HISTORICAL SUMMARY OF OUR CHURCH
The 17th Century
This region of the Piscataqua, home to Native Americans for hundreds of years, was first visited by white Europeans at the very beginning of the 17th century. The area was rich in fish and timber and was soon regularly used by fishing fleets. By the middle of the 1600s, the British crown had laid claim to large areas of the coast and was harvesting timber for shipbuilding. The trades that accompanied these activities, shipping, provisioning, sawmills, followed, and in 1647 Kittery was formally organized as a town, including lands that are now Eliot, South Berwick, and Berwick. However, religious activity was not very evident.
This changed due to unrest with the Natives, which led the settlers to accept the protection of Massachusetts. In 1652, the region became part of Massachusetts through an Act of Submission, a document signed by Commissioners from Boston and local representatives. Along with protection and voting rights and titled lands (especially important for the “squatters” who simply occupied acreage) came required religion. The Mainers did manage to secure “religious tolerance” (allowing them to choose their faith without importing Massachusetts’ religion,) but they were ordered to provide a meeting house and preacher in every town. These early years probably had visiting preachers in fits and starts, and possibly several different buildings were used as meeting houses. In 1667 a pastor named Jeremy Hubbard took the town to court for lack of payment. Stackpole’s “Old Kittery” says there was a meeting house in need of repair in 1669, and that the new one should be near where the old one stood. The town was brought to court more than once for not having a suitable building, indicating there were many lapses.
Despite “religious tolerance,” nothing but Congregationalism was acceptable to the rather fiercely independent locals. A gathering of Calvinist Baptists in Kittery was chased to South Carolina in 1682 after about a year of persecution. Other denominations fared no better. The Church of England (Episcopalian) was preferred in New Hampshire but shunned here.
The Rev. John Newmarch, a recent Harvard graduate, was hired by the town in 1694 to preach and teach school. Religious teaching and preaching became more stable after that.
The 18th Century
In 1713, Kittery was divided into Berwick and Kittery with separate towns and churches. In Kittery, a group of eighteen men and twenty five women petitioned the Massachusetts Court for permission to organize a church in 1714. It was granted, and on November 4 of that year a lengthy covenant and confession of faith (written by the Rev. Newmarch) was signed by all 43 petitioners. Mr. Newmarch was ordained and installed as pastor that day, with clergy and elder representatives from York, Portsmouth, Wells, Berwick and New Castle parishes present. At the time the parish was the entire town of Kittery, as defined by the General Assembly of Massachusetts.
In 1717 a meeting was held to decide whether to repair the old meeting house or build a new one. It is likely the church was similar to others of the era with a large open space, a few benches and a very few box pews. They “Voted that the old Meeting house should be repaired, by ye Parish, lett it cost what itt will.” An “elegant” new meeting house was built in 1727, after much debate, and paid for largely through subscription by various well-to-do members including both Pepperrells, Timothy Gerrish, Elisha Gunnison, and Robert Cutt. The same year a ferryman was hired to bring people across the creek to church, a position that continued for over 100 years.
The parsonage was built in 1729-30. Sir William Pepperrell gave the glass. Rev. Newmarch never lived there as he already had a home in the foreside area, so he rented out the new parsonage.
The “elegant” meeting house burned in 1730 or ’31 during a violent thunderstorm. It was replaced that year. William Pepperrell agreed to send the ruins of the bell to London to be recast. The present church was finished in 1732 with funds from Massachusetts and New Hampshire and although it has sustained multiple changes, both structural and cosmetic in the intervening years, it is the oldest church building in continuous use in Maine.
During this time there was much dispute about ministering to those on the other side of Spruce Creek. After years of debate, a meeting house was built at the head of Spruce Creek. Rev. Newmarch was to provide services to both churches. This church did not thrive as a congregational church and ultimately became Methodist. That congregation moved to Government Street and is now St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.
