By John Witherspoon
Byfield Parish Church was founded by nineteen families in western parts of Rowley and Newbury. They were tired of weekly travel three miles and more each way from their homes to the churches established by the first settlers. In 1701 these people successfully petitioned their town meetings for an abatement of one-half of the taxes which they were required to pay to support the first churches. The abated half of the tax they levied on themselves to support their new church, and after the parish was formally incorporated in 1710, all property within it was taxed for church purposes by the parish, not the town, meeting.
By 1702, the founders had bought the land where the present “old” church stands, had built a meetinghouse, had laid out a cemetery, and engaged one Moses Hale, a grandson of a Newbury first settler, as their pastor. By 1704, Rev. Hale had been installed in a newly built parsonage, and in that same year it was voted to the name the new parish, theretofore known as Rowlberry and even thereafter, as Newbury Falls, in honor of Judge Nathaniel Byfield. Judge Byfield, a prominent and wealthy lawyer, lived in Rhode Island. It was hoped that he would be inspired to share his wealth with his namesake parish, and ten years later he did, to the extent of donating a bell for the meetinghouse. Whether or not the parishioners felt that the bell was worth the name is not recorded.
From 1702 until 1825, Byfield Parish Church had only three pastors, each of whom contributed mightily to its growth and strength. Rev. Hale, who laid the foundation, died in 1744 and was succeeded by Rev. Moses Parsons who, among other things, saw the Church through the Great Awakening led by George Whitefield and through the Revolutionary War. From 1787 to 1825 the pastor was Elijah Parish who was noted beyond the parish as a preacher, author, geographer and historian. During his ministry the Church survived an attempt by some unhappy parishioners to start a rival church. Also, during this period a choir and a Sunday School was established. A stove was installed in the meetinghouse. Ashes from the stove were stored under the pulpit, and in 1833, ashes, still hot, started a fire which destroyed the meetinghouse.
In that same year, the Massachusetts legislature decreed that parishes could no longer levy taxes to support their churches. From this point on, finance becomes a central theme in the history of the Byfield Parish Church. Pastorates became shorter because the church, although there were periods of very satisfactory growth and stability, was not consistently able to pay its ministers a living wage.
However, a new meetinghouse replaced the old one destroyed in 1833. It was financed by the Proprietors of the Meetinghouse, a corporation which raised so much money by selling pews that the stockholders received a dividend!
During its second century, the Byfield Parish Church settled into the position of a country church in a thoroughly settled community. There were times when it seemed that it would be forced to close, but a new parson or perhaps sheer dedication on the part of the parishioners to keep it going. Ebb and flow continued right on up through World War II, with a real crisis having been survived when in 1930 the 1833 meetinghouse was struck by lightening and destroyed by the resulting fire. The small, underfinanced but determined congregation took a step of faith in contributing and borrowed the funds to build the present “old” meetinghouse.
During the early World War II years, the Church was able to finance only a student minister, and in 1943 agreed with the Rowley Congregational Church that they would jointly call a minister to serve both Churches. Rev. Richard J. Schaper was called. He started a new era for the Byfield Church. He stirred interest by organizing a mortgage burning and a ceremony of dedication of the 1932 meetinghouse. He persuaded the Church to incorporate as an organization separate from the parish and to handle its own funds. He united the Ladies Benevolent Association and the Helen Noyes Missionary Band, two women’s groups whose functions and whose members were practically identical, into a Ladies Guild. The influx of new residents, which occurred after World War II, contributed to the momentum which he established and which his successor, Rev. Robert G. Morris, maintained.
By 1954, both the Byfield and the Rowley Churches felt they would be better served by ministers of their own. Byfield went to student ministers for the next four years, but by 1958 it had started a new parsonage for its first full time pastor in twenty years. Four ministers, two interim and two resident, led the Church from 1958 to 1969. Although their terms of office were short, each left the Church growing stronger.
Rev. William Boylan, a native of Ipswich and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, was called to the pastorate in 1969. A man of strong evangelical faith, he changed the church’s theological direction from the mainline liberal approach to the more strictly Biblical concepts characteristic of earlier days. Although not all members were prepared to accept this change, the net result was unprecedented growth and strength. Since his arrival, Pastor Boylan has seen numerous programs develop, both in the church and in its outreach. Building programs have given the Church the much larger meetinghouse, a new parsonage and an expanded Parish House. The congregation now comes from a wide area extending from southern New Hampshire to suburbs of Boston. The current chapter in the history of Byfield Parish Church is one of its most glowing
The Dubuque Declaration
We declare our continuing commitment to the truths set forth in the Basis of Union and the Constitution of the United Church of Christ.
We perceive an erosion and denial of these truths in our church. Because of our concern for the people of our churches and the well-being of our denomination as a member of the body of Christ, we are called by God to make this confession:
We confess our faith in the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We confess that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. Because of our estrangement from God, at the Father’s bidding the Son of God took on flesh. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, He became like us in all things apart from sin. He died on the cross to atone for our sin and reconcile us to God and on the third day rose bodily from the dead. He is the sole head of the church, the Lord and Savior of us all, and will one day return in glory, power, and judgment to usher in the kingdom of God in its fullness.
We hold that the Bible is the written Word of God, the infallible rule of faith and practice for the church of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures have binding authority on all people. All other sources of knowing stand under the judgment of the Word of God.
We affirm that the central content of the Scriptures is the gospel of reconciliation and redemption through the atoning sacrifice of Christ and His glorious resurrection from the grave. The good news is that we are saved by the grace of God alone, the grace revealed and fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus Christ, which is received only by faith. Yet this faith does not remain alone but gives rise to works of piety, mercy, and justice. The Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets and apostles, calls us today, as in the past, to seek justice and peace for all races, tongues and nations.
We confess as our own faith embodied in the great ecumenical and Reformation creeds and confessions, finding them in basic conformity with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
We confess that the mission of the church is to bear the witness to God’s law and gospel in our words and deeds. We are sent into the world as disciples of Christ to glorify God in every area of life and to bring all peoples into submission to the Lordship of Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We seek to obey this commission in the full assurance that our Lord and Savior is with us always, even to the end of the age.
Jesus Christ. Amen.
A LITTLE TOWN – by Dr. William E. Boylan