The First Church in Weymouth: A History
by William Pepe
In 1622, Europeans settled for the first time in the Boston Harbor area known as Wessagusset. The motivation for the venture was profit. Thomas Weston sponsored the expedition and his brother and his brother-in-law led it. Only able-bodied men and their servants made up the membership of the expedition. The settlement failed. For all practical purposes, the Weston party of settlers abandoned Wessagusset in the spring of 1623. Some historians claim that a few stragglers remained and that settlement is continuous to this day; other historians say not so.
In the late summer of 1623, another group of settlers, led by Fernando Gorges, an Englishman with a Spanish sounding name occupied the abandoned buildings. The settlement known as Wessagusset was repopulated. This time, the group’s intention was to form a permanent colony. Amongst the members of Gorges party were two ministers, the Reverend William Morell and his assistant, Reverend William Blaxton.
Reverend Morell was to be the spiritual leader of all the English settlements in the Boston Harbor area including Wessagusset and Reverend Blaxton was to be the spiritual leader of Plymouth Colony. At that time, with spiritual leadership came a degree of temporal leadership, as the church was the center of local government.
Reverend Morell retained his post for about one year before returning to England. Reverend Barnard assumed the duties of religious leader and maintained the position until his death, which occurred shortly before the arrival of Reverend Joseph Hull. History records that the first meeting house of North Church stood on Watch House Hill, now known as North Cemetery. History also supposes that an earlier meetinghouse stood on the same location. If, indeed, such a meetinghouse existed, it is not included in the count of meetinghouses of The First Church in Weymouth.
In 1635, Reverend Joseph Hull arrived in Wessagusset with twenty-one families; approximately one hundred people; historians do not have an exact count. Most families were from Dorset County, England; many families were from Weymouth in Dorset County, England. Also in 1635, Massachusetts Bay Colony incorporated Wessagusset as the Town of Weymouth. In 1635 and 1636 boundaries were established for the town and, remarkably, remain unchanged today with the exception of the addition to the town of Grape and Slate Islands in Boston Harbor.
The congregation remained in turmoil for nine years following the arrival of the Weymouth, England party. A succession of ministers competed for the ministerial position and the religious loyalty of the congregation. The congregation finally united under Reverend Thomas Thatcher who served as minister for twenty years, 1644 to 1664.
It is a Congregational Church custom not to ordain a minister-to-be until he receives a “calling.” That is, a seminarian is not ordained until a congregation calls (hires) him or her as their minister. The ordination occurs in the church that issues the calling. Reverend Thatcher was the first minister to be ordained in Weymouth rather than England.
Reverend Samuel Torrey became minister in 1665 and held the position until 1707. During his ministry the congregation had a new meetinghouse constructed, the second building by “official” count. This was the first meetinghouse built on the site of the current one, 17 Church Street. In 1685, during the ministry of Reverend Samuel Torrey, the congregation also built a new parsonage at what is now 8 East Street. Because of its ten-foot high ceilings, the people of the era considered the parsonage a “mansion.” The parsonage was frequently referred to as the “Torrey Mansion.” People of today would consider it a small house.
In 1719, Reverend Thomas Paine (not to be confused with the writer, Thomas Paine, known for his Revolutionary War pamphlet, Common Sense) accepted the post as minister of North Church. Reverend Paine’s son, Robert Treat Paine, born after the reverend completed his work in Weymouth, is a signer of the United States’ Declaration of Independence.
In 1723, during Reverend Paine’s ministry, the south precinct broke away from North Church and formed South Church, sometimes known as the Second Church in Weymouth and now known as Old South Union Church. Until this point in time, the Town of Weymouth and The First Church in Weymouth were essentially synonymous; the church records are the town records and vice versa.
In 1734, the congregation hired William Smith of Charlestown as minister. Mr. Smith was ordained at North Church. He spent his entire ministry, forty-nine years, in the service of North Church. He purchased and occupied the parsonage known as the “Torrey Mansion,” that the congregation had built in 1685 for the use of Reverend Samuel Torrey.
In 1740, Reverend Smith married Elizabeth Quincy. While living in the Torrey Mansion, the couple had four children, including Abigail born in 1744.
The Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc. maintains the 1685 Torrey Mansion today as the birthplace of Abigail Smith Adams, the daughter of Reverend William Smith and his wife Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail’s husband, John Adams, became the second president of the United States. Their son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president of the United States. But, in 1744, when Abigail was born, those honors were yet to come.
In 1751 while a church committee was contemplating repairs and renovations to the church, fire consumed the building. Reverend Smith is quoted as saying, “Three barrels of gunpowder were stored in the loft and when they exploded they made a surprising noise.” A new church building was erected and in service by 1753. It was the second church building on the current site.
Also in 1751, unrelated to a direct history of the church, but undoubtedly affecting the congregation of North Church, a large proportion of Weymouth’s population perished from “throat distemper.” One book says one tenth of the population died in this manner; another book says one-eighth of the population and a third book says 110 people. In any event, the tragedy certainly affected the congregation of North Church.
In 1760, Reverend Smith had a large addition made to the parsonage. The addition was so large, in fact, that people referred to the original house as an “ell” off the “main” house. In 1764, daughter Abigail Smith married John Adams in the living room of her childhood home.
In 1783, William Smith died. He had served forty-nine years as pastor of North Church, longer than any other minister has served the congregation to this day.
A rapid succession of four ministers in four years followed the ministry of Reverend Smith. In 1787, Reverend Jacob Norton started a ministry that lasted over thirty years. The town of Weymouth named Norton Street in his honor. Silhouettes of Reverend Norton and his wife, Elizabeth Cranch, hang in the vestry of the First Church in Weymouth. Elizabeth Cranch is a granddaughter of Reverend William Smith.
North Church introduced Sunday school to its services in 1815. The congregation still provides religious education to its young people.
In 1833, the congregation had the current church building erected. It is the third church building on the current site. It is a white, wood frame building, typical of a New England church. It has served the needs of its congregation for over a hundred, seventy-five years.
In 1838, the congregation razed the parsonage. The congregation tore down that portion that they built during the tenure of William Smith and used some of its lumber to construct the new parsonage. That “new” parsonage is the residence now standing at 8 East Street. The 1685 small “mansion” was still in good condition. Nathaniel Ford, a farmer from North Weymouth, purchased it, and had it drawn by oxen to North Weymouth where it served as a bunkhouse for his farm workers.
On September 27, 1911, the Prudential Committee of the congregation incorporated the church. Townspeople had known the church by a variety of names, including North Church, Old North Church, First Church of Christ and First Church. In the corporate papers, the Prudential Committee formally named the church “The First Church in Weymouth.” The articles of incorporation succinctly state the purpose of the church as “establishing and maintaining the public worship of God in accordance with the principles and doctrine of the Congregational Churches of the United States of America.”
In 1954, the congregation had major renovations and improvements made to the 1833 church. The congregation had the church building moved forward on rails; a foundation constructed on the original location and then, the church still on rails, moved the church back onto the new foundation. That foundation now serves as a small meeting hall and several Sunday school classrooms. The congregation also had a small, old addition removed and a large hall-slash-gym built in its stead. The congregation built the large hall-slash-gym with intentions of adding a two-story building above it. The congregation has never erected that proposed building.
Many people think that the construction of the foundation under the church resulted in the elevation of the church over the roadway to be increased. That is not so. In order to enhance motorist safety, the Town of Weymouth lowered the roadway passing in front of the church seven feet in the nineteen-seventies. The lowering of the roadway is what created the illusion.
Across the street from The First Church in Weymouth lies a broad swath of lawn that extends to the corner of North Street. That broad swath of lawn is the Weymouth Common. There is currently (2010) an effort within the town to have the area designated as an historic area. The historic area would include The First Church in Weymouth, the former John Adams School, the common, the Abigail Adams Green and the Abigail Adams Birthplace.
