First Universalist Society
Universalism, like Unitarianism, grew out of an “opposition to the Calvinist beliefs of the Congregationalists,” Heidi Kuehn wrote in her thesis titled History of the Northshore Unitarian-Universalist Church. “The Universalists objected to the Calvinist belief in God’s salvation of the elect,” Kuehn continues. “Believing instead that God’s purpose was salvation of all people, the Universalists broke away from the Congregational church to form the Universalist Church of America in 1793.” But interest in Universalism, and Universalist preaching and organizing, pre-dates 1793 by decades, including in Danvers.
A 1932 directory of the First Community Church of Danvers (created by the 1919 merger of Danvers Universalists and Unitarians) tells us:
“The older of the two churches was the Universalist Society, which was the third religious society in the present town of Danvers, and was first organized in 1815, under the title ‘The First Universalist Society.’ Deacon Edmund Putnam is regarded as the pioneer of the movement.”
Putnam had been a Deacon of the First Church (Congregational/ Puritan) from 1762 to 1785, but “he withdrew from the old First Church, gathered about him a congenial group of like conviction, and started the new society,” the church history continues. “Interestingly enough the first group numbered twenty-three—nineteen from Danvers and four from Wenham. At first they met in the Schoolhouse at Putnamville and it is said that groups used to gather in the little shoe shop of Zerubbabel Porter to discuss ‘these new-fangled ideas of God’s grace’ which proclaimed universal salvation. Of course this was rank heresy to those of the established order, but the new movement gained … headway.”
When Putnam withdrew from the First Church in 1785, by then Rev. John Murray had been pastor to the Gloucester Universalists for many years. Murray had first arrived in Gloucester in 1774, but he had been traveling and preaching the “good news” of Universalism throughout the northern colonies since first arriving from England in 1770. Also in 1785, Universalists held their first convention in Oxford, Massachusetts, now known as the “Oxford Convention,” because they had grown rapidly in numbers.
Did Edmund Putnam hear John Murray preach? Given Murray’s extensive travels and reputation for inspiring preaching that attracted hundreds of people at a time, it is likely he did. Did Putnam attend the Oxford Convention? We do not know at this time. But we do know that by 1785 Putnam had been so moved by Universalist teachings that he resigned as Deacon of the First Church and began to hold informal services for like-minded people in his home. The Universalist ministers they invited to preach encountered “faithful and zealous men and women who were thoroughly interested in the new doctrine,” according to the author of a church history.
Years later, Rev. Andrew Nichols wrote about Putnam, who was by Nichols’ account a burley and intellectual man:
Still people would think, read their Bibles, embrace
Other doctrines than those we have named:
Deacon Edmund, with new fangled views of God’s grace,
Universal salvation proclaimed.
It found little favour, his converts were few
When he with his forefathers slept
Still the seed he had sown, died not, the plant grew,
Reproduced till it thousands accept.
Protest and Organization
At first, the Danvers Universalists continued to pay parish fees to the First Church. But on April 22, 1815, twenty-four Universalist men signed a Protest and Declaration of Faith, writing:
“By virtue of our State Constitution, and by the principle of liberty and moral justice, we have a right to worship God in the manner and form most agreeable to the dictates of our own consciences; and each and every Society has the exclusive right of electing their own public teachers and of contracting with them for their own support and maintenance; and all monies paid by them to the support of the teachers and of their own religious sect or denomination (with the provision in the Constitution that they attend on their instructions). And in order to more fully enjoy the blessings arising from these privileges, we, the subscribers, have formed ourselves into a religious society, denominating ourselves the ‘Danvers Universal Society.’ We have so done because we were constrained to dissent from those systems of Divinity, which have for their fundamental article the eternal misery of the greatest part of mankind, which impeaches the justice of God with the eternal annihilation of His mercy. We rather believe that God’s design in creation was the good of the created and that His designs cannot be made void. This view of our Creator we conceive to be the strongest inducement we can have to love him and the surest safeguard against persecution and intolerance.”
The Protest was signed by:
Israel Putnam, 2d
Jonathan Porter, Jr.
