Second Unitarian Society of Danvers
First Unitarian Society/Church of Peabody
Park Street Church
(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.)
On January 1, 1825, “a company of fifteen gentlemen assembled at the house of Oliver Saunders on Main Street to confer together as to the organization of a new religious society in South Danvers which should be in harmony with the sentiments known as Unitarian,” according to a hand-written history by Rev. John W. Hudson, minister of the church from 1873 to 1898. Hudson goes on to tell us that the “gentlemen” were Oliver Saunders, Benjamin Goodridge, John W. Procter, John Pierce, Benjamin Wheeler, Isaac Elliott, Ward Pool Jr., William Sutton, Joseph Shaw Jr., Abner Sanger, Jonathan Shore, Wingate Merrill, Joseph Tufts Jr., Andrew Torr, and O. C. Felton.
Another church history published their mission statement, writing that the church was organized “for the purpose of having a place in the South part of Danvers where an opportunity could be had of hearing sentiments more liberal and congenial with the true spirit of Christianity than is now afforded.” Massachusetts Governor Lincoln signed the church’s Act of Incorporation on June 18, 1825.
The church initially had thirty-three members, out of which they formed a committee in the winter of 1824 to find land for a new building. According to Rev. Hudson, “They agreed with Mr. Benjamin Goodridge for a piece of land for the building of the meeting house on the hill purchased by him from Capt. Symonds, and that a street thirty four feet wide—now Park Street—should be laid out by Mr Goodridge from the main road—now Main Street—to this piece of land. The whole of the vicinity of the site at that time was an unoccupied field.”
Construction of the meeting house was finished in early July, 1826 (at a cost of $8,734) and the Unitarians dedicated their new home on July 26 with an impressive line-up of visiting ministers. The Rev. Mr. Brazer of the North Church in Salem delivered the sermon “Finally, be ye all of one mind;” Rev. Mr. Upham of the First Church in Salem led the opening prayer; Rev. Mr. Colman of Barton Square Church in Salem read from the scriptures and led the congregation in a hymn he had written; Rev. Dr. Abbott of Beverly led the second prayer; and Rev. Mr. Bartlett of Marblehead offered the benediction. Two original hymns had been written for the occasion. Rev. Mr. Colman had written When darkness spread her empire wide, and Rev. Dr. Flint wrote the concluding hymn Thy temple, Lord, is boundless space.
Until the congregation could install a permanent pastor, Mr. Alonzo Hill supplied the pulpit. In less than a year, the Unitarians called Rev. Charles Chauncy Sewall of Dedham to serve as their first pastor at a salary of $700 a year, with an additional gift up front of $200; the church ordained and installed him on April 11, 1827. Twenty-one clergymen were present at the installation, according to Rev. Hudson. Rev. Lamson of Dedham delivered the sermon, and the congregation, now numbering seventy-one, sang two original hymns—one written by church member Dr. Andrew Nichols, the other by Dr. John Pierpont of Boston.
The church grew at a steady pace under Rev. Sewall’s thirteen-year tenure. They added a church bell in 1829, began looking for a parsonage in 1830, and accepted the gift of their first organ from Eben and William Sutton. In May, 1831, the church established a singing-school for young people and allocated $60 for its support.
In 1836, voluntary contributions funded the church. But the following year, the congregation voted to return to the old method of taxing the pews.
Rev. Sewall, who was “greatly beloved by his people,” resigned in 1841; upon his departure, the congregation presented him with a gift of $500. The next pastor, Rev. Andrew Bigelow, began his ministry on February 15, 1843 but he only stayed until the spring of 1845. His successor, Rev. Frank Appleton, who was ordained and installed on January 14, 1846, led the church 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. Hudson tells us.
Rev. Charles Wheeler commenced his ministry at the church on October 4, 1854, and left in 1861—the first year of the Civil War. Rev. Wheeler’s successor, Rev. David H. Montgomery, left after only three years due to ill health. The installation of the next pastor, Rev. Edward Ilsley Galvin, brought the abolitionist Rev. James Freeman Clarke of Boston to South Danvers where he preached the sermon that Sunday. It was during Rev. Galvin’s tenure that the chapel and “society rooms” were “erected in the rear of the auditorium,” Rev. Hudson writes. He goes on to explain:
At this time the desire for some improvements in the church, which had long been felt, began to take distinct shape and received much encouragement from Mr. Galvin although it was not until after his resignation that the work was done. This was the reconstruction of the Church at an expense of about $15,000, far more than the original cost of the building. The work was begun in May 1872 and completed in December of the same year. It was entirely paid for when it was done.
The church building also received a new organ, and when the church was re-dedicated on January 1, 1873, the great Rev. Edward Everett Hale of Boston journeyed north to deliver the dedication sermon.
The Building Turns 50, and the Church Looks Ahead 100 Years
The Rev. John W. Hudson started his ministry on Sunday, December 7, 1873. A few years later, on July 26, 1876, the congregation celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the dedication of their building. The service featured hymns, readings from the scriptures and responsive readings, prayers, addresses for the occasion, and a congregational hymn that is still sung today by many Unitarian churches (with many of the words changed):
From all that dwell below the skies,
Let the Creator’s praise arise;
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung.
Through every land, by every tongue.
Eternal are thy mercies, Lord;
Eternal truth attends thy word:
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore,
Till suns shall rise and set no more.
During Rev. Hudson’s tenure, the congregation installed a massive new organ in 1886 for the price of $3,500, and placed a new bell in the belfry the following year. The church also purchased Rev. Hudson’s residence at 20 Franklin Street in Peabody for $5,000 for their mutual use as a parsonage.
The Church in 1902 Addresses its Successors in 2002
In 1898, Rev. Hudson’s twenty-five year ministry ended, and he was elected Pastor Emeritus by the congregation. Rev. George S. Anderson of Scotland and the former pastor of the Unity Church in Pittsfield, Mass., followed. A few years later, in 1902, Rev. Hudson wrote his history of the church from 1825 to the present day. In 1902, he wrote:
An invested Fund given by members of the Society as legacies at their decease during this pastorate amounts to $24,600. Besides this, legacies of $1,000 each have been given to the Sunday School and to “The Young Workers,” a society of young people connected with the church organized by Mrs. Hudson, and now forming a branch of the widely extended “Lend a Hand Clubs.”
I commit this paper to the keeping of the “Century blest” for the perusal of those who shall see it in the year 2002, in the hope that this Church may still exist with usefulness unimpaired—a light house of guidance amid the darkness and uncertainties of time.
Rev. Hudson was not the only Hudson who cared about and documented the church’s history. In 1902, Divine P. Hudson, Rev. Hudson’s wife, wrote a brief account of the Ladies’ Association of the First Unitarian Church of Peabody, organized in June 1932, and a branch of the National Alliance of Unitarian Women since 1892:
The Ladies Association holds fortnightly meetings in the Chapel of the Unitarian church from May to October inclusive. The members sew at these meetings for charitable and missionary objects, and for needy families in town. They earn money by holding “Fairs,” or “Sales” of useful and ornamental articles with a public supper, occasionally. From these earnings, an annual contribution is given to the Church for its current expenses, and to the American Unitarian Association for its missionary work.
Boxes and Barrels of clothing, and books, are sent away each year to Indian missions in the West, and to colored schools in the South, most frequently to the school of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, Alabama.
From time to time, contributions of money are sent to feeble churches in the West or South, and sometimes in New England. The Ladies invite the gentlemen of their families and all members of the Society to a supper and social evening several times each year.
In many years, lectures have been given before the Association by speakers of note, and papers read on literary subjects by members and friends for the enjoyment of the whole society. This is the only organization of women in the Unitarian Church, and it has always been the centre and birthplace of all organized effort among the women of the parish.
It has lived three score years and ten. May it survive until these pages see the light of another century, when the members of that day may inquire for the old records of the “Ladies Unitarian Association,” which have been faithfully kept for many years by the Secretary, Miss Martha Osborn Barrett.
Another local women’s organization associated with the church was the Ladies’ Benevolent Society, founded in 1814. The Society held meetings at the Unitarian Church, and celebrated their 75th Anniversary there with an address by Rev. John W. Hudson and original poems by church members Martha O. Barrett and Mrs. George A. Osborne.
In the early days, Society members “rendered aid” to those in need of articles of clothing by meeting in each other’s houses to sew and knit. Through their personal contributions, the Ladies provided meals on Thanksgiving and other days during the year, and made modest gifts to those “who might otherwise suffer.”
For their 1902 message to the next century, a member who had just turned eighty-eight provided this early account and closed by adding:
May the good work go on through the coming century and may the future generations enjoy helping one another as we have done.
The 1902 report from the Young People’s Religious Union (YPRU) was written by Grace Rolston Torr, first secretary. The group was organized on March 19, 1899, and joined the National Unions of Boston in April. The YPRU met every other Sunday night at the church from October to April from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Their mission was “to foster religious life and incidentally encourage social intercourse among our members and throughout the entire parish.” All persons were welcome to join “without assent to any creed or formula of faith.” They hoped to “further the religious welfare of the church.”
Each month, the group took up a monthly offering. In 1901, this money enabled the YPRU to print a calendar for the year, pay a larger than usual “assessment” to the National Union, “help a struggling church at Amherst of this state,” and give ten dollars “toward the current expenses of our own church.”
During its first year, the group held a social gathering featuring “guessing games” and “refreshments in the chafing dish.” Thereafter, the church’s reorganized Unity Club paid for these social events.
Each year, during the “Anniversary Week” of the National Union (the last week in May), three delegates were sent from the Peabody group to the Union’s annual meeting in Boston. Over the years, speakers affiliated with the Peabody church included the current minister, George S. Anderson, Rev. John W. Hudson, Pastor Emeritus, Susan L. Ferguson, Music Supervisor of the Peabody Public Schools, and Mary A. Farmer, a teacher in the Sunday School.
One of the group’s projects was to provide summer clothing for “two little orphan girls” sent to Peabody from the Children’s Mission in Boston “to board in one of the families in town.” Grace Torr concluded her 1902 message to the next century of young people by writing:
While I have by no means exhausted the subject, I have perhaps told enough to convince the young Unitarians of a century hence that it behooves them to keep alive these sparks of religious fervor, for the sake of the dear old church we all love so well.
Finally, Rev. George S. Anderson wrote to the minister of the First Unitarian Church in 1902—who, we now know, was the Rev. Edwin Lynn, minister of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church from 1972 to 2005. Rev. Anderson clearly foresaw what was to come:
To the Minister of the
First Unitarian Church, Peabody, Mass. in the year Two Thousand and Two.
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.
On this account it seems to me useless to communicate over the broad space of a century with a person who in all probability will never exist.
The process of creedal dissolution in the orthodox churches (falsely so-called) is bound to make a radical change in the attitude of Christian people — such a change, indeed, that before the close of another century a strong demand will be made for an un-denominational church founded on principles of reason, justice and love. The few superstitions and theological demands that linger (in name, rather than in belief) are doomed to perish. Many of their kindred have already succumbed to the just and logical [scene] and rejection of the great mass of the religions would, and with their disappearance it may be safely said that men are becoming truer and better both in manners and morals.
Education is widening in its beneficent influence and liberating all that come under its sway from the gross contradictions and Immoralities and confused philosophy of the ancient faith. It is now seen by the clearest thinkers both clerical and lay that the future church must be a civic — not a sectarian — institution; — an establishment for the nurture of the highest attributes of human nature. Like the public school it must do its work systematically and with as little waste as possible. The church hereafter will only be considered a “Divine” agency so far as it makes itself such.
I send my love and greetings to all who will enjoy the glorious light of the twentieth century.
Yours most sincerely,
George S. Anderson
Minister of the First Unitarian Church.
No. 6 Park Street
May 5th 1902
The ministers who followed Rev. George S. Anderson were Rev. Harry Sumner Mitchell, Rev. C. Bertrand Thompson, Rev. W. Delos Smith, Rev. Edward D. Towle, and the husband-and-wife team of Rev. Harold L. Pickett and Rev. Anita T. Pickett who served as co-ministers starting in 1923.
