One day in the summer of 1966, a small group of people gathered deep in the woods. Shovels were wielded, ground was broken, and pictures were taken. It was the first step toward building a new church in Danvers — the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church. Today, more than 50 years later, the church is a thriving outpost of religious liberalism. But that couldn’t have been predicted in 1966. In fact, there was considerable doubt as to whether it would even survive. What had once been four churches had become three, then two, and, finally, one. Yet the new church thrived. The success of the Northshore UU Church is testament to the vision of its founders, and of its forebears in Danvers and Peabody.
The history of Unitarian Universalism in the two communities begins in 1815, with the formation of the First Universalist Society of Danvers. Edmund Putnam, the Society’s founder, had most likely heard the Gloucester-based “Father of Organized American Universalism,” John Murray, preach the “Good News of Universalism,” because Putnam resigned as a Deacon of the First Church in Danvers (Congregational/Puritan) in 1785 to embrace Universalism and work toward forming the First Universalist Society of Danvers.
This happened in 1815, when 24 men from Danvers and Wenham signed the new Society’s Declaration of Principles. They held services in the “Old Putnamville Schoolhouse“, a small brick building in the Putnamville section of Danvers (then known as Blind Hole), in the northern part of town—not far from where the current NSUU church stands today. In 1830, the Universalists met in the “Old Baptist Church at New Mills.” They had 87 members from Danvers, Beverly, Middleton, and Wenham—and a strong desire to build their own church home. The magnificent church pictured above was completed in 1833, and dedicated on June 25 of that year.
Shortly after the new building’s dedication, state legislators amended the Massachusetts Constitution “to disestablish the state church,” meaning, the Congregational church. Universalists, including those from Danvers, can take pride in contributing to this first legislative act in the United States to separate church and state!
Universalism was well-established in Danvers proper for most of the 19th century. Unitarianism took hold in South Danvers in 1825. But it wasn’t until 1865 that Unitarianism found a home in the main part of town. That year, the Rev. Alfred P. Putnam, a Danvers native who had been preaching in Brooklyn, New York, was urged by his former Unitarian parishioners, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wentworth, to come home to Danvers and establish a Unitarian church. Twenty-one people attended the first meeting of the proposed new church, and $542 was pledged to help “sustain liberal preaching in Danvers.”
Services were held at Town Hall for several years, until the Unitarians could raise funds for their own building. This was accomplished by 1870 (thanks in large part to the Ladies Circle, and the new chapel, near the center of town at the corner of High and Porter Streets, was dedicated in 1871.
Early in the 20th century, Unitarians and Universalists in Danvers
(and, as we shall see, in Peabody) began to understand the advantages of uniting around their common liberal religious beliefs. Nationally, this unity did not occur until 1961, when the American Unitarian Society and the Universalist Church of America merged to create the Unitarian Universalist Association. Locally, such combinations began much earlier.
In Danvers, a coal shortage during World War I, shrinking congregations, and the departure of the town’s Universalist minister led the Unitarians to invite the Universalists to share their chapel at High and Porter Streets, then referred to as Unity Chapel (no longer standing). For several years, the Unitarians and Universalists maintained their own governing structures and annual meetings. But in 1924, they joined to form one congregation, which was named the First Community Church of Danvers. A UU church in fact, it became one in name as well in 1945, when the organization took on the identity of the Unitarian-Univeralist Church of Danvers.
This was one of the two surviving churches that would later form the Northshore UU Church.
The Peabody Universalists started out as the Second Universalist Society of Danvers because Peabody, at the time (1832), was South Danvers. The distance from South Danvers to Danvers proper by horseback was long. In 1832, the First Universalist Society was raising money for a new building, there was enough interest in Universalism in South Danvers to rationalize a second church, and so they broke off. The South Danvers Universalists immediately raised money for their own building on Main Street (no longer standing), and it was dedicated in 1833.
In 1868, South Danvers was renamed Peabody after the native-born philanthropist George Peabody, and the Second Universalist Society of Danvers became the First Universalist Church of Peabody. The church had its ups and downs in the following decades, as churches do, and by the 1940s, in keeping with a growing national movement and because membership in both churches was diminishing, the Universalists began having conversations with the Peabody Unitarians about merging.
