Our History

First Parish in Needham is both the oldest religious congregation in the community and one of the most inclusive and progressive. The founding of the church on November 5, 1711, made possible the incorporation of the town. Even at its inception as a Puritan church, the congregation at First Parish gathered on the basis of a covenant — a statement of shared hopes and an agreement about how to walk together — rather than on the basis of a creed, or required statement of belief. Ministers were, and still are, called by vote of the membership, and our governance has always been democratic.

As the parish church, First Parish served not only the members of the congregation, but everyone in the town (the parish). Its Meetinghouse was the site of town meetings for many years. The first Meetinghouse was raised in 1712 on Nehoiden Street, near Central Avenue. In 1720 Jonathan Townsend became the first of many ministers to be called to First Parish over the years; he served until 1762 and is buried, along with several other early First Parish ministers, in the Needham Cemetery also on Nehoiden Street.

The second Meetinghouse, built in 1774, stood at the same location. In 1811, First Parish acquired a bell made by Paul Revere, a bell that we still ring today at the beginning of Sunday worship and on other special occasions. Our present Meetinghouse was built on Nehoiden St. in 1836 using timbers from the pre-Revolutionary building. It is the oldest public building in Needham. In 1879, when Wellesley became a separate town and the center of Needham shifted to the site of the town square, the Meetinghouse was moved to its present location on Dedham Avenue.

Over the course of the 18th century, congregations like First Parish came to feel strongly about democratic governance in secular affairs, and many played a leading role in the American Revolution. By the war’s end, many of these parishes no longer preached the Calvinist idea of predestination, nor did they require even ministers to believe that God is a trinity of persons. Opponents began calling them “Unitarians.” During the early and mid-19th century the congregation also came to include, and to call as ministers, “Universalists” who denied eternal punishment and affirmed God’s loving intention to save all people. (See What is Unitarian Universalism?)

The Parish maintained the traditional distinction between covenanted members (the church) and a wider constituency being served (the parish) for many years. But with the adoption of an “open covenant” in 1905, we made it explicit that no affirmation of belief shall be required for membership. In 1944 the church formally merged into the more inclusive Parish. The congregational bylaws simply say that its purpose is “to provide a community where religious living is fostered through worship, study, service, and fellowship.”

Some important milestones in recent years include:

The congregation is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (www.uua.org), which was formed by the union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in 1961.

For more information:

Record of Ministers

Jonathan Townsend
1720 – 1762

Samuel West
1764-1788

Stephen Palmer
1792-1821

William Ritchie
1821-1842

Lyman Maynard
1842-1846

Charles H. A. Dall
1847-1850

James F. Hicks
1852-1853

George G. Channing
1853-1855

Andrew N. Adams
1855-1857

John S. Barry
1858-1860

George B. Emerson
1860-1866

Albert B. Vorse
1870-1871

Solon W. Bush
1871-1889

Charles A. Allen
1889-1893

Philip S. Thacher
1894-1901

William W. Peck
1901-1908

J. Adams Puffer
1908-1912

Arthur W. Littlefield
1912-1920

Ben F. Allen
1920-1928

Robert H. Schacht, Jr.
1929-1931

James W. Macdonald
1932-1939

H. Mortimer Gesner
1940-1944

Fred I. Cairns 
1944-1949

Russell R. Bletzer
1949-1956

Jack D. Zoerheide
1957-1969

Charles C. Lemert, III
1969-1971

Peter T. Richardson
1971-1974

John Baker
1975-1985

Robert E. Wolf
1986-1997

Judith G. Mannheim
1998-2001

John A. Buehrens
2002-2012

Catherine M. Scudera

2014-