The Founding, 1846

history_001In the mid-1840s the abolition, or anti-slavery, movement in America was taking shape and gaining force. In November 1845 a small group of abolitionists in Andover formed a weekly prayer group to pray for the end of slavery and to urge their churches and pastors to take stand against the evil of human bondage. The churches remained silent, some because of a “gag rule” that forbade public discussion of slavery from pulpits, some because the textile mills of the North depended on a slave-based economy. Even so, the anti-slavery society grew and, under the leadership of local flax mill owners John Smith and John Dove, petitioned for the formation of a congregational church that would protest slavery. On May 7, 1846, the Free Christian Church was founded in an ecclesiastical council at the home of Stephen Dinsmore on the corner of Chestnut and Main Streets. According to founder and ink factory owner William Donald,

Small as the Council was [three churches, from Fitchburg, Haverhill, and Boston], it numbered all we could then find to sympathize with us in our cause. There this church was constituted, its forty-four original members having been connected with the older churches as follows: with the West Parish 17, South Church 14, Methodist Church 10, and the Baptist Church 3. Our friends among the wise and learned of the town were few. But if we had little to cheer us, we thanked God and took courage at every remembrance of our righteous cause, and of the honor conferred upon us in being allowed to stand forth as friends of the poor and friendless.

The men and women who made up that first congregation risked their reputations, and even their livelihoods, to speak and act for freedom. Smith, Dove, and the other leaders—the Holts, Goulds, and Barnards, the Clarks, Lovejoys, Abbots, and Hardings—were prominent, prosperous manufacturers and merchants who had much to lose. They chose what was right and true over what was popular and comfortable.

The name Free Christian Church carries fourfold significance:

  1. The church took an active stand in favor of freedom for slaves;
  2. many of its Scottish founding members had ancestral ties to the congregational “Free Church of Scotland” (as opposed to the state-supported Presbyterian Church);
  3. the seats in the meetinghouse were free to all because pews were not sold or rented to families; and
  4. the church was free and independent from other organizations and denominations.

The White Church and the Brick Church

history_002At first, the congregation met in the abandoned Universalist Church. Under the first pastor, Rev. Elijah C. Winchester, “each succeeding Sabbath the congregation increased until the placed was filled.” Then John Smith, on his own, purchased the unused Methodist Church and had it moved from the corner of Morton and Main to a site on Railroad Street, which he also donated. That “White Church,” as it was called, was dedicated on March 8, 1850, and it would be the meetinghouse for over fifty years. In 1889 Free Church called its tenth pastor, a man who would lead the church into the twentieth century, move it from the mill valley to the center of town, and help it to grow to several hundred members. Frederick A. Wilson served as pastor for thirty years and, following retirement in 1919, as pastor emeritus for an additional seventeen, until his death in 1936. Evidence abounds that he was an inspiring preacher, tireless servant, loving and much-loved pastor, and visionary leader.

history_003At the turn of the century, the congregation began to explore a move to a “more suitable location” and authorized fundraising and formation of a building committee. In 1903 the Elm Street property was obtained, and in 1906 the premiere architectural firm in the country, McKim, Mead, and White (creators of Boston Symphony Hall, among other masterpieces), was hired to design the new Free Church. A cornerstone filled with artifacts and documents was laid in 1907, and a year later, on September 18, 1908, the brick church was dedicated to the same mission the founders had set forth in their statement of purpose: “winning souls to God and presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the remedy for all the evils of society as well as for all the woes of the heart.”

At that ceremony, Rev. Wilson observed, “The success of the church erected here will not depend on any past reputation or achievements, but on the consecrated Christian living and thinking of those who work and worship here. May God make the glory of this new temple greater than that of the old.

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