Prior to 1692 residents of Lexington (then known as Cambridge Farms) being required by church covenant to attend divine worship unless sick or “too old,” walked or rode to Cambridge or one of the nearby towns each Sunday come mud or heat or twelve-foot drifts. While the weekly pilgrimage may have added a certain excitement to an otherwise rough existence, it was often extremely difficult and, as the years went on, increasingly tedious.
By 1682 there were 30 families at The Farms and a petition signed by James Cutler, Matthew Bridge Senr, David Fiske Senr, Samuel Stone Senr, Francis Whitmore, John Tidd, Ephraim Winship and John Winter was sent to the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) praying that they be allowed to establish their own parish. The members of the Cambridge Church successfully opposed the move. In 1684 a new petition was sent and this received a favorable report from a special committee of the General Court but was again refused by the Cambridge Parish.
In 1691, however, the growth of the settlement could no longer be denied and “… for the Advantage of themselves, families and Posterity, they may have this Court’s favor, and License in order to the calling of a fit Minister for dispensing the Gospell among them; as also that they may be a distinct Village for the Ends Proposed in their said Petition …”
1692: First Meeting House Built
Benjamin Estabrook invited to preach
1696: Mr. Estabrook ordained, Covenant signed
April 22, 1692, the first Meeting House, located in the fork of the road just behind where the Minute Man statue now stands, having been raised, a meeting was held and David Fiske was named to be “clark to wright the votes.” His first minutes recorded that “Mr. Benjamin Estabrook shall be the man invited to preach to us a year from the first of may 1692.” And a year later, “at a meeting of the Inhabitants it was voted that we will give Mr. Benjamin Estabrook a call to setel with us our minister for time to com till gods prouidens shall in other ways dispose of him.”
The new parish was organized as a church, not as a governing body; Cambridge was still the political parent and taxes were paid thereto. In addition, funds had to be raised to support the new church, so several members of the parish were enjoined “to treat with the selectmen of Cambridge . . . for land to support the ministry.” They obtained a 12-acre tract for something near $67 which, after it was properly surveyed, turned out to be close to 148 acres! This land was the basis of the Ministerial Fund that was to become a controversial issue more than a hundred years later when church and state were separated and other denominations began to take their place in town.
On October 21, 1696, the ordination of Mr. Estabrook, long delayed because of financial problems, finally took place and, according to the journal of one of the participants, “a, church is gathered at Cambridge, North Farms.a Cov t signed and voted by ten brethren dismissed from ye churches of Cambridge, Watertown, Wooburn, and Concord for the work.”
Mr. Estabrook’s ordination sermon was taken from the third chapter of Jeremiah, verse 15: “And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.” The choice of text was prophetic for, although Mr. Estabrook’s ministry was brief, those of his successors John Hancock and Jonas Clarke- stretched over more than a hundred years providing roots and nourishment for the growing church and town.
In this new church, as in all Puritan Churches in New England, the members were among the “proved saints” of the faith; each had had a conversion experience which he or she had related and together they made a confession of their faith and bound themselves by covenant of allegiance to Christ. They “owned (subscribed to) the Covenant,” reserving to themselves the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; their children were accounted church members and could be baptized but they had to be “reborn” (regenerated) in order to partake of communion. The church was Calvinist in doctrine, congregational in polity.
The First Covenant
Wee (whose names are underwritten) Sensibly acknowledgeing our unworthiness of much favor; & unfitness for such a business, yet apprehending ourselves to be called of God, to putt ourselves into a way of Church Communion & seek the settlement of all the Gospel Institutions among us, do therefore In order there-unto & for the better promoveing thereof, as much as in us lies, knowing how prone we are to backslide, abjuring all confidence in ourselves, and Relying on the Lord Jesus Christ alone for help, Covenant together as follows:
Haveing perused the Confession of Faith put forth by the last Synod of the Churches held in Boston in New England, we do heartily close in with it, for the substance of it & promise to stand by, maintain, and if need be Contend for the Faith therein delivered to the People of God. And if any among us shall go about to undermine it, we will bear due testimony against them.
Wee do also combine together to walk as a particular Church of Christ according to those Holy Rules of the Gospell prescribed to such a Society, so far as God hath revealed or shall reveal his mind to us in that Gospel.
