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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2 thoughts on “The Disestablishment of Beverly’s First Parish

  1. Thank you for clarifying how the 1st Parish became Unitarian and voluntary. Thanks be for all those ancestors who donated so much in time, energy and financial resources to keep 1st Parish Unitarian (Universalist) a viable force in Beverly.

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