The First Parish in Norwell, formerly the Second Church in Scituate, was the product of a controversy over the mode of baptism with the minister of the First Church in Scituate, the Rev. Charles Chauncy. The gist of the controversy was that the founders of our church wanted freedom of choice in the mode of baptism and preferred the simpler method of "sprinkling" rather than "immersion" or "dipping ye whole body under water." As a result of this controversy, the Second Church was established February 2, 1642.
WILLIAM WITHERELL (1645-1684)
The first minister was William Witherell. The meeting house was located on Wilson Hill, at the corner of Main Street and Old Meeting House Lane. It was a small frame building with thatch roof and no glass in the windows, just oiled paper. This was used by the society for the thirty-nine years Mr. Witherell served as pastor. The large number of baptisms (608) during the tenure of Mr. Witherell's ministry was considerable indeed for a country church in a sparsely settled district. It is evidence of Mr. Witherell's widespread popularity because of the broadness of his views regarding church membership, as well as that of infant sprinkling.
THOMAS MIGHILL (1680-1689)
The Second Parish grew in population so in 1680 a larger meeting house was erected near the old cemetery on Main Street east of Bridge Street. During the latter part of Mr. Witherell's pastorate he experienced ill health. Thomas Mighill, an assistant, became pastor when Mr. Witherell died in 1684. His ministry was brief as he died five years later.
DEODATE LAWSON (1694-1698)
During the ministry of Deodate Lawson (1694-98) the parish had a problem with the long and continued absence of their pastor. He would disappear for months at a time, never letting his congregation know when and where he was going, nor when he might return. He was presumably engaged in more lucrative secular pursuits. They were finally advised by the Elders of neighboring churches to "use all Evangelical endeavors to settle themselves with another Pastor, more spiritually and...fixedly disposed."
NATHANIEL EELLS (1704-1750)
After some five to six years of seeking pastoral leadership they found a more "fixedly disposed" minister in the person of Nathaniel Eells who served the parish for 46 years. He was much beloved by his parishioners who were always glad to have him ride his horse to their doors to inquire for their health and hand his pipe to be lighted with a coal from their open fireplace. He was a leader amongst the neighboring clergy and often traveled to distant parts of the state to attend ecclesiastical conferences. By this time the parish had grown considerably, so in 1707, soon after the coming of Mr. Eells, a larger meeting house was built on Herring Brook, the site being south of the old tomb yard opposite the present edifice.
JONATHAN DORBY (1751-1754)
In 1751 Jonathan Dorby, a nephew of Judge John Cushing, came to serve the parish. He seems to have been a young man of ability and charm who probably would have been as much beloved as Mr. Eells had he not died after being in Scituate only three years.
DAVID BARNES (1754-1811)
The next pastor was the Rev. David Barnes, D.D., also a Harvard graduate, who served the parish for 57 years. He was much beloved by his parishioners and considered an excellent preacher. His sermons were said to be "clusters of maxims" and inspired thoughts on the divine providence revealed in the natural world. Dr. Barnes was known for his progressive and tolerant views on many subjects.
SAMUEL DEANE (1810-1834)
After Dr. Barnes came Samuel Deane who proved to be an equally lovable pastor. He was liberal at a time when a decided difference of opinion between Trinitarians and Unitarians had developed. In this connection, Mr. Deane never embroiled his people in quarrels not their own and kept them apart from the controversy which was dividing so many churches and creating such keen hatred in some cases.
The parish was prosperous and active during the pastorates of both Dr. Barnes and Mr. Deane so in 1830 the present edifice was erected , the architect being William Sparrell, a native of Norwell. Unlike Dr. Barnes, Mr. Deane did not wear a clerical robe which rather disturbed some of the ladies of the parish so they purchased one for him. Mr. Deane wrote a history of Scituate and composed a fair amount of poetry. Both Dr. Barnes and Mr. Deane with their wives are buried in the ministers' lot in the First Parish Cemetery.
SAMUEL JOSEPH MAY (1836-1842)
After the placid years under the guidance of Dr. Barnes and Mr. Deane came a change of pace. In the 1830's William Lloyd Garrison and some other Bostonians began ardently advocating the emancipation of slaves, which was a decidedly controversial subject. Among Mr. Garrison's enthusiastic followers was Reverend Samuel J. May who served the Parish for six years. Not only did he devote much energy to the anti-slavery movement but he was also an ardent worker for Total Abstinence, Womens Rights, and Universal Peace. Samuel May was the uncle of the famous female author Louisa May Alcott. He organized the first church school in the Parish and, in addition, the Cold Water Army, recruiting children from all over town. Led by Mr. May they paraded about waving banners, some of which still exist and chanting such rhymes as:
"Now we pledge eternal hate
To all that doth intoxicate."
