First Parish Church of Newbury - A Brief History of the Church

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History of the First Parish Church of Newbury

First Settlers

In 1633 Thomas Parker, a nonconformist English minister, James Noyes, a teacher with similar views, and a group of followers decided to emigrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when it was a part of the British Empire.Church Drawing by Dorothy Brown Arriving first at Ipswich, which was then called Agawam, the group spent the winter of 1634 there. In May of 1635, a small group of immigrants rowed north to the mouth of the Parker River, known then as the Quas-ca-cun-quen, and landed on the north shore east of the present Parker River Bridge on Route 1A-High Road.

A church, a town government seat, a school and a tavern were established as necessities for the colonists. In the beginning the town was organized as a parish, the "First Parish of Newbury". A Meeting House was erected and thus, the First Parish Church became the twelfth church to be established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Newbury originally extended from the Merrimack River to the Parker River and from Plum Island to Bradford (now Haverhill). Until 1698, it was the only church in all of the territory known as Newbury. Initially, all houses in the community had to be in the area of the Meeting House, and on September 6, 1635, the General Court ordered that, "noe dwelling howse shalbee builte above halfe a myle from the meeting house." This law was strictly enforced until its repeal on May 13, 1640.

Then as the population increased, settlers moved away from the banks of the Parker River, first to the Lower Green and then to the Upper Green and beyond. Reverend Glenn Tilley Morse, in his Events of Early History describes how strenuous religious worship was in the earliest days of the town:

There was no heat in the first Meeting House which was probably a rude structure built of logs with cracks and crevices filled with clay to keep out the cold.... The congregation had to sit during sermons that were two hours long. They could not doze, for they would be rudely awakened by having a fox’s tail on a long rod brushed against their faces. They would be punished if they disturbed the meeting by moving about or causing any commotion and fined if they missed a meeting or service. Parishioners attended the meetings at the perils of their lives. They were in danger of attacks from Indians and wild beasts on their way to and from worship.

Having only one Meeting House caused a long journey by horse and wagon for the outlying settlers. Old town records contain a plea from a group of settlers in Byfield who asked to be released early from worship in order to travel "Downfall Road" in the daylight because they feared attack by wolves that were known to frequent the area at night. The Meeting House itself was guarded by armed sentries during services because sudden attack by Indians was a constant threat.

First Meeting House

The first Meeting House was erected near the Lower Green. A large boulder on the north side of the Green near High Road indicates its location. In October of 1647, as the town expanded north, the original Meeting House was taken down and a new one was built on the east side of High Road north of the "trayneing green" (now the Upper Green) on the site of what is now part of the First Parish Burying Ground. This Meeting House served the town until the spring of 1661, when it was decided to construct a larger building on the southerly side of the old Meeting House, which was allowed to stand until the old one was completed. During the summer and winter of 1669, a third Meeting House was built that was characterized as "a stately building in the day of it". This structure is believed to have served the church and parish until June of 1806, when a new structure was built that was "sixty-one feet long by fifty-one feet wide". For the next 62 years this building stood and housed a growing and united congregation.

In its early history, the church at Newbury came to be distinguished because of the views of its men and women who were more liberal in their views of church fellowship and discipline than the inhabitants of other towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thomas Lechford reported in a London paper that, "of late some churches are of the opinion that any may be admitted to Church fellowship, that are not extremely ignorant or scandalous: but this they are not very forward to practice, except at Newberry."

During the seventeenth century, Congregationalism was threatened and the church government was confronted by a "clerical invasion". Throughout this controversy, the Newbury church remained a strong defender of Congregational principles. The outcome of the long controversy in Newbury was a victory for a democratic form of church government that is still in evidence today with the use of an Annual Church Meeting where members can come to discuss and vote on pertinent issues that affect the church.

