Salem, Mass. Tabernacle Church

Collection History

Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts, traces its historical roots back to 1629 with the founding of First Church of Salem. In 1735 First Church Pastor Samuel Fisk was dismissed from his position by ecclesiastical council. A group of parishioners followed Fisk from First Church, built a new meeting house, and met also under the name First Church until 1762 when they were compelled by the colonial legislature to change their name to "Third Church of Christ in Salem". In 1774 the great fire of Salem burned the Third Church meeting house to the ground. A replacement meeting house was built in 1777 and was copied from the Tabernacle in Moorfields (London) made famous by its association with George Whitefield, leading to the nickname "Tabernacle Church".

It was during the building of this meeting house that strife drove a portion of the Third Church congregation to split and form South Church of Salem in 1775. Originally also referring to themselves as "Third Church", the split church later rejoined Tabernacle Church in 1924.

In 1781 the proprietors of Third Church were reincorporated as "the proprietors of the meeting house and land where the Reverend Doctor Nathaniel Whitaker now preaches." Reverend Whitaker was removed from office in 1784 by ecclesiastical council. Another split occurred in 1802 when a portion of Tabernacle Church left to form a Presbyterian church.

In 1812 Tabernacle came to the forefront of Congregational consciousness when it became the church from which the first six Congregational missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions were commissioned. In 1834 the proprietors of the church were once again reincorporated, this time as "The Proprietors of the Tabernacle Church". The church continues to serve the community today as the Tabernacle Congregational Church and is a member of the United Church of Christ.

The church records below are a combination of material held by the Congregational Library and Archives, and our project partners, the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. The material from Phillips includes the Church's covenant of 1786, as well as four letters written to the famous revolutionary Col. Paul Revere, regarding the installation of a new church bell sourced from his foundry in Boston. The records from the Congregational Library and Archives represent a comprehensive collection of church record books spanning 1743-1849, and numerous other documents relating to church administration, doctrine, education, finance, and disciplinary cases.

 

Digital Materials

At the Phillips Library:

The following original manuscripts are owned by our project partners, the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. Further information about their collection can be found in the Phillips Library's finding aid.

Covenant, 1786

A covenant lays out doctrines agreed upon by the congregation, usually at its founding. This document includes the church's covenant and articles accepted in 1786. These include guidelines for ministerial appointments, disciplinary actions, admissions, and other matters.

John Punchard correspondence, 1806 

These four letters entail a request by church committee member John Punchard, on behalf of the Salem Tabernacle, for a church bell from Col. Paul Revere's bell foundry in Boston. There is much discussion of the chosen bell and its quality, with the committee remarking that they "do not think it quite equal to the best English bells".

1806 July 3 from John Punchard (on behalf of the Tabernacle Church) to Col. Paul Revere
1806 August 5 from John Punchard (on behalf of the Tabernacle Church) to Col. Paul Revere
1806 August 16 from John Punchard (on behalf of the Tabernacle Church) to Col. Paul Revere
1806 August 19 from John Punchard (on behalf of the Tabernacle Church) to Col. Paul Revere

 

At the Congregational Library & Archives:

For more information about this collection, please see the finding aid.

Church records, 1743-1775

This record book contains records of membership, church meeting minutes, church discipline and baptisms. Of particular note are a series of charts documenting pastoral visits to parishioners. These charts contain census-like data on the household, including number and age of people living there.

Church records, 1778-1796

These records contain meeting minutes, pew valuations, membership lists, calls to church meetings, and records pertaining to Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker, then-pastor of Tabernacle Church, mostly records discussing ministerial salary.

Church records, 1783-1805

This volume was created in 1833 when loose-leaf records from 1783-1805 were transcribed into it. These records contain meeting minutes, correspondence, membership records, and records of church discipline.

Church records, 1783-1833

This volume contains records of church membership, church covenant, and meeting minutes. Of particular note in this volume are historical accounts pertaining to the church's difficulty with Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker.

