Uniquely Medfield: The Historic First Parish; Medfield’s Oldest Church

A weekly column by Medfield Town Historian Richard DeSorgher.

At the founding of the town of Medfield in 1651, a Church Society was organized. At that time, the Society was called the Church of Christ. The church no doubt was actually organized before 1651; and the process of organizing had probably run through the several months proceeding. The forming of a religious society or church among the New England Puritans of that day was very serious and deliberate.

When the First Parish Church in Dedham was formed only 13 years before Medfield’s church (and by some of the same people who later formed this town and parish), many months were spent in reaching the desired result. Week after week and month after month the people met in little groups in their homes and deliberated upon the subject.  There were heart-searching, fasting and special meetings for prayer until, at length, after almost a year's deliberation and prayer, a church of eight members was organized and a minister called and settled.

That was in Dedham. In all probability, the process of organizing the church and settling the first pastor was substantially the same in Medfield. That first church is today’s First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church on North Street.

The first pastor here in Medfield was Rev. John Wilson, Jr. 

Rev. Wilson went on to marry Sarah Hooker, the daughter of Rev. Thomas  Hooker, the founder of Connecticut.  Rev. Wilson was a member of the first class to graduate from Harvard College in 1642; two years after that, Rev. Mr. Wilson came to Medfield where he would stay as minister, counselor, town leader, and doctor for the next 40 years. He died and was buried here in Medfield on August 23, 1691. 

Medfield's first meetinghouse (a little log building) was begun in 1653 but was not probably in a condition so that it was suitable for public worship until 1656. Located beside what was then called Meeting House Brook (and today is called Meetinghouse Pond), it was believed to be 36 foot long, 20 foot wide, 12 foot high, with a thatched roof and to have faced the brook. It was probably as plain as was possible; devoid of ornament of any kind. It had no chimney, as fires in meetinghouses were not at that time deemed essential for the comfort of the worshipers.

Here were also held the first town meetings for the Town of Medfield.  Until the early 1800s, the Church and the town were one, in so far as taxes, land and business affairs were concerned. Town residents paid pew taxes to the church, and the Board of Assessors were the tax collectors for the Church and had the power to buy and sell property, loan money and in general, conduct the affairs of the town. 

In 1659, it was voted to build a gallery with two seats on the side of the meetinghouse from one end gallery to the other. It appears from the records that this first meetinghouse was oblong in shape that the minister's desk was in the middle of one side and the galleries had been built across each end.

In 1670, seven of the most prominent townspeople were chosen to seat the persons in the meetinghouse. This custom of seating the people in the meetinghouse prevailed in all the New England towns for many years. All the seats were ranked in dignity and the people in the towns were ranked according to age, wealth and general standing. Those of high rank were assigned to seats of corresponding rank in the meetinghouse. Any person sitting in a place other than what he was assigned was fined, with the tithing man collecting the fine.  Children never sat with their parents but were seated together with a tythingman to keep them in order. He used a tithing rod which he also used to keep the people awake.

In 1697, Joseph Baxter was called to the ministry at the age of 21. Under Rev. Baxter, 65 members belonged to the church, then called the Parish Church, and a few of them lived in that part of Dedham which is now Walpole.  

Talk started in 1700 about building a new meetinghouse as the old one now needed extensive repairs. It was decided that the meetinghouse was not to be built by private enterprise.  In 1705, it was the town of Medfield that voted to build a new meetinghouse to stand where the old one was. 

The second new meetinghouse was built about 1706 and lasted 83 years and stood, without doubt, on the spot where the first one stood. We do know that it had two galleries, the upper one being set apart for the use of Negro slaves. The women were seated in the northeast end of the house and the men in the southwest end, except in the new pews. 

In 1714, the Medfield residents on the West Side of the Charles River objected to paying taxes on the meetinghouse which was so far away from them. They petitioned for permission to build a meetinghouse in their part of the town. This petition, however, was not granted. This resulted in the division of the town and the creation of the new town of Medway. The selectmen of Medfield met with the selectmen of the new town of Medway, to find out what was due Medway for helping to build the Medfield meetinghouse. Medfield found that 22 lbs, 9 shillings was due to Medway.

In 1744, Rev. Baxter became very ill and was no longer able to continue as minister. After a day of fasting and prayer, Rev. Jonathan Townshend was hired. Rev. Baxter died in May 1745 and Rev. Mr. Townsend ministry here in Medfield would last for the next 24 years.

Dissension started in the Church about the middle of the 18th century with several dissatisfied parishioners asking for permission to go to Wrentham to the second church. The Church, in return, voted that those who charge it with a breach of covenant should not be allowed to receive communion, which meant exclusion from the Lord's Table and taking any part in church action.  Agitation also continued through 1750 in regard to those of different religious faith being compelled to pay for the support of the Parish minister.  

