Guide to the Collection
This collection consists of the records of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, a Congregational and later Unitarian church, including general church records, financial and property records, pew records, records relating to church buildings, scrapbooks of church history, and papers kept by church ministers and deacons. Also included are First Parish town records, among them parish tax records.
In 1630, the Rev. John White and a group of 140 individuals formed a church in England, calling themselves Puritans. Although they originally established themselves as reformers rather than separatists, increasingly intolerable conditions in England caused them to emigrate. They set sail in the 400-ton ship Mary and John and landed first at Hull, and later at a place called "Mattapan" by the Indians. The Puritans named their new home "Dorchester Plantation."
In 1631, a rude log cabin was built to serve as the first meeting house. The building also served as a fort, storehouse, schoolhouse, and town hall. The second church, originally built on the same site, was moved to Meeting House Hill in 1670. On that site, four more churches were constructed, in 1678, 1743, 1816, and the most recent after a fire in 1896.
For its first five years of existence, the parish had two ministers, John Warham and John Maverick. They were followed by Rev. Richard Mather, who served from 1636-1669. Mather, for whom a room in the Parish Hall is named, is perhaps one of church's most renowned ministers. He is best remembered for helping to produce the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in the colonies.
Other ministers of long-standing tenures included Revs. John Danforth, who served from 1682-1730; Jonathan Bowman, 1729-1773; Thaddeus Mason Harris, 1793-1836; and Nathaniel Hall, 1835-1875. During Harris' tenure, the church evolved from a Trinitarian Congregational church to the Unitarian denomination, although Harris himself never believed in denominational titles. (Harris then proceeded to serve as Librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1837-1842.)
Until the 1830s, when a true separation of church and state occurred on the local level, town taxes were used to support the church. As a result, church and civic matters were inextricably linked. The town of Dorchester was annexed by the city of Boston in 1870.
Despite these changes, relationships between the church and the community continued. The Female Benevolent Society, formed in 1842 as a branch of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Christian Women, later sewed clothing for soldiers in the Civil War, as well as providing aid to the local destitute.
Historical Guide for the 325th Anniversary of the First Parish Church Established 1630; Foundation Stone of Our Nation, Dorchester, Massachusetts. Dorchester, Mass.: First Parish Church, 1955.
Field, Harold. An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620-1805. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.
Records of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, a Congregational and later Unitarian church, include bound and loose general church records (1636-1981); financial and property records, including account books (1807-1962), pew records (1816-1929), and records relating to church buildings; and scrapbooks of church history (1859-1935) collected by Mary Fifield King, the church historian. Also included are papers kept by church ministers and deacons, including Thaddeus M. Harris, Nathaniel Hall, Samuel J. Barrows, James Humphreys, and Ebenezer Clapp, Jr.; records of church clubs and organizations, including the First Parish branch of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women (1844-1916) and church Sunday school records (1853-1917); and records of the Church of the Unity (1859-1920), which was absorbed by the First Parish Church in 1920. In addition to church records, First Parish town records, among them parish tax records (1808-1854), are also included.
On microfilm, P-678, 1 reel. The microfilm contains only bound church records for 1636-1778.
The records of the First Parish Church were placed on deposit at the Massachusetts Historical Society by the church in 1992.
Detailed Description of the Collection
I. Church records, 1636-1981
A. Loose records, 1680-1981
This subseries contains miscellaneous loose general church records, including minutes, correspondence, membership records, and reports.
B. Bound volumes, 1636-1960
This subseries contains the bulk of the general church records, including the first volume of the records (1636-1729) and copy of the same transcribed by Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris. The records include minutes of meetings, as well as lists of members, baptisms, marriages, and deaths.
ACCESS RESTRICTED. Use microfilm or copies in Oversize Vol. 1.
On microfilm, P-678.
II Church financial and property records, 1715-1962
This series separates financial and property records of the church, each in both loose and bound formats.
A. Loose financial records, 1851-1930
Contains reports, statements, and other loose documents related to the financial standing of the church.
Arranged by format and roughly chronological within that.
B. Bound financial records, 1807-1962
Includes treasurer's account books, investment records, check stubs, and other financial information.
C. Loose property and real estate records, 1715-1950
Contains loose records relating to property owned by the church. Includes deeds, wills, bonds; records related to the construction of a new meetinghouse (1813-17); and other miscellaneous real estate records.
D. Bound property and real estate records, 1816-1929
Each of these volumes relates to the ownership and/or rental of pews.
III. Ministers' and deacons' papers, 1783-1905
This series contains papers kept by individual ministers and deacons of the church. Although they sometimes pertain to the church, they are primarily personal in nature and not the official records of the church.
Arranged by individual in rough chronological order.
A. Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris papers, 1783-1842
Loose papers kept by Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris who served as the church's minister from 1793-1836. Also, his geometry notebook probably kept as a Harvard student from [1783-1787].
B. Rev. Nathaniel Hall papers, 1835-1875
Papers kept by Rev. Nathaniel Hall, who served as minister of the First Parish Church from 1835-1875.
C. Rev. Samuel J. Barrows papers, 1876-1906
Papers kept by Rev. Barrows, who served as minister of the First Parish Church from 1876-1880.
D. Charles Humphreys papers, undated
"Distinctive Doctrine of Unitarianism," a sermon translated into Hebrew, undated.
E. Anonymous, 1905
One folder of miscellaneous anonymous addresses and sermons. The bulk of the items are undated, although at least one item dates from 1905.
F. James Humphreys papers, 1799-1853
Extracts of church records from 1829-1853, and the Humphreys family genealogy as copied by James Humphreys, a deacon of the church from 1799.
G. Ebenezer Clapp, Jr. papers, 1857-1861
A notebook of sermons preached in the First Parish Church from 1857-1861, as copied by Ebenezer Clapp, Jr., deacon, and an undated Clapp family genealogy.
IV Records of church clubs and organizations, 1825-1870
Records of First Parish Church organizations, among them the Singing Society, First Parish Guild, Unity Club, and the Forbes Club, and of First Parish branches of national organizations, such as the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian women. This series also contains the records of the parish Sunday School from 1853-1873 and 1911-1917.
Arranged by organization.
A. Singing Society records, 1825-1846
B. Music Committee records, 1854-1886
C. National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women records, 1884-1916
D. True Helpers records, 1890-1893
E. First Parish Guild records, 1892-1894
F. Sunday School records, 1853-1917
G. Unity Club records, 1887-1902
H. Forbes Club records, 1912-1940
I. Unitarian Laymen's League records, 1945, 1961-1962
J. Parish Club/Occasional Club records, 1970
V. Related church records, 1859-1920
Bound records of the Church of the Unity of Dorchester, Mass., kept from 1859-1920. The Church of the Unity was absorbed by the First Parish Church in 1920.
VI. Dorchester (First Parish) town records, 1803-1853
Parish tax books
VII. Records of the church historian, 1830-1942
This series is primarily made up of 14 scrapbooks of church memorabilia dating from 1859-1935 which were organized by the church historian Mary Fifield King. The series also contains loose church memorabilia apparently slated for inclusion in the scrapbooks, 1830-1937, and the personal papers of King's mother, Emily Fifield, a prominent church member. Mrs. King also decorated and furnished the Emily Fifield room at the First Parish Church in honor of her mother.
Arranged chronologically within formats.
A. Loose records, 1830-1942
B. Emily Fifield personal papers, undated, 1866-1912
C. Scrapbooks, 1859-1935
Memorabilia of Sixty Years (King)
Memorabilia (Breed and King)
First Parish Church (Dorchester, Mass.) records, Massachusetts Historical Society.
This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.