Honoring our History; Forging our Future

by Charles E Wainwright

If you have driven or walked down Cabot Street in downtown Beverly recently you have undoubtedly noticed the newly painted yellow church building at the corner of Essex Street.  You may not be aware of the long and fascinating story of this beautiful structure, or its intimate role in the history of the city of Beverly.

First Meeting House,  1656

Although the Church was gathered in 1667, the first meeting house was built for the Parish in 1656, with the permission of the Salem Church.  It was located near the old cemetery, at the current location of the “White Whale” on Hale Street.  It was a primitive structure of undetermined size, with a dirt floor, and no paint or windows.   Upon its belfry, a bell given by Capt. Thomas Lathrop was rung to call members to service.  Lathrop obtained the bell as a war prize from a Friary in Port Royal, Canada.  The Church served both as a house of worship and the location of Town meetings.

Second Meeting House,  1682

In 1682 the meeting house was sold and a second meeting house was erected at the Church’s present location.  The perimeter of the new building was 50 feet by 40 feet.  While it was much more comfortable than the first structure, it was by no means an elegant one:  The exterior was crudely finished, and all the interior beams and rafters were visible.  The belfry of the Church was in the middle of the building and a new bell was rung by a rope located at the center aisle.  Because it was the only building in town that did not have a chimney or stove, it was decided to store the Town’s reserve of gunpowder in its basement.   While this satisfied the needs of the Town, there were many Sundays when services were cut short and the building evacuated in anticipation of a lightning storm.  It was not until 1822 that two stoves were installed to heat the Church and congregants could finally worship in relative warmth and comfort.  In 1713 the Second Parish was established in North Beverly and the seat of the town’s government moved to neutral accommodations.  From this time on, First Parish was no longer considered a meeting house.

Third Building,  1772

The present building, at 225 Cabot Street, was completed in 1772 after it was determined that the growth in worshippers had outstripped the dimensions of its predecessor.  During its construction, Church services were held under an elm tree located just outside the Minister’s residence at the easterly end of the Common.  The new 70 by 53 foot structure was originally entered from the south side on Hale Street, and featured a long ramp running from the front door to an elevated pulpit on the north wall.  Members sat in rows below the pulpit in seats assigned using a complex formula that took into account an individual’s gender, net worth, military service, role in the Church and age.  Children and visitors sat in a gallery at the top of the south wall.   Blacks were relegated to the southeast corner of the gallery.

British Attack,  1775

In the autumn of 1775, the British conducted raids along the coast of Massachusetts in retaliation for the incident at Concord and the siege of Boston.  Pursuing a Beverly Privateer vessel that had just left port, the British Ship of War Nautilus anchored just outside the harbor and shelled the town.  The Church was its target, based on the erroneous assumption that the Town’s ammunition and weapons were stored there.  None of the volleys found its target.

First Renovation,  1795

In 1795, due to increasing membership, the Church was enlarged by cutting it in half and adding twenty feet to its long dimension.  A second door was added as was a 30 foot portico.   One curious artifact of this construction was a ship’s mast that was used as one of the main beams of the floor of the Church, which is visible today.  A bell, cast by Paul Revere, was hung in the belfry, and was used to mark the Town’s curfew until 1931.  This bell can be visited today outside the Emanuel Congregational Church on Bridge Street.

The Vestry,  1820

In 1820 Nathan Dane, widely regarded as the Father of American Law, gave the Church a parcel of land located on the corner of Federal and Chapman Street on which to build a Vestry where social gatherings could be held.  Shortly after its construction, Dane asked for his land to be returned and the Vestry was moved to its current location on Hale Street where it continued to serve the needs of the Church and the Sunday school until 1921.  Today we know this building as the “White Whale”.

On August 31, 1831 the Church hosted the Count de Lafayette, French champion of the American Revolutionary cause and good friend of President Washington.  Robert Rantoul, the Parish Clerk delivered the address of welcome to a crowded Church.