In 1749, Rev. Benjamin Stevens, also a Harvard graduate, was hired to assist the aging Rev. Newmarch. Rev. Newmarch died in 1754, having baptized 1796 people in his lifetime, including William Whipple, future signer of the Declaration of Independence. According to Rev. Tobias Miller, pastor in 1840, Newmarch’s records “are excellent, showing him to have been a man of method, care and promptness, economical and thrifty in his habits, accumulated a handsome property.” According to the Boston Post obituary, “he was 60 years a preacher in the town, during which he underwent many pressing difficulties, on account of both his preaching in two distinct houses and the Indian enemy...... (T)hrough all the changing scenes of his life, he maintained as much peace and harmony among his people, as any of his order.”
Rev. Stevens had moved into the parsonage when he was hired. He was ordained and assumed the pastorate in 1751. He served in a more peaceful time in the parish – no disputes about other churches, no need to build new buildings, and the congregation was large, wealthy and influential.
In 1756 the Parish voted for a Singing Pew, to be in the “hinde seat but one.” This was probably the beginning of the choir. During this period Sir William Pepperrell’s widow, the Lady Pepperrell, had her beautiful home built nearby. She was a regular worshipper, and had a box pew “lined with worsted and curtained, with a bear skin carpet on the floor in defense against the cold.”
After this peaceful period came the Revolutionary War. Rev. Stevens must have walked a fine line between the Loyalist interests of his wealthy parishioners, and the patriots. When the men went off to war, or privateering, or simply supplying goods and services, they drifted away from worship. The women continued faithfully. Then Rev. Stevens died rather suddenly in 1791. Rev. Samuel Haven of South Church in Portsmouth preached the funeral sermon. He came by boat and “the shore was lined with boats, and the meeting house filled to overflowing with a weeping multitude,” according to Rev. Miller.
Following Rev. Stevens, there were two unfortunate pastorates. The Revolutionary War had changed many of the old ways. Separation of church and state meant no tax money to maintain parish lands. The Loyalists and their considerable funds were gone. The church rented out parcels to local people, and began selling off land as well. New church “societies” were springing up, bringing new ideas and ways of worship.
The next pastor was Mr. Jonas Hartwell in 1792, but he “proved to be intemperate” and was asked to resign in 1798.
Recent research has revealed a long neglected part of this church’s history: the presence of Black persons, enslaved and free, in the early congregation. Here in the 18th century, like most elsewhere in New England, almost all were held as slaves in white households and businesses. Even ministers had slaves. “Servants for Life” was their common designation then. On Sabbath Day, as required by Puritan law, they accompanied their owners to church and sat on segregated back benches or in galleries. The gallery in this church once spanned three sides of the sanctuary, but only the back portion remains today. Before 1783 brought a gradual ending to slavery in Kittery and the rest of Massachusetts, at least 29 Blacks had established a relationship with this church either through baptism or membership. About 79 others also likely attended services with their owners. A few Blacks did gain their freedom during that time. Slavery’s aftermath of rejection and racism caused many Blacks to leave in search of jobs and spiritual guidance in towns elsewhere (For further information, see “Up in the Gallery” on our history web site.)
The 19th Century
The Rev. William Briggs was pastor from 1798 to 1814, and the dissatisfaction with him was so great that there were only three female members and no males left when he was dismissed. Reportedly, half of the congregation left to join a Baptist society. Other religious societies were also attracting members. First Christian on Haley Road was founded in 1806. Second Christian on Government Street, now also a United Church of Christ congregation, was organized in 1810.
The War of 1812 didn’t help. The shipping industry and the local economy pretty much came to a standstill.
After a few unsettled years, Mr. Stephen Merrill was sent by the Maine Missionary Society in 1819. Mrs. Tamsen Bellamy (who had rescued the church silver from Rev. Briggs) was the only member at that time, but Mr. Merrill admitted several members in 1820. It was a new beginning, and forty six members were admitted during his twelve years here. It was also a new beginning for Maine, as Maine became a state in 1820. In 1823 the bell was recast for the third time, not in England, but at the Revere Foundry in Massachusetts. After several good years here, Rev. Merrill was called to Biddeford in 1831.