Wee do accordingly recognize the Covenant of Grace we professedly acknowledge ourselves Devoted to the favor and service of the only true God our Supreme Lord and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Highpriest, Prophett and King of his Church, unto whose conduct we submitt ourselves, and on whom alone we wait for Grace and Glory, to whom we bind ourselves in an Everlasting Covenant never to be broke.
Wee likewise Give ourselves up one to another in the Lord, resolving by his help to cleave each to the other as fellow members of one body in brotherly love and holy watchfulness over each other for mutual Edification & to submit ourselves to all the Holy Administrations, appointed by Him who is the Head of His Church, dispensed according to the Rules of the Gospell to give our constant attendance on all the Public Ordinances of Christ’s institutions, walking orderly as becometh Saints.
Wee do likewise acknowledge our Posterity to be included with us in the Gospel Covenant & blessing God for so rich a favor; do promise to bring them up in the Nurture and admonition of the Lord with greatest Care & acknowledge them in their Covenant Relation according to the Gospell Rules.
Furthermore’ we promise to be Carefull to our utmost to procure the Settlement & Continuance among us of the offices and Officers appointed by Christ the Chief Shepherd for the Edification of the Church and accordingly to do our duty faithfully for their maintenance & Incouragement & to carry toward them as becomes us.
Finally we do acknowledge and promise to preserve Communion with the Faithful Churches of Christ for ye giving and receiving of mutuall Counsell and Assistance in all Cases wherein it should be needful.
Now the Good Lord be Merciful to us, and as he hath put it into our hearts thus to elevate ourselves to Him let Him pity and pardon our frailties and humble us for our Carnal Confidence, and keep it forever in our hearts to be faithful to Himself and one to another, for his praise and our Eternal Comfort for Christ Jesus Sake, to whom be glory forever. AMEN
David Fisk Senr
Samuell Stone Senr
Thomas Cutler Senr
David Fisk Junr
Samuell Stone Junr
1697: Reverend John Estabrook dies
John Hancock to preach
“God’s prouidens” having called Mr. Estabrook prematurely, after only nine months of ministry, his parishioners set about “procuring some help in ye ministry; Then thare was made choyce of Mr. John Hancocke to preach with us tille May followinge In order to further seteilement.” In 1698 he was ordained.
By this time the problems of maintaining a “regenerate” church had forced the ministers and communicants to some compromising of their positions. “Religious experiences” were not easy to come by and the grandchildren of the covenanters together with the newcomers to the community shared the problem of exclusion from the inner circle of the church. All this was complicated by the decision of the Massachusetts General Court that “Noe man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politicke but such as are members of some of the churches within the limits of the same.”
This led to the Half-Way Covenant whereby membership could be obtained by a profession of faith and membership of such unregenerate members could be transmitted to their children. Baptism was permitted to this group but not the Lord’s Supper.
Mr. Hancock found the new climate agreeable to his own more liberal and cheerful theology. Not that his church lacked in Puritan severity; confession of sin had to be made before the entire congregation for members to be admitted to the church or readmitted after a fall from Grace. Parish records record numerous confessions for intemperance, theft, fornication, breaking the Sabbath, etc. At the same time others were blessed with a true conversion and “owned ye Covenant,” and it is interesting to note that among the new “Saints” were several black men and women, obviously slaves in the household of Lexington’s well-to-do.
During Reverend Hancock’s ministry, religion in America suffered the “Great Awakening” – a period of evangelistic fervor stemming from the apathetic state of some of the clergy. In their enthusiasm for or antipathy toward the movement, many clergymen saw their churches torn asunder. “But,” to quote Charles Hudson, “in the midst of this commotion, Mr. Hancock went steadily forward, being aware that the religious as well as the natural world would have its seasons of refreshing as well as of drought; and .instead of opposing this spirit of awakening in his society, he availed himself of it, gave it the right direction, and added many to his church.”
1711: Common Land purchased
1713: Lexington becomes a town
In 1711 moneys were raised to purchase some acre and a half behind the meeting house as “common land.” This has remained in public ownership ever since and is today the center of our town, historically speaking.
In 1713 Cambridge Farms became a separate town and the name Lexington was adopted. Parish and church were now one entity and self-governing. Over the years this led to some disagreements between the larger body and the church, for the affairs of the church were voted at Town Meetings. Hancock and his successor, Jonas Clarke, while not seeking public office for themselves, managed to control the town by virtue of their education and pastoral leadership. Later ministers did not fare so well.
