Our Church has an interesting history and a rich heritage. During the past 3½ centuries, the church society and its members have both influenced, and been influenced by, events taking place around them. This heritage is made up of theological teachings, social interaction, people, and even the meeting house itself.
Because many in our church family have an interest in, but little knowledge of, our history, the series of "First Parish Facts" ran in the "Shooting Star" several years ago. It has now been slightly expanded by the Archives Committee, and is now being repeated in the newsletter. As the Facts are printed in the newsletter, they are added here, in chronological order.
We hope that you will find these Facts both interesting and educational.
The Archives Committee
See also: Our History
Our first minister was the Rev. John Fiske, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Wenham, MA, who came here in 1655 and brought the majority of his congregation with him. Mr. Fiske was trained as both a clergyman and a physician. The Town built him a house on what is now Littleton Road, opposite Forefathers' Cemetery. It was torn down in the early 1940s.
In 1657 Mr. Fiske prepared a catechism for the children of his flock entitled: "Watering of the Plant in Christ's Garden, or a short catechism for the entrance of our Chelmsford children. Enlarged by a three-fold appendix." A photocopy is in our archives.
Each week during Mr. Fiske’s ministry (1655-1676), church members contributed some small amount to a contingency fund. At one point a sufficient amount was accumulated, and the society bought a cow to rent out. Unfortunately, the cow lived only three years, the man never paid the rent, and the church lost everything.
On the 24 of 11t. 1656 [old date] we became the first church in New England to adopt the half-way covenant. Adults who had been baptized as children but who had not yet experienced the conversion or revelation necessary for full membership could nevertheless have their children baptized. The parents in return were to agree to maintain the church’s standards of moral conduct. However, these parents and their children were ineligible to vote in church affairs or to take communion.
Our second minister was the Rev. Thomas Clark, whose great-grandson was John Hancock, the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and whose signature adorns the Declaration of Independence.
Did you think that all our early ministers were stodgy and sober men? Our 3rd minister, the Rev. Samson Stoddard (1706-1740), may have drowned himself in a well after three or four years of partial derangement, perhaps due to the pressures of his job. However, as a student at Harvard College he "spent freely, broke windows, and paid fines in the customary way." It was during his pastorate that a new Meeting House was erected in 1712 (one source says 1710). Like the first one, it was on the approximate site of our present church building. The town of Stoddard, N. H. was named in honor of Col. Samson Stoddard, Jr., son of the minister.
Our fourth minister was the Rev. Ebenezer Bridge, whose pastorate covered more than a half century (1741-1792). He married Sarah Stoddard, daughter of his predecessor, the Rev. Samson Stoddard, and they lived in the house on Littleton Road formerly occupied by the Fiske and Stoddard families. Mr. Bridge's diary gives us a clear insight into day-to-day events of the Revolutionary period. Bridge Street was named in his honor.
Due to considerable rain leaking into the old Meeting House, especially right over the pulpit, causing the cancellation of services, erection of a new building was commenced June 3rd, 1792, just five months before Mr. Bridge's death. It was completed in 1793, the year that the Rev. Hezekiah Paekard became the fifth minister. Mr. Packard built the large house that still stands at #16 Westford Street.
During construction of the 1792 Meeting House, religious services were held in the hall at the tavern of Oliver Barron (was at the present intersection of North Road & Chelmsford Street).
The town got its first library, although not a public library, in 1794, when the Rev. Hezekiah Packard organized the Chelmsford Social Library. Of the first 93 books purchased, only twelve could be classed as fiction. They were mostly moral, religious, and philosophical works with a few on travel and poetry. The books were turned over to the new Free Public Library of Chelmsford in 1893.
In the beginning, the "Church" and the "Town" were one and the same. It was not until 1831 that the Church ceased to be supported by local tax money. Previous to that, all church business, including the hiring of the minister, was carried out at Town Meeting.