Despite his advanced views, Mr. May seems to have been much admired and loved by his congregation. There were some, however, who were not well disposed towards his preachments against the institution of slavery. May spoke out against the segregation of the poor and blacks in the balcony of the church. The comment upset many church members. Wishing to avoid an ugly fight, May resigned his pulpit in the summer of 1842 and accepted a position as president of the Lexington, Mass. Normal School for the training of teachers.
WILLIAM OXNARD MOSELEY (1843-1847)
The Parish was without a settled pastor until the following spring of 1843, when a call was extended to William Oxnard Moseley of Newburyport, recently graduated from the Harvard Divinity School. Mr. Moseley remained here until some time in 1847, when he resigned his charge on account of ill-health. He is remembered as a highly cultivated gentleman and scholar. During his patorate the organization known as the LadiesAid Society was begun, under the name of the South Scituate Sewing Circle.
CALEB STETSON (1848-1858)
The next minister of the Church was the Reverend Caleb Stetson, a man of mature years and experience, who had been for twenty-one years the Pastor of the Unitarian Church at Medford, Mass. Like his friend, Samuel May, he was devoted to the anti-slavery cause, and was one of the early advocates and prime-movers for total abstinence. Mr. Stetson was a descendant of Cornet Robert Stetson of Scituate, and served the Parish of his ancestor from 1848 to 1858.
WILLIAM A. FULLER (1859-1864)
In September, 1859, a call was extended to the Reverend William A. Fuller, who came to the church from Barre, Mass. He was much interested in the Sunday-School, and visited each home in his search for children to be enrolled, and was able to gather one hundred and twenty-five members. The first special observance of Christmas in the church was arranged by him, and the service, which was an innovation, drew a large audience.
WILLIAM H. FISH (1865-1885)
In the fall of 1865 the Reverend William H. Fish became minister of the church. He occupied the pulpit for twenty years and was an especially beloved pastor. He worked ardently for the spiritual and material welfare of the Parish. It was thanks to his efforts that Miss Abigail Otis and Nathan Cushing donated the present parsonage on Main Street. Also, he persuaded Josiah Leavitt James of Chicago, a former resident of South Scituate, to donate funds for the James Library.
While the James Library is the greatest monument to Mr. Fish's twenty-year service, he worked with untiring zeal for the welfare of the community, although failing eyesight was a great handicap during his last years. His energies were ever directed toward a healthy, moral social life for his people, endeavoring by means of lectures on topics of the day, to keep the community, rather an isolated one, in touch with modern affairs.
JOHN TUNIS (1886-1889)
In 1886, the Reverend John Tunis from New York, was called to the office made vacant by Mr. Fish's resignation. Coming from the Episcopal Church, he felt that the simple service common in our churches would be enriched by a more liturgical one, and he made changes in it that were instrumental for good. A special Easter service was another innovation. It was during Mr. Tunis tenure that the town changed its name to Norwell, and the church then became known as the First Parish Church of Norwell. He served until the Spring of 1889 when he accepted a call to a parish in Cambridge.
WILLIAM H. SPENCER (1890-1891)
In the spring of 1890, the Reverend William H. Spencer, from Providence, was called to serve the parish.. Of energetic type and modern thought, he put new life into the Society. Not content with full service on the Sabbath, he filled the week-days with helpful affairs. Much was probably lost to the Parish by Mr. Spencer's retirement at the end of that year, for he was filled with Christian enthusiasm and an eager wish to serve the people of his church and community.
THOMAS THOMPSON (1891-1901)
The Reverend Thomas Thompson, from Lexington, came to the vacant pulpit in November, 1891, remaining until 1901. The work of the Sunday School was faithfully carried on by him, and the Young People's Christian Union, a society of great worth to the Church and community for more than ten years, was formed through his efforts.
HORATIO EDWARD LATHAM (1902-1905)
Mr. Thompsons successor, the Reverend Horatio Edward Latham, served the parish for a brief period of three years, and then resigned in 1905.
CHESTER ARTHUR DRUMMOND (1906-1908)
During the spring of 1906, an invitation was extended to the Reverend Chester Arthur Drummond, to become the next settled pastor. Mr. Drummond was greatly interested in the Sunday School and did much to increase its membership. During his two years pastorate he worked zealously and untiredly to interest and aid the young people of the Parish. His work with the "shut-ins" was productive of help and inspiration to a number who were unable to attend service on Sundays or participate in church life. At the end of his second year's work, he accepted a call to the First Church of Littleton, Mass.
WILLIAM E. ENNIS (1908-1911)
In 1908, the Reverend William E. Ennis came to the Parish from Yarmouth, Maine. For two years the Parish work and was carried on satisfactorily; but at the end of his second year, his preaching became so markedly influenced by the teachings of Christian Science as to be seriously objectionable to the members of the Parish who were opposed to any appearance of approval of such views. Mr. Ennis' resignation was unanimously accepted.
