History of the First Parish Church of Newbury

DBrowndrawingThe First Parish Church of Newbury was founded in May 1635 when a small group of  Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers rowed north to the mouth of the Parker River and landed near the Parker River Br idge on present-day Route 1A, High Road, in Newbury.

These first settlers established a church, a town government seat, a school and a tavern. The town was organized as the First Parish of Newbury.  By decree all houses in the parish were to be located in an area near the meeting house due in part to the dangers parishioners faced from attacks by “Indians and wild beasts” on their way to and from worship. The law, though, was repealed a short time later in 1640.

In its early years, the church was distinguished by the liberal views of its members regarding church fellowship and discipline. Throughout the seventeenth century the church remained a strong defender of congregational principles and a democratic form of church government that is still in evidence today through the church’s annual meeting when members discuss and vote upon pertinent issues facing the church.

Well into the nineteenth century the church continued to serve a largely rural congregation, described as a “very intelligent society.”  Lyceum lectures were held in the vestry, and new organizations were formed  including the first Sunday school in the area, which opened in 1818 and has served the needs of children and their families ever since.

The earliest annals of the church reveal a fascinating anecdotal history. The first meeting house, an un heated rude log structure, was constructed on the present-day Lower Green in Newbury.  Its location is marked by a large boulder. Having only one meeting house within a large parish required outlying settlers to journey a long way by horse and wagon. 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 due to fear of attack by wolves that were known to frequent the area at night. The meeting house was guarded by armed sentries during services because sudden attack by Indians was a constant threat.

The first meeting house was replaced in 1647 by a second meeting house located on the present-day Upper Green.  There followed in 1661 a third meeting house; and yet a fourth meeting house, which stood until 1806, when a large and refined permanent church structure was built on the present High Road location. Tragically, this building was destroyed by fire on January 26, 1868.  The structure was uninsured; yet loyal, enthusiastic church members harnessed their efforts to raise sufficient funds, with no debt incurred, and erected the fine church building we see today.

Improvements and additions to the church included purchasing the Kilgen Organ in 1949 and, in 1962, converting the basement of the church structure into a function hall, named Holton Hall, dedicated to the memory of Reverend Charles Holton, who had served the parish for 41 years.  By the 1980’s, the church realized that it needed more land to host its growing number of activities.  Through a series of land swaps and acquisitions from neighbors in the late 1980’s, the church acquired land in back of the church building that now houses a spacious parking area, an extensive community garden, and a beautiful naturalized play area for the church’s Secret Garden preschool program.

In 1966, the church’s religious body of church members (the Church) and corporate body (the Parish), which heretofore had been entirely separate entities, were merged by church vote, and the Church acquired title to the church property and church structure from the Parish. On August 2, 1967, the organization known as “the First Parish Church of Newbury” was formed.  Prior to that, the church voted to join in membership with the United Church of Christ.

From the church’s very beginning in 1635, one point has remained clear, as articulated by Samuel Bartlett, President of Dartmouth College, 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….”

What Samuel Bartlett said in 1885 still holds true today. The values and traditions first brought to Newbury by its first settlers and handed down through the decades since have withstood the test of time. Their gifts will be treasured and protected by the generations of tomorrow.

Other sources of information about the First Parish Church of Newbury and documents can be found at the following links: