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Uniquely Medfield: Medfield’s Historic First Baptist Church

Here is a detailed history of Medfield's Baptist Church and how it has changed over the years. At one point, church membership was so low, there was talk of closing the church but that changed when a group of "Mad Baptists" rode into town

 

The history of the Baptist Church in Medfield actually began in 1752 when seven Medfield men, who were members of the Second Baptist Church in Boston, asked permission to hold meetings in Medfield as a branch of that church, and the request was granted. 

For 20 years, this small group struggled on, holding their meetings at private dwellings. Citizens of Medfield via Town Meeting refused permission for the Baptists to hold their meetings in the town’s Center School. Unable to have a place to meet, the Baptists determined they should build a house of worship of their own and in 1772 the new meeting house, located on West Main Street, was completed.  

It was not until 1775, however, that they were able to obtain regular preaching. In that year, a young 22-year-old man by the name of Thomas Gair came from the Rhode Island College and settled with the church. In 1776, the Medfield group separated from the churches in Boston and organized themselves into a distinct church with 29 members, one of whom was an African-American slave.

In 1779, land was purchased and a house was built for a parsonage. The house was located on the site of the currant Needham Bank on 520 Main Street. 

In the 1780s, the church experienced differences and dissensions and it passed into a period of decline, so much so that the church was often unable to support a pastor or they had pastors that were imposters. There was talk of disbanding the church and, in 1808, membership was down to 14 members.

One Sunday morning in 1808, Medfield was surprised by a line of horse-drawn carriages coming from the east, which made its way to the Baptist Meeting House on West Main Street. There, 60 people entered. They had come from the West Dedham Parish (today Westwood) where there had been sharp division over the location of a new meeting house. To evade paying part of its cost, these families decided to worship with the Baptists at Medfield. Their townspeople called them “Mad Baptists,” but it saved the church here in Medfield.

With the additional members, the church was now able to employ a regular preacher and Rev. William Gammel came here to preach.

In 1823, an addition was added to the west end of the Meeting House and a pitched roof replaced the original hip roof, enlarging it to twice its original size. In this hall, temperance, reform and anti-slavery meetings were held, as it was the largest hall in the town.

During temperance meetings, the galleries were often filled with not-so-sober townspeople who interrupted the speakers with catcalls. Eggs and dead animals were known to have been thrown at the speakers or at prominent citizens in the audience. On one occasion in 1836, so dangerous and threatening was the mob, that the speaker dared not express his anti-slavery views.

By 1838, the old Meeting House was sold, the building having become inadequate. A new Baptist Church was built at 438 Main Street on the corner of Main and South Street where it is still the place of worship today for Medfield Baptists. The new Meeting House was dedicated on October 3rd of that same year. It was largely through the financial efforts of Deacon George Cummings that the new meeting house was able to be built. 

It was completely remodeled in 1874 with the current steeple added to its front. In 1876, William Tilden (Medfield’s famed historian and Baptist Church member) gave a brief history of the church during the church’s centennial celebrations. Rev. Alvin Crane was then pastor.

In 1880, a new parsonage was built on East Main Street on the corner of Main and Brook Streets. Six years later, however, the Main Street parsonage was sold and a new parsonage was built on South Street, on the corner of South Street and Hale Place. In 1890, Thomas L. Barney paid for the stone curbing that to this day is around the north and west sides of the church grounds. 

Membership by 1900 had reached 171. In 1905, extensive repairs were made to the interior of the church auditorium. New seats were installed (a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Tilden) and new carpet was installed (a gift of Col. Edwin V. Mitchell, owner of the hat factory). In 1907, special recognition was made to William Tilden, who served the church as head of the music department for 50 years.

In 1910, the Old 1772 Baptist Meeting House was moved a short distance to the east from its original location on West Main Street and partially demolished by its new owner Fred A. Smith. Today some of the remains of the original 31-foot square meeting room are part of the present house located on 584 Main Street.

A new tradition started in 1920 with the “Roll Call Suppers” which presented an opportunity for each member at the special meal to answer the roll call with a scripture and make a donation. The tradition continued into the 1950s.

In 1927, fire did considerable damage to the church to a degree that service could not be held there. For five Sundays, the services were held in Monks Hall, located in the upper floor of the building on the corner of North and Main Streets that anchors the town center. The year 1927 also saw a new pipe organ purchased and installed.

Into the 1930s, the church, in search of a new bell to replace their cracked one, obtained the bell from the Enfield, Massachusetts, church when that town was flooded out of existence due to the building of the Quaban Reservoir. That bell still rings today.

During the 1950s, the church continued to grow with new members and in 1957 almost one half of the membership was new. The first newsletter, called The Messenger, was published in 1962 and a year later the church increased its community action, working with MCI Norfolk and with patients at Medfield State Hospital.

In 1968, it was decided that a new Educational Wing should be added to the east side of the existing Church building; the new wing was completed and dedicated in 1971. In 1974, another young minister brought vitality and enthusiasm to the church. Rev. Paul Norcross became very involved in the larger Medfield community as well, serving on many town organizations including the Youth Advisory Commission, the Jaycees and the Council on Aging. 

Between 1983 and 1990, major renovations were made to the Church building and parsonage and total refurbishment of the pipe organ was completed. On September 11, 2003, the historic Medfield Church was added to the National Register of Historical Places. The Earl Smith Memorial Walkway and landscaping, making the church handicap accessible, was finished in 2004; and, in 2006, the renovation of the Church kitchen was completed.  In September 2008, current pastor, Jonathan Chechile joined First Baptist.

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