No place in America is more closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday than Eastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. It was here that the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 and where they later celebrated the first Thanksgiving. Many of the settlements in this region were established directly by the pilgrims or by those Puritan Separatists who followed them to the New World in the next decade. Though all but gone from the American religious landscape, these earliest European settlers established some of the oldest and historic churches still standing in the United States. For those planning to visit Massachusetts for the holiday, here are five must-see churches:
First Parish Church
Web: http://firstparishplymouthuu.org (official website)
The First Parish Church in Plymouth is home to what is claimed to be the oldest continuously active Protestant congregation in the United States. Founded in England in 1606, it was established by the Pilgrims, Puritan Separatists who had fled Europe in search of religious freedom. Although there are rival claims to America’s oldest congregation, it is the story of the church at Plymouth that has captured the nation’s imagination and is celebrated every year at Thanksgiving.
Officially the congregation was formed in England in 1606 prior to their departure for the New World. They made landfall in November 1620 and established the first English-speaking Reform church in America. While the current church itself is not particularly historic, the cemetery is home to the gravesites of the most famous of the Pilgrims, including William Brewster. Also buried here is the Native American hero Squanto who befriended the Pilgrims. A few blocks to the northeast is the monument on Plymouth Harbor where the famous Plymouth Rock can be found.
Old Ship Church
Web: http://oldshipchurch.org (official website)
The Old Ship Church in Hingham is one of the oldest religious institutions in the United States, and enjoys a number of important distinctions. It is the oldest surviving Congregational church building in the United States; the oldest and one of the last surviving Puritan churches in the United States; the oldest church in Massachusetts as well as the rest of New England; and one of less than half a dozen intact churches in the United States that date back to the 17th century.
The city of Hingham was among the earlier settlements that dotted the coast of Massachusetts in the early 17th century. Like Plymouth, which had been founded by Puritan Separatists a decade earlier, Hingham was established by colonists from England fleeing religious persecution. The Hingham Meetinghouse was completed in 1681 and was the result of a major community effort, even by the standards of the day. Virtually every resident is recorded as having contributed funds, labor or both to its construction. At the time of its completion, it is believed that it was the most expensive building, that had yet been built in New England.
Old Indian Meeting House
Web: www.mashpeewampanoagtribe.com/meetinghouse (official website).
The Old Indian Meeting House is one of the oldest intact places of worship in the United States, the second oldest in the state of Massachusetts, and probably the most famous Native American church in the country. Constructed in 1685, this meeting house was built for the use of the local Christian congregation made up of members of the Wampanoag tribe.
In the decades following the establishment of the colonies in New England, the new settlers, generally Congregational Christians along the Puritan model, began evangelizing among the local tribes of the area. One such mission led to the establishment of a Christian community among the Wampanoag tribe in the 17th century. In 1670 a meeting house was built to serve the congregation, followed by a larger and more permanent structure in 1685. In the upper seating area, etched graffiti can be found from the church’s earliest days.
First Church in Salem
Web: www.firstchurchinsalem.org (official website).
The First Church in Salem is home to one of America’s oldest continually active Protestant congregations. However, it is most famous (or infamous) for its association with the Salem Witch Trials. Some of the trial activity took place within the congregation’s church, and several of its members were involved. While not part of the main Salem witch sites located a few miles away in Danvers, many witch tourists to the town visit the church in search of the macabre.
The congregation of the First Church in Salem dates to 1629, less than a decade after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts. It later became the mother church of the Church of Salem Village (now Danvers), which became independent in 1678. Together these two congregations were the focal point of the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. At least two members of the congregation were falsely accused and convicted of witchcraft and subsequently killed. The First Church of Salem would go on to make amends for its history by becoming a champion of human rights and abolitionist activity. The current building dates from 1836.
United First Parish Church
Web: www.ufpc.org (official website).
The United First Parish Church of Quincy is locally nicknamed the Church of the Presidents. Its main claim to fame is its ties to the Adams family (the political family, not the television/movie family). The congregation of Quincy was founded in 1639, and John Adams Sr., the father of President John Adams, settled there in 1720. His family and descendents continued to attend church here well into the 19th century.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, attended church here as a youth. In the 1820s he donated land, money and materials to the construction of a new church building. He died in 1826, and was interred in the church after its completion a few years later. John Quincy Adams, his son and sixth President, was in office when the First Parish Church was completed. He was also buried here after his death in 1848.