Stephen B. Nick
F . A. Esty
Interestingly, the Gloucester Universalists were the first group to protest against the established church in their town, First Parish. In 1778, they were expelled from the church for non-attendance. In 1779, the Gloucester Universalists signed Articles of Association, forming the Independent Church of Christ. They called John Murray as their pastor. On Christmas Day of 1780, they dedicated their new meeting house—the first Universalist church in America. In 1782, the town seized articles of value to pay the Universalists’ unpaid taxes to the church. John Murray and his backers initiated a lawsuit against First Parish in 1783. From 1785 to 1786, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments and eventually decided in the Universalists’ favor. This was the first ruling for freedom of religion in America. And the Universalists had taken these steps not just for themselves, but for all denominations then present in the United States.
Needless to say, the Danvers Universalists benefited from the actions of their counterparts in Gloucester when they formed their own society and launched their own protest. But they needed a pastor. And so on April 28, 1815, the “small band of believers … took action to secure the services of a minister,” according to the Danvers Mirror of November 27, 1876. For the time being, though, the Danvers Universalists would invite ministers from the area to preach. To pay for visiting ministers, Society members paid modest subscription fees. But as the Rev. Alfred P. Putnam, D.D. wrote in the Danvers Mirror of October 4, 1879:
“It seems to us of today but very little which these men thus gave to the support of the faith, that was dear to them—but it must be remembered that many of them had to pay still the old Parish rates besides; that what seems to us now a very small sum of money appeared to these hard-working farmers and shoemakers, tanners and curriers, of yore, a very considerable amount.”
Rev. Putnam described those founding days and some of the visiting ministers this way:
“The earliest Universalist meetings in the town were held in the old brick schoolhouse (if not indeed in the wooden one that preceded it), in District No. 3, during the settlement of Rev. Edward Turner in Salem, 1808-1814. Mr. Turner was at various times on the ground and I think it may be safely presumed that he was the first who preached in the neighborhood, coming up to do missionary work as did others who were his successors in that town. I have heard various persons say that Sebastian Streeter, as well as Mr. Turner, was among the earliest of the pioneer visitors—possibly on Sundays, when, by way of an exchange of pulpits, he was preaching part of the day for the Salem church.”
A diary, probably that of Moses Porter, confirms Hosea Ballou’s presence in Danvers:
“Sunday, June 25, 1815. In the afternoon at 5 o’clock went to the school-house and heard Mr. Ballou, who has lately come to Salem. He gave a good sermon to a full house and from these words: ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.’”
Another diary entry confirms Ballou’s return:
“Sunday, Oct. 15, 1815. In evening Mr. Ballou came and preached a very animated discourse to a crowded audience. Uncle N. Cheever came over to our house and went to hear him.”
In his 1847 discourse on the history of the Universalist church, the Rev. J. W. Hanson described these founding days:
“I have seen and heard constantly the name of the schoolhouse in District #3 and it seems to me to be an old acquaintance. Where did our venerable father Ballou and Turner pour out the waters of salvation and gladly, oh, how gladly, did those thirsty souls, none of whom are now living, drink thereof. Then they were feeble in numbers; now they are strong. Then they met beneath an humble roof; now they have a beautiful church. Then they were like strangers in a strange land; now they have enlarged their borders, and have become an exceedingly great army. Faithful fathers! You, in the days of your strength had the fortitude to worship God under your own vine. You had the manly courage to speak your true words for Truth when you were almost alone. Great has been your reward. … you can have the consciousness of doing that which was true and right. May your last hours of life be passed beneath the shadow of the tree your own hands planted, and may it wave in pleasant murmurs above your graves.”
Ballou, Turner, and Streeter were not the only distinguished Universalist ministers to visit Danvers before the Danvers Universalists called their own minister. Others included Rev. Flagg of Salem, Rev. Charles Hudson, Rev. Briggs, Rev. Stetson of Salem, Rev. Massena Ballou (son of Hosea), Rev. Page of Gloucester, Rev. Thomas Whittemore, and Rev. Stetson, to name just a handful. (More visiting ministers are listed in Putnam’s discourse.)
Rev. Putnam tells us that meetings in the old Putnamville school-house “were usually held in the warmer months, sometimes once a week, and again once a fortnight or not so often. Now there would be two sermons a day, but then but one. Especially was the latter the case when a minister came from Salem or other towns or cities to give an afternoon or evening ‘lecture’ as the diaries are inclined to call it, after they preached during earlier hours at home.”