In 1837, the Rev. Tobias Miller arrived. By now the church building was badly in need of repair, so work began again, paid for by parishioners and friends in other towns. In 1840, it was finished enough to hold a service of dedication. There were 35 members at the time, and a Sabbath School, the dream of Rev. Merrill, had been established. Rev. Miller preached that day on the history of the church. This sermon, compiled from all the early church records, and later notes by Rev. Miller, is the basis of most of our current writings.
In 1840 there were five churches in Kittery, many of them founded by former members here, but this church was now the smallest. However, a bridge over Spruce Creek would soon improve access to services and members.
Several ministers served after Mr. Miller left in 1841, with mixed results. In 1847 a circulating library was set up for the purpose of “removing from younger minds certain religious prejudices,” and to combat illiteracy and moral delinquency. The books came from concerned members and other libraries. These books, along with the Pepperrell Library and others owned by Dr. Stevens left to the church, are now on permanent loan to the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
In the 1870’s, due to a widening of the road, the meeting house was lifted and moved to its present position, a massive undertaking and one which produced some damage. In one of the 19th century renovations, two of the three balconies were removed, the box pews were replaced with straight pews, and the pulpit and two of the box pews were stored in the nearby Gerrish warehouse. The door was moved from the long side to the short side. The exterior was painted many times, and with several different colors. At one time the steeple was tall and pointed, but after several replacements due to lightning, the current dome was installed.
Church life seemed to enjoy a strong revival in the last quarter of the century. In 1874 the first social improvement group was organized, designed to replace the Sewing Circle to promote “the interests, prosperity and usefulness of the parish”. Recitations of prose and poetry or musicals comprised the program, and idle talk was discouraged. It died out in 1891, and the Sewing Circle was reborn. A Missionary Society was then organized.
The late 19th century was a lively time for women’s organizations, and the Ladies Circle was very active. There were annual summer fairs with aprons, kitchen goods, and ice cream for sale. These funds bought curtains and carpets and helped the Trustees pay for the building of the new parsonage around the year 1908.
The 20th Century
In 1908 there was a disastrous fire after Christmas Eve services. The remodeling that followed restored the pulpit and box pews, created the acoustically superior ceiling, and made many other changes, which were designed by the architect John Mead Howells, son of the author William Dean Howells.
With a new parsonage to house the minister, the old parsonage could be used for meetings and Sunday School. The women continued to furnish the church buildings, and in 1911 bought “singing books.” The first Christmas Sale was held in 1916. Other clubs were formed for various purposes – entertainment, mission work, building projects and the like.
In 1921 the Rev. John Graham, a native of England, came to us with his wife and six daughters. They were very musical, and services were enhanced by their voices and violin music. Rev. Graham also had a portable organ which further improved the congregational singing. Also in the 1920’s, members of the Swarthmore Chatauqua Circuit came to Kittery Point to prepare their Chatauqua Circuit presentations – lectures, music, and theater. Some of them began using the church for rehearsals, and in return gave a performance in August, donating the proceeds to the Ladies Circle for their church work. These musicales became a tradition for many years.
Rev. Graham also fostered community relations by forming a Friendly Conference with the other churches in the area to increase attendance and awareness. Today the Kittery/Eliot Clergy Association continues this good work.
In 1931 the Rev. Newcomb succeeded Rev. Graham. Also in 1931, the church joined the merger of Congregational and Christian Churches. Rev. Newcomb, with Clerk and Church Historian James Walker, were very interested in preservation and wrote histories of the town and church. Rev. Newcomb saw the church through the hard years of the Second World War. During the war the Navy Yard went to three shifts, and the town’s population surged. The old parsonage was used as a public school and was called the Benjamin Stevens Community House.
