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 people found this place of peace and plenty.
In March of 1633, Ipswich was called Agawam; Masconomet, Sagamore chief 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. The settlers found the hillside at the center of Agawam to be clear and well-sited and thought to build a church. They had no deed to the land, and never sought one. John Wilson was the first Pastor; others were Thomas Parker and Nathaniel Ward.
First Church was established as a meeting house to worship, to socialize and conduct the business of the community, and to negotiate the work to be done by the settlers and the first nation here: the Agawam. The first meeting house was built of log and thatch. The second had a hip roof with a bell at the apex. The third had a life of 50 years. In 1749 the fourth edifice was erected, and in 1846 the fifth.
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.
We were struck by lightening in 1965 and the fifth church building burned to the ground, though the congregation valiantly carried out the songbooks, the Baptismal Font, the altar, and the Knowlton Pulpit. The current building, after much negotiating because we did not have a deed, 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. One is the story of the petition, circulated during the Salem Witch Trials. It was 1692, and fear was very high in this land, as many dozens of women and men were accused of witchcraft. The jail where the accused were held, with no heat and shackles which the prisoners were required to pay for themselves, was here across from the church campus. It is widely believed here, by the many who are descendants of those accused of witchcraft, that their only sin was a capability with herbs and words. There was also an ongoing fear of diverse races and voices. This church took a stand. A petition was created, in defense of the women and men accused, declaring their innocence. Thirty one people from the church signed their names. This was a risk, given that the hatred in the land was so high that public executions had begun in earnest. Shortly after the petition, however, the trials were cancelled and the prisoners were set free.
Another old legend is the tale of the devil’s foot print. This can be seen on the rocks in front of the Church. It was 1749 and the community was in a turmoil over slavery, over revolution, over the balance of native rights against colonial mentality. The visiting preacher, George Whitefield, brought at the invitation of our minister, Rev. Nathaniel Rogers, is said to have preached such a powerful sermon that it drove the devil off of the steeple of the Church where he was eavesdropping, jumping onto the rocks below and skidding on the granite. The devil, it was said, was terrified of what he heard, and desired earnestly to leave this town forever. Legend has it that the sermon by Rev. Whitefield was an anti-slavery treatise, and the devil did not like it.
Yet another story about the history of the church is of the time when many of the deacons and members of the church believed it was time to welcome the leadership of GLBTQ families and individuals into full membership and sacramental leadership of the church. The church was well-ahead of the commonwealth of Massachusetts in our vote to conduct commitment ceremonies and in our choice to be Open and Affirming to all of God’s children. The night that the Commonwealth voted to legalize same-sex marriage, the First Church deacons also voted to welcome God’s diverse forms of love to our sanctuary and blessing.
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 is a welcoming place for groups such as AA, the local library, dance classes, cooking groups, and gatherings for justice. The Sanctuary is also used for musical events and recitals. We also house a wonderful nursery school: Small World, which combines civic lessons with an early reading curriculum, and is the best kept secret in Ipswich.
Here we have given you a brief history of First Church, built to the glory of God, on borrowed land. It is a heart and home for Ipswich people and others who wish to join our family: to worship and help a neighbor, to make music and learn about diversity, to keep silence and to learn to speak up. It has been nourished by generations of people who climb up the hill to worship, even as the land was a source of nourishment for eons before that, by people who planted corn, beans, and squash and called themselves Agawam.
You are always welcome to become part of First Church’s tradition of loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God. The church yet has much to learn about what it means to be a post-colonial congregation, worshiping on land that was not ours to start with, and seeking the challenges of Jesus, who came to speak to honor people’s dignity, in all of its forms. As we read Scripture together, pray, and listen, we find that we have much still to reconcile: of the land, of racial divisions, of settler mentality, on the land that was the Agawam people’s fall harvest land. We find, when we read Scripture, that just as God helped Moses and Miriam to lead the Hebrew people to freedom, just as God helped Isaiah and Micah to cry out against the Babylonian captivity, just as God helped Jesus to cry out against the Roman empire, so too may we hear God’s voice crying again, that we join together to work for all people’s freedom.