First Parish History
The first Meeting House was built in 1632 near the corner of the present Dunster and Mt. Auburn Streets. Thomas Hooker became the first minister in 1633. In 1636, he and most of his flock moved to Connecticut. A new church, the First Church in Cambridge, was gathered on February 1, 1636 under Reverend Thomas Shepard, a significant leader of the great Puritan migration to New England in the 1630s. In the first Meeting House were held the sessions of the General Court of Massachusetts, which banished Anne Hutchison from Massachusetts in 1637.
By order of the General Court of Massachusetts, Harvard College was founded in 1636. A year later, because of the influence of Thomas Shepard, the college was located in Newtowne (now Cambridge), where the students might profit by his evangelical preaching.
The second Meeting House, 1652, the third, 1706, and the fourth, 1756, stood in what is now the College Yard, in the corner now occupied by Lehman Hall. In 1775, George Washington worshiped in the fourth Meeting House. In 1825, General Lafayette was received there with an address of welcome by Edward Everett.
For a century, the doctrine preached by Shepard and his successors was Calvinistic. In the eighteenth century, a tendency towards a more liberal theology may be discerned. Although the Reverends William Brattle, 1696–1717, and Nathaniel Appleton, 1717–1784, were Calvinists they encouraged free inquiry and held a tolerant and catholic spirit towards those who differed on doctrinal matters. Appleton’s successor, Timothy Hilliard, was Arminian rather than Calvinistic in theology.
For a century after the founding of the Town of Cambridge in 1630, parish affairs – the cost of the Meeting House and the support of the ministry – were a common responsibility of the whole community and were transacted in town meeting. In 1733, the First Parish in Cambridge was separately organized as a territorial parish. Within the town (parish after 1733) the church was a relatively small covenanted body of those admitted to full communion. Such costs as the maintenance of the meeting house and the salary of the town’s “public teacher of piety, religion, and morality” (who was also the minister of the church) were met by regular assessments on all persons domiciled within the territorial limits of the parish, unless they were exempted because they were supporting Baptist or Episcopal worship. The power of the parish to assess the inhabitants for ecclesiastical purposes was abolished in Massachusetts in 1833. Since then the parish has been a poll parish, rather than a territorial parish.
The division between Calvinists and Arminians, which appeared in many churches of the Standing Order in the eighteenth century, reached a time of crisis and controversy in the period from 1805 to 1830. The minister of the Cambridge church at that time was the Reverend Abiel Holmes, 1792–1829, father of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was orthodox in his views, but for three decades after his installation in 1792 he remained on friendly terms with the liberal or Arminian party. Beginning in 1826, however, he decided to break off relations with the liberals, and specifically to stop pulpit exchanges with the liberal or Unitarian ministers. After vainly attempting to persuade him to return to his earlier more inclusive practice, the Parish voted to dismiss him as its public teacher of religion and morality. By 1829, most of the Parish became Unitarian. Dr. Holmes and the more conservative members of his flock departed and founded the Shepard Congregational Society. In 1899, it was agreed that the church associated with that society should be called the First Church in Cambridge (Congregational), now part of the United Church of Christ, and this church, the First Church in Cambridge (Unitarian).
The Reverend William Newell was the first avowedly Unitarian minister, from 1830 to 1868. His immediate successor was Francis Greenwood Peabody, who had to resign because of ill health, but who later became a widely acknowledged leader of the social gospel movement. A longer ministry was that of Dr. Samuel McChord Crothers, from 1894 to 1927. Widely known as an author of familiar essays, he was also a preacher of rare quality who was able, in a simpler time, to attract a following from both the University and the Old Cambridge communities.
The fifth and current Meeting House was built in 1833, and Harvard College commencements were held in it until 1873. Here Presidents Everett, Sparks, Walker, Felton. Hill, and Eliot were inaugurated, and in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his Phi Beta Kappa oration on “The American Scholar.” President Eliot was for many years a leading layman of this congregation. The Parish House was built in 1902, and the interior of the Meeting House remodeled in 1914. The Crothers chapel was dedicated in 1941.
Since the early days of Dr. Crothers’ ministry, Cambridge has changed greatly, from a suburban community, separated from Boston by an hour of horse-car travel, to an urban center in its own right. The Cambridge church is to all intents and purposes a downtown church. As an urban community, some of our membership fluctuates, and the composition of our congregation is varied. Maintaining the witness of liberal religion is a constant struggle. But to meet the spiritual needs of this changed and changing community is as great a challenge as any faced by earlier generations.
First Parish has links with Harvard that date from its foundation. The College had use of the church’s bell, Harvard’s first Commencement was held in the church’s meetinghouse, and one of the chief reasons for selecting Cambridge as the site of the College was the proximity of this church and its minister, the Rev. Thomas Shepard, a clergyman of “marked ability and piety.”