The history of First Church goes back to the beginnings of the town of Lancaster in 1653. By Massachusetts law, a town could not be established without a church and a minister. First Church was founded as the official town church, the “established” church, supported by parish taxes and attended by all residents.
With the calling of the Rev. Joseph Rowlandson as the town’s first minister, Lancaster became the first town granted a charter in northern Worcester County. Over time the “daughter towns” of Harvard, Bolton, Leominster, Sterling, Berlin, Boylston and Clinton established their own churches and became separate towns in their own right.
The Rev. Rowlandson’s life and history is often overshadowed by that of his wife, Mary Rowlandson. On February 10, 1676, Indians attacked the Lancaster garrison killing twelve people and capturing twelve; Mary was abducted and taken into captivity. Eleven weeks and five days later she was ransomed and returned to her husband. Mary’s narrative of her captivity, The Sovereignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, was published in Cambridge, Mass., in 1682. Her narrative went through multiple printings in American and in England and is often considered the first American bestseller. It is still a compelling story and is widely appreciated by historians for its picture of colonial Massachusetts during King Phillip’s War and of the Native Americans of the time.
Lancaster was attacked by Indians many times during the Indian Wars. The town’s second minister, The Rev. John Whiting, was killed during one such attack in 1690. The church’s third minister, Mr. Andrew Gardner, was killed by the night watch in 1704 who apparently mistook him for an Indian.
Lancaster’s Five Meetinghouses:
As the Indian wars ended, the town enjoyed a period of peace. The town’s first two meeting houses built for both worship and town meetings had been destroyed in Indian raids in 1676 and 1704. They stood on what is now Main Street, opposite the site of the Rowlandson Pine. The third meeting house was constructed in 1706 across from the Old Common burial ground. It stood until 1743 when it was replaced by the fourth meetinghouse, built on the small common at the intersection of Main Street and Center Bridge Road. The current building, the town’s fifth meetinghouse, was designed by noted architect Charles Bulfinch in 1816 and dedicated on January 1, 1817. The Bulfinch Meetinghouse is considered “an American architectural masterpiece” and is listed on the National Historic Register.
On January 8, 2017 we held a Rededication Service for the Fifth Meetinghouse.
Read the Rededication Sermon given by Rev. Tom Wintle.
View pictures from our Rededication Service on January 8, 2017 (pictures courtesy of The Item).
First Church’s Ministers:
Surprisingly, since its founding in 1653, First Church has had only 17 settled ministers, many of whom had long and distinguished pastorates. The Rev. Timothy Harrington served the church and the town with distinction during the American Revolution. He was followed by the Rev. Nathaniel Thayer, whose influence on the town as well as the church moved the church towards Christian Unitarianism, formalized in the 1830s when church and state were ultimately separated in Massachusetts. The Rev. Edmund Sears is remembered for writing the words to the beloved Christmas carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” He was followed in the pulpit by the Rev. George Bartol, who single-handedly protected the meeting house from being radically changed by the proposed construction of a floor to separate the balcony from the floor of the sanctuary. The Rev. Frederick Weis is remembered as a distinguished historian, as well as a long-time minister. Later, Hungarian refugee Alexander St. Ivanyi brought a distinctive passion for American values to First Church. The Rev. Tom Wintle is remembered for helping start the Lancaster Historical Society and for writing A New England Village Church: The First Church in Lancaster, Lancaster, 1985 which is still available from the church office.
|Edmund H. Sears
|George M. Bartol
|Otto E. Duerr
|Charles A. Place
|Frederick L. Weis
|Alexander St. Ivanyi
|Thomas D. Wintle
|Kenneth A. Clark
|Paul G. Hull
|Robert C. Johansen
First Church and the Life of the Town:
From 1653 until the present, First Church has been Lancaster’s “town church.” Even after the separation of church and town in the 1830s, First Church, located on the town green, has been at the center of Lancaster’s life, culture and history. Lancaster town meetings continued to be held in the meetinghouse until the 1950s. Built without overt religious symbols, the meetinghouse has been a welcoming venue for all faiths and for those of no faith. The doors of the church continue to be open to the entire community for worship, for funerals and memorial services, weddings, concerts, lectures and other celebrations.
Historical Records of First Church:
Some of our early records have been digitized by the Congressional Library and Archives. Take a look!
Genealogists and historians may find the following online published resources useful as well:
- The birth, marriage, and death register, church records and epitaphs of Lancaster, Massachusetts 1643-1850, edited by Henry S. Nourse, 1890.
- The military annals of Lancaster, Massachusetts. 1740-1865. Including lists of soldiers serving in the colonial and revolutionary wars, for the Lancastrian towns: Berlin, Bolton, Harvard, Leominster, and Sterling, ed. by Henry S. Nourse, 1889.