A Brief History of the First Parish, Brunswick, Maine

First Parish Church is different from most churches in that a separate body, First Parish, owns most of the Church's property and handles its finances. The two organizations have different, though overlapping membership. The Church consists of covenant members, while the Parish consists of both Church members and anyone else who has contributed recently to the Church or Parish. Some history of the Parish, its evolution, and its changing relationship with the Church may help us understand the present arrangement.

The Pejepscot Proprietors, from away, who developed the town of Brunswick, were required by their charter to initiate what amounted to the framework of a parish. Parishes had evolved in England as a way of aligning local church and civil government for common purposes, such as taxing communities for the maintenance of the poor. In the Colonies, the intention was to establish and maintain churches in towns. In anticipation of a town, the Proprietors were to tax inhabitants to maintain a Christian ministry, to set aside a lot for the subsistence of the first minister and another lot to sustain the ministry in the future, and, once there were twenty householders, to assist in building a meeting house for religious services and town meetings.

In eighteenth-century New England, where no one Protestant denomination predominated and where most things, secular and religious, were submitted to a vote, settling religious affairs was not easy. In 1718 the Proprietors persuaded a minister to come to Brunswick, but the townspeople found they did not like his preaching. Striving to be Christian, they put up with him for a while, but after several months they voted that they could not listen to him any longer.

The town of Brunswick was incorporated in 1739. Town and parish business were aligned, though not without disputes among various groups. The first meeting house had been finally constructed in 1735, and the Proprietors handed it over to the town in 1743, retaining a pew for their own use. A more Puritan group from the east end of town set up a separate meeting house. In time a dispute arose over who owned the original meeting house, the town or the pew owners. (The town tended to feel that it had the right to use the building but not the responsibility to do repairs.) In 1762 the town voted to fire the minister, but the church refused. The Church was becoming more distinct. It began to be referred to in the records as the "Church" for the first time and became explicitly Congregational within a few years.

In the 1790's members of a new Baptist Society began to chafe, quite sensibly, at paying taxes to support a Congregational minister. The law provided for the division of a parish into two parishes when a second religious society became established. Brunswick acted at first as if this weren't happening, but the town did refund taxes to those who could prove that they were supporting the Baptist Society. In 1803, after a Baptist sued, the town was formally divided into two parishes, First Parish and the Baptist Society. This happened as the new Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights were being ratified. Civil and religious government were going to be separated, though it might take the courts a while to sort out all the complexities.

As First Parish and its Church became more independent, its governance and membership became complicated. The Church moved to a new meeting house, on the present site, leaving the old, unrepaired meeting house to the town for town meetings. First Parish modelled itself on the town, or combined town and parish, naming assessors and keeping the tradition of Parish meetings. It also inherited some property, including ministerial and other land that the Proprietors meant to follow this Church. A Board of Trustees was established within First Parish (1816, 1819) to handle the proceeds from the sale of this land, to assume ownership of pews, and to oversee the Parish Fund and property for the benefit of the First Congregational Society. The Parish Fund never prospered, and it lapsed from memory. The Parish took over its functions, and the Board of Trustees disappeared in 1866.

The existence of First Parish kept alive the tradition of involving non-members in affairs of the Church. Indeed, its cooperation with the newly established Bowdoin College (chartered in 1794) encouraged this pattern. Yet it was difficult to figure out who belonged to the Parish and whom or what to tax now that town taxes were not available. First Parish tried to solve the problem by electing people to the Parish (1822) but gave up after a few years. According to Ashby, whose history of First Parish Church is crucial, the Parish settled on its pew owners as it members, at least for tax purposes. He notes that "this system never worked very well." Though most people cooperated, there were no useful sanctions for tax evasion, and there was always disagreement about the relative assessment of pews.

First Parish was linked with property and tax assessment from its beginning, but the lines between Church and Parish were not always distinct. The Parish tried to fire a few ministers, tried to settle the frequency of services, and once refused to accept the resignation of a minister because he had written to the Church and not to the Parish as well. The Church itself built and maintained a Vestry and a Sunday School in the downtown area. These were ultimately turned over to the Parish and sold off to fund construction of the present Church building and vestry.

The Parish becomes most visible in the record when construction was necessary. Building was often done by groups of individuals who turned them over to the Parish at completion, sometimes with conditions. It appears that the Parish, however, maintained influence on more than property. In the 1870's, for example, the music committee was under First Parish. Opening a fragile list of Members of First Parish in the Pejepscot Historical Society is surprising. The names listed indicate that it dates from the 1890's. Half of the nearly 400 people listed are not members of the Church, and all are from the area, that is, primarily from "districts" of Brunswick, with a modest number from Topsham and even Pennellville. Other lists indicate that a significant number of Church members lived elsewhere, as is the case now, but they are not listed as members of the Parish. Among Church members, women predominate, and often their family members are listed only as members of the Parish. One member of Joshua Chamberlain's family is listed as a church member, but he is listed only as a member of the Parish. First Parish had obviously found a way to involve an extended family, many of them prominent in the town, in its affairs.

Taxation of pew holders had been dropped by 1872. After a long discussion of arcane rules about whom the Parish could tax, the Church Manual made that discussion seem whimsical by adding that "as a matter of fact, the parish charges are now, and have been for many years, raised by voluntary subscription." In order to clarify potential conflict about ownership, the sometimes forgotten Trustees of the Parish Fund were dissolved legally in 1912. The Parish legally took over any responsibilities the court had originally assigned to the Trustees a century before.

At present the bylaws of First Parish seek to make a clear distinction between the financial activities of First Parish and all the other activities of First Parish Church. The current dual functions were defined in the first set of bylaws written for First Parish, in the 1950's, when Pilgrim House was being built. A committee on bylaws suggested combining Church and Parish into one organization and perhaps creating a Board of Trustees, which the committee noted was usual practice but not, to the chair's way of thinking, "the Congregationalist system." The committee, steered by a lawyer, recommended reviving the assessors as a prudential committee, writing bylaws, and preserving First Parish.

The bylaws solved problems that had vexed definition of the Parish in the past. They made no mention of residence in Brunswick This territorial definition of the Parish had, on one hand, once tended to include, for purposes of taxation, people whose loyalty was to another Church. On the other hand, it tended to exclude contributors to the Parish, including covenant members of the Church who lived outside Brunswick. The new bylaws included members of the Church and anyone else who wanted to join First Parish and who also "made regular financial contributions to the Church or Parish." The last phrase proved difficult and was revised frequently over many years (up to 1999), in an effort to include contributions of other kinds, such as "devotion" or "service" either to the Parish or to the Church or, perhaps, to both.

The current Parish bylaws include members of the Church and "all persons desirous of being members of the Corporation [Parish] who are not members of said Church, and who within the year prior to any semi-annual Parish meeting have made contributions of money and/or service to the Parish or to the Church." The distinction between Church and Parish remains as difficult as ever to maintain. The Church has very recently been incorporated and again holds property, and members of the Parish (whether members of the Church or not) participate in every aspect of Church life.

Gerry Brookes (2005)