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FIRST CHURCH IN ROXBURY
John Eliot Square
Style: Federal Meeting House
by Marcia Butman, Discover Roxbury
This church was first gathered in 1631. A total of five church buildings have existed on this site. The current one – the fifth – was built in 1803. Originally founded by Puritans, it became a Unitarian Church in 1810. Today is home to the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry.
The First Church in Roxbury was the sixth church to be gathered in New England, preceded by Plymouth (1620), Salem (1629), Dorchester (1630), Boston (1630) and Watertown (1630). Five buildings have occupied the same site. The first meeting house (1632-1674) was torn down to make room for a growing population. The second (1674-1741) was sold for 100 pounds when the third meetinghouse (1741-1744) was built. The third meetinghouse was destroyed by fire, probably from a foot stove. The fourth (1746-1803) was torn down after the revolution and the fifth, built in 1803 still stands today, the oldest wooden frame church building in Boston. The Putnam Chapel was built in 1876
and the Education and Justice Center in 2004.
The first pastor of the church, Thomas Welde (1590-1662), was ordained in 1632, and John Eliot (1604-1690) was ordained as the first teacher. Eliot, the most famous of the Roxbury ministers accepted the call to the ministry in 1641 when Welde returned to England. Known as “Apostle to the Indians,” he ministered to the Massachusetts and Nipmuc people. He learned the Massachusetts language and translated the Bible into that language with the assistance of Job Nesutan, a young native who was fluent in English. This was the first Bible printed in this country. In his later years, when he could not travel to the Praying Indian town of Natick he persuaded local families to send their Negro servants to him so he could teach them to read and write. In 1688 he gave 75 acres of land he owned to fund a school in present day Jamaica Plain for the children of Blacks and Indians (almost all slaves). The only mention of African Americans in the First Church of Roxbury was in the third meetinghouse. It was proposed during committee meetings to seat the house that a place for Negroes be provided in westerly corner so as not to intrude in the pews of the West Galleries.
During the siege of Boston (April 1775-March 1776) there were no services in the church. The pews and bell had been taken out by the Parish Committee and the communion plate was brought to Medfield by Pastor Amos Adams. There was damage to the church during the siege; it was pierced through in many places and one ball passed through the belfry. The belfry was used as a signal station and the church grounds were used for parade practice. Amos Adams(1728-1775), the minister during the siege and an ardent patriot acted as chaplain to the patriot troops and died (probably a victim of “camp dysentery”) after an arduous day of preaching to his parishioners and then to the troops (in open air).
Reverend Eliphalet Porter was the first minister of the church to identify as a Unitarian, in 1810 in his 28th year in the pulpit. Parishioners who did not subscribe to Unitarian beliefs left and formed the Eliot Congregational Church, (founded 1834) originally on Kenilworth Street.
In 1879, the funeral service of William Lloyd Garrison – editor of the anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator -- was held at First Church. The funeral was attended by 1500 people, including Lewis Hayden, a black abolitionist leader; Lucy Stone, a women’s rights activist; and Wendell Phillips, an anti-slavery orator.
During the 20th Century, Roxbury saw an increase in Jewish and Catholic immigrants and, later, African- Americans moving from the South End and Lower Roxbury. The congregation of the church declined and the church building was expensive to maintain. In 1976, the First Church merged with the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches. The Benevolent Fraternity is now called the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (UUUM).
Ministers at First Church through 1917: Thomas Welde (1632-1641) Samuel Danforth (1650-1674) John Eliot (1632-1690), teacher and minister Nehemiah Walter (1683-1750) Thomas Walter (1718-1724), the son of Nehemiah but died at a young age Oliver Peabody (1750-1752) Amos Adams (1753-1775) Eliphalet Porter (1782-1833) George Putnam (1830-1878) John Graham Brooks (1875-1882) James De Normandie (1883-1917)
CURRENT USE The First Church houses the offices of the Unitarian Universalist Urban ministry. UUUM programs include Renewal House (a home for battered women and their children), Rice Sticks and Tea (an Asian Food Pantry), United Souls (an outreach program to support people recently released from prison) and Roxbury Youth Programs (after school programs for youth of all ages). The Roxbury Youth Programs are run in the Education and Justice Center and Putnam Chapel. The church is also home to a small lay-led congregation.
In 1999, a capital campaign was initiated to fund the construction of the new Education and Justice Center. In 2004, UUUM moved its administrative offices from downtown Boston to Roxbury.
ARCHITECTURE The current church building, dating from 1804, is an outstanding example of the Federal Meeting House style. It is the oldest frame church in Boston. It is a two story building, five bays wide and seven bays deep with a projecting three bay entrance vestibule. Only the steeple, rebuilt in 1954 after a hurricane destroyed it, has been altered. The names of the church architects, Timothy Palmer and William Blaney are only conjecture. (National Register of Historic Places.) ARCHITECTURE The current church building, dating from 1804, is an outstanding example of the Federal Meeting House style. It is the oldest frame church in Boston. It is a two story building, five bays wide and seven bays deep with a projecting three bay entrance vestibule. Only the steeple, rebuilt in 1954 after a hurricane destroyed it, has been altered. The names of the church architects, Timothy Palmer and William Blaney are only conjecture. (National Register of Historic Places.)
The church interior: The interior contains many historic items from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The pews were bought by families to help support the church. The wall clock in the sanctuary is a replica of one that the congregation bought in 1804 fromSimon Willard, a Roxbury clockmaker. (The original is on loan at the Willard House and Clock Museum in Grafton.) The bell was bought from the Paul Revere Foundry in 1819 and weighs over 1500 pounds. The organ was purchased in 1883 from the Roxbury firm of Hook and Hastings. The many plaques in the building honor both ministers and parishioners. The first plaques were installed in 1904, honoring John Eliot, Amos Adams, Eliphalet Porter, George Putnam (pastors) and Thomas Dudley, Joseph Dudley, Paul Dudley and William Dudley, Charles K. Dillaway and John Felt Osgood. Putnam Chapel, an architecturally notable bracketed chapel was built in 1876.
SOURCES: Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry: First Church in Roxbury: Bicentennial, October 30, 2004 National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form: John Eliot Square Boston Landmarks Commission: Building Information Form: First Church in Roxbury, Unitarian Drake, Francis: The Town of Roxbury W.E. Thwing, The History of the First Church in Roxbury, Ma -1630-1904. Boston: W.A. Butterfield, 1908