The land that was to become known as Gloucester was inhabited by the Agawam people under sachem Masconomet at the time of first contact with European colonists. A map produced by Samuel de Champlain in 1606 suggests substantial Native American settlement and activity along the Gloucester harbor. In 1823, men from the Dorchester Company established a permanent fishing outpost in present day Gloucester. The settlement was short lived as it was abandoned by 1626.
Between 1626 and 1642, when Gloucester was formally incorporated, the area was slowly resettled by English colonists. During this time a house of worship was possibly erected, though there was no settled minister. The first settled minister, Rev. Richard Blynman, arrived in Gloucester in 1642 along with a group of Welsh followers. The “second meeting house” was likely erected in 1644. In 1649, Blyman moved to New London along with a significant portion of his followers.
Between 1650 and 1661, Gloucester was without a settled minister. During this time, Rev. William Perkins may have preached in Gloucester regularly, though he was never formally settled. Rev. John Emerson was to become the second minister of the First Church in 1661, though he was ordained in 1663. During his pastorate, the third and fourth meeting houses were constructed. Emerson served as minister until his death in 1700.
In 1703, Rev. John White became the next pastor of the First Church. During his pastorate, the town of Gloucester grew to support five separate parishes. In 1728, the majority of the First Parish moved to the harbor and the newly constructed fifth meeting house; the fourth meeting house became the seat of the fourth parish. Rev. White served until his death in 1760.
Rev White was succeeded by Rev. Samuel Chandler. During his pastorate, in 1774, Rev. John Murray, a Universalist, arrived in Gloucester. The result of Rev. Murray’s arrival was religious disagreement within the First Church. Such disagreements did not end with Rev. Chandler’s death in 1775 or Rev. Eli Forbes’s installation in 1776. In 1778, a group of parishioners broke away from the First Church to form the First Universalist Church in the United States.
The First Church’s next minister, Rev. Perez Lincoln, began his pastorate in 1805 and brought with him his Unitarian training. His successor, Rev. Levi Hartshorn, a Calvinist, was dismissed after only four year due to his Calvinism. The sixth, and last, meeting house was constructed in 1828 during the pastorate of Rev. Hosea Hildreth. In 1729 a portion of the congregation split from the First Church to form the Evangelical Congregational Church of Gloucester. The First Church formally became a Unitarian Church during the pastorate of Rev. Luther Hamilton around 1835.
By 1950, membership at the First Church in Gloucester had diminished significantly. At that point the church society was dissolved and the building was sold to members of the Jewish Synagogue. The records of the church were deposited with the Cape Ann Musuem.
Materials in this collection have been digitized in partnership with the Cape Ann Museum and have been made available through our New England's Hidden Histories project.