Like most churches in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1650s, ours was Puritan in doctrine. Although the original church covenant has not been preserved, it was, in all probability, similar to that of the Wenham church, which was "broadly catholic and liberal in its theo1ogical tone, while strongly practical in its insistance upon the spirit of peace and good will."
In 1671 the Selectmen ordered that "Every male person within our towne above the age of five or ten years shall provide a good clube of fouer or five foot in length with a knobe in the end and to bringe the same to the meeting house ther to leave the same until location for use of it." These "clubes" (clubs) were intended for use in defense against Indian attacks if needed - as far as we know, they were never needed.
It wasn't until 1681 that the law forbidding the celebration of Christmas was repealed. Before this, Christmas celebrations were punished by fines.
Until nearly 1700, ministers were not permitted to perform marriages. This duty was reserved for magistrates. Rev. Ebenezer Bridge, our fourth minister, wrote, "Marriages recorded, which though not part of a church record, strictly, yet may be satisfactory to some hereafter."
It was during the pastorate of the Rev. Samson Stoddard (1706-1740), our third minister, that a new Meeting House was erected in 1712 (one source says 1710). Like the first one, it was on the approximate site of our present church building. Mr. Stoddard drowned himself in a well after three or four years of partial derangement. The town of Stoddard, N. H. was named in honor of Col. Samson Stoddard, Jr., son of the minister.
In the 1792 Meeting House (and probably earlier too) seats were provided above the singers for men with "fiddles of various sizes, clarionets, and other instruments, but the fife was not allowed."
The tower of the third Meeting House was over 60 feet high and "joined to the Steeple by a belfry yet (Aug. 1793) destitute of a Bell, but they have not a pleasing effect together. The pews are square and inconvenient." The men sat on one side of the sanctuary, the women on the other side. There was a men's gallery, a women's gallery and also men's stairs and women's stairs.
Although the First Baptist Society (Chelmsford's second church) was organized in 1771 in South Chelmsford, in 1793 the Town voted not to abate the taxes made against the Baptists for the building of our new Meeting House.
Two years after the completion of the third Meeting House it was voted at the town meeting: "Voted that the eldest persons shall be seated in the foremost seats and likewise that there be moderate regard to estates in seating the meeting house."
In 1799 the Rev. Hezekiah Packard, our 5th minister, offered his new catechism for sale. Its wording was given in a plainer language than earlier ones.
The first part contained the first principles of Piety and Morality, drawn from the Gospel.
The next part contained a Political Catechism, designed to lead children and youth to the knowledge of society, and train them to the duties of citizens.
The third part contained valuable instructions, adapted to persons of mature age, and to heads of families.
From 1803 until 1832 the pastor of the First Parish Church was the Rev. Wilkes Allen, whose salary began at $500/year, plus a settlement of $333. He achieved lasting fame as the author, in 1820, of a "History of Chelmsford." This book reputedly "has the distinction, aside from its value as a record, of being the first town history of the dignity of a 'volume' to be printed in this country." (It was reprinted in facsimile edition in 1974.)
In 1819 a request was made for a stove for the Meeting House, but the article was dismissed. The following year a group of citizens was granted the privilege of installing a stove "under the direction of the selectmen as to the place where it should stand, on the condition that it be no expense to the Town." Prior to this, footstoves and live dogs had been used to provide heat.
In 1817 the Town purchased from Moses Hale land on the south side of the burying ground, which tradition said contained several ancient graves, including those of Rev. Mr. Fiske and two of his family."While therefore it is assured that Mr. Fiske's ashes repose on consecrated ground, it is true, as first stated, that no stone marks his resting place." The Fiske graves were probably designated by wooden markers. John Fiske was our first minister, and he died Jan. 14, 1676-7.
This Church denomination was originally Puritan in form. When did Unitarianism appear? Channing's declaration of Unitarian principles in Baltimore in 1819 advanced the movement. By the time of the pastorate of the Rev. William Andrews in 1836, our Church had become "pronouncedly liberal and Unitarian."
Already in use by 1845, the cognomen, "First Parish Church," was selected many years ago as the designation to be used in newspaper articles and publicity. However, the legal name of the organization remains the First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of Chelmsford, Massachusetts."
