Second Universalist Society in Danvers /
First Universalist Church in Peabody
(Note: Danvers, including what is now Peabody, was set off from Salem in 1752. Then in 1855 South Danvers was set off from Danvers, and in 1868 South Danvers was renamed “Peabody” after its famous son, philanthropist George Peabody.)
The year 1832 was a good time for the growing number of Universalists in the south part of Danvers to form their own church. Formed in 1815, the First Universalist Society in Danvers had been meeting in the old Putnamville Schoolhouse, later, the “Old Baptist Church at New Mills.” In 1829, the Danvers Unitarians (on Park Street) had approached the Universalists to merge and form the Fifth Religious Society in Danvers.
The merger did not move forward and the Universalists began to raise money in 1832 for their own church building, which would replace the “old and rickety” 1783 Baptist Church. At the same time, on January 31, 1832, Universalists in the south part of Danvers adopted a preamble and resolution to form a second Universalist Society with the intention of building their own church in that part of town. Subscriptions to pay for the building opened at $100.
On March 26, subscribers met to form a site selection committee. An “agreement for organization” was drawn up and signed by 47 men. The first organizational meeting took place on April 6, 1832, in Shed’s (or Shedd’s)Hall. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Essex County tells us that:
Universalist meetings had been held occasionally in private houses, sometimes in a small hall in the building now occupied in part by the Peabody Press office, in the school-house then located near the Old South Church, and also in Joseph Shedd’s Hall, a small building on Main Street, then occupied by Mr. Shedd as an apothecary shop. Previously to this organization, some families had attended the Universalist meeting in Salem.
Another church history tells us that the South Danvers Universalists traveled as far as Boston to attend services.
On April 13, 1832, the Universalists voted in their by-laws and published the document in Salem, with copies going to each member and proprietor. The by-laws detailed the functions of Moderator, Clerk, Treasurer, and Standing Committee, when meetings would take place, and how church business, including the selling or renting of pews, was to be managed. The signers of this founding document were:
Joseph W. Carey
John F. Cook
James M. Demerritt
Daniel Dodge, jr.
John Dodge, jr.
Benjamin Jacobs, jr.
William D. Joplin
? L. Lougee (handwritten)
Asa T. Newhall
Joseph Newhall, 3d.
Daniel P. Nourse
Amos Osborn, jr.
Enoch Poor, jr.
Joseph Tufts, jr.
Joseph W. Tufts
Eben S. Upton
Ebenezer H. Weston
While the church building was under construction, the Universalists contacted the (Park Street) Unitarians on June 11, 1832 requesting the use of their church for an evening lecture and another meeting that would not interfere with Sunday services.
Unfortunately, the Unitarians declined this request writing, “Our duty requires us to consult the feelings of those whom we represent, and in a considerable degree we must be governed by their decision.” Writing for a local newspaper 100 years later, Frank C. Damon noted:
It seems strange to us, in these days when all Protestant churches dwell in harmony, to read of some of the acrimonious discussions and debates between the sects a century ago. And it seems stranger still that a religious body should refuse to allow its house to be used for worship of the same God simply because it didn’t believe in all the articles of the creed professed by the other organization.
The Universalists’ new church building (which cost $4,000) was dedicated on January 10, 1833. It was located on Main Street in present-day Peabody. The Universalists installed their first pastor, Rev. John Moore of Lebanon, New Hampshire, on January 21. He organized a Sunday School before leaving at the end of the year, to be followed by the Rev. John M. Austin. The first communion in the new church took place on June 22, 1834.
At the time of the building’s dedication, the vestry had been left unfinished. As there was no large public meeting space in the south part of Danvers at the time, an association called the Union Hall Association raised funds to finish the space for both church and public use (meetings, lectures). The church purchased an organ, they enlarged the meeting house by adding new galleries in 1843, at which time Rev. Austin retired from the church, leaving it “in a highly prosperous condition.”
Hamilton Hurd continues the story:
On October 20, 1844, Rev. John Prince was invited to become pastor, and was installed January 15, 1845. Mr. Prince was very progressive in his ideas, and during his pastorate, there was a division in the Society, arising from differences in belief, which resulted in the withdrawal of Mr. Prince, in June, 1848, and the closing of the church as a house of public worship for several years.