1714 New Meeting House built
To accommodate the growing needs of church and town, the second Meeting House was built in 1714, located more fully on the Green by some twenty feet. Though larger than the first, it was a simple, barn-like structure (50’x40‘), with two tiers of galleries, highwalled pews and a high pulpit. To seat the new Meeting House, a committee was chosen and charged as follows:
1. it was votted that thay shall haue respect to age
2. that thay shall haue respect to reall and Parsonall Estat.
3. to bare respect to but one head in a family ;-and also to place the chilldren whare thay may be Inspected.
This task was repeated in 1731 and from time to time thereafter.
In 1734 Ebenezer Hancock, Pastor Hancock’s son, was ordained to assist his father. He died just six years later, leaving his father to serve the last twelve years of his life alone.
John Hancock was a man of piety, wisdom and wit, whose “happy talent for preventing discord and healing animosities among his people” led to the growth of the church and a sense of community in the town. During his 54-year ministry, 444 came into the church by profession, 32 by letter of dismissal from other churches, 189 owned the covenant, and 1637 were baptized.
Three years passed before the parish was able to find a minister on whom a strong majority could agree; but in 1755 Jonas Clarke, whose wife was Hancock’s grand-daughter, was called and ordained.
Reverend Clarke was assuredly the man for this particular season. Combining the attributes of divine and statesman, he brought his parish to its moment in history by marshalling their hearts and minds over the years to be ready to “Sacrifice our Estates and everything dear in Life, Yea & life itself, in support of the common cause.” Where Pastor Hancock was well acquainted with each 0f the individuals in his flock, Jonas Clarke added to this pastoral concern a broad understanding of men in their associations with each other. Central to his theology was the idea of covenant, the spiritual contract by which members of the church defined their relationships; central to his patriotism was the philosophy of social contract which was the basis of law and government. Clarke felt it was one thing to subordinate individual rights to a larger mode of governance which appeared to be in accord with God’s law of justice as revealed in the Bible and thus to allow “the care of the public to prevail over individual wishes: for the welfare of all“; but it was quite another thing to be compelled to submit to a government wherein citizen’s rights were abridged, God’s laws of larger justice ignored, and the king used his power to reduce the colonists to the status of enslaved economic subjects without their normal rights of citizenship.
It has been said that “if all other records were destroyed, and all traditions ignored, a historian wishing to ascertain the cause of the Revolution would be able from Jonas Clarke’s town papers.to fill this chapter of history.” The resolves of the Lexington Town Meeting, written by Clarke, covered everything from tea (setting the stage for Lexington’s and other tea parties) to the suggestion that a definition of natural Rights should be included in the state constitution.
1793: Third Meeting
1805: Jonas Clarke dies
Although Reverend Clarke will long be remembered for his role as friend and counselor to John Hancock, grandson of Pastor Hancock, Samuel Adams and other Massachusetts patriots, he by no means ignored his duties in the parish. During his ministry 365 gave a profession of faith, 10 were admitted to the church by letter from other churches, 69 owned the covenant and 1069 were baptized. By 1793 the growth of the parish mandated a new Meeting House.
Governor Hancock was among the first to pledge toward the new structure, putting $100 at the disposal of the building committee. After much debate and many meetings, the plans were finally drawn and the new building ” twenty feet back of the sills of the old house ” facing half way between south and south east was finished and dedicated in 1795.
After more than 50 years of ministry, Mr. Clarke died in 1805 at the end of an era, for separation of church and state created problems for the church that were not anticipated.
The First Congregational Society becomes Unitarian
1829: The first Sunday school organized
Again the parish took its time in finding a new minister. In 1807 Avery Williams was ordained and served until increasing ill health forced his retirement in 1815; he was succeeded by Charles Briggs. His most noted innovation was the starting of the Sunday School in 1829; it was during the year of his ordination that the parish voted to become Unitarian.
It was inevitable in a country where liberty was valued and where the exigencies of everyday living placed a premium on individual initiative that for many the appeal of Calvinism would diminish. Extending outward from Boston in the early 1800s, Unitarianism found fertile ground in Lexington. Contrary to the experience in other communities, there was no schism here; in fact it was several years before another congregation was established and that also was Unitarian (1833) in East Lexington closely followed by the Baptist Society.