"On the night of February 13th (1842), about midnight, the Centre Meeting-house belonging to the First Congregational Society and Church, was discovered to be on fire, and in a few hours was entirely consumed." "The house with all its contents, Sunday School library, folio Bible, psalm books and bass viol were destroyed." The heat was so intense it melted the bell. Set on the southwest "porch, "it was believed to be "the work of an incendiary" possibly enraged over the dismissal of the minister, Mr. Russell.
Until 1823, our church had its tithingmen, equipped with a two foot long black staff with a brass knob on one end and a foxtail or rabbit's foot on the other. The knob was used to awaken men by tapping them on the head and to correct wicked boys. Women were awakened brushing the foxtail or rabbit's foot against their faces. Normally there were two tithing men but in 1815, 21 were chosen - apparently there was a strong need for discipline.
In the old days, seating in the Meeting House was assigned by a Town committee. Persons were given preference "according to their estate, office, or social standing." Some pew owners were allowed to cut a door for a private entrance to their pews.
The present First Parish Meeting House was erected in 1842 by a body legally incorporated as "The Proprietors of the Chelmsford Centre Meeting-house." It was dedicated on April 13, 1843, about two months after its actual completion.
The estimated cost of the present Meeting House was $2,500 (exclusive of the basement, for which the Town paid $1,426.06), but the actual cost, including the bell and the expense of the dedication was $4,002.40. (A hard to repeat operation at present prices!)
The sale of pews to church members raised $3,858 toward the cost of building the Meeting House.
The present bell was obtained by the Building Committee in 1844 from H. N. Hooper & Co. of Boston for $294.28, plus $10.38 to church member Joseph Manning for transportation of the bell, bell rope, etc. Originally planned to have just a cupola, the meeting house was built with a steeple modeled after that one in Littleton.
In 1844, the recently organized Universalist Society of the town united with the "First Congregational Church" (First Parish) to form the "Union Parish". "It will be noticed ... that the ancient name of this Church is still retained". There were 11 male and 39 female members. This "Union Parish" was dissolved in 1878
In May 1848 the Society "remonstrated against the road recently laid out" (Littleton Road) across land "claimed by the First Parish in Chelmsford." However, it was to no avail; the road remained, and we apparently received no money for lost land, although other owners did. The early settlers used the terms "meeting house" instead of "church" and "Sabbath" (sunset on Saturday until sunset on Sunday) instead of "Sunday". Our records first show the use of "church" in 1853. In recent years, the term "Meeting House" has regained popularity.
During the 1860s the Collector's "job" was bid on by members of the parish, the lowest bidder getting the position for the year. The winning bids ranged from 1 to 3 cents on the dollar collected. The Collector was then expected to obtain the promised money from each subscriber.
Voted: To assess a tax of one thousand dollars upon the polls and estate of the members of the Parish, said tax to be made by the valuation as found upon the Assessors book in 1868.
The Town ceded its right to the church basement to the Society in 1884 for $100.00 - one of the better financial transactions of the Society. That same year, the basement was transformed into the vestry, along with a kitchen, ladies' room, library, and cloak room.
In 1885 the offer by the ladies of the parish to place two furnaces in the basement for the purpose of heating the building was accepted, it being understood that the proprietors of the church building would incur no expense by this action. However, a committee of men would supervise the women.
Since 1819 the building had been heated by a stove.
The exact date that the Women's Alliance was formed is uncertain, as the records have been lost, but it is presumed to have been in the latter part of the fall of 1868.
In 1876 a group of local citizens raised $461.11 by public subscriptions for a "tower clock" which was placed in the steeple. It was manufactured by E. Howard & Company of Boston. In 1876, around the church "was an uneven, barren waste of land; no green lawns, no surbbery, no graded walks, no hardened raodbeds, but diverse ruts through drifting sands and rolling stones." A subscription was started by the villagers and the V.I.A. to grade the hill from the church down to the road, lay out walks and plan shrubbery. They didn't have a hard-working Grounds Committee, like we do now!