The post-war period was a time of religious fervor, with the Sunday School blossoming to 200 students, and families flocking to churches hoping to erase the evils of the war. The old parsonage wasn’t big enough, so it was enlarged in the 40’s and again in the 50’s, with an annex added on the right side, providing a lot of room in the large hall, and another Sunday School room upstairs. The parking lot was built and paved during this time. Three ministers were successful here during that period.
In 1946 the Honor Club purchased a Hammond Electric organ which lasted for 30 years thanks to loving care and repair by Carroll Evans, longtime organist and choir director.
In the 1950’s the women reorganized as a Women’s Fellowship according to the State Conference model. This group has been very large and influential in the church, currently paying the taxes on the parsonage and distributing $12-15,000 each year from the Summer Fair and the Christmas Fair. At one time they also supplied hostesses for open houses at the Lady Pepperrell House.
In 1957 the United Church of Christ came into being with the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. As a member of the latter, we also joined the UCC. Since then other denominations have joined, so that the UCC today enjoys a wide variety of traditions.
The postwar religious boom continued until the civil strife of the 1960’s when the counterculture took hold. With national race riots and anti-Vietnam War protests, church attendance fell drastically. Funding also fell off, and the church sold off the last of its rental properties to pay the bills. There arose a dispute over the disappearance of the church landing rights, an ancient right of way for church members to cross Spruce Creek before a bridge was built. The issue was never resolved satisfactorily.
In the 1970’s the congregation got very involved in supporting Camp Waban for people with developmental disabilities.
Gail Adams took on the organist/choir position after Carroll Evans and expanded an already excellent musical program, purchasing our second organ, purchasing a piano, producing a musical “Emmanuel” and conducting many excellent concerts as well as beautiful church music. “Emmanuel”, having been discovered by Bonnie Pierce, grew from a Sunday School pageant into a whole church project with a cast of nearly 90. It was performed several times over a ten year period in several local churches as well as going on tour to the composer’s home church in Sayville, NY. It was reprised for four performances in 1989 to celebrate our 275th.
In 1980 our first woman minister was called, the Rev. Carolyn Hofacker (later Keilig), a recent graduate of Andover Newton Theological Seminary. She did good work here, getting the church back on its financial feet. She was the first woman minister in this area. While she was here, the handicapped accessible ramps were installed at the church and the parish house.
Rev. Carolyn was succeeded in 1989 by our second woman minister, the Rev. Jill Staples, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Her eleven years marked significant fundraising efforts. The interior and exterior of the church were painted, handbells were purchased, thousands of dollars were raised for the family of Amy Ahlquist, a local child battling liver disease, tens of thousands were raised for the Maine Conference capital campaign, the steeple and church roof were repaired, and God’s Table was begun with proceeds going to feed the hungry through Operation Blessing. Spiritually and socially, youth fellowship programs were begun for both senior and junior highs, a women’s spirituality group was formed, coffee hours after church began, summer cookouts on the parsonage lawn were started, a mission statement was formulated, the lay reader program began, and a Communion tablecloth was constructed of fabrics from all the families in the church. A church secretary was hired, First Friday dinners began and later came Soup’s On! lunches. Epiphany concerts with Kittery/Eliot churches started, and the parish nurse program got underway. The Pepperrell Library was moved to the Portsmouth Athenaeum for climate control, and Fair Tide Transitional Housing was started. During this time Rev. Jill married Peter Vogt and gave birth to two children.
The 21st Century
Rev. Staples left in 2001 to accompany her husband to Germany. It was a sad goodbye for she was well loved by the congregation.
A lively interim with Rev. Jack Lynes was followed by the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gallagher. The membership is growing, the Sunday School is growing, the budget and pledging are growing, and we are now firmly anchored in the 21st century. With a presence on Facebook, a web site, sermons on YouTube, and electronic communication, we are a thoroughly modern church. Rev. Jeff introduced a vast number of activities in his ten years here, some permanent and some transitory: Monday morning Bible Study, monthly Book Club Discussions, a Green Team, a Hospitality Team, a Visitation Team, mission trips to hurricane ravaged areas in Florida and New Orleans, the 5K Team, Service Sundays, Building Blocks, The Guild for receptions, and Habitat for Humanity projects. Marcia Gibbons revived the God’s Table concept, renaming it Shared Gardens, which contributes over a thousand dollars every summer to the local food pantry. Most significantly, the congregation undertook a three year process to declare ourselves an Open and Affirming church. During this time Rev. Jeff earned his doctorate, ran the Boston Marathon and two Portland Marathons, and published his first book. He and his wonderful wife Kristen became the parents of two lovable boys.