Early Danvers Universalist Writing and Education
Rev. Putnam dates the first published work by a Universalist writer in Danvers to 1817. The work was titled Universal Death in Adam and Life in Christ, containing a Refutation of the Doctrine of Total Depravity and Endless Misery, by a Layman. Putnam describes this pamphlet, writing:
“It is a pamphlet of fourteen closely printed pages and is an able and well-written production. The author was an intelligent and devout man, who in his life as a farmer has been also a good reader and diligent student of the Scriptures. His continued researches, with a conscientious exercise of his reason, led him away from the old theology to the firm persuasion of the truth in Universalism. This doctrine gave him a great peace and comfort.”
Universalist education for children started in 1821 with the creation of a Sunday School. That year, the church had 21 members and owned a library of 71 volumes. Both would grow in numbers in the years to come.
Growth, and a new church building
The fledgling Universalist congregation grew to thirty-six by 1823, but in 1828 and 1829 services were held only occasionally in the school-house. In 1829, steps were taken to change the society’s name to “Danvers Universal Society.” A group of well-off Danvers Unitarians was interested in this development and proposed merging the two religious societies into one, calling it the Fifth Religious Society of Danvers. But this merger never took place. Instead, in 1830, the Universalists settled on re-naming themselves the First Universalist Society of Danvers. At the time, the Society had 87 members from Danvers, Beverly, Middleton, and Wenham.
The renamed society began to hold meetings in “the Old Baptist Church at New Mills,” a church directory tells us. They paid $45 for one year, and levied a tax of $1.00 annually for each pew on the floor and 50 cents for each pew in the gallery to defray expenses. But the 1783 building was getting “old and rickety.” In 1832, church leaders circulated subscription papers to raise money for a new church building on the same spot. This was accomplished in short order, and the Universalists’ new church building was dedicated on June 28, 1833 “to the Father of All Souls.” The visiting ministers who participated in the dedication included Rev. T. Whittemore, Rev. Hosea Ballou, Rev. S. Streeter, Rev. L. Willis, and Rev. F. A. Hodson. Rev. William H. Knapp became Pastor later that year, installed on December 20, 1834, replacing Rev. Daniel D. Smith of Boston who had been “pulpit supplying” for a short time. Church membership stood at 101 male members; the number of women is undocumented.
Shortly after the new building’s dedication, state legislators amended the Massachusetts Constitution “to disestablish the state church,” meaning, the Congregational church. Universalists can take pride in contributing to this act to separate church and state!
Our story continues in March of 1840, when church leaders unanimously voted that their beautiful building “should be at all times open to all meetings of a moral and religious character,” Rev. J. W. Hanson tells us. And in keeping with this sentiment, the church was used to hold anti-slavery meetings in subsequent years.
By 1847, when Rev. Hanson wrote his discourse, the Society had “prospered well. In the first place,” he wrote, “there was a small knot of men who got together for the purpose of listening to the tidings of a world’s redemption from sin and wrong. Now they have a flourishing society, the audiences and favorable weathers averaging about two hundred, a good choir, a fine Sunday School numbering 140 members, with a faithful band of teachers and a well-selected library of 800 volumes.” He continues:
“Thus far, they have been prosperous, and they will continue to grow if they are faithful, true and energetic. Let them first see to it that they are right within, and then let them constantly labor to increase in numbers and virtue. If they do this, the former home of witchcraft and bigotry shall be distinguished more than it now is for its liberty and freedom of thought and utterance, and they will not be one society nor two societies of Universalists in Danvers; but the calm and beautiful spirit of our religion will pervade the entire population and actuate and influence all who abide there.”
An old church directory picks up where Rev. Hanson leaves off:
“The society grew in strength with a large following of men, and in 1858 the question arose of repairing or enlarging the church, or building a new one. After several meetings, it was decided to build a more adequate meeting-house, and the old church was sold at auction to the Roman Catholics, … at Danversport.* The new church, built on High Street near the center of the town, with its twin towers visible from all approaches to the town, continued to be used until the union with the Unitarians was effected in 1919. In 1924, this building was sold to the Masonic bodies of the town who remodeled it into a very beautiful and commodious Masonic Temple.”