The auditorium of the church was remodeled into Gothic style and rededicated November 21, 1888, at a total cost of $1,674.99. The center entrance with swinging doors was added at this time. The pews were rearranged into a curvilinear line with a new center aisle. Front pews each side of the pulpit, once the most prized, were replaced with a room on the left for the pastor, and on the right, space was left for a pipe organ. The walls and ceiling were papered, the former in orange terra cotta.
The organization that built the present meeting house, the Proprietors of the Chelmsford Centre Meeting House, was dissolved in 1888, and ownership of the pews became vested in the Society.
Prior to 1888 the land in front of the meeting house had been a gravel pile. This was graded and improved that year. A gravel drive connected Westford Street and Littleton Road, passing by the foot of the front steps. A large granite slab was embedded in the ground directly in front of the building to make it possible to dismount from a carriage without sinking into the mud.
In 1890 it was reported that, "the present parish embraces a varied constituency, that may be roughly classified as Unitarian, Universalist, Materialistic, Spiritualist, and Agnostic, but amid all this contrariety of opinions, there has been a marked growth of unity and organization." Found (by Jane Drury) among Eleanor Parkhurst's papers: March 1, 1889 - The Unitarian society will hold the annual parish meeting in the vestry, Wednesday evening, March 6. besides the usual routine business a proposition will be submitted to change the beginning of the parochial year from April to January.
A series of six entertainments for the benefit of the Unitarian Pipe Organ Fund were presented at the Town Hall in 1891, including "Elements of Success", a lecture by Rev. B. R. Bulkley; "A Grand Concert by Mr. Edward E. Adams, assisted by Miss Adelaide E. Noyes, Reader and Elocutionist"; "Victor Hugo", a lecture by Rev. R. A. Greene; and "Old Things in New England", a lecture by Rev. J. M. Greene, D.D. The fifth entertainment was "to be announced." The course concluded with a Grand Dramatic Entertainment, "The Flower of the Family", by Home Talent. Tickets for the whole six entertainments were $1.
Rev. Alfred K. Shurtleff was our minister from 1901 to 1907. A newspaper article written at the time of his death reported: He was probably best known for his many services to aid and encourage the blind. His inspirational book Lighted Candles, which was published in both type and in Braille, evoked wide response. But for many other Bostonians his life had another significance. He was one of the first Beacon Hill residents - possibly the first - to put lighted candles in his windows on Christmas Eve and to initiate a custom which has, in the last 50 years, become distinctive in Boston and has been copied, with varying degrees of success and appropriateness, in many other American communities. Thus the title of his book has a special meaning to Bostonians who, having the blessings of sight, know the quiet, sparkling beauty of Christmas Eve on snow-covered Beacon Hill."
The Meeting House was equipped for lighting by gas, and water was "introduced into the basement" during the winter of 1903/04.
Since 1910 two examples of early American silver, owned by this Society, have been on loan to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Rev. John Fiske caudle cup was made by Jeremlah Dummer of Boston (1645-1718). Rev. Anthony Stoddard willed his silver tankard in 1740 to the Society for use at Communion. In 1912 at the request of the local fire department, a key to the building was placed beside the front door in a glass fronted box, for use in case of fire in the village. The key was used to gain entrance and ring the bell as an alarm.
In 1913 the memorial window to Dr. John Call Bartlett, "for more than 30 years chorister of the church," was moved from the old choir gallery to its present location at the front entrance of the building.
Extensive Colonial style alterations were made to the sanctuary in 1913, Edwin C. Clark the architect. Among the changes were: the addition of new windows in the side walls and of the triple window behind the pulpit. The organ was moved from the area right of the pulpit to the balcony, which was returned to its width prior to 1888. Electricity was installed, and the old pews "with unsanitary cushions", were replaced by the present pews. The ceiling was "in soft shades of brown and the walls paneled in a similar color...... a cornice softening the lines between walls and ceiling."
