First Church in Roxbury
First Church in Roxbury has been in continuous use since early English settlers built the first meetinghouse on this site in 1632. The church building you see today dates back to 1804. It is the fifth meetinghouse built on this site. First Church in Roxbury is the oldest wooden frame church in Boston, and is an excellent example of the Federal Meetinghouse style.
First Meetinghouse: 1632-1674
English settlers began arriving in the area, originally named Roxborough, in 1630. The first congregation gathered in 1631 and by 1632 settlers completed their first meetinghouse: a small, simple building with a thatched roof.
Roxbury’s famous minister, Rev. John Eliot, arrived in Boston in 1631 and began serving at the First Church in Roxbury in 1632. John Eliot became known as the “Apostle to the Indians” for preaching to Native Americans, training them to be ministers in their communities, and translating the Bible into the Algonquin language. Eliot also fought against selling Native Americans into slavery, and was instrumental in establishing free education for residents of Roxbury and other nearby towns.
Second Meetinghouse: 1674-1741
In 1674 the congregation built a new meetinghouse to accommodate the growing population in Roxbury. Residents in the western-most part of Roxbury (now West Roxbury) built their own church in 1711, calling it the Second Church in Roxbury and, later, the Theodore Parker Church. Brookline residents, who had also been worshipping at First Church in Roxbury, built their own church in 1717. Although the new churches relieved some of the pressure on First Church, by 1736 the congregation was looking to build a third meetinghouse with more seating to accommodate the growing population.
Third Meetinghouse: 1741-1744
The First Church Congregation held its first service in the newly constructed third meetinghouse in 1741. Sadly, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1744. Over the next two years, the congregation raised the necessary funds to build a fourth meetinghouse, which they built in the same design as the third building and completed in 1746.
Fourth Meetinghouse 1746-1803
The fourth meeting house on the site bore witness to the Revolutionary War and, sitting as it did on the strategically important “Meetinghouse Hill,” became the center of a great deal of activity. The area around the church was used as a parade ground and the belfry served as a signal station, making the church a target for British bombs. The British evacuated Boston in 1776, but bombing had destroyed property and soldiers had cut down much of Roxbury’s trees, including many of the orchards the town was known for.
Fifth Meetinghouse: 1804-present
By the beginning of the 19th century, the congregation had plans to build a larger and grander meetinghouse. They hired a team of carpenters who tore down the fourth building and erected the fifth in eleven months.
Much of how First Church looks today has its origins in the early 19th and early 20th centuries. The wall clock in the sanctuary is a replica of the clock the congregation bought in 1803 from Simon Willard, a prominent parishioner and well-known clockmaker (the original is on loan to the Willard House and clock Museum). The steeple bell, which weighs more than 1500 pounds, was bought in 1819 from the Revere Foundry in Canton. The organ was purchased in 1883 from the Roxbury firm of Hook & Hastings and the pulpit, modeled after the pulpit in the First Church of Lancaster, was installed in 1888. In 1913, Rev. James De Normandie dedicated the first four of the memorial plaques that hang prominently in the sanctuary. The steeple you see today was rebuilt in 1954 after a hurricane destroyed the original.
Putnam Chapel was built next to First Church In 1878. In 2003, the UU Urban Ministry sold its downtown Boston office and constructed the Education and Justice Center at First Church to serve as the headquarters for Urban Ministry activities. The new center, which physically connects First Church with Putnam Chapel, features two floors of classrooms, a full kitchen, lounge, as well as as office space for UU Urban Ministry employees.