The Universalists’ new church was dedicated on August 18, 1859 in a service presided over by the Pastor of the Society, Reverend J. W. Putnam. Invited ministerial dignitaries who participated included Rev. J. M. Usher (readings from the Scriptures), Rev. J. Nichols (introductory prayer), Rev. T. Whittemore (prayer of dedication), Rev. E. G. Brooks (address to the Society), and Rev. S. Cobb (concluding prayer). Two original hymns had been commissioned for the event: Make this thine earthly temple, Lord and Not before Sinai’s awful brow. The words to the first hymn read:
Make this thine earthly temple, Lord
And here thy grace unfold,
To welcome home thy wand’ring child,
And save a sinful world.
How dear to us the cherished shrine
Where thou didst deign to dwell,
And where so oft we’ve sought thy face,
How sad to say farewell.
Around us still shall be thine arm,
More dear this altar be,
Where youth and age shall join in praise,
Or bend in prayer to thee.
But he who runs the Christian race
Shall have no idol shrine,
And day by day shall seek to do
Thy will, and only thine.
And evermore within these walls
May God the Father dwell,
And evermore his praise be sung
Who doeth all things well.
According to an unidentified church member, inside the church, “There were two long flights of stairs on either side which led to what is now the second floor of the temple. The ground floor or basement contained a stage where many plays were produced.” Starting in 1924, the Masons altered the building considerably, but the original roof is still visible from a distance.
Merger with the Unitarians
In 1920, after the departure of the Rev. Gerhadt Dehly from the Universalist Society and under the leadership of the Rev. Edward H. Cotton of the Unitarian Congregational Society of Danvers, talks about a merger between the two churches resumed. An unattributed church history explains that “the two societies sought a united program of worship, and for a time summer services would be held in the Universalist church, and winter services in the Unitarian church, as the latter was smaller and easier to heat.
Finally, in 1922, the two groups were formerly federated as the First Community Church and the Rev. Llewellyn Owen became the new church’s first minister. At first, each society retained its individuality, and there were “three organizations and three sets of funds,” the church history tells us. Rev. Owen tried to make the church “a typical community church. The upstairs of the church was remodeled and gym classes were held. Members of the Sunday School class were the first to join the new Girl Scout Troop in Danvers, founded by Mrs. Owen, the minister’s wife, in 1924.
In 1945, First Community Church changed its name to “Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers,” sixteen years before the Unitarian-Universalist Association was formed in Boston, to better represent their religious views. And, finally, this church merged with Unitarians and Universalists from Peabody in 1966 to form today’s Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church.
*This building was later torn down to make room for the construction of Route 128.
Rev. F. A. Hodson, 1831-1832
Rev. William H. Knapp, 1834-1836
Rev. Samuel Brimblecom, 1836-1840
Rev. Asher A. Davis, 1840-1841
Rev. D. P. Livermore, 1841-1843
Rev. S. C. Bulkeley, 1843-1846
Rev. J. W. Hanson, 1846-1848
Rev. J. W. Putnam, 1849-1864
Rev. H. C. Delong, 1865-1868
Rev. G. J. Sanger, 1868-1874
Rev. H. P. Forbes, 1875-1880
Rev. F. A. Dillingham, 1881-1884
Rev. W. S. Williams, 1885-1886
Rev. C. B. Lynn, 1887-1890
Rev. W. H. Trickey, 1891-1897
Rev. Edson Reifsnider, 1898-1903
Rev. Eugene M. Grant, 1903-1912
Rev. Alfred E. Wright, 1912-1915
Rev. George A. Mark, 1915-1916
Rev. Ernest M. W. Smith, 1916-1918
Rev. Gerhadt Dehly, 1918-1919
Year Book and Church Directory of the First Community Church (First Community Church, 1932).
Danvers People and Their Homes (containing historical accounts that appeared in the Danvers Mirror (publishing info to come).
History of the First Universalist Church in Danvers by Mary Hines Maple and Bessie Putnam Ropes (unpublished, NSUU files).
Historical Sketch of the First Universalist Society in Danvers, Massachusetts by the Rev. J. W. Hanson (1847, unpublished, NSUU files)
History of the Northshore Unitarian-Universalist Church Explored through the Faith Statements of the Church (1815-2004) by Heidi Kuehn (2004, unpublished, NSUU files).
Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village) Massachusetts 1632-1923 by Harriet Sylvester Tapley (Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society) 1923
Primary source documents, NSUU files
Additional primary source and secondary source materials are available at the Danvers Archival Center, Peabody Institute Library, Danvers.