In 1913 money was raised by young girls in the society under the direction of Mrs. Leroy Parkhurst for the new beechwood floors laid in the sanctuary.
During the fall of 1913 Sunday services were held m the Odd Fellows Hall (2nd floor of the present bank in Central Square), while renovations were bring made to the church sanctuary. The road between Littleton and Westford Streets, which passed between the meetinghouse and the horse-sheds, was closed to travel in 1916. The next year the sheds were moved to Chelmsford Street by Mr. Wilson, Alice Dryden's father. In June, 1919 it was voted to have the roof slated & carpenter work done on it, the chimney strengthened, blinds painted, and the globes in the church cleaned - for $833.96!
Plans for a new boiler house at the southwest corner of the building were accepted in July 1920 and the contract given to John A. Simpson.
In October, 1921 it was voted to allow the town authorities to attach a striker to the bell on the church, to be used for a fire alarm.
The Women’s Alliance remodeled the kitchen in 1928. It was enlarged somewhat, and a large soapstone sink placed in the center of the room. Several windows were added to the vestry, and the present stairway from the upper floor replaced the inconvenient stairway put in on the other side in 1887, which brought people "through the kitchen from the auditorium to the supper room, a method that was not convenient for the workers at a supper."
There were 66 families on the membership list in 1936. The next year removable curtains were hung in the vestry to separate Sunday School classes. The first May Breakfast was held on May 1, 1926. Minutes of the Women's Alliance state, "Means of raising money was discussed, and it was voted to hold a May Breakfast, and ask Mrs. Fred Park to be matron. The "Second Annual May Breakfast" was held on Wednesday, May 4, 1927, with Mrs. Park again as chairman. In addition to breakfast, luncheon was also served that year, and aprons and May Baskets, with & without candy were sold.
There were 66 families on the membership list in 1936. The next year removable curtains were hung in the vestry to separate Sunday School classes.
In 1939 a Bible presented to the Society in 1842 was placed in the hands of the Historical Society for safekeeping.
On the morning of June 13, 1955, just a few hours after the end of a dinner held under a tent in our parking lot, celebrating the Tercentenary anniversary of the Town and Church, lightning struck the steeple, blowing it apart. It was soon replaced with a similarly designed but stronger steeple, topped with the old weathervane and gold balls. It was dedicated an October 16, 1955.
When plans were being made to add the R. E. wing and chapel, it was discovered that the Town still owned the parking lot and land under the church! In 1884 the Town had ceded the basement to us but not the land. That situation was corrected in 1955, and the addition was built. Construction was paid for by a general fund drive, but the furnishings of the "Alliance Room/ Parlor" were provided by the Women's Alliance. Dedication of the new addition took place Sept. 23, 1956. The chapel was named for Miss Susie McFarlin, a member and staunch supporter of this Society and a well-liked teacher in the Chelmsford schools for 50 years. At her retirement in 1929 it was said that "She has left a permanent imprint on the life of the community and retires with love & admiration and the best wishes of all who have known her." Several pictures painted by her hang in the Alliance Room.
In the fall of 1967 four new chandeliers were been installed in the Church Sanctuary, which were more in keeping with our Colonial Revival style building. They were the gift of Dr. Paula Hallet Olsen in memory of her husband, Dr. G. Gordon Olsen. They were dedicated Sunday, Nov.19,1967.
The present pipe organ was installed in time for the Easter service in 1968. The old electronic instrument was given to the U.U.A. at 25 Beacon Street in Boston. The new organ was designed by Dr. Edward Gammons, who designed the organ at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC at the same time. He said that our organ was much more of a challenge for him because of the height and financial limitations.
In the summer of 1982 the donation of a kitchenette in the Alliance Room was made by Charlotte DeWolf. She had planned to give it to the church in her will but decided to do it while still alive and could enjoy it herself!
In September 1993 our newly installed elevator was officially dedicated. It was made possible by a legacy from the estate of Jane Poole, a member of the society. We were the first church in town to be handicapped accessible.