Unitarian Congregational Society of Danvers
A 1932 church history tells us:
Up to 1865 most of those who held the Unitarian faith attended the Universalist church. In the year 1864 there came to Danvers, from Roxbury, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wentworth. They had been members of a Unitarian church in Roxbury, the Mount Pleasant Society of which Rev. Alfred P. Putnam had been a former pastor. Dr. Putnam was a Danvers boy and the Roxbury parish was his first charge. He later held a very important position in Brooklyn, New York. He was the founder and long-time president of the Danvers Historical Society.
At first the Wentworths attended church in Salem, but soon came to long for a church of their faith hearer home. Dr. Putnam became interested in the movement and in July, 1865, a service was held of all persons interested in the formation of such a society. Services were held in the Town Hall, and two years from the date of the first service a legal organization was formed.
And so, the seeds of Unitarianism in Danvers were sown in 1865, the closing year of the Civil War.
In his essay about the origins of Unitarianism in Danvers, the Rev. Alfred P. Putnam tells us that although “at different times through a succession of years, various persons had expressed a desire that there should be stated Unitarian preaching in town … nothing had been done to secure up to the summer of 1865.” That year, in discussions with friends in Danvers, Rev. Putnam applied for and received $100 in funding from the American Unitarian Association “to defray the expenses of services for five successive Sundays … The Town Hall was hired and various ministers were engaged to supply the desk.”
Rev. Putnam’s friends urged him to accept their invitation to serve as the first visiting minister, and on Sunday, July 30, 1865, Rev. Putnam preached at 10:30 a.m. His subject was “This is Life Eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent.” John XVII 3. His text was designed to illustrate the differences between “Liberal Christianity and the prevailing theology of the churches.” Approximately 100 persons, from all parts of town, attended. Joseph H. Allen of Boston had provided thirty copies of the Cheshire Collection of hymns, which allowed for rousing congregational singing.
During August, 1865, two services were held on Sundays at Town Hall: one at 10:15 a.m. and the second at 4:00 p.m. Rev. Putnam tells us that on average 100 people attended the morning service, while 150 attended in the afternoon. (Interestingly, the Universalist Church had offered them the use of their fine building for three of those Sundays as they were to be closed, but the Unitarians declined, not wanting to shift from a lesser building to a “more commodious” one and back again.)
One of the visiting ministers, Rev. Dr. Briggs, issued a call to those “who were interested in sustaining liberal preaching in Danvers,” and on Thursday, August 23, 1865, at 8:00 p.m., the following men and women “assembled in answer to the call”:
Mr. and Mrs. Philip H. Wentworth
Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Nichols
Dr. D. A. Grosvenor
Mr. and Mrs. John R. Langley
Miss Harriet Hook
Albert H. Silvester
Capt. Albert G. Allen
Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Butler
Mr. S. P. Cummings
Mr. S. D. Shattuck
Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Fellows
Mr. Alfred P. Putnam
What was “manifestly the general sentiment of the meeting” was to continue holding Unitarian services at Town Hall with the ultimate goal of establishing a Unitarian Society in Danvers.
Rev. Putnam tells us that a “subscription paper was started on the spot and $542 was quickly pledged by eleven different persons to sustain liberal preaching for the ensuing year.” A committee of three (Philip H. Wentworth, J. C. Butler, and Alfred McKenszie) was formed “to secure supplies, make the arrangements for the meetings, and attend to the general interests of the enterprise.” Andrew Nichols was chosen as Treasurer; Leprelate H. Turner as Secretary. These two officers and the three-person committee then joined forces to form a committee of five to raise enough funds “to sustain regular worship for the year to come.”
A Permanent Society
The new Unitarian Society would be called the “Unitarian Congregational Society of Danvers,” as the Unitarians in Peabody (formerly, South Danvers) had formed a Society in 1825, calling it the “First Unitarian Society of Danvers.”
According to the Peabody Press, for four years the fledgling Society had no settled minister until the Rev. Leonard J. Livermore “was invited to the charge” in 1867, the year of the Society’s incorporation, “which he has filled to the greatest satisfaction of the members of the congregation, with whom he is deservedly popular and to whom he has been of greatest assistance.”
But the Society needed a permanent home, and “as usual,” wrote the Peabody Press:
At the bottom of every good thing … were the women, who determined that they should have nice church. Accordingly, the Ladies’ Society of the congregation, of which Mrs. Wentworth was President, entered heart and soul into the project of building a church.
The first thing to be done was to get a piece of land, and the ladies, by means of fairs and subscriptions, themselves raised $1550, of which $1050 was paid for about an acre of land … lying south of Putnam Avenue on High Street, which was bought at public auction in October, 1868.
In 1869, the Society voted that $5,000 must be raised before the project could begin. Members of the Society “pulled together in this matter, shoulder to shoulder, and show[ed] an energy that was bound to bring success.”
