Norwell, Mass. First Parish

Collection History

First Parish of Norwell traces its origins to the First Parish of Scituate, which was established in 1634. In 1641, the congregation split during the ministry of Rev. Charles Chauncy, who had fled to North America to escape persecution by English authorities. The church's congregants disagreed as to whether baptism should consist of full submersion or mere "sprinkling". More liberal members, who considered full submersion to be unnecessary, left to form a Second Church of Scituate in February of 1642, under the leadership of William Vassall. It is likely that the first meetings of the separatist congregation were held in Vassall's own home at Belle House Neck.

Mr. Thomas King was chosen as the first Elder of the church, but meanwhile the new congregation struggled to find a minister who would be accepting of their liberal standards. Eventually they settled on Rev. William Wetherell of Duxbury, who was ordained in September of 1645. His ordination was delayed by the continuing opposition of Rev. Chauncey and the First Parish of Scituate, as well as their regional allies, but was eventually confirmed by an ecclesiastical council. Under his pastorate the congregation grew significantly, necessitating the erection of a larger meeting house in 1680, located either in or near the current old cemetery on Main Street, Norwell. This was followed in 1707 with a larger building constructed on Herring Brook, and later by a fourth building on the same site in 1769.

Noted successors of Rev. Wetherell were the Reverend Nathaniel Eells (1704-1750), Rev. David Barnes (1754-1811), Rev. Samuel Deane (1810-1834), and Rev. Samuel Joseph May (1836-1842). Reverends Eells and Barnes in particular were liberal ministers who probably paved the way for the congregation's eventual embrace of Unitarianism. This affiliation was made official in 1820 and was an uncharacteristically unanimous decision, with only one member requesting dismissal as a result.

In 1830 the fifth and current meeting house was built. It was designed by William Sparrell, a native of Norwell. The 1830s also saw an increase in the visibility of the abolitionist movement, with William Lloyd Garrison and other Bostonians campaigning for the emancipation of slaves. Among Garrison's supporters was Reverend Samuel J. May, minister of Norwell from 1836-1842. Rev. May, the uncle of author Louisa May Alcott, was a fervent supporter of women’s rights, the anti-war movement, and total abstinence from alcohol. He organized the first church school in the parish, and created a local chapter of the "Cold Water Army", a group which promoted abstention from all intoxicants with banners and parades. Rev. May spoke publicly against the segregation of black and poor parishioners who were consigned to the balcony of the church. This created widespread dissent in the congregation and ultimately led to his resignation in the summer of 1842.

The area encompassing the current church and town was incorporated as South Scituate in 1849, and changed again to Norwell in 1888. First Parish of Norwell, a Unitarian Universalist affiliated church, continues to serve the community today.

The digital documents below are provided in partnership with First Parish of Norwell, who hold the original materials. They consist of two bound volumes of parish records (1642-1850) and four bound volumes of church records (1645-1908), each containing meeting minutes, records relating to membership, and copies of official correspondence.

New England’s Hidden Histories wishes to thank Dexter Robinson, Parish Clerk, First Parish of Norwell, and Megan Ward, Executive Director, James Library & Center for the Arts, Norwell, for their efforts in making these documents available.

 

Digital Materials

Parish records, 1642-1798

The bulk of this bound record book is comprised of meeting minutes and financial records, but  also contains several copies of correspondence signed by William Vassall, and records relating to the division with the First Parish of Scituate.

Parish records, 1797-1850

This bound volume contains meeting minutes, elections of officers, a list of pew prices and subscribers, financial records, copies of correspondence, a list of duties of the sexton and the parish committee respectively, and a description of later building additions.

Church records, 1645-1708

This volume contains baptisms performed by the Rev. William Wetherell, first pastor of the Second Parish of Scituate, as well as some meeting minutes at the beginning and end of the book.

Church records, 1704-1759

This bound record book was kept by the Rev. Nathaniel Eells during his ministry. It consists of wedding records, disciplinary cases, meeting minutes, a template confession of faith, the church covenant of 1704, a list of baptisms, and a list of admissions.

Church records, 1751-1798

This bound volume of church records contains member lists, copies of correspondence, baptisms, marriages, and miscellaneous records. The front of the book contains an index.

Church records, 1810-1834

This bound volume of records largely contains vital statistics for the church and other administrative information, dating from the ministry of Rev. Samuel Deane. These include records of deaths, marriage, baptisms, member lists, and votes and meeting minutes. The front of the volume contains an index.

Church records, 1836-1908

This bound volume contains a chronicle of church events from approximately 1836-1848, including the installation and dismissal of Rev. Samuel May, and transcriptions of hymns written by church members. It also contains meeting minutes and copies of correspondence.

 

Related Materials

Eells, Nathaniel. Sermon, 1740

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