797-1830, 99.

[26] First Parish Beverly Church Records Volume 3 1803-1830, Item 57, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 359.

[27] Charles E Wainwright. “The Dismission of Tamma Kilham,” in Tales from Beverly’s Attic:  A Commemoration of the First 350 Years of the First Parish Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, (Printed by CreateSpace, a Amazon Company. 2017), 149-156.

[28] Ibid, 157.

[29] Johan N. Neem, “The Elusive Common Good: Religion and Civil Society in Massachusetts, 1780-1833,”

Journal of the Early Republic. 24, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), under “JSTOR,”

(accessed August 6, 2017), 381-382.

[30] Ibid, 403-404.

[31] Richard D.Brown, “The Emergence of Urban Society in Rural Massachusetts, 1760-1820,” The Journal of American History Vol. 61, No. 1, (June1974), under “JSTOR,” (accessed July 17, 2017) 35.

[32] Bentley, April 29, 1804, May 8, 1804.

[33] James Fulton MacLear, “‘The True American Union’ of Church and State: The Reconstruction of the Theocratic Tradition,” Church History, 28, No. 1 (March 1959), under “JSTOR,” (accessed June 26, 2017), 56-57.

[34] U.S. Bureau of the Census.  Census of Beverly, Essex County Massachusetts 1800 and 1830, Bureau of the Census:  Washington D.C.:  under (accessed August 1, 2017).

[35] Precise church membership as of any date is impossible to determine in the records of the First Parish Church due to the way it was maintained by the clerk.

[36] First Parish Beverly Church Records Volume 2 1773-1803, Item 56, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA, 379.

[37] Lampman 2013, 33.

[38] Rantoul 1848, 167.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ministerial Fund from its Founding  Item 105, First Parish Archive, First Parish Church Beverly MA.

[41] Memo of establishment of Rantoul Fund, Item 5524, First Parish Archive.  It is interesting to note that this legacy was never used, because no minister since Thayer has served more than 25 years.

[42] Bernard S. Leslie et al, ed., First Parish Church Unitarian,  Beverly, Massachusetts (Beverly, MA:  Times Publishing Corporation,1942) 82-98.

[43] Wainwright 2017, 130-139.

[44] Ibid, 140-148.

[45] Ibid, 39.

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