EDWARD L. HOUGHTON (1911-1916)
The Reverend Edward L. Houghton came to the Church in June, 1911. Under his leadership for five years the work of the church showed renewed activity and a branch of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Christian Women was formed with Mrs. Houghton as its first President.
HOWARD CHARLES GALE (1916-1920)
When the Rev. Howard Charles Gale came here in late November 1916 Norwell was a small town of a few hundred people (more in the summer) and the church was a country parish with a total membership of 60 persons. He was very well liked and was quite active in town and community affairs. Mr. Gale had a deep and abiding interest in liturgical renewal and was quite drawn to the beauty of Anglican style liturgy and had instituted such a ritual at one of his former Universalist parishes in Dorchester. He restrained his interest while in Norwell, and kept the service fairly simple, but later in life, after having pursued a career in medicine and teaching, in addition to the ministry, he joined the Episcopal Church and became an Anglican priest.
ALFRED JAMES WILSON (1921-1947)
The Rev. Alfred "Jimmy" Wilson began his ministry in Norwell on his 40th birthday, April 17, 1921 and stayed with the parish until his retirement on the 22nd of June 1947, a 26 year ministry. Afterwards he was voted Minister Emeritus and returned to his parish from time to time to participate in the installation of succeeding ministers and for other special celebrations.
Jimmy Wilson emigrated to America from Liverpool, England, the city of his birth. He changed from being a Disciples of Christ Missionary to a Congregationalist and finally a Unitarian. Jimmy Wilson had a winning way with people. He had a warm smile, a sparkle in his eye, a bounce in his step, and a disarming sense of humor. There was an essential goodness to the man that touched the heart and enabled him to communicate with all sorts and conditions of people. And his crisp English accent was a pleasure to listen to. Jimmy Wilson participated in the installation of our present minister in May 1969. He died the following September.
HERMAN H. GEERTZ (1947-1953)
Herman H. Geertz was 34 years old when he was called to be minister of the First Parish in Norwell on the 29th of December 1947. He was married and had two children, aged 4 and 2, and while here became father to a second daughter. This was the first time that there were children living in the Parsonage in more than 30 years.
Herman Geertz had a hard act to follow after 26 years of ministry under Jimmy Wilson. But he fostered some important changes in the parish which later bore fruit. Under Herman Geertz' ministerial leadership the church began to grow. Younger families started coming into the church with their children. The James Library was not big enough to accommodate the growing numbers and parishioners began thinking about the need for a parish house for church activities and meetings and additional Sunday School classes.
There were some stresses and strains between newer and older members of the church. Divisions over lay leadership broke wide open at an Annual Meeting. Herman Geertz records that... "..two members of the Parish Committee were not re-elected, younger men being voted in in their places. The Mens Group felt that this change was necessary for the spiritual health of the church. It was apparent, however, that the feelings of some of the older group were deeply wounded, for nothing of this sort had transpired for half a century. Yet it had to be done; the church is not the private possession of any individual or group."
Because of this the church by-laws were eventually changed to limit the terms which people may serve on the Parish Committee. It was a move towards a more democratic process and the sharing of leadership responsibilities within the church. Herman Geertz helped to foster this important change, but in the process it cost him his ministry. Disagreements over the proposed building program caused the old guard parish leaders to press for his resignation. They were dissatisfied with his ministerial leadership. Mr. Geertz' resignation was accepted at the Annual Meeting by a close vote. It was an unhappy ending to a promising ministry.
Herman Geertz was a decent man and he was an inspiration to his children. His son William eventually followed his father into the ministry. What Herman Geertz began was finally completed in the ministry of his successor, Napoleon "Bill" Lovely. The new Parish House was dedicated on September 11, 1955. Herman Geertz' dream was finally realized.
NAPOLEON W. LOVELY (1953-1958)
Napoleon "Bill" Lovely came to Norwell after two years of study at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. Bill Lovely was a bright and talented minister with a flair for writing and liturgy. He published a book of poems, a reflection on the First Parish Covenant, and a small booklet of responsive readings and prayers. There was some controversy surrounding his calling as minister. He had been divorced and then married the wife of one of his former parishioners in Texas. First Parish in Norwell was apparently progressive and ahead of its time. They didn't let a controversial issue like divorce stop them from calling a good minister. In 1958, after five years of a productive ministry, Bill Lovely got restless and accepted a call to be minister of the Unitarian church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Eventually, he was forced to retire from the ministry because of the onset of Parkinson's disease.