Expansion of Newbury

While the First Parish was dealing with building new buildings in response to growth of the Town, the distance to the Meeting House and philosophical differences led to the diversity of churches that are now in our area. From the beginning, each man was assessed for the support of a Meeting House for Town Meetings and for worship. Parishioners who were building new meeting houses and establishing new parishes asked to be excused from taxes to support the First Parish Meeting House. After a great deal of resistance from the First Parish elders, a second parish was loosely established in 1695 at Sawyer’s Hill in West Newbury because they were so far from the First Parish. In 1702, the residents of the section known as the Falls Area (now Byfield), built a Meeting House for the same reason which became the Parish of Byfield, that was formerly organized in 1706.

As the town continued to develop and the economic base expanded and matured from agriculture to commerce, the separate town of Newburyport was incorporated in 1764. Several other churches organized from the "mother" parish including...

The final structure built on the site established for the First Parish Church in 1647 was constructed in 1806. The pictures below are of that site. The left is a front view of the church facing High Road directly opposite the current building. The right is a rear view of the church including the pond and cemetery. Click on the image to see a larger view. Use the browser back button to return to this page.

On January 26, 1868 that building was destroyed by fire. There was no insurance on the structure, but the loyalty and enthusiasm of the parish members made it possible to raise enough money by March of 1869 to raise a new church that was debt free. The new building, (which is the present church building) was completed in 1869 on its present location, across High Road from the site of the 1806 building.

During the nineteenth century the church continued to serve a largely rural congregation that was described as a "very intelligent society". The pastorate of Reverend Leonard Withington which, including his years as pastor-emeritus, lasted from 1816 to 1885, saw an increased membership and an active interest in reform movements of the time. Lyceum lectures were held in the vestry and new organizations formed in the church, including the first Sunday School in the area, which opened in 1818 and has served the needs of children and their families continuously for over 180 years.

The Church: 1940 - 1966

The image of the church appearing of this page is used in each Sunday Church Bulletin, drawn by Dorothy Brown, depicts three churches. In the lower right third is, as far as can be determined, the building built in 1669, as it appeared after the addition of the steeple in 1800. The lower left third shows the building built in 1806 that burned in 1868, which was located above the stone wall across from our present building. The top third of the picture shows our present structure, that was completed in 1869.

Before the church built Holton Hall in the current building in the early 1960’s, many church activities were held in Parker Hall, a building which stood at the southern end of the Burying Ground. Parker Hall had been built in 1849 to be used for the "high school in Newbury", but was used only for a short time. In 1856, the ladies of the Parish Circle decided to buy the building before the town could sell it and have it moved elsewhere. The ladies knew they had to act quickly. Two members went to Newburyport to secure the loan to purchase the "first floor of the building". Successful, they took the loan in gold and having no transportation, walked back to Newbury carrying the gold, where one of the women hid it in her husband’s bed chamber that night. The next morning they went to Town Hall and secured the deed for the first floor. Eventually, the second floor and then the land were purchased through the hard work and determination of the Parish Circle. Parker Hall was taken down in 1961, which allowed expansion of the cemetery.

A decline in the number of farms and improvements in transportation gradually transformed Newbury into a largely residential community. These changes saw corresponding changes in the makeup of the congregation and continued efforts to make improvements to meet future needs. From 1869 until 1949 the church used a tracker organ. The air for the organ was pumped from large bellows by boys in the parish. Eventually as it became increasingly difficult to get boys to do this job, an electric motor was installed. In the 1940’s the organ began to fall apart and the church commenced to raise money for a new organ. Through a combination of church suppers, pledges and memorial gifts, $25,000 was raised to purchase a new Kilgen Organ that was installed and dedicated in 1949.

In 1961 and 1962, the cellar of the present building was excavated and the extra space was made into offices, a dining hall, a kitchen, Sunday School space, rest rooms and storage. A sprinkler system and steam heating system were also installed. The new hall was dedicated on September 7, 1962 as Holton Hall, in memory of Reverend Charles Holton, who had served the parish for 41 years.

