History of The First Church of Cambridge

Posted by Sarah Seippel on

The First Church of Cambridge is a Unitarian Universalist church, located in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is a welcoming congregation, open to people of many backgrounds who have different beliefs but share moral values.  This church is also a member of the Unitarian Universalists Association.

The First Church Early History

For over the last three centuries, First Church has offered sanctuary to those searching for salvation.  Then, pilgrims and pioneers entered the congregation to be guided by God’s grace. The church was first established between the years of 1633 and 1636, making this the eleventh oldest congregation in all New England.  By October of the year 1633, Reverend Thomas Hooker begins preaching in the house, but he only practiced for three years because he and many of his followers escaped to Connecticut to escape religious persecution.  Because of this, Reverend Thomas Shepard took over as the pastor (1636). This is the year that the Puritan church is formally recognized; however, it was not deemed a Unitarian church until the 1800’s.

How the Church Came to Harvard

Pastor Thomas urge the General Court of Massachusetts to move the Harvard College to Newtowne (now Cambridge), which is only a short distance from the newly established church.  His reasoning was that he wanted the Harvard students to be closing to the church and could “benefit from proximity” to his preaching.  The Harvard College Yard was then deemed the site for the second Meeting House, built is 1652 (currently Lehman Hall).  The church continued to grow, and a third Meeting House was constructed in 1706, a fourth in 1756.  By 1833, the fifth and final Meeting House was constructed and still stands adjacent to present-day Harvard Yard.


Evolution of Church Doctrine

Reverend Shepard, as well as those who proceeded his as Pastor, preached a Calvinistic doctrine, a major form of Protestantism that follows the theological traditions of Christian practice designed by John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians. In the 18th century, the church started to adapt to a more liberal direction in thinking.  This split the church theologies into two sides: the Arminian and the Calvinists.  The split also caused a great crisis between 1805 to 1830.  The minister at this time were Reverend Abiel Holmes, and he was dismissed by the Parish, resulting in the church to adopt the Unitarian views.


Ministers of First Parish in Cambridge

  • 1633–1636 Thomas Hooker
  • 1633–1636 Samuel Stone
  • 1636–1649 Thomas Shepard 
  • 1649–1650 Henry Dunster
  • 1650–1668 Jonathan Mitchel
  • 1671–1681 Urian Oakes
  • 1682–1692 Nathaniel Gookin
  • 1696–1717 William Brattle
  • 1717–1784 Nathaniel Appleton
  • 1783–1790 Timothy Hilliard
  • 1792–1829 Abiel Holmes
  • 1830–1868 William Newell
  • 1874–1879 Francis G. Peabody
  • 1882–1893 Edward H. Hall
  • 1894–1927 Samuel M. Crothers
  • 1928–1934 Ralph E. Bailey
  • 1935–1944 Leslie T. Pennington
  • 1945–1958 Wilburn B. Miller
  • 1959–1977 Ralph N. Helverson
  • 1978–1987 Edwin A. Lane
  • 1989–2006 Thomas J. S. Mikelson
  • 1997–2007 Jory Agate
  • 2008–2015 Fred Small
  • 2010–2014 Lilia Cuervo
  • 2017– Adam Lawrence Dyer


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