The Congregational Church of Topsfield
The area known as New Meadows grew as settlers moved inland from Ipswich and others came from Salem to claim land south of the Ipswich River. Because Ipswich and Salem were too far away for travel to Sunday services, a new village with a minister and church was needed . In 1643 the General Court ruled that the settlers along the Ipswich River who had “procured and maintained one to dispense the word of God unto them” could establish a village. In 1648 the General Court named the town Topsfield. Finally, Topsfield was incorporated as a town by authority of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650.
From the founding of the Town until the early 19th century, Town and Church were one and the same. The Puritan Meetinghouse, as was the case in all New England villages, served as the community’s place of assembly for religious services and for Town Meetings. There have been five Meetinghouses in Topsfield. The first, for which the earliest record is 1658, is thought to have been located at the northeast corner of Howlett Street and Meeting House Lane. The second, which was built about the time the church was “gathered” in 1663, was located at what is now the older part of Pine Grove Cemetery. In 1703, during the time of Parson Capen, the third was built on the Common on the site of the present Meetinghouse of the Congregational Church. When the membership outgrew that building, it was replaced by the fourth structure in 1759. The Paul Revere bell which still rings from the church steeple was originally hung in the fourth building that was renovated in 1817 to accommodate the bell. In 1842, the meetinghouse was replaced by the present Greek Revival style building. Alterations and additions to this building include the curved section at the rear added in 1853 for the vestry and choir loft and the stained glass memorial windows installed in 1891. Subsequent alterations in 1967-68 added the chancel, the side entry, and extensions to either side of the front to allow safe stairs to the balcony. In the 1990’s the structure was made ADA compliant, and in 2006-2007, a major timber-framing project restored the steeple and bell tower.
The Meetinghouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Topsfield Common National Register District. In recognition of the historic importance of the Meetinghouse, grants from federal and state historic agencies and the Topsfield Historical Society supported the steeple restoration project.
Just as the Meetinghouse was built, rebuilt, and replaced in response to the needs of the congregation, the ideas and attitudes of the church have evolved in response to the circumstances of the times. The church’s journey from its origins as a strict Congregational Puritan community that expelled Quakers found visiting the Town to today’s Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ traces the history of religious expression in America. After the early Puritan years, the Topsfield congregation waned in religious fervor and struggled with demands for reform. The Great Awakening of the early 18th century, that stimulated independent thought and rekindled faith throughout New England, revived Topsfield’s church so much so that the larger 1759 Meetinghouse was needed.
The new spirit of independent thought and action contributed to the calls for freedom and liberty in New England. In the 1759 Meetinghouse, the Town of Topsfield voted to form a militia and support the Declaration of Independence. The able-bodied men of the Town trained on the Common in the shadow of the Meetinghouse and from that point departed for Lexington, Boston, and beyond during the American Revolution.
One of the results of the American Revolution was the separation of Church and State in Massachusetts in 1823. The Church retained the Meetinghouse and the Town the land around it. In addition, Topsfield saw the growth of numerous religious denominations. A Methodist congregation emerged around 1830 and built a church on the Common in 1854. At about the same time, a group broke away from the Congregational Church to form a short-lived Unitarian Society, and a Roman Catholic chapel was built. This diversity of theological perspectives and religious practices led to changes within the Congregational church. The Ladies Society formed in 1841, the Sunday School was established by 1848, and an organ was purchased in 1856. Looking outward, the church began its support of foreign missions in Africa, India and Turkey. Prominent in these activities were the Women’s Missionary Society and the young people’s Christian Endeavor group. The Rev. Anson McCloud, minister from 1841-1869, helped guide these developments. A forward-looking and engaged citizen, he also served on school and library committees and in the state legislature after he resigned from the pulpit.
In 1924 the Congregational and Methodist churches joined as the Federated Church of Topsfield. While each group maintained its denominational identity, most religious services were held in the Congregational Meetinghouse and the social functions and meetings in the Methodist Church that had a kitchen and large meeting space known as “Union Hall.” In 1938 the Federated Church dissolved, and many of the Methodists joined the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church building became the Parish House. For many years,
this building provided space for the Sunday School and both Church and Town activities, and it was used as the Town’s polling place. When the Emerson Center, across the Common from the Meetinghouse, was renovated, it replaced the Parish House which is now The Commons.
Over 350 years of history has laid the foundation for today’s Congregational Church of Topsfield, a vibrant, caring community that appreciates its historic past and embraces its exciting future.