Church records, 1795-1832

This record book contains records of meeting minutes and votes, copies of warrants, pew valuations, and records pertaining to the sexton's and minister's salaries.

Church records, 1832-1849

Records in this volume include lists of donations, financial accountings, pew taxes, expenses, records of a standing committee, and meeting minutes.

Covenant, 1795

A covenant lays out doctrines agreed upon by the congregation, usually at its founding. This document is a copy of the covenant made in August 1795.

Construction plans, circa 1774

This unbound volume details the congregation's plans for constructing their church building, and the means of administering it, as well as a list of founding subscribers.

Administrative records, 1765-1784, undated

These loose documents are similar to the records in the bound volumes and mainly administrative in nature. They include records relating to church pews, a brief history of the church's founding at an ecclesiastical council, meeting minutes, votes, charity efforts, and a "Circular about Indian school in Dearborn 1765. & a plan of pews."

undated   chart showing pews and list of rates
1775 February 14   record of "The Council of 1775", an ecclesiastical council leading to the formation of Third Church
1784 January 29 by John Pickering (justice of the peace) notarization of Jonathan Meservy's swearing in as clerk of the proprietors
1785 March 1 by Miles Ward, Samuel Thomas, Benjamin [Punchard], Samuel Jones, Joseph Ross, Jonathan Ireland, John Punchard, [Stephen] Caldwell, John Ashby, John Woodbury, Benjamin Smith, John Flint, William Gray IV, Nathaniel Knight record of the vote to choose Joshua Spalding as the new minister
undated by John Punchard, Nehemiah Adams, William Treadwell recommendations from the committee for the relief of the poor of the church
undated   record of the vote to formally accept the Vestry as part of the Society's holdings
undated   record of vote regarding the caretaking of the Vestry
1765   recto: "Circular about Indian school in Dearborn 1765. & a plan of pews. Whitaker times"
verso: portion of a pew diagram for the Tabernacle

Doctrinal records, undated

These documents pertain to the congregation and the governance of its members.

undated extract from the church covenant
undated "Laws restricting polygamy"
undated "Preliminary resolution on Temperance"
undated draft of a pledge of temperance

 

Educational records, 1763

This single document relates to the home missionary movement.

1763 September 5 by Jeffrey Smith and Nathaniel Whitaker letter in support of the Indian school in Connecticut

 

Financial records, 1774-1788

These documents detail income and expenses related to the building and maintaining the meeting house, the pastorate, and other parish matters.

1774 December 31 by Nathaniel Whitaker receipt for salary and reimbursement for miscellaneous expenses
1774 December 31 by Nathaniel Whitaker receipt for salary and reimbursement for miscellaneous expenses
1774-1777 by Nathaniel Whitaker itemized expense report
1775 March 25 by Nathan Goodale deferral of an application to build a meeting house on land owned by Mr. Goodale's ward, Samuel Orne, until Orne comes of age
1776-1778   tally of select pew rents
1776-1777   list of work days and compensation owed to Daniel Bancroft for work constructing a new meeting house
1777   receipt for money paid to Mr. Gould for pew(s) in the meeting house
1778 November 24 by P. Edward Lang (collector) receipt for payment of 300 pounds from Francis Dennis toward the cost of the meeting house
1779 September 25 by Nathaniel Gould receipt for funds received from Jacob Clark and Mary Lister
1780-1782 by Nathaniel Whitaker and Thomas Mason itemized expense report
1786, 1797 by David Smith itemized expense report
1782 May 20 by unknown debtor promissory note to Thomas Mason and Samuel Ward
1787   receipt for work done on the meeting house pulpit and wages paid to Mr. Ross
1788 December 8 by George Southward Jr. promisory note to the church proprietors
1794 May 18 by Nehemiah Adams receipt for payment to Mr. Ross for construction of pews
1788 February 17 by Joshua Spalding request to the proprietors for the balance of his salary in advance of his upcoming marriage

 

Membership and discipline records, 1789, undated

These materials record the admission, dismission, and disciplinary actions of church members.

