The First 15 Ministers of First Parish Church in Beverly (1667-1958)
By Charles E. Wainwright
Chair, First Parish Historical Committee
Since it first convened on September 20, 1667, First Parish Church in Beverly has transitioned from Puritanism to Congregationalism to Unitarianism and eventually to Unitarian-Universalism. Below are some biographical details about the first 15 ministers at First Parish who presided over most of the church’s first 300 years.
John Hale, 1667-1700. Born March 6, 1636 in Charlestown, Mr. Hale graduated Harvard College in 1657 and agreed, in 1664 to become a Teacher of the Gospel at the Bass River side of Salem. When the Salem Church finally granted the area north of the Bass River full parish status on 20 September 1667, he became its first minister. In 1690, Hale served as Chaplain to the British expedition to reduce the French garrison at Port Royal in Canada. Hale is best remembered, though, as a key player in the witchcraft hysteria that beset Salem and other towns in Essex County in 1692 resulting in the death and imprisonment of so many innocent residents. At first, Hale actively supported the trials; but, when one of the afflicted girls accused his wife of witchcraft his attitude changed. His book “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft” published in 1697 describes his reflections on the use of spectral evidence in courtroom proceedings. He is immortalized as a key character in Arthur Miller’s classic play “The Crucible”. Hale died on May 15, 1700 while serving as the Pastor of First Parish Church.
Thomas Blowers, 1701-1729. Mr. Blowers was born in Cambridge 1 August, 1677 and graduated from Harvard College in 1695. For his time, he was considered a liberal minister, and moved the Beverly congregation away from the communal interrogation of new members that was the hallmark of the traditional Puritan initiation rite. He died while serving the Church on 17 June, 1729.
Joseph Champney, 1729-1773. Rev. Champney was baptized in Cambridge on 19 September, 1704. He graduated Harvard College in 1721 and served as its Librarian during the 1728-1729 academic year. At 43 years, Rev. Champney has the distinction of serving longer than any other minister at First Parish Church. Through his influence, the Church maintained a lukewarm attitude towards the Cambridge Platform and its denominational direction, setting the tone for a more rational and liberal belief system that was later embodied in the Unitarian conversion. It was during his ministry that the present meeting house was erected in 1772. He died while serving the Church on 23 February 1773. Rev. Champney’s Hitchcock chair, the gift of his grandson, are on display at the back of the Sanctuary.
Joseph Willard, 1772-1781. Rev. Willard served as the fourth minister of the Church. Born in Biddeford, Maine on 29 December, 1738, he was educated at Governor Dummer Academy (now the Governor’s Academy) in Newbury, and graduated in 1765 (and received his Master’s in 1768) from Harvard College. He was appointed as the first Corresponding Secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. When Capt. Hugh Hill, the famous Beverly Privateer, returned from an excursion to the Irish Sea with a large collection of books he had captured, Rev, Willard and some other ministers organized their purchase for the town, and thus established the nucleus of the Beverly Public Library. Willard was a victim of the runaway inflation that plagued the Colony during the Revolutionary War. Although promised inflation adjustments, the Parish could not afford to pay him his fully inflated salary. He left the Church in 1781 to become President of Harvard College, a post he held until his death in 1804.
Joseph McKeen, 1785-1802. Rev. McKeen was the fifth minister installed at First Parish church. Born in 1757, McKeen graduated Dartmouth College in 1774 at the age of seventeen. He came to Beverly after several years of teaching school in his home of Londonderry, New Hampshire. Like his predecessor, McKeen was an active member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1802, he left First Parish Church to become the first President of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He died in this post in 1807.
Abiel Abbot, 1803-1828. The ordination of Abiel Abbot as the sixth minister of First Parish Church marked the beginning of the most contentious and controversial period in its history. Born in 1770, he was struck in his fourteenth year by a Polio-like malady that left him bedridden for months and chronically ill. His illness gave him the time to develop an appreciation of knowledge. He attended Philips Academy, and graduated Harvard College with Honors in 1792. After a brief period as teacher and Principal at Philips Academy, he was installed as minister at the troubled Haverhill Massachusetts parish in February 1795 where he distinguished himself as a great speaker and spiritual leader.
By the time he arrived in Beverly his reputation was secure. His religious philosophy was markedly more practical than his predecessors, and he challenged our Congregation to consider how God affected their everyday lives. His message was influenced by the great rationalists and scientists of the day. He introduced the Congregation to concepts of Universal Salvation, and was the first Beverly Minister to advocate social action outside the Church. He sponsored the First Parish Sunday School, the Beverly Female Charitable Society, and the Beverly Music Society. His Unitarian message made many in the Church uncomfortable, and almost immediately after his installation as Minister of First Parish Church, fifty congregants petitioned to be set off as the Third Parish Society (today’s Dane Street Church) with a more traditional theology.
Abbot’s chronic health issues forced him to travel several times to warmer climes to recover, but he was so beloved by the Congregation that his letters to the Church that were read to the Congregation as sermons. He died aboard ship in New York Harbor on 7 June, 1828 returning from Cuba and was buried on Staten Island. By the end of his service, First Parish Church had become a firmly Unitarian Church.
Christopher Toppan Thayer, 1830-1858. Rev. Thayer has the honor of serving as the first Unitarian minister of First Parish Church. Thayer was born in Lancaster, Mass on 8 June,1805 and graduated Harvard University in 1824. The decision of the Congregation to call him to serve as minister was a highly controversial one, reflecting an official shift to Unitarianism. It was during his tenure that the meeting house was rebuilt in the Greek revival style we see today. In 1867 Rev. Thayer delivered the keynote address on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of First Parish Church. He died in Boston on 23 June, 1880.
Rev. John Calvin Kimball, 1859-1870. Rev. Kimball, baptized in Ipswich Massachusetts on 12 August, 1832, graduated Amherst College in 1854. A virulent abolitionist, Rev. Kimball preached many politically charged sermons at First Parish. During the Civil War, he served as the Chaplin of one of the first black Massachusetts regiments, serving in South Carolina. He was asked by the Army to return to his duties in 1865 but the Congregation refused his request. Kimball left the Church in 1870 amidst issues around his salary and living arrangements. He was afterward Minister at the Unitarian Society in Hartford CT, where he became a friend of writer Samuel Clemens. He died in Greenfield Massachusetts on 16 February, 1910 and is buried at Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Ellery Channing Butler, 1872–1894. Rev. Butler, born in Cooperstown, New York in 1843, graduated from Antioch College and Meadville Theological Seminary. He served in three Churches during his life: Fairhaven Massachusetts, First Parish in Beverly, and the President’s Church in Quincy Massachusetts. Rev. Butler is best known by our Church because of his wife’s bequests, including an endowment for flowers and for the Butler Chimes now used in the Church, given in memory of his son. Butler died in Quincy Massachusetts on 10 May, 1912.
William Bernard Geoghegan, 1895-1896. Rev. Geoghegan was born in Baltimore Maryland in 1855 and graduated Harvard University in 1889. Prior to serving as minister of First Parish Church he served as minister at the Dane Street Church in Beverly. He has the distinction of serving the shortest time as our minister, less than one year. He moved to New Bedford Massachusetts and during World War I served in France with the YMCA in 1918. He died 2 November, 1962.
Benjamin Reynolds Bulkeley, 1896-1915. Rev. Bulkeley was born in Dansville, New York on 25 October, 1855. The first time he was asked by the Parish Board to serve as minister he refused, apparently because of the Parish’s practice of allowing only men to participate in its politics. Immediately after his refusal was recorded, the Parish voted to allow women to actively participate in Parish affairs, and many new committees were formed as a result. Bulkeley was asked a second time to serve and this time he accepted. He left First Parish Church in 1915 to become Minister of the First Parish Church in Concord Massachusetts. He died in Concord Massachusetts on 18 April, 1930.
Pemberton Hale Cressey, 1916-1920. Rev. Cressey was born in 1872 in Denver Colorado, though he was a distant relative of the family of the same name that settled in Beverly in the seventeenth century. He graduated from Harvard University in 1895 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1898. His first ministry was in the North Conway, New Hampshire Unitarian Church, serving from 1898 to 1903. He resided in Groton Massachusetts from then until his installation as Minister of First Parish Church. Enormously popular with the congregation, his most significant contribution to the Church was his organization of our first newsletter, a tradition that continues to this day. He died suddenly, a victim of the Influenza pandemic on 23 February, 1920.
Howard Charles Gale, 1921-1924. The “Minister Doctor” was born in Haverhill Massachusetts on 18 June, 1880. His short tenure was due to a decision to pursue his medical career instead of the ministry. He remained in Beverly as a practicing physician for many years, and died 2 September, 1978.
Fred Rinaldo Lewis, 1925-1941. Born in Kenduskeag, Penobscot County Maine on 8 April, 1874, Rev. Lewis graduated Harvard University in 1896. He was responsible for establishing a permanent connection between the First Parish Church and several Unitarian Churches in Transylvania that were being vigorously persecuted by Romanian Fascists. He died in Beverly on 9 July, 1973.
Rev. Dr. William H. Gysan, 1942-1958. Rev. Gysan’s years as Minister of First Parish marked the transition from a Unitarian to a Unitarian-Universalist church. Born in Ohio in 1893 he received his Masters from Ohio State University in 1916, and taught at the University for several years. He served as pastor of the Dublin Community church from 1918-1919 and the People’s Church in Kalamazoo from 1927 to 1932. His time at First Parish included the celebration of the two hundred seventy-fifth anniversary of the Church in 1942. After his retirement as Pastor he served as Minister Emeritus. He was a Professor at Endicott College in Beverly for 25 years, and his papers now reside at their library. Rev. Gysan died in Beverly 18 June, 1986.