In 1786, it was voted to erect a third new meetinghouse and a building committee was chosen. This is the present day building and its actual construction was begun three years later in 1789. The specifications for the frame are given in detail in the Town records and are remarkable for the heavy timber mentioned. The meetinghouse as originally built stood facing North Street.

People came from all the surrounding towns to help when the "raising" of the new meetinghouse took place and Medfield was jammed with teams, booths and baker’s carts. Listed in the records as supplies needed to construct the Church included 4 barrels of beer, 25 gallons of West India rum, 30 gallons of New England rum, 34 pounds of loaf sugar, 25 pounds of brown sugar and 465 lemons.

In 1793, a form of curfew was established in town with the meeting house bell being rung at 9 p.m., a tradition that continues to this day with the ringing of the fire whistle at 9 p.m. every evening.

In 1827, two petitions were received by church members for the purpose of separating from the old church and forming an orthodox church. A radical break with the concept of underemphasizing man in the God-man relationship was made, resulting in a division of beliefs between Trinitarians and Unitarians. Those who sought change eventually moved towards acceptance of Unitarianism. The Church council reported favorably to the petitions and the church divided with members accepting Unitarianism staying in the North Street building, known as the  First Congregational Church and others holding to the beliefs of Trinitarians forming the Second Congregational or Orthodox Church. Seventeen members withdrew from the First Parish.  Orthodox members began meeting in the parlor of Mary Derby in the Dwight-Derby house on Frairy Street.

In 1832, an Orthodox meeting house was built on the site of the present United Church of Christ.

In 1839, the First Parish Meetinghouse was completely remodeled. The records say it was turned around so that that the front faced Main Street instead of North Street, the interior was modernized, a spire about 90 feet in height was erected, the Greek-revival columns were added and a half--underground vestry was built. With the turning of the Church, it had faced through the years three points of the compass 

In 1861, a new Town Clock, with three dials was purchased and installed in the steeple which is still in use today. The first pipe organ was installed in the gallery in 1875. That organ was taken down from the gallery in 1894 and placed to the right of the pulpit. The choir now faced the congregation. The organ was replaced in 1911 with a new modern organ with an electric motor attachment to fill the bellows. In 1915, a memorial window was presented to the church by the Ladies’ Social Club in memory of Elizabeth Sewall.

Due to the tremendous winds during the Great Hurricane of 1938, the steeple came crashing down, piercing the roof and interior ceiling of the church. For the next 50 years the church was without a steeple.

In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined together and the Medfield Church officially became the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church.

By the 1970s, church membership had fallen to 35 families and the parish was having difficulties financially maintaining the historic church. Fundraising letters sent town-wide were mailed out and appeals were made to town civic organizations and businesses to help maintain Medfield’s oldest public building. The church building itself was plagued by vandalism and its steps had become a location for a youth hangout. Talk developed about selling the church and the town eyed the building as a possible spot for relocating the town library. Church members, however, dismissed the idea of selling the church and under a newly formed church preservation committee, applied for and was designated a National Historic Place in 1974, which entitled the church to receive over $6,000 in badly needed federal grant money. By 1978, work had begun on the exterior restoration and the painting of the buildings exterior. 

By 1988, membership had increased and the congregation raised $40,000 for a new wooden steeple, 50 years after the last steeple had been destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938. The 30-foot peak is a historically accurate reproduction of the steeple that stood atop the church before it was added onto in 1889.

In 2001, the Rev. Robert Mcketchnie was selected minister and brought a great deal of enthusiasm to the parish resulting in an increase in church membership. An elevator was added to make the sanctuary accessible to the handicapped and through the generosity of parishioner Buck Buchanan, the church stepped into the 21st century with a new organ. The Lowrey Royale SU500 was given in memory of Buck’s wife Kay Buchanan. 

Satesh Raju October 12, 2012 at 01:18 PM
I could never quite understand how town zoning would not let the church build a steeple due to the height limit being dropped to 35ft fron 55ft in the 80's. They really needed to make exceptions for restoring historic buildings. The new steeple doesnt match the original even now. The town needs to allow for some archetectural grace.
Kathleen October 12, 2012 at 02:03 PM
I totally agree with Satesh!!
John OLeary October 13, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Richard, this is a great article. It fleshed out and made sense of the scattered knowledge of the church. I understand that in the very early days of the town, there was a pattern of tolling the bells upon the death of a church member. The pattern indicated the sex and age of the decedent, which was enough information to identify the specific individual.
Chad October 16, 2012 at 09:07 PM
I remember when the Sikhs from Weslley painted the steeple. I attended the LPY (liberal progressive youth - altho that may not be the right wording) in the '60s when they had a French-ex-pat couple who just left Viet Nahm led the group, eventho I was deeply Episcopalian the other 12/14th of the wk. Liberal times, liberal couple (ask me some time). Richard, when did the separation between the ministers and the town officials happen? Your article reminds me of both but I know there was a seperation @ some point (church & state).


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