The Early Years
Tradition asserts that The Rev. Thomas Parker preached his first sermon under the branches of a majestic oak on the northern bank of the Quascacunquen (Parker) River, and that at the close of the sermon a covenant was made by the congregation and he was chosen pastor. The year was 1635. Reverend Glenn Tilley Morse describes how strenuous 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 still 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 they attended the meeting at the peril of their lives. When there was only one meeting house, it caused necessarily a long journey for the outlying settlers. They were in danger of attacks from Indians and wild beasts on the way to and from worship.
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 known to frequent that area at night. The meetinghouse itself was guarded by armed sentries during services because sudden attack by the Indians was a constant threat.
From these humble beginnings, the foundation was laid for Newbury's present-day churches, which have provided the town with long and dedicated service. Samuel Bartlett, President of Dartmouth College, speaking at the 250th anniversary of the town in 1885, summarized the place of Newbury's churches: "But 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 her earliest institution and churches have been her maturest fruits, as a dozen bells emphatically told us at sunrise this morning."
The following century saw the establishment of the remaining churches in Newbury: Queen Anne's in 1711 (now St. Paul's Episcopal in Newburyport); the Third Parish on Market Square in 1725 (now the First Religious Society of Newburyport); the Fourth Parish (in West Newbury, later becoming the Second Parish of West Newbury, which then merged with the First Parish of West Newbury to create West Newbury Congregational Church); the Old South Presbyterian Church in 1745; a Quaker Meeting House on High Street in 1743; the Fifth Parish in 1761 (discontinued and revived in 1808 as the Belleville Congregational Church); the Methodist Church in Byfield in 1827; and the Byfield Gospel Hall in 1877.
First Parish Church, 1635
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 1661, a third Meeting House was built that was characterized as "a stately building in the day of it". This structure was replaced by a new building in 1699, which served the church and parish for over a century.
The 1699 church is described as follows:
The body of the house was filled with long seats. Contiguous to the wall there were twenty pews... Before the pulpit and deacon's seat was a large pew containing a table, where sat the chiefs of the fathers. The young people sat in the upper gallery, and the children on a seat in the alley, fixed to the outside of the pews.
The floor measured 60 by 50 feet. The roof was constructed with four gable ends, or projections, one on each side, each containing a large window, which gave light to the upper galleries. The turret was in the centre. The space within was open to the roof, where was visible plenty of timber, with great needles and little needles pointing downwards, which served at once for strength and ornament.
There were many ornaments of antique sculpture and wainscot. It was a stately building in the day of it... [Later] a wall was spread overhead, and the floor was occupied by pews. The roof was made plain, the four very steep sides terminating in a platform which supported a steeple.
-From a sermon preached by Rev. John S. Popkin of Newbury, September 17, 1806.
In 1806, a new church was built, measuring 61 by 51 feet, and 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.
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.
The final structure built on the site established for the First Parish Church in 1647 was constructed in 1806. 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.
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 make-up 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 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, continues the work and development of the Church in the 21st century.
Byfield Parish Church, 1702
Byfield Parish Church was founded by nineteen families in western parts of Rowley and Newbury. They were tired of weekly travel three miles and more each way from their homes to the churches established by the first settlers. In 1701 these people successfully petitioned their town meetings for an abatement of one-half of the taxes which they were required to pay to support the first churches. The abated half of the tax they levied on themselves to support their new church, and after the parish was formally incorporated in 1710, all property within it was taxed for church purposes by the parish, not the town, meeting.
By 1702, the founders had bought the land where the present "old" church stands, had built a meetinghouse, had laid out a cemetery, and engaged one Moses Hale, a grandson of a Newbury first settler, as their pastor. By 1704, Rev. Hale had been installed in a newly built parsonage, and in that same year it was voted to the name the new parish, theretofore known as Rowlberry and even thereafter, as Newbury Falls, in honor of Judge Nathaniel Byfield. Judge Byfield, a prominent and wealthy lawyer, lived in Rhode Island. It was hoped that he would be inspired to share his wealth with his namesake parish, and ten years later he did, to the extent of donating a bell for the meetinghouse. Whether or not the parishioners felt that the bell was worth the name is not recorded.