In 1945, with the resignation of Rev. Howard Charles Gale at the Unitarian church, the two congregations merged informally. They held services together at the Unitarian church on Park Street, which they renamed Park Street Church out of respect for “both sides.” But, as they say, the writing was on the wall. The church had commissioned a study by Boston University to determine the viability of the church’s future. The study confirmed what they already knew: the Peabody community could not sustain a liberal religious church. Church leaders turned their attention to Danvers.
Park Street Church was one of the two surviving churches that would later form the Northshore UU Church.
Peabody Unitarians actually started as Danvers Unitarians in 1825, when 15 men met at the home of Oliver Saunders on Main Street in South Danvers to form the First Unitarian Society of Danvers. The church initially had 33 members, out of which a committee was chosen to acquire land for a building. They purchased land on what is now Park Street, and dedicated their church on July 26, 1826.
The church grew at a steady pace. In the middle of the 19th century, during the ministry of Rev. Frank Appleton, the church went through “an excited period of the Anti-slavery agitation and his was one of the pulpits which gave no uncertain sound in behalf of freedom,” Rev. John W. Hudson wrote years ago. Among the abolitionist ministers to preach from the pulpit was Rev. James Freeman Clarke of Boston.
In 1902, church leaders did a very important thing historically. They wrote letters to their counterparts in 2002, describing their activities and their hopes for the “glorious light” of the new century. The minister at the time, Rev. George S. Anderson, was correct in his prediction. Writing to the minister of the Unitarian Church in 2002, he observed: “My dear Sir:—I am requested by a Committee of Citizens to address my successor of the year 2002 as minister of the First Unitarian Church of Peabody, Mass. But as my views are of such a nature that I do not believe in the perpetuation of religious institutions as they exist today nor do I think, moreover, that they can continue under the strain of current disintegration; I do not therefore apprehend that I shall have a successor at such a distant period.”
By 1925, to repeat what is stated above, it was clear that the City of Peabody could not sustain a liberal religious community. The Unitarians held “Union services” with the Peabody Universalist Society until May 12, 1957, when the two groups formally federated to form Park Street Church, Unitarian Universalist—using the Unitarians’ 1826 building. The united church called the Rev. George William Budd as their minister in 1962, but their future was uncertain. At the same time, the Danvers UUs were also experiencing a decline, and they approached Rev. Budd about merging to form a regional UU church.
Park Street Church was one of the two surviving churches that would later form the Northshore UU Church.
FINAL MERGER INTO THE NORTHSHORE UU CHURCH
When the Danvers and Peabody UUs began work on merging,
members of the two churches decided to take a bold step: to build a new church aimed at attracting people throughout the North Shore who were interested in liberal religion. (Today, the Northshore UU Church attracts members from a variety of nearby cities and towns, including Danvers, Topsfield, Middleton, Beverly, Peabody, Salem, Hamilton, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, and Boxford, among others.)
Construction for the new church took place for a year following the groundbreaking ceremony in 1966. During this time the new congregation met at the Park Street Church, the only one of the predecessor buildings that is still standing. The new church was completed in the summer of 1967.
The merged congregations decided that it would be inappropriate for either of their ministers — the Rev. Frederick Rutledge, of Danvers, or the Rev. G. William Budd, of Peabody — to assume the pulpit of the new church. The Northshore UU Church’s first called minister, the Rev. Charles Wilson, served from 1966 to 1971, a tumultuous time of war and social change. Wilson later moved on to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead, and returned to the Northshore UU Church as a member following his retirement. He was succeeded by the Reverend Edwin Lynn, one of the church’s longest-serving ministers.
Despite the Northshore UU Church’s modern appearance, it contains a number of heirlooms that reflect its historical heritage. The Park Street Church, in particular, has been a rich source, providing the 2,700-pound bronze bell, first installed in the belfry in 1887 and moved to its setting at the edge of the woods in the early 1970s. The wood paneling in the board room comes from Park Street Church’s pews. By contrast, the most recent addition to the church, the Edwin Charles Lynn Fellowship Hall, was dedicated in 2002.
Our church is both new and old. It occupies a building dedicated in 1967, yet its roots go back to 1815. Some of its woodwork extend to the 1820s. Its commitment to social justice can be traced to Abolition. Its first minister left in 1971, yet he returned to become an active member. This unique blending of tradition and progressivism is a defining characteristic of our church.
Please join us Sunday mornings at 10:30!