Second Renovation,  1835

Soon after the newly renovated Church was opened, members assigned to pews at either end of the building began to complain that they could not hear the minister or enjoy the service.  In 1835 the Church voted to renovate the building once again- this time, with greater care for its internal seating and external appearance.   The layout of the Sanctuary was rotated 90 degrees so that the pulpit was at the East wall, and the pews were placed in semi-circular rows resulting in a much improved seating layout.  In place of the gallery a balcony was hung along the west wall and seating accommodation was made for the Church Choir behind the Pulpit.  A clock was installed in the tower.  When completed, the Church was considered by many to be the finest example of Greek revival architecture in America.

In 1865, at the close of the Civil War, the interior of the Church was redesigned.  Elaborately tooled hand crafted woodwork was added around the Pulpit, and a pump organ was installed.    In 1880 this organ was replaced by the magnificent Hook and Hastings instrument seen today.  With this exception, the interior of the church has remained fundamentally unchanged to this day.

In 1902 the Church was again refurbished.  New windows were installed and the building was connected to the electric grid.  Gas lights, however, remained in the Church for some time.  A room was added at the back of the Church for the benefit of the Minister.

The Parish House,  1906

In 1906, the Church built a second building on Federal Street, popularly known as the Parish House.
This building served as the social heart of the City of Beverly for the next sixty seven years, hosting dances, Scout meetings, Sunday school services and other public events.  The house was used by several Beverly Churches over the years for services when their own buildings needed renovation.  In 1955, after a fire destroyed the Beverly National Bank, the Church permitted the bank to set up temporary operations in the Parish house, a favor that the Bank did not soon forget.  The Bank bought the property in 1973 to make way for its new parking lot.

William Howard Taft, Guest Minister 1909-1910


In 1909 and 1910, President William Howard Taft attended summer services at the Church.  A lifelong Unitarian, He always occupied the same seat (pew 84), near the front of the sanctuary left of center.  Today, a silver plaque marks this location.  On his last visit he conducted the Church service.

Sextons Philip and Carroll Morrill,  1913-2004

In October 1913, Philip Morrill began his duties as Sexton of the Church, only the tenth to fulfill this function since the founding of the Church.  Mr. Morrill remained sexton until his son Carroll replaced him in 1973.  Carroll retained his duties up until his death in 2004.

Butler Chimes,  1931

In 1928 Mrs. Mary Adelaide Butler, wife of Rev. Ellery Channing Butler bequeathed money to the Church for the installation of a set of chimes in the bell tower.  The attorney for her estate was Roland W. Boyden, longtime devoted Parish Member and superintendent of the Sunday school.  Boyden worked tirelessly to obtain chimes from England and have them installed in the Church tower.  Just before the debut of the Chimes to the public, Mr. Boyden died during the Sunday service on October 18, 1931.

Third Renovation, 1974

In 1973 with the sale of its Parish House on Federal Street, the Church voted to excavate the basement and build a new area for the use of its Sunday school.  This was a complicated engineering challenge that revealed many frailties of the ancient structure.  The back of the Church was enlarged with the addition of two offices and two additional offices were built on either end of the front foyer under the balcony.  Construction was completed by the fall of 1974.

Fourth Renovation,  2009

Over the ensuing years, the Congregation came to realize that their building was deteriorating at an alarming rate.  Leaks from the roof into the organ were accompanied, on rainy days, by backups in the plumbing.  Heating bills were astronomical and the exterior looked decrepit.  In 2007 they launched a capital campaign to raise money but, while many generous donors came forward, it was not enough even to begin renovations.  To assist in funding, the Church sold much of its beloved Colonial silver Communion collection.  A long term, three phase plan was developed with the aid of an architect and the first phase of construction began in June of 2009.  The sills were reconstructed, much of the clap board and roof were replaced and the beautiful arched windows were lovingly restored by hand.   Insulation was blown into all exterior walls to improve the building’s energy footprint.  Perhaps the most visible improvement, a handsome coat of yellow paint was added last.  Work was completed by the end of 2009.

Forging our Future

What is in store for the Church?  Plans call for more attention to be paid to the interior:   an elevator, a conversion of the balcony to an observation area, and some additional improvements to the basement.   The building will continue to serve the Beverly community as a meeting house, performance center and house of worship for many years to come.

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