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

Stephen Palmer

William Ritchie

Lyman Maynard

Charles H. A. Dall

James F. Hicks

George G. Channing

Andrew N. Adams

John S. Barry

George B. Emerson

Albert B. Vorse

Solon W. Bush

Charles A. Allen

Philip S. Thacher

William W. Peck

J. Adams Puffer

Arthur W. Littlefield

Ben F. Allen

Robert H. Schacht, Jr.

James W. Macdonald

H. Mortimer Gesner

Fred I. Cairns 

Russell R. Bletzer

Jack D. Zoerheide

Charles C. Lemert, III

Peter T. Richardson

John Baker

Robert E. Wolf

Judith G. Mannheim

John A. Buehrens

Catherine M. Scudera