Anyone who has ventured into the center of Williamstown has no doubt stopped to admire the iconic “White Clapboard New England Church” found there, but we suspect that few have guessed the somewhat curious history of this building. Hidden beneath the current exterior, so evocative of New England village life, is an 1869 brick Neo-Romanesque building.
The First Congregational Church was originally organized in 1765 when Whitman Welch was called to West Hoosick to serve as preacher. This event fulfilled the condition outlined by the Massachusetts General Court that a town have a settled pastor in order to incorporate. West Hoosick could only become Williamstown after Whitman Welch became our pastor. Thus the church’s history and the town’s have always been linked.
During our second pastor’s 28 years with us, Williamstown became the location for Williams College, and our church served as a focus for the discussion of hot issues of the day. In the years following, the Meetinghouse of the First Congregational Church served both College and town, providing a site for College graduation ceremonies and town meetings. At Williams’ first commencement, in the Meetinghouse, one student spoke on the morality of banning the slave trade. In the mid-nineteenth century we were the location for the ordination of Berkshire County’s first African American minister. In the past, several College presidents presided over the congregation: Ebenezer Fitch, Zephaniah Swift Moore, Edward Dorr Griffin, and Mark Hopkins. Although the College had previously managed to peacefully coexist with the local community, the first instance of town and gown conflict occurred when the two distinct personalities of our third pastor, Reverend Ralph W. Gridley, and President Griffin could not agree on how to lead the Church. Reverend Gridley resigned in 1834, and although the Williams archives saysPresident Griffin took over the position of pastor, our records show it was Rev. Joseph Alden.
more information can be found below
Some important dates in the church’s history:
- 1765 – Congregational Church first organized; Whitman Welch hired and served until his death in 1776; meetings conducted in log schoolhouse.
- 1768 – First log meetinghouse built due to dissatisfaction with the schoolhouse.
- 1779 – Seth Swift serves as pastor until his death in 1807, he serves as an original trustee of the college .
- 1798 – Second meetinghouse built, with aid from Williams College; original building moved and then purportedly burned down by unknown students who wished to rid the town of the eyesore.
- 1816 – Reverend Ralph W. Gridley leads congregation until his resignation in 1834.
- 1859 – Low sense of spiritualism, and newly organized local churches plagues community by drawing members away.
- 1865 – First Church’s centennial year. Reverend Mason Noble helps restore spiritual zeal of the community, and 59 new members added.
- 1866 – Second meetinghouse at the square burns down.
- 1869 – New building completed in current location, and known as the New Congregational Church. Because of the burdensome debt accumulated, Professor Albert Hopkins serves as pastor without salary until his death in 1872.
- 1871 – Reverend Albert Cole Sewell (Williams class of 1867) ordained in 1871, installed 1873 served until 1886.
- 1914 – Building remodeled after the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Conn.
- 1915 – First Church celebrates 150 year anniversary.
- 1934 – First Church applies for and receives incorporated status, a change which unifies the church and parish. Name changed from First Parish to First Church.
- 1947 – First Church redecorated.
- 1960 – new organ installed by Charles Fisk, his last organ before going on to found the C.B Fisk Organ Co.
- 1961 – First Church votes to join the UCC.
- 1965 – First Church celebrates it’s bicentennial
- 1990 – First Church hires it’s first African American pastor, Arnold Thomas.
- 1992 – First Church becomes “Open & Affirming“
- 2000 – First Church hires it’s first female pastor, Carrie Bail.
- 2013 – Carrie Bail resigns, Mark Longhurst is hired as Designated Pastor
- 2013 – Mark Longhurst is installed as our 29th Pastor
For a more in depth look at the history of our Church, please watch this video of the presentation First Church & Williamstown: 250 Years Together on November 14th 2015, given at the Williamstown Historical Museum, now available to watch on Willinet! You can see the film here: