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First Church (Salem, Mass.) Records

First Church (Salem, Mass.) Records

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Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 166 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Creator:First Church (Salem, Mass.)
Title:First Church (Salem, Mass.) Records
Quantity:2.75 linear feet (4 boxes)
Abstract:The First Church of Salem records consist of administrative, financial and pastoral records of this Salem, Massachusetts, church.
Collection Number:EC 58

Series List

SERIES I. Administrative and Pastoral Records
SERIES II. Copies of Records

Scope and Content Note

The First Church of Salem records consist of administrative, financial and pastoral records of this Salem, Massachusetts, church. The collection has been arranged chronologically within two series.

Series I. Administrative and Pastoral Records contains copies of the covenant, correspondence, financial records, handwritten copies of church records, floor plans of pews, notes, descriptions of organs and other objects, and two different descriptions of religious societies in Salem in the mid-19th century.

Series II. Copies of Records consists of handwritten and typewritten copies of the First Church records.

Historical Sketch

The First Church in Salem is one of the oldest churches founded in North America, along with the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City and the First Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Salem's church, however, was the first truly Congregational parish with governance by church members. Its history began when thirty of the newly arrived Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony gathered together to form a church on August 6, 1629. Among the members present were Roger Conant, the founder of Salem village, and John Endicott, the first Governor of the colony. On that day, the church called two Puritan ministers who had made the voyage from England with the other colonists. The Rev. Samuel Skelton became the church's first pastor and the Rev. Francis Higginson was called as the church's first teacher. The church's third minister was none other than Roger Williams. Williams came to Salem in 1634, after the deaths of Reverends Higginson and Skelton. While his ministry lasted less than two years before he was banished from the colony in 1636, he managed to voice many concerns and criticisms that have echoed down through the years. The Rev. Hugh Peter became Pastor of the church in 1636. From 1660 to 1708, Rev. John Higginson, the son of the church's first teacher, Francis Higginson, was pastor.

Various members were involved in the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, including the daughter of the church's pastor, Rev. Samuel Parris, and the junior minister Rev. Nicholas Noyes. Parishioners Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey, who were excommunicated and executed during the trials, were formerly full members of the First Church. Both victims were posthumously readmitted in 1712.

After the trials, the First Church split several times, first to meet the needs of the growing population in Salem and then because of arguments over ministers. One of the most notable events concerning church splits has to do with the Rev. Thomas Barnard and his son, the Rev. Thomas Barnard, Jr. In 1772, the First Church split over whom to call as their next minister. One group wanted the current minister's son, the Rev. Thomas Barnard, Jr. Another group wished to call the Rev. Asa Dunbar. Since no agreement could be reached, the church divided into two. The First Church called Rev. Dunbar and the newly formed North Church in Salem selected the Rev. Barnard, Jr. as its first minister. By 1800, the First Church in Salem had split into four different churches, three of them Unitarian and one of them Congregational.

As the 20th century progressed, the churches that had split apart centuries before returned to the fold. The First Church and North Church reunited in 1923 and they moved to the second meetinghouse of the North Church on Essex Street, its current home. The East Church reunited with the First Church in 1956, completing a separate journey that it began in 1719.

Until 1923, the First Church congregation used four successive buildings on the same location on Washington Street (the last, built in 1826, is now the Daniel Low Building). The second meetinghouse, on Essex Street, was begun in 1835 and completed in 1836. Since North Church reunited with First Church in 1923, the united congregation has used the old North Church building.

First Church Succession of Ministers (abbreviated list)

Samuel Skelton 1629-1634

Francis Higginson 1629-1630

Roger Williams 1633-1636

Hugh Peter 1636-1641

Edward Norris 1640-1658

John Higginson 1660-1708

Charles Nicholet 1672-1674

Nicholas Noyes 1683-1717

George Curwen 1714-1717

Samuel Fiske 1718-1735

John Sparhawk 1736-1755

Thomas Barnard 1755-1776

Asa Dunbar 1772-1779

John Prince 1779-1836

Charles Wentworth Upham 1824-1844

Thomas Treadwell Stone 1846-1852

George Ware Briggs 1853-1867

James Tracy Hewes 1868-1875

Fielder Israel 1877-1889

George Croswell Cressey 1890-1896

Elvin James Prescott 1897-1902

Peter Hair Goldsmith 1903-1910

Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.

Barnard, Thomas, 1716-1776
Barnard, Thomas, 1748-1814
Fisk, Samuel, 1689-1770
Higginson, John, 1720-1774
Lynde, Mary
Osgood, Peter
Peele, Robert, 1767-1842
Pickering, Timothy, 1745-1829
Pulsifer, David, 1796-1867
Sparhawk, John, Rev.
Stone, John, 1781-1849
Upham, Charles Wentworth, 1802-1875
Wise, John, 1652-1725
North Church and Society (Salem, Mass.)
Church buildings--Massachusetts--Salem
Church history
Church records and registers
Pews and pew rights
Salem (Mass.)


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


Request for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Preferred Citation

First Church (Salem, Mass.) Records, EC 58, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The Second Century Lecture was donated by Charles W. Upham. Seven manuscript documents dated 1782-1806 were donated by the Wenham Museum on February 26, 1998 (acc 1998.006). The provenance of the rest of the collection is unknown.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Tamara Gaydos, August 2018.

Related Material

Barz-Snell, Jeffrey. "The Long History." The First Church in Salem, The First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist,

Pierce, Richard D., ed. The Records of the First Church in Salem, Massachusetts, 1629-1736. Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1974.

Related Collections

East Church (Salem, Mass.) Records, EC 57

North Church (Salem, Mass.) Records, EC 59

Reverend George Curwen (1683-1717) Papers in Curwen Family Papers, 1641-1902, MSS 45

Papers relating to the Reverend Samuel Fiske controversy in the Joseph Bowditch Papers, 1699-1941, MSS 156

Timothy Pickering (1745-1829) papers in the Pickering Family Papers, 1662-1887, MSS 400

Samuel Fisk Sermon Minutes, 1736, SER 37

The documents listed below have been digitized by the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, Massachusetts and can be found here:

Articles of agreement for Association of Ministers, 1717, Box 2 Folder 1

Letter to Benjamin Lynde, Jr. from Samuel Fisk, 1724/5, Box 1 Folder 1

Letter from Peter Osgood and others to churches in Andover and Methuen, 1734/5, Box 1 Folder 2

Acceptance of ministerial call by Rev. John Sparhawk, 1736, Box 1 Folder 3

Receipt for sale of pew from Samuel Giles to James Odell, 1748, Box 1 Folder 4

Letter from Timothy Pickering to "the Council of Churches at Salem, 1755, Box 1 Folder5

Letter from Timothy Pickering to the local judge, 1769, Box 1 Folder 6

Handwritten copies of church records, 1629-1772 by Thomas Barnard, undated, Box 1 Folder 7

Copy of the covenant, 1780, Box 1 Folder 8

Copy of the legal release of Rev. John Wise of Chebacco Church, 1687, undated, Box 1 Folder 23

Description of the organ in Rev. Dr. Prince’s meeting house, undated, Box 1 Folder 24

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