First Congregational Church of Hampton

Chapter 22 -- Part 2

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The First Congregational Church of Hampton, founded in 1638 by Reverend Stephen Bachiler, has been preaching the gospel continuously for 350 years, making it the oldest continuing congregation in New Hampshire.

At this time (1989), Steven Bowden is the 37th minister, the 16th in the last 100 years. The present building on Winnacunnet Road, built in 1844, is the sixth meetinghouse. It has been renovated and added to and has suffered from three fires. The chapel on the east side was not part of the original building. Dedicated in 1894, it was built in memory of Reverend Josiah Webster and funded largely by a gift from his son, Claudius.

Over the years since 1888, due to four major wars and various economic depressions, the finances of the church have suffered, but the devotion and hard work of the members always have succeeded in keeping it active. Its membership has varied from about 100 to more than 300, and its budget has risen from a few thousand dollars to over $100,000.

In 1888, when Reverend John A. Ross was minister, the church celebrated its 250th anniversary, and the speakers included former pastors -- Reverend S. P. Fay, Reverend John Colby, Reverend John Dodge, and Reverend Walcott Fay. Joseph Dow, author of The History of Hampton, was a longtime deacon and clerk of the church.

In 1911, the church's old silver was loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for an exhibit of church silver. Purchased at different times and cherished over the years, the silver has been loaned a second time to the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as to the Currier Art Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. The church holds ownership of these valuable heirlooms from the founding fathers.

Over the years, various church organizations have helped to encourage the faith of the people, the work of missions, and the upkeep of the building. Among these organizations were the Sunday School, Women's Missionary Society, Women's Guild, Whatsover Mission Circle, Men's Club, Couples' Club, Little Helpers, Ladies' Aid Society, Young People's Society of Christian Education and Pilgrim Fellowship, and of course the choirs, choir director, and organist.

In 1913, on its 275th anniversary, the church observed Forefathers Day and the 95th anniversary of the Sunday School. In 1919, due to war conditions, times were hard and money was scarce. Missionary work turned mostly to the Red Cross and war-related projects. In 1921, when a Disarmament Conference was held in Washington, D.C., the church sent a petition asking the conference "not to dissolve until it has taken decisive action.....against the recurrence of war."

In 1928, a new organ was purchased; the chancel, choir room, and pastor's room were added; and the old pulpit from the 1796 meetinghouse was repaired and installed where it is still used each Sunday.

In 1937, 1939, and 1940, the church was struck by fire. The first blaze, in November 1937, was detected in time to prevent great harm. The September 1939 fire caused greater damage to the belfry, the roof, and the sanctuary. Both fires were said to have been caused by faulty wiring. Arson was determined as the cause of the fire in November 1940 and the damage was extensive. The organ was ruined, the pulpit and choir loft heavily damaged, and walls and pews were crusted and blistered by the heat. Young Wayne Ramsden of Hampton was arrested and admitted to being "involved" in the fire. He was judged not sane and was committed to the State Hospital in Concord.

Before 1923, the Congregational Society consisted only of men, but women members were admitted that year, "in complete parity and . . . [with] the same rights and obligations with male members." Until 1938, there had been two separate organizations: the Congregational Society and the Congregational Church. The former handled financial matters and care of the real estate; the latter dealt with spiritual matters. On March 3, 1938, the society and the church were incorporated under the laws of the state of New Hampshire as the First Congregational Church of Hampton, N.H., Inc.

In 1941, members voted to dispose of the old parsonage and to build a new one in the same location at a cost of not more than $8,500.

Along with the old silver and pewter, another reminder of early times was the gift in 1952 of a cello made in 1836 by David Marston, a local cabinetmaker. It was played in church by Daniel Marston for about 10 years until the first organ was purchased. The cello was returned to the church by Eloise Lane Smith, great-granddaughter of Daniel Hobbs. A special service was held to celebrate the occasion.

The First Congregational Church has always been an independent church, and this was confirmed in 1961, when the members voted not to join the United Church of Christ, which many churches were doing.

The 325th anniversary in 1963 was observed by Old Home Sunday in August and Founders' Day in October. The church was redecorated with new pews, new carpet, and paint and varnish where needed.

In the 1796 meetinghouse (later the town hall) hung a bell bought by the society from Paul Revere's company. It was probably recast in 1871, but it still contained the Revere bell metal. After the town hall burned, the bell was recovered from the ashes and stored in a shed behind the new town office until 1969, when it was placed in front of the church with a plaque that commemorates its history.

Over the years, the steeple had been battered by wind and weather, and temporary repairs had been made. During 1979 and 1980, it was decided to rebuild the spire out of fiberglass and to repair the bell tower and roof.

The parsonage was sold in 1979, so the church for the first time had no housing for a minister. For a few years, it was arranged for the pastor to rent or purchase whatever type of building he preferred, but a new parsonage was purchased in 1985.

In 1983, Reverend James Barclay resigned and was made Pastor Emeritus, joining two previous ministers so honored, Reverend Herbert Walker and Reverend Donald Rankin. Reverend Richard Don was hired in 1983 but was asked to resign in 1985. A small number of members left with him to form the New Covenant Congregational Church.

During the 350th anniversary celebration of Hampton in 1988, the church hosted an all-faiths ecumenical service in January and also hosted a Founders' Day service in August.

The First Congregational Church of Hampton is a healthy, active organization under the guidance of the minister, the board of wardens, and the board of deacons. In the words of Ross in 1902, "May this old church, which has such a grand history behind it, for many centuries to come still point the way to heaven."

 -— Laura MacLean, Church Historian

Ministers 1888—Present

John A. Ross1887-1902
Edgar Warren1903-1905
George R. Rowell1905-1908
Inor Partington1908-1913
J. Selden Strong1913-1914
Wallace Sterns1914-1918
George W. Clark1919-1923
John Cummings1923-1927
Herbert Walker1927-1938
Floyd G. Kinsley1938-1952
William G. McInnes1953-1961
Howard S. Danner, Jr.1962-1966
Donald J. Rankin1967-1976
James C. Barclay1976-1983
Richard P. Don1983-1985
Steven R. Bowden1985-1989
Dwight E. Mexcur*1990-1996
Deborah Knowlton*1999- 
Diane Pierce*1989-1990
Diane Pierce*(Possibly some time in 1996-97)
Reva Karstens*1996-1999]
(*Not in original Randall's History of Hampton book.)
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