1835: Charles Briggs resigns
The Ministerial Fund controversy
As soon as First Parish ceased to be the only “church” in town, the controversy over the Ministerial Fund started. Indeed the Reverend Briggs resigned his position due to ill health and his successor William Swett lasted only three years in large part due to the unChristianlike bitterness that arose in the community.
As originally constituted, the 148 acres of land to support the “ministry” were bought and paid for by the “Church of Christ” nearly 20 years before the town had being. It belonged to the church by as good a title as is known by law. But many who were members of the new churches preserved their membership in the old parish and were able to vote in parish meeting. For several years, the old parish could transact no business without a battle over the fund income and it kept the town in such an uproar that no minister could be called to settle with them. Finally, in 1845, the Reverend Samuel May supplied the pulpit for six months and in that time, “by his energetic labors and conciliatory spirit did more toward bringing about an amicable adjustment of the controversy than any other man.” Through his efforts and a vote of the General Court, it was agreed that the income of the fund be divided each year among the three different religious societies (First Parish, Follen and the Baptist Church) on the basis of the taxable property held by the members of each society respectively. Thus was set in motion as fervent a drive for church members as any community has ever witnessed! A hundred years later, after a few other skirmishes involving new churches in town, the basis for the fund was liquidated and the three societies shared in the final settlement.
Meeting House remodeled and burns New Church built
The primary stumbling block to settlement of a new minister being removed, the parish called Jason Whitman in 1845 and immediately set about to remodel the Meeting House. Before the work was finished, the structure was completely destroyed by fire. Although the other societies were generous in the loan of facilities to the congregation, it was decided to rebuild and a committee was chosen in 1847 to accomplish the task. Because church and town were now separate, it was voted to move the church off the common land to its present position where the simple but beautiful design of Isaac Melvin dominated the Green. Mr. Whitman did not live to see it dedicated as he died in 1848.
1854: Nahor Staples becomes minister
Fiske Barrett, just out of divinity school, followed Reverend Whitman and he resigned after four years. His successor, ordained in 1854, was Nahor Staples who felt it his first duty to increase membership and in order to do so wrote a new covenant. Staples believed that communion was the inheritance of mankind and should be open to all; church membership, on the other hand, belonged to those who “believe and feel alike and who desire to act alike and who can, therefore, name conditions for membership to assure a congregation of like-minded people.”
All persons who are members in good standing of other churches shall be admitted when a majority of members present at a regularly called Church Meeting shall vote to receive them.
Persons desiring to be members who have never before made a profession of religion shall be admitted upon complying with the following conditions: Their names shall be read to the Congregation at least one week prior to their admission; they shall be baptized, if they have not been, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
At the service of admission, the following was read:
Minister: You present yourself here that you may thus publicly express your belief in the existance of one God who is above all through all, and in all; in Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Saviour; and in the Christian Church as the best means of carrying out the purposes of Christ in this world therefore ask – Do you believe in the necessity of repentance and in God’s willingness to forgive the penitent sinner? Do you believe that by uniting with this Christian Church you express your desire to carry with you into all the walks of life as well as the more sacred duties of private thought and aspiration the spirit of your ascended Master?
Candidate for Membership: I do
Congregation: We then welcome you gladly to our number; we welcome you to the Communion of Christian hearts; we earnestly desire to sympathize with you in all the trials of life and to watch over you and support you in the work of duty. And so may God our Father grant that this union, formed on earth, may be continued in heaven and fit us for the fellowship of the Saints in light.
1857: Leonard Livermore ordained
Leonard Livermore’s contributions to the parish were both spiritual and practical. He added 50 members to the church, served as head of the School Committee, and, through his own generosity and considerable personal effort, succeeded in paying off a large part of the debt that still remained after the building of the new Church.
After Reverend Livermore’s resignation, the church called Henry Westcott who was to serve the parish for 14 years, spending a great deal of his time on the Sunday School and the church music. From the time that “lining the psalms” gave way to congregational singing and then to some form of choir, each generation seems to have had cause to complain about the church music. A few of our ministers have been sufficiently bothered by disharmony to take a hand in assuring the presence of a good choir and musical program for the Sunday service; Henry Westcott was one of these. He also made a collection of books that eventually, through the generosity of Maria Hastings Cary, a former member of the parish, became the Cary Memorial Library. He served as the chairman of its Board of Trustees until he left Lexington.