Highlights of the Days of Yore, The First Church in Weymouth, a six-page history of the church written in 1967, refers to pews set aside for women but shares no details. The history does mention and share details concerning ministers’ salaries and other recurring financial concerns. The sale of pews financed renovations and additions on several occasions. A committee was formed to visit those who had been absent from communion, and possibly charge them with irregular conduct. Another duty of this same committee was to “examine into the sentiments and characters” of applicants for membership in the church.” Other concerns mentioned in that paper are the chastising of residents of this town, and occasionally other towns, of “irregular” conduct.
With the advent of television, the repeal of laws prohibiting business activities on Sunday and the current nature of organized youth activities to occur on Sunday mornings, attendance at all churches has dwindled. On July 2, 1969, the Executive Board of The First Church in Weymouth held a special meeting “…to hear a report from the special committee and to decide whether First Church should be dissolved or whether we should continue with a hope for better times. After much discussion it was voted to continue the missions of First Church.”
In the nineteen-eighties, the congregation acquired land behind the main building for parking. The church also acquired the next building to its northeast for a church office. Early in the twenty-first century, the church installed an elevator for the convenience of its handicapped parishioners. In 2007, the Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc. and the Adams Historical Site of the National Park Service re-enacted the wedding of Abigail Smith to John Adams. They used the sanctuary of The First Church in Weymouth because the Abigail Adams Birthplace would have been too small for the anticipated crowd.
Generous donations from its approximately 250-member congregation, local businesses, and cell phone companies have provided the church sufficient income to continue with its missions. At the present time, the congregation is anticipating the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of its gathering.
Noteworthy, Non Monetary, Gifts to the Church
In 1753, while Reverend William Smith was minister, Deacon Thomas White and Deacon Josiah Waterman each donated three solid silver beakers to the church. In 1760, Deacon Abiah Whitman donated two more matching beakers. In 1764, Mr. James Pittee, a member of the church, donated a can (pitcher), also made of solid silver. Each of the nine pieces were inscribed with the donor’s name and the phrase “to the First Church of Christ in Weymouth.”
The congregation used the communion service items regularly until 1907. For a period of time after that, the congregation placed one of the silver items on the communion table in recognition of the gift. By the 1990’s, the value of the communion service increased such that the congregation felt the communion set would better enhance the missions of the church if it were sold. In 1996, the congregation sold the communion service and placed the proceeds of the sale in the church’s endowment fund. The congregation uses the dividends and interest received from the proceeds to help accomplish the missions of the church.
Following the sale of the communion service, several families within the congregation commissioned the manufacture of pewter reproductions of the communion set. Eight beakers and the can (pitcher) were reproduced, given to the church and are displayed at the rear of the sanctuary.
On December 6, 1770, Eleanor Coley donated a pulpit Bible to North Church. Although no longer used as the pulpit Bible, the ancient book, under protective cover, still graces the front of the sanctuary. This Bible, printed in 1750 by Thomas Baskett “printer to the king’s most excellent majesty” carries a lengthy title worthy of the book’s oversized dimensions. The complete title of the pulpit Bible is “Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Church Together with the Psalter and Psalms of David Pointed as They Are to be Sung and Said in Churches.” The book also contains the Apocrypha.
In 1848 and 1849, members of the congregation donated five additional communion service items. They are made of silver plate. In 1870, Quincy Tufts donated a gold lined goblet bringing the church’s silver to fifteen pieces at that time.
Elmer O. Stennes, a member of The First Church in Weymouth, was a prominent cabinetmaker in Weymouth in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He manufactured grandfather clock cabinets of noteworthy quality. Collectors of today highly value his clock cabinets. An example of his craftsmanship, a grandfather clock, stands in the First Church in Weymouth, in the rear of the sanctuary.
Early in the history of the current church building, Mary and Samuel Thompson donated a stained glass window that enhances the northeast side of the church. In more recent times, about 1990, Evelyn Demmler donated a colored window, made of a contemporary compound. That window enhances the southwest side of the church. A third window, donated by the parents of Erin Quinn about 1995, honors the short life of their daughter. That window illuminates the northwest side of the church.
The Abigail Adams Birthplace
A parsonage is the house provided by a church congregation for its pastor.
