During 2009, the church (and town) celebrated its 375th anniversary of founding by English colonists.
Before there was First Church, there were God’s gifts – deer running free on the beach and in the forest, the shore birds, wild hogs – fish in the river and ocean. It’s no wonder the Agawam Indians found this place of peace and plenty.
John Winthrop came and, as history reveals, had his vision of a New England settlement. First Church was established as a meeting house to worship God, to socialize and conduct the business of the settlement.
In March of 1633, Ipswich was called Agawam; Masconomet, Sagamore Indian of Agawam, received of John Winthrop the sum of 20 pounds for all land lying and being in the Bay of Agawam. The date of the deed was June 28, 1638. John Wilson was the first Pastor; others were Thomas Parker and Nathaniel Ward.
The first meeting house was built of log and thatch surrounded by a stone fort. In 1646 the first meeting house was sold to Thomas Firman for 50 shillings. A new edifice was erected. This building had a hip roof with a bell at the apex. Richard Saltonstall presented the bell. This bell was not only rung for worship but also at 5 A.M., at noon and at nine in the evening of everyday for curfew.
The interiors of the old churches were bare, furnished only with the Bible, the psalm book and the hourglass to render visible the length of the sermon. The order of seating was rigid. On one side of the aisle sat the Magistrates of Ipswich; behind them sat the lesser gentry and substantial yeomen. Behind them sat the servants and the poor. Across the aisle sat the wives arranged also by order of station. Before them, in the pulpit, stood the Pastor, clad in black gown.
The third edifice had a life of 50 years. In 1749 the fourth edifice was erected. There were divisive forces within the Parish and in 1747 the South Church and the Linebrook Church split off taking most of the prosperous with them.
First Church in Ipswich has four daughter churches: the Essex Congregational Church, the First Congregational Church in Hamilton, the Linebrook Church and the South Church in Ipswich. The South Church burned and is now a park. The other churches are still in existence.
First Church on Meetinghouse Hill in Ipswich, MA: Period Scene from Postcard
The fifth edifice, erected in 1846, burned in 1965. After five years of litigation over the title to Meetinghouse Green and discussion regarding the design, the Church was built in contemporary style with much needed classrooms and parish hall to fit the needs of the Congregation.
There are many old stories and anecdotes of interest in the rich history of the Church. Such as the tale of the devil’s foot print. This can be seen on the rocks in front of the Church. The minister, Reverend Whitfield, is said to have preached such a powerful sermon that it drove the devil to the steeple of the Church where he jumped onto the rocks below.
The Tower contains the bell donated by John Heard, Jr. The gilded weathercock was hoisted on high in 1749. The hand-carved Knowlton pulpit, a museum piece, is built into the design of the Church at the rear of the Sanctuary. We still use the ancient marble baptismal font.
The altar from the fourth edifice with cross and candles is a focal point at the front of our Church. Many of the antique chairs have been restored. Our organ was built for the Church by members combining two organs and is one of the finest on the North Shore.
First Church in Ipswich: Postcard Scene of 5th Edifice
First Church, today, is still referred to as “the Church on the hill.” It is a meeting house as well as a house of worship. The parish hall has been made available to various groups such as AA, the local library, a dance class, yoga class, business association, wedding receptions, etc. The Sanctuary is used for musical events and recitals. We also house a nursery school.
Here we have given you a brief history of First Church, built to the glory of God. It is the heart and home of all Ipswich people and others who wish to join our family. It has been nourished by our environment, our leaders, and our people who climb up the hill to worship and help each other in dire circumstances. You are always welcome to become part of First Church’s long tradition of loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with a loving God.