During Rev. Mitchell’s tenure from 1903-1905, church committees included Charity, Hospitality, Temperance, Music, Sunday School, Young People’s Religious Union, Ladies’ Unitarian Association, Young Workers’ Lend-a-Hand Club, and Unity Club. Church boys and men were Knights Excelsior (a secret society within the Lend-a-Hand Club movement) and Ushers.
Every individual in this history deserves the spotlight, and we are lucky that Rev. Thompson’s story caught the attention of Unitarian Universalist Association past president John Buehrens decades later. His feature article on Rev. Thompson appeared in the January/February edition of the UU World magazine. In it, he described this early mixed-race Unitarian minister who was “virtually unknown among us.”
Thompson’s mother was the daughter of a slave who escaped with her to Boston. (The father was the slave owner.) Thompson’s father was born free, and he was a prominent member of Boston’s black community and successful jeweler. After the two wed, they moved to Denver where Clarence Bertrand Thompson was born in 1882. Clearly an intellect and hard worker, he finished high school at fifteen, and earned a law degree by eighteen.
Buehrens writes, “Drawn to The Fellowship, an independent liberal congregation in Los Angeles, he was asked to serve as assistant minister in 1905 and encouraged to obtain his degree from Harvard. He enrolled there in 1906, earning a B.A. in one year, and an M.A. in sociology and economics in another.”
During his years at Cambridge, Thompson also served as the minister of the Unitarian church in Peabody—and no one knew of his African American heritage, not even his fiancée, the writer-lecturer Maravene Kennedy, who “married him nonetheless” despite unproven rumors and stories in the Boston newspapers that he had “crossed the color line.” Thompson offered to resign his pulpit, but the church refused. Instead, he was ordained and installed at the First Unitarian Church on October 17, 1906.
Thompson’s powerful sermons about class prejudice, labor rights, and other timely social issues appeared regularly in the Salem Evening News. He even worked as a laborer unloading trucks to have first-hand experience. He resigned from the ministry in 1908, and went on to lecture at the new Harvard Business School on manufacturing, publish his book Scientific Management, and pioneer the field of international management consulting. After living in France for many years, Thompson returned to the States where he reinvented himself at age 58 as a biochemist. He died in Uruguay in 1969, where he had gone to conduct research.
Centennial Celebration and Looking to the Future
January 1, 1925 marked the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the church building. This year also saw the 100th anniversary of the American Unitarian Association, and while celebrations in Unitarian churches no doubt took place across the country, because the Peabody church was founded on January 1, theirs came first. It was reported in the Salem Evening News that the church “has been a potent factor in the life of the community during the past 100 years and has had an influence upon the people of its parish in all that time which can not be measured.”
The Centennial Celebration was held in the church auditorium, and it was chaired by Fred W. Bushby, long-time chairman of the Standing Committee. The congregation and invited guests joined together in singing new hymns, listened to a reading from the scriptures by Rev. Harold Pickett, prayed with Rev. Anita Pickett, and heard a sermon by Rev. Benjamin R. Bulkeley of Concord. The Salem Evening News reported on the sermon:
The significance of the occasion was spoken of and a brief review was given of the old doctrines, the advent of Channing in 1819, the birth of liberal thought and the organization of the Unitarian church, in some places those of liberal mind being in the majority and retaining their church, as happened in Beverly, while in other places, like this church, a minority came out of the Congregational church … Many great names come down in the history of the Unitarian movement and the inspiration of the past should put us to shame if we did not have something of their earnestness.
One hundred years ago, Rev. Bulkeley continued, it was not that there was a “sudden conception of a new kind of religion,” simply that these Congregationalists and Christians could no longer believe in the “old theology,” choosing Unitarianism over Trinitarianism. In conclusion, he paid tribute to the “pioneers” who came before, and urged the congregation “to carry on the work of the church for the service of God.”
They heard Lyman P. Osborn, a member of long standing and the president of the Warren National Bank, give a “brief but interesting sketch of the church,” wrote the Salem Evening News, “stating that among those who took part in the dedication were Rufus Choate, Gen. Gideon Foster of Revolutionary fame and Hon. Daniel P. King, congressman, all of what is now Peabody.”