For several years, the church was without a settled minister, but it rebounded in 1853 under the leadership of Rev. J. W. Talbot. During the following three decades, building remodeling, additions, and improvements took place. A donor, who did not wish to make his name known, secretly deposited a church bell on the front lawn one morning in the Fall of 1867. A church history tells us that this “public spirited citizen … was the late General Sutton,” who, although not a Universalist, “gave gifts to many churches.” The restored building was re-dedicated on March 4, 1868, the Rev. A. B. Hervey presiding.
Meanwhile, the southern part of Danvers was itself being “remodeled.” In 1855, that part of town was renamed the Town of South Danvers. On April 30, 1868, the town was renamed Peabody after the native-born philanthropist George Peabody.
A brief church history explains that:
Early in 1877 successful efforts were made by the recently installed pastor, Rev. E. W. Whitney and others, to establish a new church organization. After the long interval a communion service was again held May 6, 1877. The new church commenced with several encouraging features. It embraced seventeen heads of families, and all but three of the Sabbath School teachers. There were forty-one members including six who were connected with the former organization.
From South Danvers to Peabody
The Second Universalist Society in Danvers was now the First Universalist Church in Peabody. The Universalists published a pamphlet titled Form of Church Government of the First Universalist Church, in Peabody, Mass. in 1878. The preamble read:
Believing our mutual improvement in the Religion of Jesus Christ, and the interest of his cause may be promoted by the organization of a church in connection with the First Universalist Society, in Peabody.—We hereby associate in such relation and adopt the Winchester Confession, as our profession of faith.
Universalists had adopted the Winchester Confession in 1802, at a meeting that took place in Winchester, New Hampshire. The articles they adopted, and subsequently used by the Peabody Universalists, read as follows:
We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
The pastoral committees of the church in 1878 included the following:
The Committee on the Sick shall visit the sick in their respective districts, do all in their power to make the sick comfortable, and report the cases to the Pastor.
The Committee on Benevolence shall devise and put in operation such means as they may deem suitable to reach and help the needy, and bring poor children within the religious influences of the Sabbath School and Church.
The Committee on Hospitality shall seek out the strangers in the parish, call upon them, introduce them to the Pastor and members of the congregation, and exert themselves to unite the parish as one great family.
Candidates for membership presented themselves at the altar during communion. At that time, the Pastor addressed them by saying:
Dearly Beloved:—You have presented yourselves before God and the world to make a profession of your religious faith, and to receive the consecration of the Christian Church.
You believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you desire to learn of him, and to co-operate in the study and practice of religion.
You join this church not so much to create new responsibilities as to impress upon your minds and hearts a deeper sense of those obligations which are binding upon all the children of God.
I entreat you therefore to give earnest heed to our Profession of Faith [Winchester Confession].
In the presence of God and these witnesses you solemnly declare that these principles accord with your own, and that from a true and heartfelt devotion thereto, you seek to become a member of this Church.
We welcome you to this communion of Christian souls. We earnestly desire to sympathize with you and will endeavor to watch over and support you in the trials of life and the work of duty, and may God our Father grant that this union formed on earth, may continue in heaven and fit us for the fellowship of the saints in light.
On January 10, 1883, the Peabody Universalists celebrated the 50th Anniversary of their church building, the Rev. F. W. Sprague, Pastor. The 2:00 p.m. service featured hymns, selections by the choir, an opening prayer, remarks by the Pastor, a historical sketch by Amos Merrill, reminiscences from former pastors, and address by the Rev. E. C. Bolles, Ph.D. titled Present Tendencies in Religious Thought.
That evening, at 7:30 p.m., the celebration continued with more music, a prayer and benediction by the Pastor, and an address by A. B. Hervey titled The Vital Roots of Universalism.
The Rev. George W. Penniman was installed in 1909 and stayed for nine years. During his tenure, Penniman also served as the fourth President of the Peabody Historical Society. During World War I, Peabody (like many other communities) experienced coal shortages. Like the Unitarians and Universalists in Danvers, the two Peabody churches held “union services” at the Unitarian Church on Park Street. Discussions about a merger continued, this time including the South Congregational Church, but nothing materialized.
During these years, the church had “a very large and active Women’s Society,” according to an anonymous church history. In the early years, women made money to cover church expenses by binding shoes while “sitting around the coal stove in the parlor. Rev. Penniman’s wife started a Mission Circle, one of the most active in the state, and the women held numerous, well-attended fairs, plays, and other entertainments. For the Colonial Fair, they “hired” wigs from Boston and wore gowns “from long ago.” The Pageant of Brides featured gowns from years past up to the present day modeled by young women of the parish.