1871: Addition to the church
During Westcott’s ministry, the clock in the sanctuary was given to the church by the residents of the upper village (1869), the steeple bell was replaced (1872) and gaslight installed (1875). In 1871 the ladies’ parlor, a chapel and a library were added to the north end of the church and in 1881 a supper room was voted and built.
One interesting note was a vote in 1879 to use water instead of wine at communion. Shortly thereafter, however, “an unobjectionable wine having been procured, the old custom was restored by general consent!”
1875: The Centennial Celebration
Mr. Westcott was the minister at the time of the nation’s centennial celebration. He served as chaplain on that historic occasion when Lexington was inundated with more than 100,000 people while as many more were frustrated in their attempts to reach the festivities. In his sermon on the Sunday following the town’s observance, Reverend Westcott said, “There is something which the recent surprising manisfestation of interest in our centennial . . . should teach us as citizens of this historic town. It is this: that [wel . . . have a duty to perform . . . to preserve and increase that interest, not for the honor of the town, but for the benefit of the nation . . . to preserve the historic character of the town in its outward appearance . . . If it be necessary, let there be an association formed for this purpose.”
1881: Carlton Staples begins 23-year ministry
Lexington changed from a rural community to one more suburban in character during Carlton Staples’ ministry. He was a deeply religious man and sought to bring all his parishioners into a living relationship with their faith. He instituted a series of social-religious gatherings that preceded the monthly communion service; here he encouraged discussion of religious questions based on biblical texts. One such discussion on Romans 10:10-“With the heart, man believeth unto righteousness” – defined his belief: a trusting, loving belief rather than a mere intellectual apprehension or knowledge of the truth is essential to a Christian life and a righteous character.
Like his brother, Nahor, Reverend Staples felt the Covenant needed updating and his, far briefer, version follows:
In presenting yourselves here to unite with this Christian Church, do you confess your faith in God, our Father; in Christ, our Teacher and Savior; and in the life immortal? And is it your sincere purpose to follow Christ as he is revealed in your own mind and heart?
We whose names are here subscribed unite together as a Christian Church in the faith of Jesus Christ, and for the study and practice of his religion. We will strive to do all the good we can, to help one another, and to be faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Reverend Staples was especially concerned for practical church unity, fellowship between the congregation and preservation of the historical character of the town. He took up Henry Westcott’s challenge and was instrumental in founding the Lexington Historical Society and in saving the Hancock-Clarke house for posterity.
1884: Beginning of trust funds, Changes in the church building, New organ
In 1884 Maria Cary died, leaving the church a bequest of ~3000 which was immediately placed in a trust fund, the income to be used for extraordinary expenses. Other bequests were added in later years. Reverend Staples was the first, but not the last minister to question the value of these funds, feeling that they kept the parishioners from assuming their rightful duty in supporting the work of the church. Be that as it may, the first expenditure from the trust income was for more comfortable pews . . . so much for the Puritan ethic!
In 1886 the marble font was given to the church in memory of Francis Hayes, the remnants of whose beautiful estate can still be seen in the magnificent rhododendrons on Castle Road. The font saw the baptism and later “dedication” of multitudes of parish children.
Furnaces were installed in 1889 and electric lights in 1896; in 1897 it was decided that the old organ could no longer be repaired and a new one was purchased and placed in the front of the church, leading to some alteration and enlargement 0f the parlor and elimination of a few front pews.
Church organizations were formed during Mr. Staples’ ministry: the Alliance, Lend-a-Hand and a young people’s group flourished. And there was even a glimpse of woman’s lib in the vote of the annual meeting of 1890 enlarging the Parish Committee to five members “two of whom shall be ladies.” This lasted only a year or two when the three-man committee was reinstated.
1900: Question of church support
Until 1900 the expenses of the First Parish Church had been carried by the share of the Ministerial Fund, the income from the rent of the horse sheds behind the church, and an assessment on the pews (each parishioner having his own pew or share thereof). Sunday collections, taken on special occasions, were devoted to specific causes such as the Unitarian Association, Tuskegee Institute, Russian peasants, temperance, etc. In 1900 it was suggested that a Sunday collection be considered as a means of raising money; a committee was also appointed to see to the raising of funds via social occasions marking the beginning of fairs, lawn parties, rummage sales and all the other concomitants of church financing.
