Meetinghouse, the Foundation of Community
 
 

On September 17th, 1722 the First Parish of Newbury {Ould Towne} gave consent for the formation of the Third Parish. Its bounds comprised the greater portion of the Waterside, which had been earlier partitioned by the General Court in 1644 as "New Towne." After much the discourse and dissent about its situation --- "ye Waterside Parish Meetinghouse" was constructed in what is now Market Square.1 Its doors opening to the river at the Middle Shipyard, its magnificent steeple was a landmark by land or sea.

Dedicated on June 25, 1725, this structure would house "the Waterside people" both at worship and during secular meetings. In fact, the meeting house was so central to life in the Waterside community, its basement is said to have stored fish harvested from river and sea. From "tyme to tyme" on occasions for celebration, the Waterside people would devote precious lamp oil or candles to light its windows. Its bell2 would toll to mark both ordinary and extraordinary events, in warning for the Waterside people to gather as a community. Alas, the parish clock procured in 1734/5 was for all time unreliable --- and never as faithful a timepiece as the tides beyond the Meetinghouse doors or the moon that provoked them.

With the meeting house in its midst, the whole of Market Square (which is technically really more a triangular gore) became both bethel and bedlam for the Waterside community. When the building fell into disrepair in the late 18th Century, proprietors considered a more appropriate setting than the bustling marketplace where hucksters and buskers boisterously plied their trade. A situation on Pleasant Street was found, where the First Religious Society Meetinghouse stands to this day, still serving parishioners as a place of worship and the Waterside community as a meeting place for the common weal.

The last parish services were held at the Waterside Parish Meetinghouse3 on Sunday September 27, 1801. The building was demolished the next day with the land and adjacent lot conveyed as public property --- laid out as a public way for use by the Waterside town of Newburyport forever.

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1 The triangular lot of land or gore called "Market Square" was and remains situated at the foot of the primary way through downtown --- then called Greenleaf Lane (and previously known as "the way to Watts' cellar," also called "the way to the river," "Greenleaf Street" then "Fish Street" before its final and present designation as "State Street"). The provincials call the spot "the bullnose" or by its more quaint reference, "the nubbin."

2 Early in February 1727/8 a 400 pound bell was hung in the belfry and was attentively rung in advance of the annual town meeting held at the Meetinghouse that March 19th.

3 The size of the original structure was 60 feet in length with a 45-foot breadth. By the fall of 1740 --- when Reverend George Whitefield evangelized from its pulpit during the Great Awakening --- the foundation of the meetinghouse had been renovated to an 80' by 60' footprint, with galleries on three sides of the structure. From Benjamin Franklin's correspondence documenting his inspection of damage from a lightning strike to the meetinghouse in February 1754 --- a report to corroborate his lightning rod theory --- one learns the steeple had reached 70' to the bell and another 70' to the tapered spire. Atop that spire sat the very same cock weathervane that presently crowns the First Religious Society's church on Pleasant Street.

 
[Historical facts confirmed with John J. Currier's "Ould Newbury: Historical and Biographical Sketches" (link without) - folklore with Reverend Bert Steeves. More insight about the First Religious Society of Newburyport's history can be found at the abovenoted FRS/UCC website (link without).]
 
 
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