A New Home
Work on the new chapel at the corner of Porter and High Streets began on May 18, 1870, under the watchful eyes of Building Committee members Philip H. Wentworth and Andrew Nichols, a civil engineer, with the laying out of the cellar. In fact Nichols, along with Samuel L. Eveleth, an architect and Danvers native, had designed the building. Next came the framework of the chapel and the house attached. When the buildings were complete, the Ladies Society held a three-day fair and raised $650 for furnishings. These furnishings filled a chapel and a two-story house with parlors, a kitchen, and a lecture room. The grounds outside were “laid out with shrubs and flowers … a round shed, 44 feet in diameter, with ten openings or stalls for horses and vehicles.”
The Unitarian Society held its annual meeting in the new church parlors on January 2, 1871, and they officially dedicated the building on March 16, 1871, calling it the “Unity Chapel.”
The historian Alden P. White, in the History of Essex County, reports, that at the dedication ceremony, “The opening prayer was by Rev. S. C. Beane of Salem; the reading of the Scriptures by Rev. J. B. Moore, of Lawrence; the sermon by Rev. A. P. Putnam; the act of dedication by the pastor and people; the prayer of dedication by Rev. J. T. Hewes, of Salem; chants and hymns were sung by a quartette and the congregation.”
Three days later, the first Sunday service was held, “at which some of the children of members were christened.
The Peabody Press described the new chapel in great detail, testifying to the importance of the project:
The chapel … is 49 by 36 feet, with a very high-pitched roof, it being 31 feet from the floor to the peak of the roof and only 16 feet to the cornice, and is intended to seat from 250 to 300 people. The whole building is plastered inside, stucco cornices relieving the monotony of the bare wall and chestnut wainscoting with black walnut trimming, rising three feet from the floor all round the chapel, adds much to its appearance.
On each side of the chapel are four square windows, eight feet high … All the window frames and doors are of chestnut wood with black-walnut trimmings, and are really very handsome.
There is a small pentagonal chancel, raised three feet above the floor of the chapel, with three Norman windows, the tops of which run up into niches in the chancel roof, and which from being so high, throw a good light down upon the pulpit.
There are 22 handsome gas lights in the chapel, besides one in the pulpit. At the end of the chapel furthest from the pulpit are two entrance doors, one on each side, and facing the chancel, two large folding doors opening into two parlors in the house beyond; this will be found a great advantage on those occasions when a conference or any similar gathering attracts too large a company for the capacity of the chapel, as the folding doors, when open, enable a number of people to see and hear what is going on in the chapel from these parlors.
In the house behind the chapel, along with its sumptuous parlors and lecture room, the kitchen that accommodated various functions featured:
… a large cooking stove … capable of cooking a dinner for fifty people … two bracket side-tables, and off the kitchen at one end is a pantry, with china and linen closet and skin; for the latter a plentiful supply of good water is provided from a cistern above, into which it is pumped from a well in the cellar. From the other end of the kitchen extends a dressing room with marble sink, looking glass, cupboard, with hooks and other conveniences.
There was also “a dumb-waiter from the kitchen to the hall” with “five sets of handsome gas-lights … in order that dinner or supper may be served with expedition on festive occasions.”
The Unitarian and Universalist churches in Danvers federated informally in 1922 as the “Community Church, later re-named the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers. This combined congregation eventually merged with Unitarian and Universalist churches in Peabody to form the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church.
Rev. Alfred P. Putnam, 1865-1867 (visiting minister)
Rev. Leonard J. Livermore, 1867-1886
Rev. John C. Mitchell, 1887-1889
Rev. Eugene DeNormandie, 1890-1897
Rev. Kenneth E. Evans, 1897-1902
Rev. John Haynes Holmes, 1902-1904
Rev. Edward H. Brennan, 1908-1911
Rev. Edward H. Cotton, 1912-1920??
(Informal merger with the Danvers Universalists to form the Community Church)
Year Book and Church Directory, First Community Church, Danvers, Massachusetts (First Community Church, 1932).
The Community Church, Danvers, Massachusetts (Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, Vol. 36, 1948).
First Community Church of Danvers, Massachusetts (church records).
“The New Unitarian Chapel at Danvers,” The Peabody Press, Wednesday, 15 March 1871.
A Brief Account of the Unitarian Movement in Danvers, Massachusetts by The Rev. Alfred S. Putnam (Church records, 6 September 1815).
Fiat Lux: The Unitarian-Universalist Church (Privately published, 1965).
History of Essex County, Massachusetts, Compiled by Hamilton D. Hurd (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1888).
Primary source documents, NSUU files.
Additional primary source and secondary source materials are available at the Danvers Archival Center, Peabody Institute Library, Danvers.