1905: John Mills Wilson ordained
1908: Society and Church become one. New form of communion adopted
John Mills Wilson became minister of First Parish in 1905. In 1908 the final step in consolidation of the church as separate from the town was taken when the First Congregational Society and the Church (Unitarian) became one. In this year, also, the “Tilden” approach to the Lord’s Supper was adopted, wherein the communion service was symbolic, presided over by the minister with no participation by the parishioners.
During Wilson’s ministry, the pews were again revalued and the parish committee voted to seek pledges as an additional source of revenue. In 1906 the first monthly bulletin was published. In 1909 the vestry was rebuilt and enlarged, entirely paid for by the subscription of the members.
In the religious context Wilson was concerned with the problem of “convincing men and women of sound character and useful and helpful lives (who were nominally members of the church) . . . to give . . . of the abundance of their lives to enrich the church . .” He preached on “the fundamentals of faith” in 1911 and added 139 members to the church in that year. Again in 1917, as a counter action to the rise of “crude evangelism,” he spent much time with his parish on the subject 0 f the “principles of faith and the interpretation of the spirit.”
During World War I, the church found the experience of joint services (to conserve fuel) with Hancock and the Episcopal Church inspiring and enlightening.
Shortly after World War I, the church men formed a Layman’s League and adopted that group’s statement of faith which sums up the liberal belief of that time:
We worship the living God, our Father and our Friend. We are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, teacher of the love of God and the way of life. We believe in the infinite worth of man and his power of unending growth. We believe in Liberty, Democracy and Law as essential to human progress. We pray for help to worship God sincerely and to serve our brothers faithfully. We ever seek more truth and light.
1923-1945: Edwin Slocombe , Paul Chapman , and Robert Weston serve the church
Edwin Slocombe, Paul Harmon Chapman and Robert Terry Weston served as ministers of First Parish between 1923 and 1945. Reverend Slocombe’s tenure was characterized by an extremely active Young People’s group (YPRU) and in 1931 he joined with them in dedicating the fireplace in what is now known as Parker Hall to Theodore Parker. Theodore Parker was the grandson of Captain John Parker who led the Minute Men on April 19, 1775. A brilliant young man, he taught briefly in his home town in the 1830s before being admitted to divinity school. He was one of the most liberal thinkers of his time–one of the Transcendentalists, but it is doubtful if his radical ministry which centered in Boston had much, if any, effect on the church of his childhood.
During the twenties and thirties church attendance diminished, but with the onslaught of World War II interest in church programs revived. In 1941, several thousand Lexington residents gathered on the Green to repeat Jonas Clarke’s vow “to sacrifice our Estates and everything dear in Life, Yea & life itself, in support of the common cause.”
1945: Floyd Taylor begins 23-year ministry
The postwar rush to the suburbs brought many new faces to First Parish where young parents from many religious backgrounds found in Unitarianism-the conservative Unitarianism of the parish and its minister, Floyd Taylor-a compromise between the more conservative faith of their birth and the total rejection 0f religion which was to come with the next generation.
The early service-there were two each Sunday-still used a “creed.”
We believe in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character and faith, and the unlimited possibilities that are the birthright of every human soul.
The Sunday School was crammed and church organizations flourished. The Christmas Candlelight Service-and there had to be three of these each Sunday before Christmas-drew people from all faiths and always ended with the participants futilely trying to keep their candles aglow all the way home to assure a happy new year!
Mr. Taylor, like Carlton Staples, was adept at involving newcomers and old parishioners alike in discussions of religious principles or on such subjects as immortality where the thoughts of the scientists who were drawn to the church in this period were often at odds with those of older members.
Unitarians and Universalists unite
Although it seemed academic to the local parish at the time, delegates to the annual meeting of the Unitarian Association voted to unite with the Universalist Church of America in 1961, and since that time many who were Universalists have become part of First Parish. Important to the theme of this history is the “bond of union” set forth in the new association’s Constitution:
.the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association unite in seeking: to strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship; to cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man; to affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships; to implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace; to serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships and to extend and strengthen our liberal religion; and to encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.
Responsibility of Church & Parsonage
During the 1950s the church acquired the Jonathan Harrington House at the corner of Bedford Street and Harrington Road for use as a parsonage. Ownership of this historic landmark as well as responsibility for maintaining the church placed a financial burden on the parish which may, in the future, require the help of others who are interested in preserving the historic character of the town. In 1966 a group of church women formed a Church Renovation Committee and it is through their loving labor and excellent taste that the church has been restored to its present elegance.