In January of 1961, a key change came to the First Church. The congregation voted to become a member of the United Church of Christ, a decision, which by all accounts, was in no small measure subject to controversy when the final vote was taken at the Annual Meeting.

The Church Buildings in the First Parish continued to be owned by the Parish, (i.e., the political body, not the religious body), until 1966, when the Church and the Parish, (which over the years had remained separate bodies), voted to merge. The building finally became property of the Church, the religious body, as the result of a five member committee that was formed to draw up a constitution and bylaws. On November 2, 1966 an open meeting was held for the members of the church and the members of the parish (not everyone belonged to both) to discuss the proposed changes. On November 15th the final form of the by-laws was adapted and it was voted to merge the corporate entity of the Parish with the membership of the Church. Thus, on August 2, 1967 the new organization we now know as "the First Parish Church of Newbury" originated, 327 years after the first worship service was conducted.

The Church in Recent Years

The Church has continued to grow and remain a vibrant and vital part of the community. By the late 1980’s the Church recognized it was effectively out of space. There was no room to expand the building or have any outdoor activities, and the only parking, which was on busy High Road, had become unsafe. Property immediately behind the church was offered to be sold to the Church by the owner of a home next to the church. The Parish Board sought to buy that parcel, with approval of the congregation, but before the sale could be closed, the owner got a better offer from a housing developer who wanted to buy the parcel the Church needed and an adjacent farm, for substantially more money. The homeowner withdrew his offer and refused to negotiate. Recognizing if this parcel of land was lost, the church would forever be constrained in its ability to grow on its historic site, the Board, led by the Moderator and the Treasurer, developed and presented a strategy to the congregation, and got approval to act promptly and decisively. The Church secured a loan sufficient to match, not out-bid, the developer’s offer on the farm. Buying the farm, gave the Church a piece of property directly behind the homeowner’s house which, with the developer out of the picture, became more valuable to the homeowner than the parcel the Church needed. The Board then traded the piece of property it needed for the land that then had become more valuable to the homeowner. The Board divided the parcels not needed and placed them up for sale. Through a period of belt tightening, fund raisers and the continuing will and commitment of the congregation, the Church was able to sell what property it did not want, pay off the loan and retain the property that now gives the congregation room for outdoor activities, handicapped access to the building, room to expand the structure and safe parking for all parishioners attending services or meetings day and night.

Just as the ladies of the Parish Circle did in the 19th century to purchase Parker Hall, The Parish Board used congregational principles, hard work and dedication in the 20th century to move the Church ahead, grow and thrive. Revisions to the Bylaws designed to keep them effective for changing times were adapted in 1995. Now the Church Council has evolved into the leadership body that, together with the congregation, will continue the work and development of the Church into the 21st century.

From the beginning, one point that has remained clear was stated by Samuel Bartlett, President of Dartmouth College, in remarks he made at the 250th Anniversary of the Town in 1885. "...The crowning trait of this ancient township has been her religion. Around this it may be truly said, all else has centered. A church was the town’s earliest institution and churches have been her maturest fruits...." And in 1984, for the occasion of the town’s 350th Anniversary, President Gerald R. Ford wrote, "The values and traditions brought to Newbury by its first settlers and handed down through the decades have withstood the test of time. They are the same qualities that have made our nation great and hopefully, with the help of the citizens of today, these gifts will be treasured and protected by the generations of tomorrow."

First Parish Church of Newbury is distinguished to be one of the oldest churches in America and even more distinguished to continue to be a vibrant, vital, living force in our community. It has been described as the "Jewel of Newbury". Through its faith, the contributions of its people, its internal programs and its outreach programs to the community and the world, the Church remains, and will continue to remain, an example of the power of God’s Love.


  • Text: Celebrate 350 YearsCelebrate 350 Years, a booklet produced by the First Parish Church, Newbury, MA, 1985
  • Image: a digital copy of a drawing by Dorothy Brown