By Charles E Wainwright
Chair, First Parish Historical Committee
In the beginning, the Parish WAS the community. The Puritans were a theocracy and anyone living within the Parish had to be a member of the Church. The Church leaders ran Town government as well as Church affairs and even collected taxes. The Puritans believed that Church members were jointly responsible for one another in both religious devotion and general well being. Thus, the early days of First Parish were times of watch and care by the Congregation as a whole.
Membership in First Parish Church was not an easy thing to achieve. You either had to be an original member, born in Beverly of Church Members in good standing, or present a letter of dismission and recommendation from your prior minister. You would then be required to confess and repent your sins during the Church service. after which your request would be put to a vote by the congregation. Participation in he Communion Service signaled your acceptance into the Church.
The strict rules were not just for religious purposes. English common Law stipulated that residents of a Town or Parish were responsible for the well being of anyone living within its boundaries. Individuals who could not get a recommendation from their prior Church (or who were not members of a Church at all) were often to be found squatting on land on the outskirts of town, or living with relatives who were Parish members. If such individuals were permitted to stay, and they became sick or indigent, the Town would be responsible. Regularly, Parish officials would order Constables to find these individuals and force them to return to their home. This was known as “warning out” and occurred regularly in Massachusetts Towns until the Settlement Act eliminated the practice in 1793. In this way, First Parish and the Town of Beverly maintained an entirely insular community until the end of the eighteenth century.
The Church regularly celebrated Thanksgiving services as directed by the Colonial Governor. It was customary during these services to collect money for the benefit of the poor of the Parish and, starting in 1750, a book was maintained to record these contributions. The book was carefully updated with every collection until 1922.
The first indication we have of First Parish reaching outside its own doors is found in the minutes of a Church meeting dated May 3, 1801:“A set of plate for the Communion Service being now completed, it was voted that whatever money, collected for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, shall remain after the charges have been defrayed, be distributed by the Pastor and deacons at their discretion among the needy persons in full communion, whether they are members of this church or members of other churches, who reside and commune here.”
The years prior to the outbreak of war in 1812 were not good ones for Beverly. The British and the French both placed an embargo on goods from the US including fish and this resulted in great poverty in the town. As a result there was a great up swell in philanthropy and charitable institutions, primarily driven by members of First Parish Church (who, by most accounts, never really suffered any hardship). On March 12, 1804 the Town of Beverly initiated a committee called “Overseers of the Poor” to establish an almshouse. The initial board consisted of First Parish members Robert Rantoul, Sr., Thomas Davis, Joseph Wood, John Dyson and Eleazar Wallis, with Rantoul serving as chairman until at least 1846. In 1810 the First Parish Sunday School was formed by Joanna Prince and Hannah Hill to provide religious instruction to the poor and neglected children of Beverly. On December 4, 1810, the Beverly Female Charitable Society was formed by members of First Parish Church, the third of its kind to be founded in America.
One notable example of First Parish Church aiding its community occurred in the early winter of 1823. Col. Israel Thorndike, a Revolutionary War hero of Bunker Hill who had become very wealthy practicing law in Boston, decided to purchase an entire shipload of firewood from Maine and ship it to Beverly for the benefit of the poor. He asked Rev. Abiel Abbot to determine who should receive the wood. Abbot determined the recipients based on their Church attendance and piety.
First Parish Church never employed the model of institutional charity. Instead, the Church’s outreach extended from the generosity of its individual members. It invested its energies instead on various social clubs and reading societies for the betterment of its members. In 1890 the Lothrop club was founded as a men’s social organization. It sponsored dances, dinners, and lectures for its members. Women carried on Church Fairs and auctions, using the proceeds thus collected for worthy local charities. In 1916, Rev. Pemberton Hale Cressy gave a new emphasis on these clubs, encouraging the founding of other associations catering to old and young alike; such as the Old South Club, a social organization for men, the John Hale Society for teens and the Parish Aid Alliance, a social club for women were founded The Parish Aid Society took on many local causes including support of the Beverly Hospital and the Hunt Memorial Fund as well as programs to fight TB and Polio. They also took on Pastoral Care duties, sending flowers and get-well cards to members who were sick and aged (one understands the group’s singular determination to address Tuberculosis when one sees the number of cards sent to members who had this disease). In wartime, they made bandages, sewed linens and maintained communications with servicemen. The Parish Aid Society continued to meeting into the 1970s.
The first record we have of a Social action group sponsored directly for the purpose at First Parish is 1970 with a report of the “Social Concerns Committee”. From then on, there has been a group sponsored by the Church for community outreach.
The Church’s first efforts to extend itself outside the US began in 1928, when Rev. Fred Lewis read of work being done by the Unitarian Service Committee around the Unitarian Churches in Transylvania and offered the aid of First Parish. The Church maintained low-level support efforts for the Transylvania Church throughout the 1930s. In 1941 the Fascist persecution of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church cultivated a series of contacts between First Parish Church and a Transylvania Church culminated with a visit to Beverly by its pastor, Rev. Barna Biro, in 2001.
In 1995, church members became active in the Barefoot Angels Program, providing assistance to children living in a small village in El Salvador. Every year since, First Parish Church members raise money for and travel to El Salvador with educational supplies for the children.
Today, the Church maintains a Social Action Committee and a Pastoral Care committee. Our focus for social action has recently centered on assisting our local food pantry, Beverly Bootstraps, our Monday and Tuesday Night Suppers for the homeless, and the Family Promise residential shelter programs. The Pastoral Care Committee continues its tradition of reaching out to Church members in need. Our most revered community tradition, however, remains our First Parish Sunday School, augmented by a youth group and the OWL (Our Whole Lives) teen awareness education program.