Into the relatively peaceful atmosphere of Floyd Taylor’s ministry came the Vietnam War and the assassination of several political leaders and with this the gnawing fear that the church was not answering the needs of the young people. Upon Mr. Taylor’s retirement, the church called John Wells, a lawyer turned minister, a Methodist turned Unitarian, and a former defense department employee turned crusader against the establishment.
Encouraged by many of the parish and the young people of the town and supported by activist political groups, he led the church into participation in the anti-war moratorium and a crusade against intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Rev. Wells spearheaded a campaign to test the constitutionality of the Vietnam War which resulted in passage by the Massachusetts General Court of the Shea-Wells bill, which stated “no citizen of … Massachusetts … in the military forces of the United States shall be required to serve outside the continental limits of the United States in a combat zone … for more than sixty days from the time of the commencement of said hostilities unless the Congress has declared that a state of war exists.”
Meanwhile Mr. Wells preached on solutions to the problem of world hunger, and on the reduction of pollution.
In spite of acclaim by the UUA for his accomplishments in social activism, there was discontent in the parish over Mr. Wells’ activism, and his perceived neglect of ordinary parish duties. This prompted his departure in 1970, when he returned to Washington, D.C.
During this time the church also ordained as assistant minister the first woman minister in its history, Barbara Holleroth.
In 1971 the church called as its minister Robert Zoerheide, as liberal in religious philosophy as the Rev. Wells, but more involved in the rising crisis in interpersonal relations that surfaced here as it did in the rest of the country as a result of the questioning of values and mores that came out of the 1960s.
Under the Rev. Zoerheide’s leadership, First Parish supported the establishment of a Council on Aging for Lexington. He was ministerial representative on the Board of the Mental Health Association, and he authored an article in Redbook magazine featuring First Parish on the occasion of the national celebration of the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution.
The Rev. Zoerheide served the church until 1978, when he left to become minister of the First Unitarian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
Between 1978 and 1980 the church was served by two interim ministers, Spencer Lavan (a member) and Charles Wilson.
In 1980 Helen Lutton Cohen accepted a call from First Parish after receiving her Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School. Under her leadership, church activity and outreach have grown, and the church has undertaken several expansion and renovation programs. First Parish is now accessible to the handicapped, a hearing system has been installed, the addition at the north (rear) end of the church provides a warm welcome to the church and to the administrator’s office, and an assistant minister’s office has been created.
Rev. Cohen has been active in the Unitarian Universalist Association, serving on a variety of district and national committees. She has coauthored a handbook on sabbaticals for ministers and congregations, and a book of her sermons, Believing in Evolution, was published by the congregation in celebration of her tenth anniversary at the church. She delivered a major paper on “The Impact of Women in Ministry on Unitarian Universalist Congregations” for the 1999 Professional Days of the UU Ministers Association.
The governance structure of the church has been changed from a single Parish Committee to a board-and-council model to handle the growing programs. The Board manages the business and prudential affairs of the parish, including the preparation of long-term plans and initiatives, and the Council, a collection of committee and organization liaisons, plans and coordinates the many activities of the church.
A Caring Circle was created in 1985 to meet the emergency needs of parishioners. In 1991 the congregation decided that services of union for gays and lesbians would he welcome in the sanctuary. A Lay Pastoral Ministry program came into being in 1998 to expand pastoral coverage. In 1999 First Parish became an official UUA Welcoming Congregation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. A Memorial Garden was created in 2000 to commemorate First Parish loved ones.
Though the present church no longer has a creedal covenant, those who join the church do covenant to live out Unitarian Universalist principles of respect for all people, compassion and the search for truth and justice in the world. The recently adopted mission statement of the church is, “First Parish Church Unitarian Universalist in Lexington is a liberal church that seeks to recognize and support the worth and dignity of every human being, to embrace an evolving faith in harmony with reason, to comfort and encourage people in their times of sorrow and need, and to help its members live out their values in their daily lives.”
The material for this informal history has been gathered from the church records, Charles Hudson’s History of Lexington and sermons by Henry Westcott, Floyd Taylor and Robert Zoerheide. I am also indebted to the histories of William Warren Sweet, which unraveled the intricacies of the Puritan covenants! I have quoted verbatim from some of these sources without proper footnotes, trusting that they and you will forgive this lack of proper procedure.
Anne G. Fisher June 1975
Revised by Bill Britton and Anne Collins 2001