The First Parish Church traces its history to a Separatist congregation that formed in Scrooby, England, in the early 17th century, members of which later sailed to Plymouth aboard the Mayflower.
Meetings of the Scrooby congregation first took place in a manor house owned by the Archbishop of York and occupied by William Brewster (ca. 1560-1644), a former diplomat who served as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the archbishop.
In 1606 and 1607, Brewster convened a series of meetings for those who were seeking to practice a more liberal expression of Protestantism, free from the creed and ritual of the Church of England.
They formed their own congregation with Richard Clyfton as its first minster and John Robinson (ca. 1576-1625) as their assistant pastor. Due to continued persecution in England, the congregation fled to Amsterdam in 1608 and from there to Leyden (Leiden) in southern Holland in 1609.
John Robinson was chosen to be their minister in Leyden (Clyfton had remained in England), and William Brewster was chosen to be their Elder.
William Bradford, who would later become the second Governor of the Plymouth Colony, was another prominent member of the Separatist congregation. Bradford is credited with giving them the name “Pilgrims,” although that term would not be commonly applied to the Separatist emigrants until the late 18th century.
After securing a patent from the London Company (later replaced by a charter from the Plymouth Council for New England), the Leyden Separatists (hereinafter referred to as the “Pilgrims”) were among the passengers aboard the Mayflower as it departed for the American colonies from Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. The arrived in America in November.
The First (and Subsequent) ‘Church’ Buildings
The first public building to be erected by the Pilgrims was a large house, twenty-feet square, which was used for storage and public worship; but shortly after its completion, it took fire, and The Common House was burnt to the ground.
In the month of April “whilst they were bussie with their seed,” Governor Carver was taken suddenly ill, and died, leaving a widow who soon followed him.
The death of the first Governor was a severe loss to the community. He was not only a deeply religious man, but had won their esteem and endeared himself to them, by long and patient service and sacrifice. He was sagacious, skilled in practical affairs, and upright in all his dealings. He was succeeded in office by William Bradford, with Isaac Allerton, as assistant.
In the month of November 1621, the depleted ranks of the colonists were partly filled up by the unexpected arrival of the Fortune, and thirty-five persons were added to the plantation.
The summer of 1622, saw the erection of the Fort. Here on the summit of Burial Hill, the Pilgrims perpetuated the church founded in England under the ministration of Elder Brewster. The ecclesiastical polity of the church was copied, with slight modifications, from that provided by Guillaume Farel and John Calvin, for the Reformed Churches of France.
For several years the Church at Plymouth was without a pastor. It lived upon the truths which John Robinson had taught, with such care and learning, and broke the bread of life in the way which exile had made so precious.
On the Lord’s day, the people gathered in the meeting-house, sang the psalms, had the Scriptures read and explained, and joined in prayers, which flowed spontaneously from grateful hearts, and were born in the depth of an experience, which had made the goodness and mercy of God, and the blessings of his daily providence, the most real and vital of all convictions.
They knew that they were the humble instruments of God for good, and that their successes and failures, joys and sorrows, losses and gains, were included in his immediate purpose, and were to be accepted without murmur or complaint.
The local scattering of the Colonists led to the founding of new churches in and around Plymouth.
In 1648 the first church was built. It was situated behind Bradford’s lot, and facing Leyden St and like every first church, however modest, was raised with becoming pride and joy. (Cuckson)
All of the land between Burial Hill and Main Street, which included present-day Town Square, originally belonged to William Bradford and John Alden. The land on which the First Parish Church now stands was likely given up by John Alden when he left Plymouth in 1627, after which the land became known as the Town Commons. (NPS)
Seven years before, an ordinance had passed the General Court “that no injunction should be put on any church, or church member, as to doctrine, worship, or discipline, whether for substance or circumstance, besides the command of the Bible.”
It meant that although men met for worship under one roof, it was not to be expected that they should think or feel alike; but whether or not, they were to enjoy such freedom, as was not to be found in any other church of their time. (Cuckson)
The second meetinghouse was built in 1683 on the site of the present First Parish Church, at the west end of Town Square. This building consisted of a two-story, side-gabled building with a center entrance and cupola.
Cuckson quotes an unnamed source who described this building as having an “unceiled Gothic roof, diamond glass, with a small cupola and bell.”
The third meetinghouse was constructed in 1744 on the same site, replacing the prior building that had fallen into disrepair.
The building was described as “an attempted copy of a Boston church building. A graceful structure, it was the first real church, architecturally speaking.”
In 1831, as membership grew at the First Parish Church, the congregation voted to replace the third meetinghouse with another that would be “larger and more in keeping with the improved taste and broader outlook of the times.”
The Gothic Revival-style fourth meetinghouse was a wood-frame building designed by George W. Brimmer of Boston and included a bell, cast by Paul Revere in 1801, which was controlled and used by the town to mark the time and as an alarm for emergencies. The fourth meetinghouse was destroyed by fire in 1892.
Other denominations in Plymouth offered the temporary use of their churches for worship by the First Parish members. The first service after the fire was held at the Universalist Church on December 4, 1892.
On December 19, 1892, a Parish Committee meeting of the First Parish Church was held, and the initial $5,000 was raised towards the building of a new church.
At that meeting, according to committee member Arthur Lord’s report, it was decided that they should “secure in the church to be built a fitting memorial to that spirit of religious liberty and tolerance which characterized the Pilgrims.” He went on to say that, “The subject cannot be treated as if the church was purely local or denominational.”
On April 4, 1896, the building committee voted to hire John Y. Mainland of Boston as the contractor for construction of the church. Mainland was born in Scotland in 1849, learned the building trade in Nova Scotia in 1866-1867, and moved to Boston in 1868.
The cornerstone was laid on Monday, June 29, 1896. Once again, the perceived importance of this church as a memorial to the Pilgrims was reflected in the address given by Arthur Lord, Parish Committee member and President of the Pilgrim Society.
The first service was held in Kendall Hall on April 25, 1897, before the sanctuary level had been completed, and continued to be held there until the church dedication on Thursday, December 21, 1899.
Mayflower Society Given (and Restoring/Maintaining) First Parish Meeting House
The First Parish Church, completed in 1899, is the fifth meetinghouse built for its congregation, and the fourth built at the current location. (NPS)
When the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) became aware that the congregation was having trouble with the increasing maintenance and restoration of the building, it approached the congregation about donating the Meetinghouse to GSMD as a place to fulfill its educational mission.
Since the General Society of Mayflower Descendants was founded in 1897, the same year the present structure was built at the top of Leyden Street, families of descendants – our families – have made regular pilgrimages to this spot.
To save the building they love, the First Parish Church congregation has agreed to donate it to GSMD upon the condition that funds be put in place to permanently maintain it, and that they be allowed to continue scheduling their services there.
The General Society of Mayflower Descendants and First Parish Church signed a Joint Venture Agreement, which led to the Charitable Trust, during Congress 2017.
Click the following link to a general summary about the First Church in Plymouth: