A Brief History of the First Congregational Church
and its Role in Town Life and Government
by Kurt Wilhelm, 1/30/19
Ipswich was founded in 1634 by a group of settlers led by John Winthrop the Younger. In 1679 the residents of the southeastern part of Ipswich, known as Chebacco, were permitted to begin building their own meetinghouse. The trip to Ipswich was long, and even dangerous, particularly in winter. But when, to avoid losing revenue, the General Court of Ipswich ordered the men of Chebacco to stop building, the women of Chebacco, Madams Varney, Goodhue, and Martin, organized men from Gloucester and Manchester (not under the restraint) to build the first meeting house. It was finished in 1683, of log construction. The building was the meeting house for the religious gathering called Chebacco Church, and for the secular governing body of Chebacco Parish.
In colonial New England the local church and government were closely associated. Worship and government were conducted at the meetinghouse, defined by Merriam-Webster as a building used for both public assembly and worship. What we find is that the people of the town and the church shared a common history, an association which continued long after the Revolutionary War. In Essex, the church building was the town meetinghouse from the time of separation from Ipswich in 1679, through its incorporation in 1819, until a town hall was opened in 1894. Upon entering the church, into the front hallway called the narthex, one notices a doorway straight ahead. Before 1894 this was the door to the town selectmen’s office. Until a town hall was built, town business was conducted in an area set off in the meetinghouse for use by the town.
John Wise was ordained as the first minister of Chebacco Church. Rev.Wise is notable for his political involvement. A Harvard graduate, he inspired revolutionary leaders to fight for equal and fair rights, spoke out against the Salem witch trials, and was arrested, along with five others in 1687, for protesting unjust taxation in Massachusetts. His ideas on the rights of individuals were used years later in the founding documents of the United States. He and his successors, the Rev. Theophilis Pickering and John Cleveland, are buried across the street at the ancient burial ground.
The present-day church is the 4th meeting house. It was constructed in 1792 and was built on the site of the 3rd meeting house (built in 1753). Also in 1792, the noted silversmith and Patriot, Paul Revere, established a foundry at the North End in Boston for the casting of cannon and church bells. The 18th Church bell cast at the Revere Foundry was made in 1797 for the Chebacco Church, now called the First Congregational Church of Essex. It weighs 827 pounds. It was made by blending silver dollars, silver spoons and jewelry contributed by the people of Chebacco Parish. It was hauled from Boston by an oxcart and then hoisted into the tower. An inscription cast into the bell reads: “Revere Boston 1797.” Today it is recognized as being the fourth oldest Revere bell in existence.
The bell tower was attached to the southern side of the meetinghouse. The entrance was on the street side of the building. A remodeling project in 1842 created a second floor in the meetinghouse. In 1852 the tower and the dome were removed. An addition to the building was constructed along the entire south end, and a pyramid and spire were erected above the addition as housing for the bell. The main entrance was moved from the street side to the south side of the building.
There have been several repairs and restorations done on the bell mounting, bell tower, and steeple. The steeple was repaired in 1956. In 1963 the bell tower and bell mounting were restored. The bell-deck was rebuilt, and the supports were reconstructed. A gavel was made from the old oak yoke, which had supported the bell, to be used by the church moderator. The steeple was twice struck by lightning (1859 and 1973). In 1973 the steeple had charred down to the bell deck. A new steeple was built to replace the damaged one.
In addition to the Sunday call to worship, the Paul Revere bell was rung several times every day – at 6AM and 7AM; 12 noon and 1PM; 5PM and 6PM; and a curfew at 9PM. Thus, it marked time for those in the shipyards, on the farms, at school, and at home. The bell has always been used for funeral processions, numbering in measured beat the years of the departed one. The bell knelled at the death of Presidents from Washington to Lincoln and Coolidge, and for Rev. John Cleaveland. It had tolled requiem for the soldiers of three wars. The bell had called voters to the ballot box and to town meeting, and was rung as a fire alarm to assemble the fire companies. The bell had always pealed jubilantly on the Fourth of July.
The last major renovation to the church took place in 2001. It removed carriage sheds that were in disrepair, but used a carriage shed design in that space for much needed classrooms, meeting rooms, and offices, along with renovations to the kitchen and nursery. In addition, the first town elevator was installed, enabling all to come to the second floor for worship and other events.
The history of our town and the history of our church is a rich one. Together, they provide a picture of a vibrant, faithful community, concerned for its people and their communal life.
Anon. 1884. Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Organization of the Congregational Church & Parish in Essex, Mass., August 19-22, 1883. Publ. at Salem, MA by J. H. Choate & Co., Printers. 214 page. Frontispiece engraving: “Present church edifice – Erected 1792, remodeled 1842.”
Choate, Rufus. 1894. A Noted Bell in the tower of the North church, Essex. In: Essex Echo newspaper, March 2, 1894. Also reprinted as 7-page pamphlet.
Gertsch, Karin M., "Cape Ann and Vicinity...A guide for Residents and Visitors"
Stickney, Edward and Evelyn Stickney. 1976 (3rd revised edition). The Bells of Paul Revere, his sons & grandsons.
Synott, Thomas. 1997. Essex bell tolls for 200 years. In: Gloucester Daily Times, Oct. 8, 1997, p. A1, A4.
Toivainen, Ruth. 1983. A History of the First Congregational Church of Essex (United Church of Christ) 1683-1983).
Merriam-Webster dictionary website (accessed 2018) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meetinghouse