1789 December 4 by Joshua Spalding (scribe) record of vote to accept new members
undated   set of questions and guidelines for use in disciplinary cases
undated by subscribers of the Salem Tabernacle Church advice toward resolving a dispute between William and Mary Shillaber & a Mrs. Perkins
[no year] August 24 - December 15 by Nancy Farmer,
Nehemiah Adams (clerk pro tem)
recto: confession of Nancy Farmer,
verso: church meeting minutes including discussion of Mrs. Farmer's case and eventual excommunication
undated   Simon Noyes's complaints against Deacon William Safford
undated   copy of a letter speaking to the character of Dr. William Warren
undated   denial of a female member's request for dismission

 

Real estate records, 1772-1773

In the early 1770s, there was a dispute over the ownership of the parsonage house occupied by Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker.

1772 December 16 by George Bickford, William Nichols, William Lauder, Edward Smith, William [Dowst], Jonathon Neal, Isaac Needham, Thomas Stimpson, John Pittman, John Bray accusation against Capt. John Gardner that he destroyed the Proprietors' deed to the parsonage house and had a new one drawn up in his own name, evicted Dr. Whitaker, and collected rent from another tenant, Capt. Charles King ; petition for a meeting to redress all resulting damages ; outside inscribed "deceiving & fraudulent"
1773 May by James Symonds Jr., [Dixey] Morgan, Samuel Williams, Benjamin Ropes, Gabriel Holman, Jacob Ashton, Joseph Symonds, Jonathon Webb, John Saunders, Jonathan Verry, William Morgan, David Felt, Benjamin Daland, James Nicholls, John Gardner Jr., Peter Cheever, John Gardner, John Symonds, Samuel Symonds, Thorndike Proctor, Benjamin Goodhue, Daniel Cheever, I. Procter Jr., Billings Bradish, Robert Procter, Joseph Clough, Miles Ward Jr., Joseph Henfield, Jonathan Mansfield, David [Masvery] reply to petition from the Standing Committee

 

Whitaker case records, 1781-1785

There was a lengthy dispute between the church's first pastor and its proprietors regarding Rev. Whitaker's conduct and salary, as well as the decision of the congregation to end their affiliation with the local Presbytery and return to Congregationalism.