Other highlights of the first 10 years of our church in the 21st Century Include: A rich and diverse Music Ministry continues at our church. Audrey Adams shared ten years of music ministry with us, followed by Andrea Rosenberg and Mary Towse-Beck. Most recently, Katherine Mayfield has come aboard to serve as our Music Director, providing captivating music for Sunday services and leading our ever-growing choir.
Sara Rhoades retired as our first Office Administrator, and a string of successors have followed as the church continues to discern the needs of the church in the early years of the 21st Century.
The steeple was re-coppered. A memorial garden was created by Elaine Paine, and the rebuilding of the cemetery wall was completed after ten years. A half million dollar renovation of the parish house was undertaken and completed in 2005.
In 2014, Rev. Jeff received a new call to Connecticut, just as the church was celebrating its 300th Anniversary. In November 2015 our church called Rev. Brian Gruhn to serve as our latest settled pastor. Rev. Brian was married to his wife Emily in September 2017, and our church has begun a new adventure to better deepen our commitment to serving people of all ages throughout life’s journey.
The Old Burying Ground
The Old Burying Ground, just across the road, has been in existence as long as the church. Votes at Annual Meetings show its early presence when funds were raised to fence it in, lay out lots, and maintain the grounds. In 1733 it was voted to build a stone wall around the cemetery. During the very early years, private home cemeteries were preferred because of fear that the graves would be desecrated by the Indians. As the years went on this cemetery was being used more frequently and quite often by people of neighboring towns. It became necessary to charge $2.00 for a lot, and it was further stipulated that enough dirt be brought to cover the casket.
The graves of several of our ministers are to be found here: Rev. John Newmarch, Dr. Benjamin Stevens, Rev. M. C. Bartley, Rev. John Graham, Rev. Edward H. Newcomb and the Rev. Roderick A. MacDonald.
The body of the church’s first minister, Rev. Newmarch was exhumed from an unkempt grave at Kittery Foreside and brought to the Old Burying Ground across from his beloved church. The reburial was accomplished in 1936 through the efforts of Mr. John M. Howells. Records and pictures in possession of the church show the procedures used to make sure that the body exhumed was indeed that of Mr. Newmarch. Rev. Newmarch’s grave is directly to the right of the front gate and Dr. Stevens’ marker is to the left of the entrance.
In the southwestern corner of the cemetery are field stones marking the Thaxter family graves. The most famous of these stones is the one for Levi Thaxter whose epitaph was written by poet Robert Browning. Levi Thaxter’s famed poetess wife, Celia, is buried on Appledore Island instead of the Old Burying Ground, as is often assumed. To the left of the entrance is the resting place of Capt. William Whipple, father of General William Whipple. Near this grave are the family lots of the Cutts and Gerrish families.
On the easterly side near the water is a stone in memory of those lost from the ship Hattie Eaton, which sank off Gerrish Island in a severe storm. There are smaller stones marking individual burial places. Many of these unusual stones in the cemetery are sought out for stone rubbings. This Old Burying Ground has been kept a lovely memorial by many years of careful planning by the cemetery committee.
Compiled by Sara K. Rhoades in 2013 from various resources including Kittery, Gateway to Maine” published by the Friends of the Rice Public Library in 2006, Church History by Constance Billings in 1989, Kittery Kaleidoscope published by the Kittery Bicentennial Committee in 1976, 1840 Rededication Sermon by Rev. Tobias Miller as transcribed by Judy P. Smart. Edited by Rev. Brian Gruhn.