The Murray Club, named for John Murray, known as the “Father of Organized Universalism,” was well known throughout Essex County for its dramatic performances and comedies.
The Peabody Universalist Church held a centennial celebration from November 17 to November 20, 1933, featuring a historical pageant about Universalism in America from John Murray’s work in the eighteenth century up to 1933. Sunday featured two services, a morning service at 10:30 a.m., and an evening one at 7:30, presided over by the new Pastor, Rev. Dr. George E. Huntley. The church also held a Centennial Banquet, including roast turkey, mashed or browned potatoes, green peas, north shore crabmeat salad, banana and pineapple fritters, and assorted ices, cakes, lady fingers, macaroons, and coffee.
A “post prandial” ceremony followed, Joseph C. Chandler serving as toastmaster, when words of congratulations were offered by individuals representing the Universalist State Convention, the community, the town historian, Ladies Circle, Mission Circle, Murray Club, the church school, and young people in the church, concluding with words from Rev. Huntley.
During the early 1930s, $5,000 was raised for a new church organ. It was placed behind the pulpit, creating a magnificent “organ pulpit.”
In 1935, the church steeple was torn down after suffering damage from the high winds of two hurricanes. The restored building reopened in September of that year, featuring remarks by Elmer A. Cowdrey, a church member, national president of the Universalist Sunday School Association, and an author on ecclesiastical subjects, who spoke on A New Religion for a New World. At the time, the steeple was shored up or replaced, re-shingled, and decorated with gold leaf. The exterior of the church was painted “pearl grey trimmed with white,” according to the Peabody Enterprise.
(In 1945, The Rev. Dr. Howard Charles Gale resigned from the First Unitarian Church. Union services were then held with the Peabody Universalist Society, in the Unitarians’ building served by the Universalists’ minister Rev. Beal. In May 12, 1957, when the two groups formally federated to form Park Street Church, Unitarian Universalist.)
Rev. John Moore, 1834-1835
Rev. John M. Austin, 1835-1845
Rev. John Prince, 1845-1848
(Church closed 1848-1853)
Rev. John W. Talbot, 1853-1854
Rev. Orville Brayton, 1856-1859
Rev. C. C. Gordon, 1859-1861
Rev. Oscar F. Safford, D. D., 1862-1865
Rev. A. B. Hersey, 1866-1877
Rev. Sandford P. Smith, 1873-1876
Rev. Elbert W. Whitney, 1876-1879
Rev. George W. Harmon, 1880-1882
Rev. Francis A. Sprague, 1882-1889
Rev. A. Francis Walsh, 1890-1893
Rev. Oscar F. Safford, D. D. (returned), 1893-1899
Rev. William Hooper Dearborn, 1900-1904
Rev. George W. Penniman, 1904-1918
Rev. George H. Howes, 1921-1928
Rev. Ernest H. Carritt, 1929-1932
Rev. Dr. George E. Huntley, 1932-1937
Rev. Rubens Rea Hadley, 1937-1941
Rev. Edgar H. Eldridge, 1942-1943
Rev. Roland P. Rice, 1943-1945
Rev. Edmund W. Beal, 1945-1948
By-Laws of the Second Universalist Society in Danvers (Salem: The Advertiser Press, 1832).
Form of Church Government of the First Universalist Church, in Peabody, Mass. (Salem: T. J. Hutchinson & Son, 1878).
Centennial Celebration program and order of service, 17-20 November 1933.
“Refused Universalists Permission to Meet in Unitarian Church,” by Frank C. Damon, unidentifiable local newspaper, ca. 1932.
“Virtues Updated,” excerpts from a sermon by Rev. G. William Budd, unidentifiable local newspaper, 1965.
History of the Northshore Unitarian-Universalist Church Explored through the Faith Statements of the Church (1815-2004) by Heidi Kuehn (2004, unpublished, NSUU files).
Roots of the Danvers Church by Barbara Doucette, remarks delivered 28 March 2010.
History of First Universalist Church in Peabody, unattributed; NSUU files. The author noted that, “many of these notes have been taken from the memories of the Late Theodore Moody Osborn, Sutton Reference Library, Essex Institute, Salem, and the old church records.”
Peabody Enterprise, 20 September 1935.
Miscellaneous documents, NSUU files.
History of Essex County, Massachusetts, Compiled by Hamilton D. Hurd (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1888).
Additional primary source and secondary source materials are available at the Danvers Archival Center, Peabody Institute Library, Danvers; Peabody Historical Society; and Peabody Institute Library, Peabody.