Osborn “paid high tribute to the work of the ladies of the parish, and said that in 1843 they raised the money to build a chapel, which later became the first High school of the town.”
Osborn foresaw what Unitarians and Universalists realized in 1965 when they admitted to themselves that the community of Peabody could not sustain a liberal religious faith community. As the Salem Evening News quoted him:
Sometimes, the Unitarians became discouraged because they failed to wax strong in numbers, but in a community such as this, with its industries and mixed population, much growth was impossible, and it did not appear to be the province of liberal denomination to grow stronger in numbers, but it served the purpose of pointing the way to others … We owe today a debt of gratitude to the men and women of 100 years ago who handed down their faith to us, and in no better way can we show our appreciation than to labor for the wrong that needs resistance, the cause that needs assistance and the good that we can do.
The Rev. Dr. Howard Charles Gale succeeded the Pickets in 1925 for twenty years. A newsletter from his this time shows an active Standing Committee, still chaired by Fred W. Bushby, and busy church committees (Music, Decorations, Publicity, Hospitality, Religious Education, and Charity). The women had their own Ladies’ Unitarian Association, of which Rev. Gale’s wife was the president. Their committees included Religious Education, Social Service, Friendly Links, Cheerful Letter, Program, Parlor, Kitchen, Laundry, Flowers, and Nominating.) The church school was headed by S. Eleanor Hammond, and the Young People’s Religious Union, or the “Hudson Guild” after Rev. John W. Hudson, was led by Fred MacDonnell.
In these days, Church School for all ages took place Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m., followed by the 10:30 service.
(In 1945, Rev. 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. Charles C. Sewall, 1827-1841
Rev. Andrew Bigelow, 1843-1845
Rev. Frank P. Appleton, 1846-1853
Mr. Charles H. Wheeler, 1854-1862
Rev. David H. Montgomery, ca. 1863-1867
Rev. Edward Ilsley Galvin, 1868-1871
Rev. John W. Hudson, 1873-1898*
Rev. George S. Anderson, 1899-1903
Rev. Harry Sumner Mitchell, 1903-1905
Rev. C. Bertrand Thompson, 1906-1909
Rev. W. Delos Smith, 1910-1912
Rev. Edward D. Towle, 1913-1922
Rev. Harold L. Pickett and Rev. Anita T. Pickett, 1923-1926
Rev. Dr. Howard Charles Gale, 1925-1945
*Upon his retirement, Rev. Hudson became Pastor Emeritus until his death in 1925 at age 89.
Order of Religious Services at the Dedication of the Unitarian Church in Danvers, (broadside) 26 July 1826.
Order of Services on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Dedication of the First Unitarian Church, Peabody, Mass., 26 July 1876.
Calendar for June, 1903-1905.
Public Meeting: The Centenary of the First Unitarian Church, Peabody, Mass., (broadside) 1 January 1925.
Salem Evening News, 1 January 1925.
Newsletter, January, date unknown, published during the ministry of Rev. Dr. Howard Charles Gale, 1925-1945.
Letter from Rev. George S. Anderson to his successor in 2002, 5 May 1902.
Report of The Ladies Association of the First Unitarian Church of Peabody by Divine P. Hudson, 1902.
Report of the Young People’s Religious Union, First Unitarian Parish, Peabody Massachusetts, 9 June 1902.
Report of the Ladies’ Benevolent Society, Peabody, Mass., 10 May 1902.
Order of Service, Ordination and Installation of C. Bertrand Thompson, 17 October 1906.
Order of Service, Unitarian Universalist Church, Peabody, Mass., ca. 1962.
History of Essex County, Massachusetts, Compiled by Hamilton D. Hurd (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1888).
Looking Back: Famous consultant and forgotten minister by John Buehrens (UU World magazine, January/February 2004).
History of the Northshore Unitarian-Universalist Church Explored through the Faith Statements of the Church (1815-2004) by Heidi Kuehn (church records, 13 April 2004).
Roots of the Danvers Church by Barbara Doucette, remarks delivered 28 March 2010.
Primary source documents, NSUU files.
Additional primary and secondary source materials are available at the Danvers Archival Center, Peabody Institute Library, Danvers, and the Peabody Historical Society in Peabody.