In 1685, the congregation of the The First Church in Weymouth, better known at the time as North Church, erected a parsonage at 8 East Street. We know the structure today as the Abigail Adams Birthplace. At the time, Reverend Samuel Torrey was pastor of North Church. Because of its ten-foot high ceilings, the people of the era considered the parsonage a “mansion.” People of today would consider it a small house.
In 1734, the congregation hired William Smith of Charlestown as minister. A few years later, 1738, Reverend Smith purchased and occupied the parsonage known as the “Torrey Mansion,” that the congregation had built in 1685 for the use of Reverend Samuel Torrey.
In 1740, Reverend Smith married Elizabeth Quincy. While living in the small “mansion” the couple had four children, including Abigail born in 1744.
In 1760, Reverend Smith had a large addition made to the parsonage; so large, in fact, that people referred to the original house as an “ell” off the “main” house. In 1764, daughter Abigail Smith married John Adams in the living room of her childhood home.
Seventy-eight years later, in 1838, the church had the “large addition” razed to make room for a new parsonage. The 1685 small “mansion” was still in good condition. Nathaniel Ford, a farmer from North Weymouth, purchased it, and had it drawn by oxen to North Weymouth where it served as a bunkhouse for farm workers.
Almost a hundred years later, in 1947, the United States government purchased Mr. Ford’s farm in order to provide housing for soldiers returning from World War II. A small group of Weymouth citizens recognized the historical significance of the former parsonage, organized themselves as the Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc., and purchased the dilapidated parsonage-turned-bunkhouse from the federal government. The town sold, for one dollar, to the society a piece of land adjacent to North Cemetery, near the original site of the parsonage. The society had the former parsonage moved to that site, by truck this time, and restored the parsonage to its original condition according to the best of their knowledge and ability. The former parsonage-turned-bunkhouse now serves the Town of Weymouth as the Abigail Adams Birthplace.
The congregation sold the “new” 1838 parsonage and its land in the early 1960’s. The “new,” 1838 parsonage is now a private residence standing at 8 East Street.
Abigail Smith Adams
Undoubtedly, the most famous personality to have once lived in Weymouth is Abigail Smith Adams, wife of our nation’s second president and mother of our nation’s sixth president. Abigail held that distinction uniquely from the time her son, John Quincy Adams, took the oath of office March 4, 1825 until the time George W. Bush took the oath of office January 20, 2001, a period of over a hundred seventy five years. She now shares that distinction with Barbara Bush, wife of our forty-first president and mother of our forty-third president.
Incidentally, you may be interested in knowing that John Scott Harrison still holds the unique distinction of being the son of one U. S. president, William Henry Harrison, and the father of another U. S. president, Benjamin Harrison. William Henry Harrison was our ninth president; Benjamin Harrison was our twenty-third president.
On November 11, 1744, Abigail Smith was born in the parsonage of North Church (now The First Church in Weymouth), a Congregational Church in the Town of Weymouth, Massachusetts. She was the second child of William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail had an older sister, Mary, a younger brother William and a younger sister Elizabeth. Both of Abigail’s parents came from well-to-do families. Abigail’s Harvard educated father, William Smith, came from Charlestown before North Church (now The First Church of Weymouth)of Weymouth called him as their minister. Abigail’s mother, Elizabeth Quincy, was from the noted Quincy family from whom the City of Quincy received its name.
The Smiths raised their children in a rural setting. In addition to his duties as minister, William Smith maintained a farm and, as was common amongst the college educated, he maintained a home library. Both parents found the time to teach their children to read and write. The Smith girls received no formal schooling. The girls were well versed in the domestic skills of the era. Because Abigail was of slight build and sickly, she received more attention than her siblings did. Consequently, she became accustomed to having her own way, a characteristic than followed her throughout her lifetime.
John Adams was Abigail Smith’s second cousin-once-removed and knew her from childhood. He did not pay attention to his sickly female cousin until he accompanied Richard Cranch to the Smith home. Abigail was only fifteen at the time of this visit. Mr. Cranch, at the time of the visit, was engaged to Abigail’s older sister, Mary. Mary Adams and Richard Cranch ultimately married.
Abigail and John exchanged correspondence and a romance flourished. Four years after this meeting, Abigail and John married. Abigail’s mother initially objected to Abigail’s marriage to a lowly country lawyer but eventually relented.