1781 April 3 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter asking for money and supplies stipulated in his employment contract; to be read at a meeting held on April 4th
1781 November 24 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter reiterating request; to be read at a meeting held on November 26th
1781 November 30 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter with response to proposed salary and detailing further expenses to provide food and household supplies; to be read at a meeting held on December 3rd
1781 December 10 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter with another request for salary and in-kind payments ; to be read at a meeting the same evening
1782 May 20 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter reiterating previous requests
1782 July 8 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter reiterating previous requests
1782 October 2 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter reiterating previous requests
1783 December 14 from Proprietors of the church
("your grieved Brethren")
to Rev. Dr. Whitaker  petitionto call a meeting of the church's elders and proprietors
1784 February 14 from William Presson, Samuel Jones, [Peter] Whittemore, Jonathan Neal, Joseph Ross to "the Proprietors" letter from subscribers (congregants) urging settlement of the debt to Rev. Dr. Whitaker
1784 January 29 from Samuel Jones, William Safford to the Church of Christ in Ipswich (under Rev. Joseph Dana) letter from 20 parishioners seeking advice in the case of Dr. Whitaker and detailing other churches to which they are making the same appeal
1784 January 1 from Rev. John Cleaveland
(pastor at Rowley)
to Samuel Jones and William Safford letter with reply offering advice in the matter of Dr. Whitaker's salary dispute; addendum distinguishing between ruling elders and teaching elders in New England Congregational church structure
1784 January 7     report of a congregational meeting renouncing Presbyterianism in favor of Congregationalism, and asking Rev. Dr. Whitaker to return to their service
1784 February 7 from Samuel Jones, William Safford to Rev. Dr. Whitaker letter warning of a council meeting on February 10th regarding his character and past difficulties with the church
1784 January 7 by Miles Ward, Benjamin Smith, Nehemiah Smith, [Ruben] [Tirmans], Nathaniel Eastes, John Cloutman, Samuel Thomas, Joseph Ross, Samuel Jones, Jonathan Ireland, William Gray IV, William Safford, Stephen Caldwell, Francis Cook, John Flint, John Woodbury, John Punchard, Joshua Cross, John [Ashy], Thomas Needham Jr. (signatories)   minutes of a meeting at which the brethren voted to withdraw from the Salem Presbytery
1784 January from "The Ruling Elders or sessions of the Presbyterian Chh. Salem" to Rev. Dr. Whitaker request for a church meeting
[1874 January] from John Strickland
(clerk of the Presbytery)
to Samuel Jones and William Safford letter informing the "twenty disaffected Brethren" of the requirements to formally bring their complaints against Dr. Whitaker before a meeting of the Presbytery at New Boston
1784 January 7 from the congregation of the Salem Tabernacle Church to Rev. Dr. Whitaker petition reporting the church's withdrawal from the Presbytery and asking him to return to their service
1784 January 7 by William Gray IV
(clerk)
  record of votes at a congregational meeting
1784 February 10 by Eli Forbes (scribe)   minutes of an ecclesiastical council regarding the church's relationships with the Presbytery and Rev. Dr. Whitaker
1784 February 10 by Eli Forbes (scribe)   copy of the minutes of the ecclesiastical council regarding the church's relationships with the Presbytery and Rev. Dr. Whitaker
1784 February 13 by the Salem Tabernacle Church   report of the church's decision to Rev. Dr. Whitaker
undated by "Mrs. Whitemore"   testimony against Rev. Dr. Whitaker's character
undated by Hannah Thurstin   testimony against Rev. Dr. Whitaker's character
undated by Ebenezer Nutting   testimony against Rev. Dr. Whitaker's character
1784 by James Thomas   testimony against Rev. Dr. Whitaker's character
1784 January 26 from Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter  regarding financial matters
1784 February 12 from William Safford and Samuel Jones
(on behalf of the church)
to Rev. Dr. Whitaker letter requesting Rev. Dr. Whitaker's presence at the ecclesiastical council and enumerating the congregation's complaints against him
1784 February 12 by "Committee of the Church"
([William Safford, Samuel Jones])
to Rev. Dr. Whitaker  copy of letter requesting his presence at the ecclesiastical council and enumerating the congregation's complaints against him
1784 February 12 from Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker to William Safford and Samuel Jones letter with response
1784 March 8 from Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter regarding his status as minister and continued financial disputes; to be read at a meeting on March 13th
undated from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to deputy sheriff John Waite letter
1784 March 27 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter insisting that he will still act as minister despite their prohibition
1784 April 17 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to William Safford and Samuel Jones response denying the validity of the charges against him
1784 April 30 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to William Safford and Samuel Jones summons to the Proprietors to appear before a meeting of the Presbytery in Groton and answer his charges against them
1784 May 15 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter demanding back pay with interest
1784 May 15 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker to "the Proprietors" letter requesting a copy of their votes
1785 May 12 by the subscribers of the church   resolution to pay Rev. Dr. Whitaker the sum of 334 pounds and 6 pence of his back pay
1785 July 11     list of money received from parishioners toward Rev. Dr. Whitaker's settlement
1785 September 23 by William Ingalls (deputy sheriff)   receipt for fees paid by the church Proprietors in Rev. Dr. Whitaker's settlement
1785 December 8 from Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Whitaker   resolution of settlement case

 

Related Materials

Fisk, Samuel. Correspondence, 1731-1755

Leavitt, Dudley. Sermons, 1740-1751

Salem, Mass. First Church, 1629-1843

Salem Witchcraft Trial Records, 1692

 

Special Thanks

The digital resource contributed by the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum has been made possible in part by the Council on Library and Information Resources, through a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this resource do not necessarily represent those of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

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