VICTOR H. CARPENTER (1959-1961)
Victor H. Carpenter, Jr. began his ministry in Norwell in January 1959. Norwell was his first full time pastorate following a student ministry in Dorchester. He was young and full of energy and attracted more young people into the church. His preaching was in the social prophetic mode and generated much heated discussion after the service right out the door and into the parking lot. Victor was to the left of most of his parishioners on social-political issues and his sermons were always a challenge to status-quo conservative thinking. During his ministry the Adult Education Committee of the church founded the South Shore Community Forum. They brought in some big name speakers to the community similar to the later Fogg Lecture Series.
Victor was the minister here for only two and a half years, but he made an impact upon a lot of lives, especially young people, and is fondly remembered by many. In 1962 he accepted a call to be minister to the Unitarian Church in Capetown, South Africa.
CHARLES A. ENGVALL (1962-1963)
Victor Carpenter's successor, the Rev. Charles A. Engvall, barely had a chance to establish a ministry and make an impact before he died suddenly at his summer home in Dublin, N.H. on Sept. 1, 1963, after having served here only one year. He was 55 years old. It was a terrible blow to his family and to the parish. He had a background in journalism and communication and advised the AUA and the Mass. Council of Churches in radio and television productions. He was the first chair of the Greater Boston Chapter of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice and had been instrumental in the organization of a Fair Housing Committee in Norwell.
JOHN M. KOLBJORNSEN (1964-1968)
The next minister, the Rev. John M. Kolbjornsen, began his ministry here in May 1964. He had an interesting background. He served as an Ensign in the US Navy. After doing graduate work he entered the State Department and served as vice consul and attaché in the US embassy in Copenhagen, from 1949-52. Then he studied for the ministry and served Unitarian churches in Sharon, Mass. and Williamsville, NY. before coming to Norwell.
John Kolbjornsen's ministry was caught up in the fervor of the Civil Rights Movement and the protests over the Vietnam War in the 1960's. He was one of many clergy who attended the famous March on Selma, when the Rev. James Reeb was killed. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated he draped the door of the church in black to the ire of some upset parishioners. His strong anti-war stance from the pulpit led to divisions within the church. There was clear lack of tolerance and understanding on both sides. In the end John Kolbjornsen resigned his ministry in Norwell and accepted a call to the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City, Iowa. In his final notation in the Minister's Record Book, dated August 23, 1968, he wrote:
The circumstances leading to his resignation as minister of this church were complex and gave occasion to not a little bitterness, making the last year of his ministry here painful for many. Hopeful that the pain might be a vehicle for future good, and with gratitude for many good times of the spirit....
John Kolbjornsen and his wife Margaret are now retired and living in Peterboro, N.H. They participated in the 350th Anniversary of the church in 1992 and were warmly received.
RICHARD M. FEWKES (1969-2000)
And who would have thought that the young minister from Middleboro, ordained only four and a half years, would be the one to stay and stay and stay. Richard Fewkes, a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School, came to First Parish in 1969. His first Sunday service was Easter of that year, and on that day he also performed two ChristeningsJefferson Detwiler and David Bailey. We put him right to work and he hasnt stopped since.
Dick would go on to do many more life celebrations for the people of Norwell, "these are" to use Dicks own words, " the most important tasks of personal ministry that ministers are called upon to perform." Weddings, Funerals and Dedications mark our milestones and bind our hearts and minds together as a community and create bonds of affection and support that last a lifetime.
There is no doubt that these celebrations have been one of your most creative and lasting gifts to us. And here I speak as a former student, and right here beside you, watching and listening to you, is where I learned this most fundamental and powerful work of ministry.
Dicks leadership would enrich First Parish in many ways. In the seventies, First Parish became a "teaching" church, and Dick and all of you would play a vital role in the shaping of the next generation of ministers up unto this very day with Rachel as the most recent graduate of the Fewkes school of practical ministry. Dick started a chapter of PSI Symposium here, which still continues to meet as an active group. Later, through Dicks leadership and enthusiasm, we became a partner church to a little church in the village of Kadacs in Transylvania. This relationship has continued over the years, and I can say from personal experience that this connection has actually changed and improved the quality of the lives of many of the villages some 3000 miles away. But it has enriched our own lives immeasurably. We have become a welcoming congregation, a big step towards putting into practice what we preach about respecting the worth and dignity of every person. And our tireless and relentless service committee makes tangible the words "service is our prayer".
No mention of Dicks thirty years of loving leadership would be complete without the mention of the ministers helpmate and "right-arm"
his wife Ellie. These two have provided love, leadership, coffee, sympathy, empathy, care and casseroles to this community for thirty years.
It is a grand legacy in a great tradition. Dick we will add your name to our proud history with a tear and a smile. It is the way of things and we all must move forward. But you have trained us well. Your legacy is our future.