First Parish in Needham is both the oldest religious congregation in the community and one of the most inclusive and progressive. The founding of the church on November 5, 1711, made possible the incorporation of the town.
As the parish church, First Parish was designed from the start to serve not only the members of the congregation, but everyone in the town (the parish). Its Meetinghouse was the site of town meetings for many years. The first Meetinghouse was raised in 1712 and stood on Nehoiden Street, near Central Avenue. In 1720 Jonathan Townsend became the first of many ministers to be called to First Parish over the years; he served until 1762 and is buried, along with several other early First Parish ministers, in the Needham Cemetery also on Nehoiden Street.
The second Meetinghouse, built in 1774, stood at the same location. In 1811, First Parish acquired a bell made by Paul Revere, a bell that we still ring today at the beginning of Sunday worship and on other special occasions.
The Second Meetinghouse, circa 1836
Our present Meetinghouse was built in 1836 using timbers from the pre-Revolutionary building. It is the oldest public building in Needham. In 1879, when Wellesley became a separate town and the center of Needham shifted to the site of the town square, the Meetinghouse was moved to its present location on Dedham Avenue.
Even at its inception as a Puritan church, the congregation at First Parish gathered on the basis of a covenant — a statement of shared hopes, along with an agreement about how to walk together — rather than on the basis of a creed, or required statement of belief. Ministers were, and still are, called by vote of the membership, and our governance has always been democratic.
As the 18th century progressed, congregations like First Parish came to feel strongly about democratic governance in secular affairs, and many played a leading role in the American Revolution. By the war's end, many of these parishes no longer preached the Calvinist idea of predestination, nor did they require even ministers to believe that God is a trinity of persons. Opponents began calling them "Unitarians." During the early and mid-19th century the congregation also came to include, and to call as ministers, "Universalists" who denied eternal punishment and affirmed God’s loving intention to save all people. (See What is Unitarian Universalism?)
The Parish maintained the traditional distinction between covenanted members (the church) and a wider constituency being served (the parish) for many years. But with the adoption of an “open covenant” in 1905, we made it explicit that no affirmation of belief shall be required for membership. In 1944 the church formally merged into the more inclusive Parish. The congregational bylaws simply say that its purpose is “to provide a community where religious living is fostered through worship, study, service, and fellowship.”
The congregation is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (www.uua.org), which was formed by the union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in 1961.
First Parish ministers and members have a long history of being active in social justice causes. In 1965 the minister of First Parish, Rev. Jack Zoerhide, answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and marched in the campaign at Selma, Alabama, along with many other Unitarian Universalist ministers. More recently, John Buehrens served as national co-chair of Freedom to Marry. Members have been involved in fair housing issues in Needham and have established preschools in Africa.
A Welcoming Congregation and A Green Sanctuary
In the early years of the 21st century, First Parish in Needham became a “Welcoming Congregation” — a recognition bestowed by the UUA on qualifying churches. As a Welcoming Congregation, we seek to welcome all persons — without regard to race, religious background, sexual orientation, gender, ability, or economic circumstance — to full participation in its life and ministry. Later in the decade we were recognized by the UUA as a "Green Sanctuary", a testament to the congregation's commitment to engage in both individual and collective efforts to live mindfully on this earth. Both awards reflect First Parish's completion of a long and rigorous qualification progress.
Following flower communion in June of 2007, we vacated the physical home of First Parish to make way for an extensive rebuilding and renovation project. The old Parish Hall, built in 1888, was essentially razed, and a beautiful new, larger, and environmentally progressive building rose in its place.
In April of 2010, First Parish became the first house of worship in Massachusetts — and only the sixth nationwide — to receive the EPA's Energy Star certification for energy efficiency.
Learn more at Our Green Building.
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