The young couple moved to the Adams farm in Quincy. There John Adams built a home only seventy-five feet from the home in which he had been born. There Abigail gave birth to six children. In 1787, the couple purchased what we know as the Adams Mansion and lived the remainder of their lives there.
Due to John’s frequent trips to other parts of the colonies and due to the positions he held after the colonies organized as the United States, the couple continued the correspondence after marriage that they had initiated during courtship. The lovers saved their letters. Abigail’s letters are a significant resource about domestic life of the era and show the depth of her thinking. Abigail keeps John informed about life at home and she comments on his politics. John’s letters are a significant resource about political thought of the era. John keeps Abigail informed about his political thoughts and the thoughts of the other participants at the various meetings he attended. Combined, the letters constitute a great national historic treasure.
While John was absent from home due to his obligations as a lawyer, Abigail was responsible for maintaining the farm animals and raising the children. The domestic and farm skills she had learned in Weymouth helped maintain her family in Quincy.
In 2001, the City of Quincy dedicated statues to memorialize the couple’s life in Quincy. To symbolize the frequent separations the couple endured, the statue of John, in City Hall Plaza, is across busy Hancock Street from the statue of Abigail that is located next to United First Parish Church.
In addition to representing the frequent absences from each other, the Abigail statue represents her as she viewed the smoke and sounds of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although the statue shows Abigail accompanied only by her son John Quincy, Abigail’s daughter Nabby was also with her. At the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Abigail, while attending her own children, was also tending the four children of Dr. Joseph Warren, a patriot leader. News of Dr. Warren’s death at the battle stimulated Abigail to climb the hill to view the battle.
Not only did Abigail apply her domestic talents to tending the children of Dr. Warren, she also tended the children, her grandchildren, of John Quincy Adams during his absences from home.
Like most marriages, there were periods of disagreement between the loving couple but those periods appear to have been minimal. Sadness encroached on the normally happy couple; four of their children predeceased them. Their oldest child, Abigail, died at age 48. Their third child, Susannah, died when only fourteen months old. Their fourth child, Charles, died at age thirty. Their sixth child, Elizabeth, was stillborn.
Abigail died in 1818 at the age of seventy-four.
In October of 2007, the Adams National Historical Park, the Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc. and the First Church in Weymouth combined to reenact the wedding of John Adams and Abigail Smith. Due to the anticipation of a large audience, the sponsors held the wedding reenactment in the sanctuary of The First Church in Weymouth rather than the living room of the Abigail Adams Birthplace. William Smith, Abigail’s father, was minister of the The First Church of Weymouth at the time of her wedding.
In 1947, the Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc. saved the parsonage, in which Abigail had been born, from destruction. The society now maintains the property in her honor.
This video, from October 28, 2018, is from a special service on the 200th anniversary of Abigail's death. Cathy Torrey, Board Member of the Abigail Adams Historical Society, delivered the morning message, honoring Abigail's life and legacy, particularly as a woman of faith. Thanks to Ralph Fergason for the video.
Abigail Adams Birthplace, copyright the Abigail Adams
Brief History of the First Church in Weymouth, October 1998, one page, no author or publisher credited, a handout of The First Church in Weymouth (A retyped version of a similar handout entitled Church History, dated March 1, 1988)
The First Church in Weymouth, The Manual, published by The First Church in Weymouth, 1912
First Church (Weymouth, Mass.) records, Massachusetts Historical Society
Highlights of the Days of Yore, The First Church in Weymouth, Presented by the Historical Committee at the Annual Meeting, January 22, 1967
History of The First Church in Weymouth, “This summary was compiled for the Church Annual Meeting held on January 30, 1966 by the Historical Committee, consisting of Mrs. Barbara Thayer, Mr. Homer Clouter, Mrs. Margaret Chase, Mrs. Marjorie Shaw, Mr. Ronald Shaw”
History of Weymouth Massachusetts in Four Volumes, Volume I Historical, Published by the Weymouth Historical Society, Howard H. Joy, President, Under Direction of the Town, 1923