From 1702 until 1825, Byfield Parish Church had only three pastors, each of whom contributed mightily to its growth and strength. Rev. Hale, who laid the foundation, died in 1744 and was succeeded by Rev. Moses Parsons who, among other things, oversaw the construction of a new building in 1746, and guided the Church through the Great Awakening led by George Whitefield and through the Revolutionary War. From 1787 to 1825 the pastor was Elijah Parish who was noted beyond the parish as a preacher, author, geographer and historian. During his ministry the Church survived an attempt by some unhappy parishioners to start a rival church. Also during this period a choir and a Sunday School was established. A stove was installed in the meetinghouse. Ashes from the stove were stored under the pulpit, and in 1833, ashes, still hot, started a fire which destroyed the meetinghouse.
In that same year, the Massachusetts legislature decreed that parishes could no longer levy taxes to support their churches. From this point on, finance becomes a central theme in the history of the Byfield Parish Church. Pastorates became shorter because the church, although there were periods of very satisfactory growth and stability, was not consistently able to pay its ministers a living wage.
However, a new meetinghouse replaced the old one destroyed in 1833. It was financed by the Proprietors of the Meetinghouse, a corporation which raised so much money by selling pews that the stockholders received a dividend!
During its second century, the Byfield Parish Church settled into the position of a country church in a thoroughly settled community. There were times when it seemed that it would be forced to close, but a new parson or perhaps sheer dedication on the part of the parishioners to keep it going. Ebb and flow continued right on up through World War II, with a real crisis having been survived when in 1930 the 1833 meetinghouse was struck by lightning and destroyed by the resulting fire. The small, underfinanced but determined congregation took a step of faith in contributing and borrowed the funds to build the present "old" meetinghouse.
During the early World War II years, the Church was able to finance only a student minister, and in 1943 agreed with the Rowley Congregational Church that they would jointly call a minister to serve both Churches. Rev. Richard J. Schaper was called. He started a new era for the Byfield Church. He stirred interest by organizing a mortgage burning and a ceremony of dedication of the 1932 meetinghouse. He persuaded the Church to incorporate as an organization separate from the parish and to handle its own funds. He united the Ladies Benevolent Association and the Helen Noyes Missionary Band, two women’s groups whose functions and whose members were practically identical, into a Ladies Guild. The influx of new residents, which occurred after World War II, contributed to the momentum which he established and which his successor, Rev. Robert G. Morris, maintained.
By 1954, both the Byfield and the Rowley Churches felt they would be better served by ministers of their own. Byfield went to student ministers for the next four years, but by 1958 it had started a new parsonage for its first full time pastor in twenty years. Four ministers, two interim and two resident, led the Church from 1958 to 1969. Although their terms of office were short, each left the Church growing stronger.
Rev. William Boylan, a native of Ipswich and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, was called to the pastorate in 1969. A man of strong evangelical faith, he changed the church’s theological direction from the mainline liberal approach to the more strictly Biblical concepts characteristic of earlier days. Although not all members were prepared to accept this change, the net result was unprecedented growth and strength. Since his arrival, Pastor Boylan has seen numerous programs develop, both in the church and in its outreach. Building programs have given the Church the much larger meetinghouse (1988), a new parsonage and an expanded Parish House. The congregation now comes from a wide area extending from southern New Hampshire to suburbs of Boston. The church celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2002, and the current chapter in the history of Byfield Parish Church is one of its most glowing.
Byfield Methodist Church (Community United Methodist Church), 1832
In 1827 the Reverend William French of Sandown, NH felt moved to go forth and preach the Gospel. French knelt down and committed the case to God. As he prayed he seemed to hear the command, "Go." He obeyed and mounted his horse and trusted the one who had commissioned him to determine the direction his horse should take. His animal brought him to Byfield, to the house of Mr. Burrill. He asked the woman of the house if she would like to talk on religion. The woman gave an affirmative response, and so began the Methodist Church in Byfield.
French died December 12 of that year, but in 1830 a little band in Byfield was strong enough to build a humble chapel near the Great Rock. In this chapel the women sat on stones that were brought in from the roadside, while the men listened at the door and the windows. In 1832 a church was formed and a parish called, "The First Parish of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the towns of West Newbury and Newbury." In 1855 the chapel was moved to the location of the present building. The present church was dedicated on June 15, 1902.
Gospel Hall, 1877
The congregation of Byfield's Gospel Hall Brethren was organized in 1877 and rented Bailey's Hall from 1879 until they purchased it in the 1940s. The present building was erected on the site of Bailey's Hall in 1975, at the corner of Central and Main Streets.
Newbury Historical Commission : : 25 High Road : : Newbury MA 01951 : : HistoricalComm@TownOfNewbury.org : : www.Newbury1635.org